Arguably the most important stroke in kayaking is probably the most difficult to master. Luckily, just about any forward stroke, regardless of how poorly executed, will move your kayak forward. However, most of us are interested in being able to paddle farther with less effort and fatigue.
I just got back from teaching at the Door County Sea Kayak Symposium. I spent three days teaching a lot of novice sea kayakers. The one piece of advice that I always give for improving your forward stroke is to work on “rotation, rotation, rotation.” You can’t rotate too much when performing your forward stroke. After twenty-two years of sea kayaking, I’m still working on increasing the amount of rotation in my forward stroke.
But rotation is sometimes a misunderstand term. The rotation does not come from your shoulders. It originates much lower in the core muscles of the back, abdomen, and legs. When you are paddling forward, you should be pushing on the foot brace with your leg on the same side of the kayak that you are performing the stroke. In other words, when you take your stroke on the right side of the kayak, you should be pushing on the right footbrace with your right leg. Your right knee will straighten as your right hip rotates backward in the seat. The left knee bends a little at the same time. By this time, your torso will be rotated so that your chest is facing the right side of the kayak. Now plant your paddle on the left side of the kayak and repeat.
The power does not come from your arms. Think of the paddle as the propeller of your kayak and your abdomen, back, and legs as the engine. Your arms are just the connecting rods that transfer the power from the engine to the propeller. Your arms should not be pistons pumping back and forth as you “arm paddle” your way to exhaustion.
While you may find that instructors disagree on some of the finer points of the forward stroke, I can’t imagine that you’re going to get any disagreement on the importance of good rotation in making your stroke stronger and more efficient. The two video clips I have included in this post are from my two favorite DVD’s on the forward stroke. The first is from Ben Lawry’s forward stroke DVD and the second clip is Olympic gold-medalist, Greg Barton, from his DVD on the forward stroke. Both DVD’s are great resources for improving your forward stroke. Better yet, get some actual in-person instruction. I offer forward stroke clinics that include video analysis as part of the course. You even have a unique opportunity to learn directly from Ben Lawry himself. Ben will be teaching a series of kayak skills classes in Madison, including a “Forward Stroke Clinic” coming up in a little over a week. I would highly recommend this class.
I’ve given you several different ways to get started improving the most important stroke in your kayaking repertoire. You have no excuses. Get out there and start practicing!