I’ve previously written a blog post on the importance of “torso rotation” when performing a forward stroke in your kayak. Hopefully, everyone has been working on improving that aspect of their own stroke. Now I’d like to give my second piece of advice to beginners and recreational paddlers who want to increase the power and endurance of this most important stroke. Use your legs!
You should have foot braces in your kayak, preferably foot braces that do not slide forward and backward as you push on them. (Some less expensive and most older model rudder systems have foot braces that slide back and forth when the rudder is not locked up on the back deck.) Make sure that your foot braces are adjusted properly for your leg length. (I’ll address what is meant by that in a separate article.) Then, when you are taking a forward stroke on the right side of your kayak, you should be pushing against the right foot brace with the ball of your right foot. When you take the stroke on your left side, push on the left foot brace with your left foot.
If you are doing this correctly, the knee that is on the pushing leg will straighten out and your hip on that same side should rotate backward in the seat. The knee on the opposite leg will bend a bit more and the hip on that side will rotate forward slightly. Using your legs in this way will enhance the torso rotation that you should already be doing when performing your forward stroke. Your entire torso, from your butt on upwards, will be rotating as your paddle. This will work best if you do not have a lot of padding on your kayak seat.
While instructors often talk about pulling or pushing on the kayak paddle as you do a forward stroke, the reality is that the paddle blade does not really move much after it is inserted into the water on the catch phase of the stroke. (The catch is when you plant the paddle blade in the water at the start of the stroke.) Once the blade is in the water, you are using your torso, legs, and arms to move the kayak past the point where the paddle blade was inserted into the water. It can be helpful to some paddlers to think of the leg pushing on the foot brace as a way to help push the kayak forward past the paddle blade that is “stuck” in the water.
I have found that using this leg push on the foot brace along with good torso rotation takes a lot of the strain off my arms and shoulders when I’m paddling. Since experiencing a rotator cuff injury last year, I’m personally much more attuned to anything that takes pressure off those muscles.
For novice paddlers who have had difficulty keeping their kayak moving on a straight course, you can help to nose your kayak back on course by the amount of push that you apply on one side. As an example, if you notice your kayak turning toward the right side, you can put a little extra “push” into that right side foot brace and help to move the bow of your kayak back to the left a bit straightening out your course.
Now that the weather has finally gotten a little nicer around here and kayakers are really starting to hit the water for the season, take some time to practice and increase the amount of torso rotation and leg push in your forward stroke. This is the stroke that you use most of the time when you are paddling. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the stroke will pay big dividends when you are less tired at the end of the day or you have more strength to paddle into a headwind on your trip.