Use Your Legs to Improve Your Forward Stroke

by Sherri ~ June 1st, 2011. Filed under: Forward Stroke, Skill Development.

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.


7 Responses to Use Your Legs to Improve Your Forward Stroke

  1. Mack's Kayak Racks for Storage

    Thanks for the tip. This is similar to a commonly unknown but powerful tip for bicycle racing with pedal straps where you PULL with your leg on the up pedal as your other foot PUSHES on the down pedal.

    Not only will this leave you with more energy at the end of the day but it may elicit a full body hormonal response because of the use of other major muscle groups. This hormonal response many experts speculate can actually increase your metabolism and burn more calories meaning your kayaking will keep you more fit than ever!

  2. David Person

    Sheri, I put this advise into practice this past Sunday and it made a huge difference in my ablity to paddle a significant distance without any fatigue or pain. Prior to Sunday, the longest distance I a paddled was about 2.5 miles a couple weeks ago, but by the end my shoulders were quite sore and tired. I was really questioning whether I would every be able to paddle any significant distance.

    On Sunday our group paddled out to one of the off-shore oil platforms and back (9 miles total) and I feel my technique really came together. I finished without any soreness. I’m noticing now, my calves, thighs, glutes, and abs are tired, so I must have been doing it right. I was actually surprised at how much I am feelng it in my legs given I do quite a bit of cycling. It was cool getting into a rhythm and feeling it all flow.

    Your article is the only in-depth description I’ve read on this topic. Most articles on the forward stroke briefly say to rotate your torso and few talk about the important roll your legs play in the process. So cudos to you, good job!

  3. Sherri

    Thanks, David, and I’m glad my suggestion was able to help you out. To the casual observer, kayaking appears to be a real upper body workout. In reality, if done well, the lower body plays a much bigger role than most people would imagine.

  4. Jimmy Gaver

    Hi Sherri, I can attest to David’s claims. When we launched on our proposed paddle out to the platform (we were hoping to see Gray Whales) David said he may need to turn back with someone if he gets too tired. Well…instead he had his Current Designs Infinity in overdrive all day. He would get into a rhythm and forget to wait for the group. Next time I will hang a drough off his stern before we launch. He was excited about his new found performance and shared your website with me. I remember the 1st rolling lesson years ago where I was worried about my shoulder. Instead when I got out of the kayak I had rubber legs. I am having a great time surfing your site and will share it with others.

  5. Sherri

    Thanks for the comment and the referrals!

  6. Pedro

    Nice article, however, when I use my legs as described in your article and when I watch elite paddlers on your tube and I try to emulate my surfskii (old V10) seems to be more unstable. I do paddle a lot and I think my upper body rotation is coming about. If I paddle on flat water and I use my legs, it is a bit better, but if the water is rough, I hardly use my legs.

  7. Sherri

    Surfskis are much less stable than most kayaks, so it takes some time and practice to become comfortable using good rotation and leg push without throwing the surfski off-balance. I would suggest trying to spend more time on flat water for awhile to really work on your technique. As it becomes more comfortable, you can start ratcheting up the waves a little bit at a time while maintaining your focus on technique. If you stick with it, you will eventually find that you can use the improved technique in progressively rougher conditions.

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