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Proper Paddling Technique

By Billy Mattison
Photo By Tim Hancock

Proper PaddlingPaddling is arguably the most overlooked discipline in the sport of adventure racing. It is usually a lot harder to get to the water and paddle than it is to jump on your bike or lace up your running shoes. But, if you want to start racing better, you have to train hard on the water. The days of showing up to a race and just winging the paddling legs are long gone for competitive teams. Strength plays a big role for fit paddlers, but it is no substitute for proper technique. The best way to learn is to paddle with a pro and imitate. If you can't do that, you need to rent some videos (a great one is "The Brent Reitz Forward Stroke Clinic") and get after it.

Here are a few pointers to help you get on the right track to proper paddling technique, which in turn should help you improve your standings in races and enjoy kayaking that much more.

1. Fit the boat - Take time to fit the boat. Taping in foam hip pads, placing a cushion under your butt, and having foot pegs adjusted for your height will give you the feeling of wearing the boat. Comfort is just as important as balance. If you're slowly grinding a blister into the cheek of your butt by sitting to one side on a hard seat covered in sand, technique tends to go out the window. Taking the time to make fit adjustments in the boat will be very beneficial.

2. Balanced grip - Your grip on the paddle should be slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep your hands balanced on the paddle, don't choke up to one side. Also, be sure you're not strangling the paddle. Relax your hands. The power comes from your torso, not from a tight grip on the paddle.

3. Proper posture - When paddling, you want to be sitting up straight and leaning slightly forward. You should be looking ahead to where you want to go. This will help you stay balanced, and with balance you will be less tense, and you'll be able to focus on technique. A common mistake is to start slouching back in your seat when fatigue sets in. Try to keep a straight and forward leaning posture.

4. Torso rotation - The biggest mistake with beginners who have strong upper bodies is trying to move the boat with powerful arms. Think of your arms as a means of connecting your paddle to your body, and always keep in mind that the power comes from your upper torso, not your arms. By rotating your torso as a block at the hips, and pushing off the foot pegs with your feet at the same time, you gain the power of your entire upper body. Now, you just have to do this while keeping the boat "quiet" instead of thrashing around. You can achieve a quiet (and therefore, efficient) boat by learning the proper stroke. The stroke is broken down into three phases: the catch, the power and the release.

5. Stroke: Catch phase - You want to catch the water with the full blade down by your toes. If you are catching the water on your left side you need to bring your right arm across your body at eye level as you rotate or wind up your torso to the left. It is as if you are subtly coiling your body, getting ready to release the power. To the casual observer, it looks very quiet. It appears that the paddler is just using his arms. Only the paddler can feel the wind up of the whole body.

6. Stroke: Power phase - This phase is where the truly good paddlers excel. From the tip of their toes to their shoulders, they have figured out how to get the most energy from their body to the paddle. Uncoil, with your upper hand at eye level, punching and driving, and your lower hand pulling. This happens in a smooth, fluid motion with the uncoiling rotation of the torso. The arms should only be slightly bent. Push off the foot peg with the foot on the same side you are paddling. Think of moving the boat past your paddle not the paddle past your body.

7. Stroke: Release phase - The release should happen at the hips, and the blade needs to "knife" out of the water. If you pass your hips and pull the blade to the surface behind you, you pull the boat deeper into the water and slow it down. Passing your hips will also cause you to over rotate your body and slow the stroke. Take the blade out of the water right as it reaches your hips. Then drop the top hand and start the next stroke.

Adventure racer Billy Mattison, a member of Team GoLite, started paddling at the early age of 14, but started off chasing whitewater rapids. "If you would have asked me if I was going to train flat water paddling out-and-back across a lake, I would have bet you a million bucks that would never happen," he says.

The 46-year-old Eco-Challenge winner (1998) now spends numerous days doing just that.

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