The Forward Stroke

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by Marty Sullivan

Marty Sullivan & Greg Stamer are accomplished world paddlers local to Florida. Here is their insight on the forward stroke for kayaks. These tips are specific to those using a kayak paddle (even in a canoe). Although only elite racers are allowed to use kayak paddles during Pangea events, this article can still get your mind paying more attention to how you are paddling reguardless of what you are using.

Greg Stamer and I have had very successful paddling clinics dedicated to one thing: the forward stroke. Since 99% of strokes are for propelling the boat forward, this is what we concentrate on most. Doing a proper forward stroke can significantly reduce fatigue while increasing overall endurance and speed. Here are highlights of the clinic.

Key Concepts:

1. Moving the boat through the water is done by pulling the boat forward, not by pushing on the water. When pulling on the paddle, think of locking the paddle blade into a track and powering the boat forward as if pulling on a rope.

2. Use the big muscles. The big muscles are your core, not your arms. The arms act only as a transmitter, not as power. The strength and efficiency come from using legs, abs, lats, traps; all the big core muscles.

3. Paddling form makes the difference. Same as swimming, bicycling, or any human-powered sport; good form makes all the difference.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation: Arms have small muscles, the torso has large ones. Use the large muscles to increase stroke efficiency. Good rotation starts from good posture. Sit erect as if you’re balancing a book on your head. You should have minimal contact with your back rest because leaning on your back rest stops you from rotating. Leaning slightly forward is preferable. To begin a stroke, with your feet firmly planted on your foot pegs, rotate your body from your shoulders all the way down through your hips so that your knee is elevated on the “catch” side, the side on which you’re going to paddle. Remain erect, don’t lean forward, and position the paddle for the catch. Your body is twisted so that it faces to the opposite side from the catch. This will position the catch paddle blade forward and ready for the next step. Some race boats use swiveling seats so that the paddler can increase his/her rotation through their hips.

The Catch: Your body is wound up like a spring and prepared to unwind transmiting the power through your paddle. Most of your power is in the first part of the stroke, so don’t short-change it. “Catch” the water as far forward as you can without leaning forward. Your rotation should allow you to catch ahead of your foot. Make a definite movement to insert the paddle into the water before starting your pull. Think of spearing the water to fully insert the paddle blade before the power stroke. Inserting the paddle into the water is actually controlled by your upper hand, the hand away from the catch side. The upper hand thrusts the paddle into the water, straightening the lower arm and preparing for the power stroke. The catch and the transition into the power stroke appear as a single movement since it happens fast. But the catch needs to be a distinct action separate from the power stroke. A common mistake is to start the power stroke before the paddle hits the water, causing you to catch late and miss the first 6 inches or so of the most powerful part of the stroke.

The Power Stroke: Here’s where you'll really feel a difference. You’re wound up, your paddle is fully inserted, and you’re in a position to use your whole body to propel the boat. Start the push from your bent leg on the catch side, pushing on the foot peg and straightening the leg. Transmit the power from your leg, through your hips, abdomen, and back. Your shoulders and arms simply transmit your body’s power, they don’t create power. Think of it as a tug-of-war where your whole body is pulling. You should feel a distinct difference from “arm paddling” because the power comes from your body’s core, not the arms and shoulders. The pulling arm remains straight through most of the stroke because the body rotation provides the power, not the arm. The upper arm, pushing arm, moves across in front of you, on a level plane. Do not drop your pushing arm! Bringing it straight across and around without lowering it ensures that you will rotate your body and prepare for your stroke on the other side. Think of throwing a round-house punch with your pushing hand, keeping the hand at the same level all the way around until the paddle exits the water. Punching forward with the upper hand causes you to use arms rather than torso. Each elbow should remain at the same angle (lower pulling elbow straight and upper pushing elbow slightly bent) through the entire power portion of the stroke. At the end of the stroke, the upper hand will be at the same height as at the start of the stroke (about chin height for high-angle stroke and chest height for low-angle stroke). The upper hand will cross the center line of the boat, finishing at the opposite side gunwale (outside edge of the deck).

The Exit: When the lower hand approaches the hip it’s time to exit the water and prepare for catch on the opposite side. Do not extend the paddle stroke too far back because the paddle blade will be facing up and pulling up on the water instead of pulling forward. This disrupts the boat’s equilibrium, wastes energy, and delays your next catch. The exit should be a quick, effortless lift from the water and rapid transition to prepare for the next catch.

Follow-up Rotation: After your exit, you should not be fully wound up. Continue rotating when exiting to get full rotation in preparation for the next catch and pull. Position the upper hand to control the catch, preparing to spear the water for a positive engagement. The knee is bent and prepared to drive your rotation through the leg, hip, abdomen, and back.

Conclusion: Rotation can not be emphasized enough. It will feel awkward at first and needs to be exaggerated in practice in order to feel comfortable and natural. Rotation is the key to using the body’s big muscles and developing an efficient, strong stroke. Your chest and shoulders should be more or less parallel to your paddle shaft the whole time while your body rotates with your paddle shaft from side to side. These techniques can be used whether you use a high-angle stroke, catching right next to the gunwale, or a more-relaxed low angle stroke, carrying the hands lower and the paddle swinging farther out from the boat.

About the Authors:

Marty Sullivan paddles, camps, and kayak-fishes mostly around Florida. He has raced in events from the Yukon to New York to Florida ranging up to 460 miles distance. He has won his class in the Adirondack 90-miler, the Michigan Challenge (300 miles), the Cross-Florida Challenge (370 miles), and the Everglades Challenge (270) miles, in which he holds the Class 1 record.

Greg Stamer is well-known world-wide for his technical expertise and is sought after as a seminar instructor in Europe, Japan and Israel as well as the U.S. His many paddling exploits include most recently circumnavigating Iceland, published in Sea Kayaker magazine (October 2008), and his record solo circumnavigation of Newfoundland.

Both are part of The Florida Kayak/Canoe Meet Up group of Orlando, Fl where paddlers are always getting together in the water.

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Comment by Kirsten Hite | May 25, 2011

Wow, great article. Thanks for the tips. We usually don't do any of this while we are paddling, we mainly yell at each other for not paddling hard enough as the other racers pass us! Any chance you all could put on some sort of clinic for us paddle-challenged adventure racers?

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