CalARA: Clinics – Kayak

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Too often, kayaking is the biggest challenge for new adventure racers.  For many, it feels like you are learning a new language.  Figuring out what skills you need and training opportunities are not easy for kayaking.  The information in this section should help you get started.

Basic Forward Stroke

Author – Robert Finlay

Video: Forward Stroke and Edging

The forward stroke is obviously the most basic kayaking skill. Yet, I propose that it is probably the least understood.

There are about 500 forward strokes per mile of paddling. Of course a statement like that requires some assumptions, if you paddle you know what they are, individual technique, wind conditions, and current only name a few of the myriad of variables that effect kayak and paddler.

However, if you go out and paddle 10 miles, you have probably executed somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 forward strokes. If you are new to paddling, it is important to learn an efficient stroke at the onset of your paddling career. If you are on old hand, it’s a good idea to apply some diligence into constantly refining your forward stroke(s).

There are two broad classifications, or techniques/styles, of forward stroke. With one style, your upper hand does not cross the kayak’s centerline by no more than about a fist’s width. This style, sometimes called a “straight arm” is a bit “old school” but still has applications. With the other style your entire upper forearm crosses the kayak’s centerline, this is generally the best way to paddle mile after mile and is referred to as a “torso twist”.

Within these two classifications of forward stroke there are as many good techniques as there are good paddlers. This article is about my personal torso twisting forward stroke.

Torso Twist Forward Stroke by Kayak Lake Mead:

Forward stroke and the blade in the water:

First of all, there is no such thing as a forward stroke. That is what we call it, but it is a complete misnomer. Once a blade enters the water, that is where it stays. There is no stroking going on.

The primary principle of paddle strokes: When you plant your blade in the water and perform a stroke, your blade doesn’t move it is your kayak that moves in relation to the blade.

Again, once a blade enters the water, that is where it stays. The blade is not stroking the water. The blade will remain in a relatively fixed position in the water. The effort of a forward stroke is to pull your kayak up to where the blade is, not pull the blade back to where you are sitting. Of course the blade will slip a little. Thin blades will slip more than wide blades and wings are designed to slip out and off to the side.

This slippage should be completely discounted in your mind. If you focus on the idea that the blade stays “right there”, all your paddle stroke techniques will start to make more sense and you will improve as a paddler. For instance, your ability to paddle in high winds will immediately improve because the cause and effect of your “blade in the water” actions in relation to the wind driven waves will be better understood.

The forward stroke should properly be called “the forward draw”.

Forward stroke and holding the paddle: Grasp the paddle loosely, always loosely. Your hands should be just outside of your shoulders with thumbs just at the shoulder tips. Hold it straight out in front of you at shoulder level. Lock your elbows…now bring the hands about 4 to 6 inches closer to you relaxing the locked elbows a few inches and allowing some flex at the elbow joint. This how you hold your paddle. And with only some variation, this is how you hold your paddle throughout the forward stroke.

Forward stroke and your stance:

In the execution of the forward stroke, there is no such thing as moving the paddle. You move your body and the paddle moves as a consequence of those body movements. The paddle, properly held, is in front of your chest just below the neck, so keep it there. You should visualize the middle of that paddle shaft always staying in relative position to your chest. You should visualize your chest never moving without the center of the paddle shaft following.

Forward stroke and spearing the fish:

Prepare to spear…

You want the blade to enter the water close to the hull and forward of where you are sitting, about halfway between ankles and knee. Visualize a fish at the point in the water. (By the way, look at traditional Polynesian paddles or paddles of early Australian people, the blades are pointed, presumably for spearing something.) Let’s say the fish is on the right side.

Let’s do one good forward stroke on the right side… You raise the paddle up and to…whoops…you do not raise the paddle. You rotate your torso to the left, raising your chest and inhaling. Now look at the paddle, it just happens to be up and to the left and ready to spear something down and right.


The fish is still on the right side of your kayak, near the hull, and about halfway between your ankle and knee. You rotate your torso to the right, lowering your chest and with little or no splash, the blade enters the water and spears that fish.

Forward stroke and following through after spearing:

Here is reason for the analogy with the fish. From the position of “preparing to spear the fish”, until you have finished the stroke with the lift out of the water; you are doing one continuous motion…not “raise the paddle, catch, stroke, lift”, but instead, just perform one nice smooth, powerful “spearing” twist. As if you speared a fish and followed through. The power starts right from the position of preparing to spear the fish and will end when her center of gravity is next to the blade in the water.

The blade is in the water. You are now going to pull… You. That’s right, the blade is fixed in the water and you are going to pull yourself up to where that blade is. The forward stroke becomes the forward draw.

The blade is at a fixed point. You are not. You are in a boat that is gliding on the surface of a liquid. You exist where your center of gravity exists and your center of gravity remains fixed in relative position to the boat’s center of gravity. You are going to pull those centers of gravity up and next to the paddle blade. Here’s how…

Pull yourself up to where the blade is by applying leverage to the shaft. But for now, forget about leverage to the shaft, if you start thinking about leverage to the shaft, you’ll start using those powerful arms of yours to start pushing and pulling. Forget that and forget your biceps and triceps.

You are going to pull yourself up to the blade with a torso twist. It is a torso twist that requires power, you’re pulling you and the boat.

The powerful torso twist that you need is right there at your core. It is all the muscles from your upper legs to your lower chest. It is the center of you and it is powerful. Here’s how to use it…

Forward stroke and the powerful center pulling – core crunching torso twist:

You inhaled as you raised your chest up and left. Now exhale and let your center core IMPLODE.

Your abdominals flex to bring your chest to your center. Your glutes flex to bring your thighs to your center.

Bring everything to the center and you will find yourself next to that fixed blade in the water.

Visualize your entire center being as a spring. When the blade enters the water your spring is stretched out to its maximum potential energy. Each end of that spring of yours is anchored to something. Your hands are on the paddle shaft (with blade in the water on the right side of your kayak) and your right foot is on a foot peg (anticipating and bracing for the pull on the right). Each end, each anchor point of that spring is powerful, the lower end and the upper end.

As your core implodes, your right foot (blade is in the water on the right) presses against that foot peg. The lower power from your torso twist starts at your foot. The power comes up your leg into your center.

As your core implodes, your left (upper) hand is open on the shaft and open to the “idea of pushing”. But you are not going to push, that would mean your triceps would flex, they are not.

As your core implodes, your right (lower) hand is open (only closed enough to control the shaft’s movement) and open to “idea of pulling”. But you are not going to pull, that would mean your biceps would flex, they are not.

Just torso twist using the power in the lower and upper ends of your spring and you will find yourself next to the blade in the water.

Feel and be aware of the muscles involved as you bring it all to the center. Twist and feel the right abdominal obliques pulling down and right. Twist and feel the right lat flex as you pull in to the center. (Champion arm wrestlers pull with the lat and DO NOT flex the elbow.)

Right now, as you sit there reading this…

Remain in your chair, put your left hand on your right obliques, twist and pull down to the right. Feel the flex?

Now put your left hand under your arm pit and grab that right lat, with the right hand in front of your face, twist down and right. Feel the flex? Good!

Now do the same motions again without the left hand and feel those muscles in action. Can you feel them? If not, close your eyes, do the motions slowly, can you feel those muscles now? Good!

Now, do the motions one more time and while you are feeling those muscles flexing… I want you to feel all the other muscles not involved in the action. I want you to feel all those other muscles not flexing. Can you feel all those other muscles? Can you feel them not in play? Can you feel them just relaxing?

If so, then you are on your way to being able to apply thousands upon thousands of efficient forward strokes to your kayaking.


Part of the process of developing an efficient forward stroke is practicing and acquiring muscle awareness. Know what muscles are flexing and extending in any given action.

Forward stroke and Zen:

So far, this forward stroke seems like some kind of “zenned-out” meditation session. It is!

Forward stroke and do it again:

The blade is next to you now. So, lift it out of the water. If you leave it in the water at this point, to keep moving forward you would have to push backwards on the paddle shaft. That is not going to be too efficient.

In fact, in theory, you would eventually be pulling yourself backwards to the blade. In fact, if the blade is behind your center of gravity, it is already acting as a rudder and a brake, so get it out of the water. Note: This is the single most compelling reason for the efficiency of the wing paddle, it wants to get out of the water.

Your chest has already rotated right, you have lifted your blade out of the water, so lift up your chest, inhale, and spear the fish on the left side now.

Forward stroke and efficiency:

In terms of lifting the paddle up for the next stroke, your deltoids can only lift so many times, but you can torso twist for hours on end.

In terms of leveraging on the paddle shaft, you can only do so many tricep extensions and bicep curls before your arms tire, but you can torso twist for hours on end.

When first practicing a pure forward stroke torso twist, you will notice, especially after some hours, that your arms are tiring. So stop using them!

Every flex (closing) and every extension (opening) of your elbows (bending them) means your arms are being employed. Guard against that.

A good method for guarding against elbow bending is to paddle absolutely straight armed. That’s right, paddle with a torso twist with your arms locked straight out. This is not a natural stance. Do this only for short distances. But it is a useful self-teaching tool to show you and remind you that bending the elbows is absolutely not necessary for a good forward stroke.

Reality check:

Does all this mean that every one of my forward strokes is some kind of core crunching super effort… No Not At All, I try to make all my strokes…mellow. The above description of a torso twist is presented so you can better visualize that a good torso twisting forward stroke comes from your “center” and is not dependent on your arms.

In fact, whether you are paddling 100 meters across the cove or 45 kilometers upstream on your favorite river, every stroke should be a relaxing experience. This means that as muscles do begin to tire, you must adjust your techniques sometimes radically and sometimes ever so subtlety, letting some muscles relax and rest from the effort while other muscles take the load.

Some radical forward strokes adjustments are:

If you normally use a “low to the water paddle stroke”, then for a half mile or so, use a high stroke.

If you normally use a high stroke, use a low stroke for awhile.

And sometimes let go of the torso twist for a few miles and use an old school straight arm. Yes, use your arms and chest and let that core of yours relax. The triceps and pecs are quite powerful.

Some subtle forward stroke adjustments are:

First realize that a “muscle” when used is not firing all of its fibers. For instance, when you lift a small book from your lap closer to your face to read the fine print, you are not using every bicep fiber in your biceps.

Likewise, when you are paddling certain muscles will begin to tire. Realize that only certain fibers in those muscles are tiring and so continue doing the same basic forward stroke that you are doing, but adjust your movements a little, ever so slightly. You’ll find that you can visualize certain fibers firing and certain fibers relaxing. With this mind set, you’ll find that you can make adjustments to your forward stroke that are barely even perceptible and yet allow you to rest.

This is really a personal introspective view of yourself, your movements and your muscles. It is a skill and like any skill it does require practice. I was a climber before I was a paddler. While doing long climbs, some admittedly without a rope, I could not afford to get “pumped” so I developed techniques so that I wouldn’t. I apply those same inner views to my forward stroke.

Again, this discussion of the forward stroke has been a little “zenned-out”. Well, paddling long distances is a Zen experience. Whether a long distance for you is 5 miles or 50, your experience while paddling should be entirely enjoyable. I hope this article helps.

Basic Forward Stroke Cadence

Author – Robert Finlay

Forward Stroke Cadence – An Efficient Forward Stroke for Long Distances

An efficient forward stroke cadence is not what most paddlers think it is. The content of this article is very simple, but follow along because it has a surprising conclusion for both recreational paddlers and adventure race teams.

Discounting wind and current, your kayak moves forward because the power in your forward stroke overcomes

the friction between kayak and water.

I’ll define kayak speed as…your power minus friction.

The hull speed of your kayak is an interesting subject. That subject is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, putting your kayak at its upper end speed takes some technique and skill and to keep it there for an extended time takes technique, skill, and fitness.

I’ll define maximum paddle power as…skill + technique + fitness.

But it takes about half the power to keep your kayak at a cruising speed, a speed at about one half to two thirds of your kayak’s theoretical top speed.

Let’s say you have a kayak that can jam along at 6 knots. That 6 knots will require about 0.2 hp (horse power), but there ain’t no horse there, that’s you. And it is going to be hard to do for long periods of time.

However, with a little practice and study, you can pull your kayak along at 3.5 to 4 knots all day long. (Pulling is what you are really doing with a forward stroke.) This will require only about 0.1 hp of calories, sweat, Gatorade, and desire.

Most paddlers execute about 500 forward strokes per mile when paddling at cruising speed.

This article will show you how to cruise with about one half the amount of strokes.

Efficient Forward Stroke Cadence by Kayak Lake Mead:

When you impart power to your kayak with one good stroke, you have just overcome friction and your boat is

gliding. As it is gliding…it is slowing down because of friction…and it will continue to slow down…until you add in another forward stroke.

But in 2 or 3 seconds, it is not slowing down that much. In fact, when you put your paddle in the water for another stroke, you just added more friction (a paddle in the water is a brake) unless of course you follow up immediately with power.

The forward stroke cadence most paddlers follow is: catch, compression, lift, repeat.

CATCH: You give the paddle a nice entry into the water.

COMPRESSION: You pull yourself to the blade.

LIFT: You pop the paddle out of the water and prepare for another sequence.

I am suggesting an efficient forward stroke cadence for the goal of moving your kayak at a cruising speed should be: CATCH, COMPRESSION, LIFT, PAUSE, and then repeat.

PAUSE  for 2 or 3 seconds. Look at Briana up there in the photo. She is paused. You can see she has just lifted her paddle. Her kayak is gliding. She is waiting 2 or 3 seconds to spear the water for her next catch.

Sidebar for adventure race teams: Pausing for 2 or 3 seconds is an awesome way to maintain a very good

cruising speed. If you are in a heated dual with another team or doing an extended sprint, just pause for 1 second between strokes. You will be resting every stroke and your kayak will not slow down even noticeably.

Here is the catch. There is none. You (probably) along with most other paddlers (definitely) have been doing too many strokes per mile just to keep the boat going at a cruising speed.

Don’t take my word for it. Prove it to yourself. Here’s how…

Go paddling with a friend. Define a short course, say about 1/4 mile more or less. Position yourself a few yards behind your friend. Both of you paddle at a relaxed cruising speed…

Note: I could have shortened this whole article to the next paragraph.

Now, every time your friend executes one stroke on just the left side…you execute ONE STROKE.

Do this for the short course you defined.Turn around, repeat the course in reverse, you paddle at a normal cadence in the front position and let your friend paddle just ONE STROKE for every one of your left strokes. You will get the same result. Your both going to say, WOW!

This waiting for your friends left stroke amounts to pausing for about 2 or 3 seconds. This lets your kayak glide for a moment or two. Hey, your kayak is designed to glide through the water. Your kayak likes to glide through the water. So why don’t you let it?

It takes a little practice – NOT TO STROKE. Find something else to do for about 3 seconds (you know like breath and rest) while you wait to apply that next stroke.

When you get out of the habit of constantly stroking, you’ll find that each of your strokes become cleaner,

smoother, more elegant…more efficient.

Have fun with this. Practice it. Cruise with it. Develop it. And amaze your friends with your new efficient forward stroke cadence. Adventure race teams…use it!

And always remember:

The primary principle of paddle strokes – when you plant your blade in the water and perform a stroke, your blade doesn’t move it is your kayak that moves in relation to the blade.