Kayak Forward Stoke - Random Thoughts and Tips

Thursday, 27 May 2010
Paddling Toronto Islands. Photo Credit: David Johnston

The forward stroke is that funny stroke that everybody does but few do it really well. Here are a bunch of random thoughts on how to make things more efficient:

  • We focus on torso rotation with less emphasis on the arms so we can last longer on the water. I notice that when I watch instructors teach the concept of TR to new students, they demo it with emphasis on the shoulders going back and forth. That isn’t TR but rather shoulders going back and forth like Jon Travolta walking down the street in Saturday Night Fever. TR is about the lower abs being engaged. Think more about twisting your pelvis in the boat rather then your shoulders. Push with your legs to help get things engaged.
  • There are many different styles of forward stroke ranging from the all-arms dog paddle to the racing-down-the-lake-with-a-wing-paddle. Like gears on a bike, you need to know a bunch of different styles and modify them as conditions change. Different styles depend on various factors like wind speed, your energy level, distance to go still or if you are in a race. Let’s face it, if you are just crossing the pond you are welcome to use all arms but if you need to paddle all day, focus on the most efficient stroke possible so you have energy to lift your boat up on top of the car to go home.
  • Knowing when and how to switch gears as mentioned above is one of my benchmark signs of the transition into an intermediate paddler.
  • When paddling, don’t let your elbow swing to high. A high elbow just ends up burning more energy and will force your top hand to high.
  • Lower your top hand. I often see paddlers with a top hand way above their head and they look like they are looking through a window. There are times when you might want to get it up there for lots of power in a headwind but for a general cruising lower it. Remember each time you raise your arm up high you are using more energy then you need to.
  • Does it feel weird to lower your hand? Try using a shorter paddler paddle. That will probably help a lot. Try something at least 5-10cm then what you are using now.
  • Extend your reach. Reach as far forward as you can. Your stroke is much more efficient in the pull between your toes to knees then it is from knees to hip so don’t waste it. Try leaning forward slightly or open up the lower hand a bit to get a bit more reach. Aim for an inch longer to see what it does for you.
  • Before pulling on the paddle, make sure your blade is fully engaged. Remember that the first part of the stroke is the most important so don’t waste it by pulling when your blade is only half in the water.
  • Shorten your stroke. Anything past your hips is really just wasted energy. When the left blade gets past your left hip start thinking about the right blade which is already is in position to start the next stroke. Try to keep as much as the stroke in front of your hips. That will help a lot.
  • Watch your wrists. Work to try to keep them as straight as possible throughout the stroke. Bending them back and forth can lead to stress injuries. Also, if your wrists are locked straight, it’s nearly impossible to do good forward stroke without good torso rotation. Try it, you will be amazed. Remember to don’t lock things tight as that will kill your wrists but work on it slowly and see if it helps. I guess the take-away message is to keep things loose but as straight as possible.

Here are a couple good videos to help get you going. Just remember that they are made by three different people so the focus and techniques will be slightly different. Just don’t get hung up on that.

Forward Stoke by Paddling Otaku
This video is great as it give a really good demonstration of a hybrid/racing stroke. Watch the top hand as it comes across the paddlers chest. That’s a great way to help with torso rotation. One improvement I would suggest for this paddler is to try to keep that top hand as parallel as possible. You could use the horizon as a line for practice. If the top hand drops down on an angle as it goes across the paddlers chest then it’s a clear sign that the stoke is either going far behind the hip or the paddler is pulling in with his lower arm to much.

Don’t become neurotic to maintain that perfect level line but just watch and work on it to at least make them even and as horizontal as possible. If they are both at flat or similar angles then it’s another sign that your stokes are mirroring each other.

Sea Kayak Stroke Modeling Analysis by Keith Wikle
A good video demonstrating various paddling strokes from different angles. The ¾ forward stoke shot at the beginning is a very good example of solid torso rotation and really leaning towards a wing paddle style racing stroke.

Kayak Forward Stroke by Werner Paddles
This is a great forward stoke primer with a huge pile of tips and ideas.

Sadly, some instructors get hung up in browbeating their students into only one style of forward stroke. To me, it’s the wrong approach. There are some foundational tips to make the stroke as efficient as possible (torso rotation, shorter stroke, etc.) but at the end of the day, everybody paddles for different reasons in different conditions.

It’s more important to me that you know how and when to switch gears to a more efficient stroke. At the end of the day, I don’t care how high your hands are or how fast it goes through the water. I can give you tips that might help but really; it’s your body and if you can paddle for 8 hours doing what you do, does it really need to change?

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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