Kayak Paddle Technique Is a Constant Evolution of Small Changes Compounding over Time
It has been a while since I wrote anything on paddle technique, so I thought it might be a good idea to post a brief blog outlining some of the key surfski paddling technique components I have been focusing on recently. Last year I put a lot of focus on keeping the lower arm (one pulling paddle through the water) as straight as possible. Now that I am pretty confident my lower arm is staying straight through the stroke, I’ve moved my focus to the top arm.
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I really can’t say enough about how much I learned during the TC Surfski Immersion Camp from our phenomenal instructors Rob Hartman and Erik Borgnes. The items I’ll talk about below never really resonated with me before working with them. This was even after 9 years of paddling and reading and watching everything I could possibly find on the web. It is both exciting and amazing that just when you think you know it all, there is always so much more to learn.
Since the Immersion Vacation in mid May I’ve had a few additional opportunities to paddle and chat with both Rob and Erik to continue extracting from them all their latest thoughts on what makes perfect surfski paddle technique. Below are some of the key points that seem to keep coming up:
- Elbow below shoulder: When your top arm is coming across in your paddle stroke it is absolutely critical to make sure that your elbow stays below the level of your shoulder. This will ensure that you are not putting unnecessary strain on your shoulder joint and rotator cuff. It is also the most naturally powerful position allowing you to take full advantage of the power of your core rotation. If you are experiencing any shoulder issues while paddling, it could very well be the result of not keeping your elbow below the shoulder
- Top Hand at Eye Level and above Elbow: The top hand should stay at eye level throughout your paddle stroke. Following the initial spear into the water and downward pressure on the blade into the water, it should also follow a circular arc remaining equidistant from your face the entire time. Erik/Rob described this as thinking about drawing a smiley face with your top hand making the smile right at eye level.
- Straighten Top Arm after completing Smiley Face: Once you have completed the smiley face with a slightly bent top arm, you now want to straighten that arm with the feeling of reaching as far forward as possible down the centerline of the boat. There should be a slight pause when you get this arm fully extended and at this point you should relax the grip and even open the fingers. The relaxed grip will ensure the new top hand has control of the blade and can spear the blade fully into the water as far forward as possible. Think about trying to get it into the water in front of your feet. Feet to knee is the power zone where your blade will be most effective
- Spear the Paddle into the Water : Spear the paddle into the water with your top hand and once the blade is fully submerged, only then do you simultaneously begin the pull with the lower hand and apply leg drive with the same side leg. The top hand should be exerting a slight downward pressure throughout the stroke, while the lower hand is simply performing a pulling function but not in any way trying to influence the path of the blade through the water.
- Slight Roll of the Paddle at Exit: As you begin to remove the blade from the water it is important to perform a slight roll with your wrist such that the blade smoothly exits the water without lifting a lot of water with it. This is something I had never thought about until Erik explained it at the camp. I still struggle with it, but I know with enough practice it will eventually become second nature and it should keep me a lot drier on my paddles as I shouldn’t be splashing at the catch, or throwing water on the exit. Think about a very quiet paddle stroke with minimal disruption to the water.
A few additional concepts to think about
- Vertical Blade – The wing paddle is most efficient when it is vertical in the water
- Blade enters and exits the water at the same point – This is a tricky one to fully grasp, but essentially you are planting the blade in the water and pulling the boat past it versus trying to push/pull the blade through the water
- Top Hand Owns all Control – The top hand is in 100% control of the stroke. The lower arm is simply applying brute pull force
- Blade position and trajectory – Ultimately the blade entry, position, angle, level of submersion, and trajectory and exit through the water will determine how efficient you are paddling. While they are very important supporting components, leg drive and core rotation are secondary to having the right blade movement through the water, which is primarily a result of correct arm/hand positioning.
Cadence – Most of the world’s best paddlers are able to maintain very high cadence levels and they will tell you it is ultimately what separates the elite from everyone else. It is important to understand they also have years and years of technique work under their belts and most of them still do 2-3 technique focused sessions a week. Don’t compromise technique for cadence. While it might seem to work initially, you’ll never realize your full potential. In my experience you can get away with it in flat water, but in rough open water conditions proper technique is all the more critical. There is no substitute for having a rock solid catch and planting the blade firmly in the water to give you the power and stability when you need it most.
The Compound Effect
I am a firm believer in the compound effect for all things in life. Paddle technique in a surfski or kayak is no exception. You have to believe that working on the fundamentals of good paddle technique day after day and year after year will ultimately compound for you and make you a better paddler. You may not see immediate benefits in the first days or weeks, but stick with it and the benefits will come with time, in the form of fewer injuries, less fatigue, more speed, more power, more stability, and more overall enjoyment in your boat.
So get out there and practice and let us know what you discover.
Here is a great link to a technique video Rob recently shared on my Facebook page: