THE FORWARD STROKE FOR KAYAKERS
By Mary DeRiemer
To move the boat forward, we need to anchor the blade so that the boat moves and not the paddle. A great forward stroke adds speed to our boat with very little turning forces. How do we do that? Newton could have been a paddler when he described in his third law that "for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction". He's saying that the boat reacts to forces applied by the blade. Therefore, we need to anchor the blade in a precise way in order to get the boat to react as desired.
A strong forward stroke is short, entering near the toe and ending before the hip. It is done close to the side of the boat to decrease spin forces. The strongest stroke is powered by the torso, not the arms. The shaft is diagonal as it enters the water and just past vertical as it exits. This is controlled by the upper hand. To punch the top hand forward moves the blade through the power phase too quickly and scoops water. Remember, we don't want to move the paddle, we want to move the boat. So, don't punch your top hand during the stroke.
Ok. Don't punch the top hand. Don't see a purple elephant! How can I don't? Substitute a do. Do push from the top shoulder, and leave the top hand where it was just prior to the plant. Now, let's look at the 4 phases of the forward stroke:
1. The Windup or Glide Phase. In the glide phase the body is storing up energy, just as a batter does before he swings at the pitch. Sit upright with a slight forward cant. Without leaning forward, rotate and reach the blade as far forward as you can. Do so while holding the shaft approximately head high. Windup the torso so that the lead hand, shoulder and side of the leading rib cage twist as you reach for full extension. The top hand stays near your helmet. From the side view your shaft is near horizontal.
2. The Catch. Plant the blade fully by spearing it into the water near your toes. Viewed from head-on at the start of the catch, the shaft is near vertical, but from the side it is diagonal. This sets you up to have the most effective blade angle once the catch is complete. (Notice that the boat is moving forward as you plant the stroke, changing the angle of the shaft. A diagonal plant very quickly becomes vertical without changing the position of the arms.) A rushed catch results from pulling with the lower arm before the blade is fully anchored and is evidenced by splashing. You don't want that blade to move so keep the lower arm straight.
3. The Power Phase. Power comes as the abs, lats, obliques and rhomboids (attached by the arm to the blade) contract, swinging the opposite shoulder forward, while simultaneously driving forward the foot on the same side as the blade. The lower arm stays straight until the stroke is done and the top hand stays passive near the helmet. (Punching the top hand changes the nearly vertical blade into a scooping one. The reaction to scooping drives the bow down, not forward.)
4. The Release. As our neurons may not keep up with the speed of the boat, we may need to think about removing the blade from the water about the time the knee area has traveled to the blade. This will ensure that the blade is out by the time it is even with the hip. Little forward propulsion occurs once the hip passes in front of the blade due to the scooping angle. It's time to get the blade out and wind up for the next stroke.
Not only is the "when to release" important, but also the "how". The least amount of effort is expended when the elbow bends to release the blade from the water by lifting out to the side (chicken winging) rather than pulling back and up (scooping. This release is so effortless that many paddlers trying it for the first time feel that they aren't working hard enough. The confusion arises about exactly when during the stroke one should feel effort, and with which body parts. The effort desirably comes during the power phase from the torso muscles and not from the arms during the release.
As the release occurs, a common error is to simultaneously drop the new lead hand, giving no time to maximize rotation and extension for the next stroke, no time to store up the force. Remember that rotation occurs with both blades out of the water during the glide phase.
A drill to help develop a good forward stroke is to place your top hand on top of your helmet so that it serves as a pivot point. Without leaning forward, twist your torso and spear your blade fully in the water in front of your big toe with a straight lower arm. Without bending that arm and while keeping the top hand on top of your helmet, use your torso to unwind and drive the boat forward. As your blade nears your thigh, bend the lower arm and exit the blade out to the side, as described above.
Now, grab that video camera and hit the lake. Your muscles will memorize the correct technique more quickly without the distraction of steering, so practice in a boat with a keel or rudder if possible. If not, get someone to hold onto your bow and push them around the lake. This decreases the distraction of not being able to go straight yet. After your muscles know that powerful forward stroke, going in a straight line and transferring it to the whitewater kayak will be easy. May the appropriate force be with you!