Secret Breakthroughs in Kayak Strokes

So you really want to improve your whitewater paddling? Whitewater paddling is so complex, how could there possibly be one secret you might ask. There is. Think about the methods that champions utilize in virtually every sport. Drills. They aren’t sexy, but they work!

kayak cartwheel

So you really want to improve your whitewater paddling? Whitewater paddling is so complex, how could there possibly be one secret you might ask. There is. Think about the methods that champions utilize in virtually every sport. Drills. They aren’t sexy, but they work!

Think about it. If you go to a coach for nearly any sport, the coach will give you exercises and have you systematically practice drills designed to develop the correct patterns for the game. In soccer you do a 2 on 1 drill, left foot shooting, right foot shooting, heading. To excel in basketball you repeat a similar routine.

This same systematic approach can be applied to your paddling with remarkable results. It's easy and it works! In the long run, it's more fun to be able to place your boat exactly where you want it and make moves more reliably, to catch air more predictably, and to stay upright!

With a few exercises you can eliminate years of trial and error and bad habits, and build a solid foundation of skills. It might help to think of paddling as a culmination of drills in two areas: boat control, and whitewater skills.

But wait! You can’t go directly to the whitewater drills. The coach doesn’t simply let you scrimmage at the start of practice!

So how do you design your drills?

Study this list of broad categories of technique relating to your body, the blade and your boat. Simply messing about in a boat with awareness of these key variables will improve your paddling. But for real improvement, isolate one component at a time, and design a drill for improving your ability in that area.

Body Mechanics

Extension: Reach to place the blade for the longest pull.

Balance: Experiment with different types of leans.

Flexibility: Find your personal weaknesses.

Boat Kinesthetic Sensitivity

Carving: Feel the hull tracking through an arc.

Glide: Avoid bobbing, wagging, or wobbling as you paddle.

Pivot point awareness: Find where the center of rotation is for a spin. How does it change with speed?

Blade Skills

Feathering: Develop the ability to slice the blade through the water.

Sculling: Learn to move your boat sideways with the sculling motion. Maximize movement with fewer strokes.

Varying pressure: Search out resistance with the blade for the maximum stroke quality.

Catch, Power, recovery phases: Develop a quality catch and a quick recovery for the most power.

Vertical paddle strokes: Compare vertical acceleration strokes and lower traveling strokes.

High-level paddlers strive to do an hour of flatwater drills once a week. You can also add several of these drills to your normal warm-up and cool-down routine. Best is to do the drills on flatwater, so you can appreciate the effects of your strokes without the complication of currents.

Easy at first glance, stroke drills are remarkably hard to practice correctly. Improvement comes with deliberate thought and practice. Be smooth, slow, and purposeful. Refining your technique seems to require more effort... in truth your muscles are merely unaccustomed to the motion. Stick with it!

Keep in mind these drills are just a means to an end. Get out on the river and shred it up, putting the drills out of mind. But chances are, you will find new skills creeping into your playboating.