I have met recreational paddlers who express to me that they already know how to paddle, have never taken and don’t need any formal instruction. Hearing this saddens me because I feel like they’re missing out on an opportunity to fully take advantage of the benefits that paddling has to offer, including paddling more effortlessly, building strength and fitness, and having fun with little to no pain and discomfort. Not to mention that having paddled for over 15 years I feel like I’m still learning and working on good technique – I believe that we never stop learning and instructional reminders are always valuable.
Sure, you can ‘wing it’ in an recreational kayak and get around fine, but receiving instruction opens up a whole new world of effortlessness, knowledge and power. For women, paddling instruction geared toward women is important because when we try to imitate our male companions we end up wasting a lot of energy and even causing ourselves injury by trying too hard. In general, we don’t have the brute strength that men do and so it’s even more important for us to learn how to harness the power of our bigger core muscles to reduce injury and feel good on the water.
I’d like to start out by exploring a few myths about kayaking. These myths underlie ineffective paddling techniques that can make kayaking feel more tiring and less enjoyable than it should be, and which can deter people, especially women, from getting into kayaking. By setting the record straight, I hope to see more of you out there having fun on the water!
Myth #1 – I Need to be Physically Strong to Kayak What makes kayaking so accessible to everyone, including women, is that to be good at it, you need more finesse than strength. You really don’t need to be rippling with muscles to kayak. Sure, strength will help you go a little faster, but speed isn’t that important unless you’re planning to race, which I don’t think most of you reading this are interested in doing. Paddling with good technique looks and feels effortless, and is why kayaking is a great sport for women.
Myth #2 – OK, Maybe I Don’t Need to Be Strong, But At Least I Need Powerful Arms, Right? Many people think that the most important muscles for kayaking are in your arms. I know it can look like kayakers are mostly using their arms to paddle, but proper technique actually uses the muscles in your core instead. Your core muscles in your torso are what keep you standing upright – you’ve already got them. To kayak well, all you have to do is harness the existing power in these muscles by rotating your torso every time you take a stroke. Your arms then act as an extension of your core and help transfer that power to your paddle, but they’re not doing the work on their own. This important concept will not only help you to achieve graceful and efficient strokes, but also help protect your shoulders from overwork and to prevent you from tiring out too soon.
To get the feel for proper torso rotation, sit up straight on the floor with good posture, as if you were in a kayak, with your legs relaxed and knees slightly splayed. Place your thumb on your navel. Pretend that your head is fused to your body and cannot turn independently of the rest of your torso. Now start from the navel and twist your core from side-to-side so that you can look left and right without turning your head. You should feel your lower abdominal muscles engage to get your torso rotating. You probably won’t be able to move your navel very far to the right or left, but you’ll still discover what it feels like to move from your core.
Myth #3 – I Need to Pull the Paddle Through the Water to Make My Boat Go. This myth has more to do with poor technique than physical requirements. Many people think that proper technique involves pulling the paddle blade through the water. This idea is related, in a way, to that idea that you need to have strong arms to kayak well. The truth is that paddling like this will tire you out. Instead of trying to move the water by pulling the paddle through it, good technique comes from a movement that is more like moving your body and boat around your paddle. To do this, imagine that the water is something more solid, like peanut butter or even cement, and when you plant your paddle blade, you must engage your core muscles and rotate your torso to move your boat past your paddle.
To get the feel for it, try sitting in your floating kayak close to the beach or a muddy shoreline. Hold your paddle normally as if you were going to take a paddle stroke and then stick your paddle into the sand or mud. When the paddle blade is firmly stuck in the bottom, move the bow of your boat back and forth, toward and away from the paddle. It can help to imagine “closing the scissors” between the bow of your boat and the paddle in the mud. This simple drill will help you get the feel for how to engage your core muscles and use good torso rotation to move your boat past and around your paddle. Feel your power coming from the muscles in your core and extending into your arms, instead of coming from your arms and extending into your core. I call this concept “plant and rotate”.
Summary of the Myth-Busting
You don’t need to be strong and it’s not all about the arms. Remember, kayaking should feel almost effortless! As the basis of good technique, using torso rotation and employing the concept of “plant and rotate” will serve you in every single paddle stroke and help you get the most out of kayaking!
Anna Levesque is a world-class kayaker who has a passion for inspiring and teaching women. Her experience as an accomplished international competitor, author, instructor and business owner has placed her as the leading expert in her field. Her top accomplishments as a whitewater athlete include a bronze medal at the 2001 World Freestyle Kayak Championships, a spot on the Canadian National Freestyle Team five years in a row, and many top 3 finishes in both Freestyle and Extreme Racing. Anna combines her international expertise in kayaking with her experience as a yoga instructor and student of meditation, to inspire women in confidently creating success and happiness in all aspects of their lives. She offers women’s paddling retreats, clinics and trips in Mexico through the her company, Girls at Play, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. For more information please visit www.watergirlsatplay.com