Different Stroke Techniques for Kayaking

Our three forward-stroke experts have spent years refining their individual stroke techniques. Using these tips, you can benefit from their experience and learn to develop the ideal forward stroke.

The forward stroke is so basic, so intuitively simple, that just about anyone can hop in a boat and have it moving forward in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, with no instruction whatsoever.

Developing an efficient forward stroke, however, or any degree of “mastery,” can be a lifelong project. Indeed, serious competitive paddlers typically spend their entire careers focusing on perfecting the elusive “ideal” stroke.

But an efficient forward stroke is not necessarily just for dedicated racers. As the following three forward-stroke experts point out, recreational kayakers can reap countless benefits from refining their forward strokes.

The first of our contributors, Olympic kayaking medalist Greg Barton, believes that even the most relaxed recreational paddlers can cut years of trial and error off of developing efficient stroke technique by learning a “racing stroke,” then modifying it to suit their touring needs and the sea conditions.

Paddling is “simply more fun if you’re not as tired,” suggests former wildwater champ Brent Reitz, the second of our contributors. Brent, an instructor specializing in the forward stroke, believes that aspects of racing technique can benefit recreational paddlers from all walks of life. His method consists of five components and focuses on the body’s “power core.”

Our third and final author, sea kayak instructor Dan Lewis, is, like many recreational paddlers, admittedly more concerned with scenery than with speed. He believes that developing both an “effortless” low-angle touring stroke as well as a powerful, high-angle racing-style stroke allows him to choose a stroke style that matches the conditions.

As a serious recreational paddler and an American Canoe Association kayak instructor trainer, I have been a longtime student of forward-stroke technique. Whether I’m working with beginners or other instructors, I start with the foundation of the modern racing stroke, then dial it down to meet my needs or those of my students.

Whether you are out to win races or just beat the afternoon wind back to camp, the following advice on technique should give you plenty to work on.

Starting with Greg’s high-angle, high-performance racing stroke and working our way to Dan’s low-profile touring stroke seemed a natural progression for this article. There are more similarities in the writers’ contributions than not. Common themes include using torso rotation to involve the larger muscles of your back, upright posture, ending the stroke as your hand reaches your hip and a relaxed grip.

The differences may seem subtle to many paddlers: how far apart to space your grip on the paddle shaft, whether to cross the centerline with your top hand or not, how high to hold your top hand, how much to bend your elbows, and so on.

While trivial to those not as well versed (or obsessed) with the finer points of stroke mechanics, such differences have created a personal style that works for each of the writers and can help set you on the path to developing a style that best suits your needs.

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