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The Five Immutable Rules of the Kayak Forward Stroke

Focusing on Wildwater's most often-used stroke translates to seconds saved on the race course

by Brent Reitz USAWildwater K-1

Efficiency is one of the primary keys to winning Wildwater races. And the way to develop efficiency and be fast on race day comes from four primary areas: the aerobic component, strength, mental toughness and technique.

Strength, aerobic capacity and mental apects of racing can take years to develop. But changes in your technique can happen today. So why not spend a relatively short period of time to realize significant performance gains? It only makes sense to tackle the one that you can deal with the quickest, and the others will come with proper trainingngg and race experience.

During my years of informal coaching with the U.S. Wildwater Team and instruction in my kayak school, I have focused on five primary areas where most developing racers need improvement to build efficiency. They are rotation, a proper elbow lift with the top arm, the catch, pushing with a bent elbow through the power phase, and the exit.

Rotation is the single most important component to building a powerful and efficient stroke, but is the one that is most underutilized by paddlers. The concept is to use the large muscle groups of the back and abdomen to power the boat forward rather than the small muscle groups such as the biceps and triceps.

People who have heard that rotation is important may feel like they have taken steps to use good rotation, but are still usually only rotating their upper torso rather than twisting from the base of the spine. One way to overcome this is to try to exaggerate your rotation on dry land.

Try to imagine a steel rod that runs through the top of your head to the base of the spine. Sitting on dry land in an upright position, try rotating back and forth along the length of your spine with your paddle resting on your shoulders. You should feel that same pull at the base of your spine when you are paddling. This is the only way you will employ the larger muscle groups during the stroke. You must be able to power the boat from the rotation of the hips as well as the back! It will also give you an idea of some of the muscle groups that are important to address when stretching before and after a workout.

  Brent Reitz shows rotation.
                    Photo credit: Bruce von Borstel
Try to exaggerate rotation, and reach with a relaxed front shoulder and arm. Feel the potential energy getting ready to explode from the abdomen. Note how the back arm is already in line with the wrist and shoulder (the chicken wing described below).

When you are learning to rotate, watch out for an exaggerated side-to-side rocking motion in your boat, which actually slows you down by making the boat bob up and down. If this is happening, you need to "quiet" your lower body.

The Elbow lift (chicken wing)

With your top arm, raise the elbow and wrist up as one horizontal unit, rather than leading with the wrist and letting the elbow following at a lower plane. Imagine a chicken raising a wing as a single unit. The key to the "chicken wing" is to align the joints of the shoulder, elbow and wrist so that they are ergonomically sound, as well as to lock in and transmit the rotational power from the torso to the paddle blade.

Imagine throwing a punch. To knock down the other guy, you would line up your elbow with your fist and shoulder to get the best horizontal power, whereas throwing a punch with the elbow lower than the wrist and shoulder would be little more effective than a slap to your opponent. You wouldn't do'd lose the fight! So don't do it when you paddle. Many paddlers who suffer from wrist tendonitis may be able to fix their problem by making sure their joints are aligned horizontally.

The Catch

This is the place where people lose the most efficiency. The kayak stroke is usually only about three feet long, and the key problem to overcome is to not allow your body to unrotate until the blade is completely buried in the water.

If you start to unwind AS you plant the blade, rather than before the blade is fully buried beneath the surface, you will unnecessarily lose several inches in the stroke length and lose a lot of power stored up in your rotation. These inches can add up to as much as an 18% loss in efficiency over the course of a race.

Timing during the catch is also very important. If you can pause just a millisecond and allow the paddle to be fully submerged before you pull on it with your lower hand, you will have much more power at the front one-third of the length of your stroke. The pause should be very short, yet fluid with the rest of your stroke.

  Brent Reitz shows the catch.
                    Photo credit: Bruce von Borstel
Spearing the salmon: Transfer the consciousness of power from the bottom hand to the top, and slide the paddle in beside your toes. Pulling too early with the lower hand can mean critical inches lost in the stroke's length.

The best way to ensure the blade gets in the water as far forward as possible is to reallocate the energy from the lower hand to the top hand. If your top hand is sliding the blade in beside your toes, as if thrusting the blade in a spearing motion, the lower hand will not hurry the catch. Intuitively, one wants to start the blade in with the lower hand, which is something to overcome. Changing your attention to the top hand will also help you relax you lower hand, arm and shoulder, which can actually help extend your reach by a few more inches.

Pushing with a Bent Elbow

There are two rules that a lot of kayakers learn that are incorrect. They are that "you should punch forward down the center of the boat", straightening your arm, and that "your top hand should never cross over the center of the boat". These rules were fine in the days of arm paddling. But to be fast in Wildwater, you have to unlearn these two rules. So write them both down on a piece of paper, crumple the paper up, and toss them away forever.

Pushing with a bent elbow is the part of the stroke that helps you take advantage of your rotation during the power phase. You want to push with your top hand as though you are throwing a crossing blow, elbow bent ninety degrees, with the stroke ending up with you looking just over the top of your forearm.

When you incorrectly push straight ahead instead of pushing across, then the path of movement for the blade is an arcing movement that pushes up and down on the surface of the water, rather than down the long of axis of the boat. If you push straight ahead with your top hand, all you are doing is lifting water with the blade and pulling the boat down deeper--a huge impediment to efficiency.

  Brent Reitz pushing with a bent elbow. Photo credit: Bruce von Borstel
Just prior to the exit, your top arm should be bent ninety degrees, and you should be looking right across your forearm.

Imagine what the perfect paddling machine would look like: it would take the paddle, place it vertically in the water at the front of the boat, and pull it back along the long axis of the boat vertically the entire time the blade is in the water. Since we are human and limited by having to hold the shaft with two hands, pushing across the center line of the boat is the closest we can come to an ideal vertical blade position. Once again, It is okay to cross the center line with your top hand, and is key to transferring your rotational power to the blade.

The Exit

Most paddlers hold onto the exit too long and very few take it out too soon. The blade should come out of the water when your hand meets your hip. So imagine that you have a steel rod across your hips that extends on either side of the boat. Once your hand hits the rod (not the blade), then get the blade out of the water.

The blade should come out effortlessly because this is the only split second of rest that the kayak stroke actually allows; don't make yourself work here!

Let the blade come out where it "wants" to come out. Forcing the blade further than its natural exit zone wastes energy. If you are making the blade come back further in order to help set up rotation for the rotation and set-up for the next stroke, remember that you can more easily rotate with the blade out of the water than in it.

  Brent Reitz shows proper exit technique.
                    Photo credit: Bruce von Borstel
Imagine your hand hitting a steel rod jutting out sideways from your hip. Get the blade out quickly when your hand hits the rod.

Putting these components together takes some effort, and the mind works best when you slow the stroke down and think "rotation, catch, chicken wing, exit" as a tantric chant. Try concentrating on getting the technique down on one side, then the other, and then together in a fluid motion. In a very short time, you should see improvement in how much further you can go with far less energy output.

Brent Reitz owns and operates WildSprint, a kayak clinic in Monterrey, California. He has won four U.S. National Wildwater Championships, two Marathon Championships and saw a fourth place finish at the 1993 Landeck, Austria World Cup races. Reach him at

Editors note: Anyone wishing to get faster and efficient in K-1 should check out Brent's video on forward stroke technique. It is quite good and a tremendous resource! I got mine at REI, and most paddling shops can order it for you if it is not already in stock. Check his Website for more info. Photo credit for this article goes to Bruce von Borstel, who shoots and produces Brent's clinics.--MB


Read about Brent's forward stroke clinic video here!
Read more about Brent Reitz's video on the forward stroke!