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
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.
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 that...you'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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Website for more info. Photo credit for this
article goes to Bruce von Borstel, who shoots and
produces Brent's clinics.--MB