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Technique for Sprint Canoe & Kayak

Below are some resources for learning more about sprint canoe and kayak technique.  While these resources do not replace the value of a coach and his or her input and direction, they can provide new paddlers with a good reference for visualizing what to do, and fundamentals of technique and form.

As sprint canoes and kayaks are very unstable, learning to brace with the blade of the paddle against the surface of the water is an important thing to master.  Paddlers who drop or let go of their paddles are often ones that will be swimming more than paddling.  After one masters the ability to brace and can stay upright, it’s time to focus on fundamentals.

Coaches usually break up a paddler’s stroke into the following phases or parts:

  • The catch – the start of the stroke, anchoring the blade in the water smoothly and quickly.
  • The pull – the period one is applying power, pulling the boat past the spot where the blade has been anchored.  (Paddles are anchored in the water and often end up ahead of where the blade was first placed.)
  • The exit – after the pull phase, removing the paddle from the water.  This should be the quickest part of the stroke so that the boat is accelerating the most at the end of the stroke and heading into the recovery phase.
  • The recovery – the period between the exit and the start of the next stroke’s catch.  For kayaks, this period is minimal as the paddler has two blades and rotates between pulling on one side and the other.  However, for canoe paddlers, this period is longer and the boat’s speed will be more cyclical.

The Sprint Kayak Stroke

Modern racing paddles are often referred to as being “wing” or “prop” paddles; the shape is similar to an aircraft wing or propeller and as it moves through the water, the shape creates more acceleration.  With these paddles, what is considered good technique has also changed.  Paddlers now pull their blades at an angle, with the blade being further away from the boat at the exit.

Paddling is a full body sport, not just upper body.  Good technique will include body rotation to maximize the use of the larger back muscles, hip rotation, and the use of one’s legs, pushing against the foot brace.

Kayak Stroke Videos

The video below shows two of the best women in the sport currently.  Note how much they use their legs, twisting with their hips and pushing with the opposite leg on each stroke.

Kayak Stroke Articles

The Barton Forward Stroke – Greg Barton, America’s best kayak paddler and arguably one of the best paddlers to ever paddle a kayak, has an excellent article on his technique and style.

Flatwater Paddling’s article on “how to kayak with the right technique.”

The Sprint Canoe Stroke

Most clubs in the United States focus on kayaks, and some even ignore canoes altogether.  Not Ventura — we have a long history with sprint canoe and have had several members become Olympians in canoe.  Learning to paddle a canoe can seem more challenging than a kayak as one also has to learn to steer with the paddle, as well as specialize on paddling on a single side.   This seemingly awkward position is not for everyone.

Our club also has a history of using bent blades; paddles with a forward angle of 10 to 15 degrees at the bottom of the shaft.  Bent blades are commonly used by marathon, outrigger, and stand-up paddle board paddlers, but very rarely in sprint canoes.  Bill Bragg, our club’s founder, argued that the logic of using a bent blade over a straight blade should not be tossed aside simply because one is high kneeling.  (Read our blog post on why we advocate for bent blades in sprint canoe.)

At the catch, a canoe paddler should have the top arm held high with the elbow slightly bent, focusing on getting the top shoulder back.  This will permit the creation of a third class lever and longer stroke.  This style is one used by most German and Canadian canoe paddlers.  (Hungarians are extremely successful using a different style, having their top arm straight and held high at the catch, keeping the shaft of the paddle perpendicular to the water during the pull phase.)

During the pull phase, one should be accelerating throughout and begin the exit as the paddle approaches the paddler’s hip.  At the exit, turning the paddle and pushing away from the tail of the boat will cause the boat to stay straight despite being paddled only on one side.  (This is called a “jay stroke.”)  If one needs to turn to the side opposite, a draw, or sweep stroke is used.  Learning when to do these adjustments takes time and over-steering is a common problem for new paddlers.

Just as with kayaks, canoeing is a full body sport. While a canoe paddler should not simply lunge forward on the front foot, causing the nose to dive into the water and increase drag, a canoeist should rotate his or her hips and use their legs during the pull phase, swinging the inside hip forward during the recovery phase.

Canoe Stroke Videos

Canoe Articles

Larry Cain, one of Canada’s best paddlers, has a blog that is worth reading even though many of his articles today focus on SUP.