Kayaking is brilliant for fitness and a lot of fun too but it’s not for the faint-hearted. It constantly keeps you stimulated, mentally and physically, and requires a lot of skills. To be a great kayaker, you need a combination of fitness, strength, agility, tactical racing skill and technical paddling skills, and the ability to adapt those skills under pressure. We’re up against nature, changing currents, courses, weather and many other elements that affect your resistance, stroke and speed so knowing how to handle those is key. It’s like a puzzle you’re continuously building, always with a new challenge. That’s what makes it so addictive.
Here are 10 great tips and water-based drills to improve your kayaking technique:
1. DEVELOP LEG STRENGTH. Leg and hip drive are hugely important – something that I wish I’d known sooner. People assume most of the power comes from our arms but the legs play an equally important role. We use them to underpin the power so that we can use our whole body to develop strong upper-body rotations when paddling. Arm strength is important but the arms fatigue much faster than the rest of the body so, if you can build strength and power in your whole body, especially a strong core to hold it all together, you’ll have a huge advantage.
2. DEVELOP SHOULDER POWER. Our main connection with the water is through the arms. A lot of power is driven from our shoulders and backs, which is why, if you look at our physiques in the sport, the general somatotype is very-upper body dominated. It’s about getting that balance.
3. TO BE FAST, FOCUS ON BODY AWARENESS. The common way to kayak is just with your arms (i.e. head down, arms up, spinning them round); however, the best way is to have good posture: sit upright, hold that bodyweight up and really utilise that whole body connection.
4. WORK ON WHOLE BODY CONNECTION. Approaching the body holistically with training will definitely improve your technique. So many people just focus on one part, not realizing that other movements further down the chain effect how that body part moves.
Practice Power Circles. Paddling is a very repetitive action so it can be difficult to break down and improve specific areas of the stroke. Breaking the cyclical paddle stroke into 5 different ‘almost’ circles will help.
For sprint canoeing, focusing on developing the angle and power at the front of your catch (i.e. when you’re spearing the water), pushing as much power through the blade into the water as possible, can yield big improvements.
5. MENTAL STRENGTH. To win, it’s not just about training. There are lots of extremely good times and extremely hard times with a big variation in between and you can switch from one to the other very quickly. Being able to cope with that difference, focus and push forward regardless will give you a huge advantage. When it’s tough, you still need to apply yourself, even if you don’t feel like it; and when you’re succeeding, you can’t get complacent, you need to push forward. So it’s about getting that balance and keeping your mind stable and feet on the ground regardless.
6. DEVELOP CORE STRENGTH & FUNCTIONAL MOBILITY. Cross-training definitely helps, especially yoga and Pilates, as not only do they develop core strength and mobility to give you increased power and movement range in the boat, but they also help with injury prevention. We don’t suffer with many injuries but, when we do, they’re often associated with repetitive strain, especially in the shoulders, wrists and forearms. Our training methods mean that we’re fairly strong women but that our bodies are quite inflexible so sometimes we find getting into certain poses more challenging than other women do.
YOU SHOULD ALSO PERFORM WATER-BASED DRILLS. Some of the best water-based drills are...
7. BRING IT IN & PAUSE. When paddling, take a free base hold on the paddle and exaggerate that airtime between strokes. Let the boat glide. It’s simple but effective.
8. STROKE POWER EXAGERATIONS. Exaggerate how much power you put into each stroke, almost as if you’re exaggerating the speed you’re hitting the water at. Take the ‘presentation position’ (i.e. where the blade is in the water for the stroke) and then exaggerate how much power you can hit the water with at that catch (i.e. when the blade hits the water).
9. LOCK ARMS. Lock your arms in a straight position or with your elbows locked in. Then ‘windmill paddle’, almost like you’re not paddling with your blades in the water. Aim to rotate through your hips and torso as much as possible, trying to rotate almost parallel to each bank each time. The aim isn’t to travel forward, it's about developing leg drive, although you’ll develop great hip and core strength too.
10. EXAGGERATE HIGH ARMS & LOW ARMS. Perform this drill when travelling in both directions (forwards and backwards). First with really high arms, then with really low arms. The more you do it, the more you’ll feel the loss of connection from each one. Everyone has slightly different abilities and angles between their shoulders, elbows etc… There’s an optimum level that you should position your hands (top hand and back hand) for optimum power, strength and speed but we all come in different shapes and sizes so each person’s optimum level is different. This will help you to find the right one for you.
Hannah Brown is a British Olympic sprint canoeist.