As you paddle along on your favorite stretch of water, you pass a number of paddlers with varying techniques and body shapes. Some paddlers look to have all the time in the world as they float past you while others look like an egg beater, thrashing the water with a short sharp stroke. Then you see two paddlers racing each other, one is as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger powering towards you but you notice that he is being beaten by the other paddler, a smaller leaner paddler. You think to yourself ‘how can that be possible’? 

Efficiency before Power

Like in most sports or sporting activities, power does not always win in the end. I went fly fishing with my father last month and even though I am younger and stronger than him, my father can cast that fly 10-20 meters further than me. He looks relaxed, in control and the rod moves back and forth like a tree branch moving in the wind. He has an efficient action.

As children I am sure your parents said ‘you must learn to walk before you can run’. The reason being, you need to develop muscle memory in your legs and hips first so when you perform the action faster (i.e. run) your muscles know what to do. Only after mastering this new skill can you produce more power and hence run faster. You will have become efficient in your action.

Have you ever been in a race paddling side by side with a paddler that is not as fit as you, doesn’t train as hard as you and has an older heavier ski but when the time comes to sprint for the finishing line they always pull away and beat you? One reason for this is that your technique is less efficient at higher speeds. You need to work more on the part of your technique that produces power and not concentrate on just being more powerful.

Where do I start?

Imagine it’s a nice summer’s day and you and your mate are going to go for a paddle. Your mate however has never paddled before and you need to show him a couple of easy drills to get him underway. You see a couple of paddlers paddling past and say to your mate “see, that’s how it is done”. Being able to show someone the action is always easier but the thing you need to remember is that a novice paddler will see differently to a more experience paddler. This is important for you to know especially if you are going to have a successful morning on the water.

A novice paddler will only see paddles moving through the air, the splashing of water and a ski gliding along. If they were to repeat this action they would only be using their arms and not their body. A more experienced paddler however will see through the arms and see leg drive, hip movement and shoulder rotation. These three body movements will improve efficiency and in time power.  

Learning ‘The P2F Link’ 

In my professional opinion, every part of your paddling stroke comes from an efficient leg drive. You need to be able to link your leg drive with hip and shoulder rotation to get power you are generating in your body to transfer into the paddle. Once you have mastered this at lower speeds, you can start generating more power to go faster.

A lot of paddlers have some leg drive but next to no hip movement or shoulder rotation. When the speed increases, most paddlers think that a higher stroke rate means that they will go faster. This is incorrect. Before you increase rating, you need to start leg drive and transfer the movement through your hips and up into your shoulders. Only when your craft has started to increase speed can you then start to increase stroke rate. As a young paddler starting out, I was told these two things that have stuck with me:

  1. Think of your legs as the side rods on an old steam train. These rods move forward and back connects the driving wheels. When you see a steam train starting to move you don’t see these rods going at 100 percent. They start slowly until they get traction and then accelerate.
  1. You’re at the drag cars, the drivers hit the accelerator pedal hard to spin the tyres and warm them up however they only travel a few meters forward. When the race comes and the lights go green they don’t hit the pedal as hard as in the warm up, they push down on the accelerator pedal gently and only after they have traction do they press harder and the drag car disappears down the track.

We can break these movements down into their individual parts to help you understand and then practice in your own time. The best way to practice is to sit your ski on two camper chair and then sit on your ski. This way balance is taken out of the equation and you can perform the movements correctly.

Leg drive

Correct leg length is the most important part to a more efficient technique. If your leg length is too long you will be using your arms to pull you down the river plus you will loose balance because you are not connected to the ski. If leg length is too short you are unable to straighten your legs and will push too hard into the back of your seat resulting in using your arms again to pull you along. Both of these will also place too much strain on your lower back which in time will result in injury. 

Hip Movement

Your hips need to be free to move in your seat. Ideally, move five to ten millimeters forward so you are not pushing up or into the back of your seat.  Once you are in the correct position your hips should be able to move freely in a forward and back motion (twisting motion). This will depend on your current leg length. 

Shoulder Rotation

Most of the time, you see paddlers with a roundness in their spine. One of the reasons for this is that they have limited flexibility in their lower back and hamstrings. As paddlers we are instructed to have our shoulders over or in front of our hips. For these paddlers to achieve this they must round their spin and shoulders. A paddler’s spine must be straight so when the hips move / twist in the seat, the shoulders rotate at a similar speed. 

‘The P2F Link’ is therefore being able to execute these three skills by having them work together to generate the maximum amount of power your body can produce. You will find the ski might move around a little from side to side but as you become more efficient, your ski will level out and all the new power you are generating from a more efficient technique will transfer into the paddle with less effort. 

Please note this may take you a couple of weeks or months to master but I would encourage you to take the time and be patient. When the time comes for you to sprint to the finish line while going toe to toe with that other paddler, you will be in a more powerful position and the result might go your way this time.

Happy Paddling,

Julian Norton-Smith

Your Personal Paddling Coach