Correct Technique is so Important

When learning new skills, I have learned that there are four levels/stages.

Unconsciously unskilled: We have all been there, learnt to ride a bike with stabalizers and when they are removed you expect to ride off into the sunset only to end up on your side. They can't do it; but they don't know they can't do it!

Consciously unskilled: You can't do it and you know you can't! A lot of people give up at stage.

Consciously skilled: You can do it, but it's something you have to keep remembering consciously to do. Its just not fully automatic yet. Its like if you have learnt to juggle and you can keep all the balls in the air relatively easily and suddenly you drop one. This is this level.

Unconsciously skilled: Being able to think about which beer you are going to have after paddling whilst surfing 2 metre swells in 30 knot winds.

After these two stories, hopefully you will understand what the four levels are and apply them to your own experiences.

I bought a new mountain bike, a K2 full suspension and off I went to Rotorua to give it a test ride. Climbed up the first hill and straight into a big descent with about a 1 metre drop off. I had done this many times before easily, except this time when I landed, I went over the handle bars. Naturally I picked myself up and walked back to the top to do it again. Same result even sorer face. Then it clicked what was wrong. It was an American bike and the brake levers were the other way around so my front brake is on my left and not on my right. With this in mind, I made a third attempt only to end in an equally spectacular face plant. I cycled back to the car, swapped the levers around, problem fixed.

I raced DRR (Down River Racing) for years and only in the last couple of years have I got into surf ski racing. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I very rarely capsize. It was a blue sky day in the Coromandel with medium surf coming in, 5 to 6 foot faces. I paddled my new Fenn Mako out towards the breaking waves. I timed it well and got over this wave that's about to break only to end up in the drink. This went on for a couple of hours until it clicked what was happening. On a river it's a standing wave, but a sea wave is a moving mass of water coming towards you. My timing was such that as I went out though the break, I would automatically time the placement of the blade on the back of the incoming wave. Of course my timing was for a standing wave on a river so there was in fact no water there to support my blade. If anything the water was getting sucked backwards so over I would go. Now even to this day I have to be careful going out through breaking surf.

Both these stories clearly show that once a skill has been installed at its deepest level then even if you consciously attempt to do it differently, you can't. Once you have learned a new skill whatever it may be, mountain biking, snow boarding, kayaking etc., you really want to make sure that at that unconsciously skilled level it's going to be as good as it gets. It's evident from my own life experiences, how hard it was for me to change installed patterns of behaviour.


The forward kayak stroke is split into four phases:- Catch, Power, Exit and Recovery.
Power Phase
End of Power Phase
Above and below Knut Holman world's fastest man over 1000 metres for almost a decade, showing the various phases.

A good catch is vital to producing a maximum force during the initial power phase. The greater the force, the greater the acceleration which results in faster boat speed. Also the greater the force, the greater the stability/support from the blade which is of great importance when paddling in rougher waters.

An early exit will decrease your recovery time and increases cadence however, a late exit will have a detrimental affect on the other three phases. The blade is now effectively being dragged in the water behind you, slowing the boat down and causing a greater sideways force. This also pushes the front of the kayak away from the blade, slowing the boat down further. If the blade is behind your hip and still in the water, this greatly increases your chances of "tripping" over it and from my experience this is the main cause of capsizing.

Marathon Kayak Padding Technique

The overall aim of improving your paddling technique is to paddle more economically and therefore conserve your energy for `burns’ or a devastating sprint finish, coupled with a faster cruising speed. The stroke can be broken down into four phases, which makes it easier for the coach and paddler to discuss. Areas where improvements can be made are the catch, power phase, exit and recovery. Improvements in technique will inevitably lead to the paddler becoming increasingly confident, such that his or her body weight will be totally committed to each paddle stroke i.e. supported by the resistance of the water. Notes – the `stroke side’ relates to the arm actually doing the work, the one nearest the water and the `top arm’ is the one pushing through the air getting ready to start the stroke.

The Catch (The blade enters and locks onto the water at the start of the stroke). The paddle enters the water quickly and cleanly (ie little or no splash), close to the boat and as far forward as possible with the blade at 90 degrees to the direction of pull (but not 90 degrees to the direction of movement of a wing blade!). This ensures that the paddle blade presents its maximum area to the direction of pull. The arm remains firm and straight (but not stiff and tense). The trunk and shoulder must not begin to unwind before the paddle is fully in the water. This ensures that the powerful muscles of the back and shoulders are in their strongest position for the subsequent pull. The

Power Phase (The blade is immersed fully in the water at the start of the stoke, power is applied by pushing on the footrest until the blade exits the water). Once the paddle is fully in the water the trunk should rotate enabling an initial straight arm pull using the large trunk muscles. The top arm acts as the pivot point during this straight arm pull with the lower arm side. This first part of the power phase takes the paddle from a slight forward angle, through the ‘vertical’ position (in relation to the boat when viewed from the side). The ‘vertical’ position of the paddle in relation to the boat should be well in front of the body and near the front of the cockpit and should be maintained until level with the hips. To maintain maximum boat speed, the blade must accelerate through the power phase as the leverage increases. The wing blade will naturally drift/pull out to the side (this effect increases as more power is applied). For maximum effect, the blade must not be allowed to slip water and therefore must be kept upright and at right angles to the direction of pull. The top arm supports/pushes the paddle shaft forward in front of the face to full arm extension, the boat moves past the blade which is fixed in the water. This action should take place at eye level in order to ensure that the blade in the water does not go too deep, that the paddle is kept as close to the vertical (in relation to the water) as possible, and to prevent lifting water, towards the end of the power phase, by the blade in the water. The emphasis is on guiding the paddle with the upper hand rather than pushing hard. The trunk should rotate during the power phase but should not rock/move backwards as this would cause the boat to pitch backwards. As the trunk rotates, the leg on the paddling side is straightened (extended) as the foot pushes firmly, but not forcefully, against the footrest in order to impart the pull from the paddle to forward movement of the boat. The leg on the opposite side is flexed at the knee. (Some paddlers fix pull bars to their footrest to assist with balance when the opposite leg lifts clear of the footrest). This flexing and extension of the legs during the recovery and pull stages of the stroke gives a cycling motion with the knees alternately rising and lowering to facilitate the rotation of the trunk from the hips. Failure to rotate the trunk sufficiently is usually indicated by this cycling action not being apparent at the knees. The elbow will be slightly bent at the end of the power/stoke phase as the hips come level with the blade. Allowing the body to pass the blade results in a less powerful pull and slows the boat as the right angle of the blade in relation to the pull can no longer be maintained and the elbow has to bend to a weaker angle for pulling. It is also more unstable.

The Exit (The blade is clipped from the water, before the hand nearest the water has passed the hips). The blade is clipped quickly and cleanly out of the water as the hips come level with the pulling hand. The wing edge should lead out of the water to prevent water being lifted. A slow exit of the blade from the water will slow the boat as the forward momentum of the boat drags the blade forward through the water. As the lower hand quickly lifts the blade vertically out of the water to shoulder height, (shoulder stays level and elbow only rises minimally) the top arm remains extended and still at eye level. This gives an apparent pause in the stroke during this glide phase when both blades are clear of the water. The exit phase ends with the paddle held parallel to the water at eye level with the leading arm fully extended in preparation for the entry phase of the stroke and the back hand at shoulder level.

The Recovery (air work) – (The paddle blades are clear of the water preparing for the next stroke). This phase starts with the trunk rotated 30-40 degrees forward from the hips towards the side of the next paddle stroke. The back is straight with a slight forward lean (sit tall and push your chest out to maintain this position) but the trunk is not rocked forward, as this would cause the boat to pitch forward. A common mistake is to rotate the shoulders but not the whole trunk. The shoulder and forward arm are relaxed but firm (not stiff) and the arm is extended at eye level with the arm, elbow, wrist and hand in a straight line. The fingers are relaxed, but still controlling the paddle shaft. If the upper hand grips the paddle too tightly it will be impossible to extend the upper arm fully (see second picture below which is the result of this). Also, if the wrist drops, so that the fingers are pointing into the air, the paddling position is weakened and repetitive strain injury to the wrist can result. The back arm has started this phase at about shoulder height causing the paddle to be held parallel to the water in front of the face. As this arm drives/pushes further forward at above shoulder level, the blade being prepared for the next paddle stroke pivots in the forward hand and is driven into the water for the catch with both arms and shoulders together down towards the water. As the backhand pushes forward at shoulder height or just above, the blade being prepared for the next paddle stroke will pivot in the front hand and move towards the water. Transfer the foot pressure on the footrest. If the backhand is not pushed forward at eye level it will be difficult to place the paddle in the water close to the boat. The front forward arm remains extended and the shoulder drops towards the water as the backhand takes the responsibility for placing the paddle in the water. The leading shoulder should not move backwards and the trunk must not unwind before the paddle enters the water fully.

Just to show you the impact of probably the most common faults I taped a tape measure to the side of my ski, the start being my hip.
The top hand pushes forward before the pulling blade enters the water 81 cm from my hip.
No rotation and a hammer like grip on the shaft 97cm from my hip.
Still no rotation but I have now relaxed my hand grip on the shaft 101cm from my hip
Now a good catch. A relaxed hand grip, good rotation and the pulling blade being "speared" into the water now extends my entry point to 114cm from my hip. The distance from the very start of the catch to the position of maximum force is only around 12 inches 30cm. So for many of you who move that top hand too soon just like the first image above, then the blade is only entering the water where it should be in fact producing your maximum force/ support.
Four very useful drills for you to use.

Firstly before the drills, ensure that your hand spacing on the paddles is correct. Your hands should be spaced about elbow width apart as can be seen in the picture above. Even after years of paddling, I still wrap some insulating tape around the shaft just beyond my little finger so when my hands wander, as they do whilst paddling, it is easy for me to know and to adjust them accordingly. This also ensures a more even pull to both sides.

Now a very common problem these days, I have no idea why it's so common, is hands too close together. I could talk for ages why this is not correct, but the easiest way to prove this point is a press-up competition. Firstly with hands spaced wider than your elbows apart, secondly about shoulder width apart and lastly about elbow width apart just like you should be paddling. It's of no surprise that the winner is by a country mile, the last one. I know you might be saying that the stroke is actually a pull, which it is, but each pull must have a point that the pull pivots about and that is the top hand. Too close together and your triceps are being over loaded. As any Engineer will tell you, the closer your hands are together, the force generated by this pivot action will be greatly reduced. Now of course widening your grip will then greatly increase this force BUT our arms, the levers, govern how far apart we can hold the paddle before that force starts to decrease again.


1st Drill: Holding the paddle about elbow width apart, take your thumbs and now place them above the shaft. Take things easy now as the shape of the blade is in control of what happens during the pull. This drill should be done often so you become familiar with how the boat moves past the blade in the water. Its a great drill because most people are strong enough to pull the paddle in any direction they want and by simply "locking out" your thumbs you can get used to how your blade naturally works best. 5 minutes during warm up and warm down.


2nd Drill: For all you hammer grippers out there, hold the paddle correctly as above and only grip with your thumb and first finger of each hand. All other fingers now point upwards. This is a very important drill for those of you out there who blow your forearms often especially in rough conditions. You can try this on dry land and see the difference. With one hand, hold the paddle shaft anywhere and grip it with thumb and all four fingers. Now with the other hand feel how solid your forearm is. Now only grip with thumb and first finger and immediately it relaxes. When muscles are relaxed they perform at their best. 5 minutes during warm up and down.


3rd Drill: This drill is called "spear the fish". Confusing I know, but let me explain. There is a fish in the water next to your kayak and it's swimming towards the nose of the kayak and you are going to spear it with your paddle. So the spear is entering the water at an angle similar to the picture above and also the last picture of the set of four above. For those of you who move your top hand before placing the pulling blade into the water and pulling it first, think of it this way. You are still trying to spear that fish but it is now swimming towards you. That is how your blade is entering the water, much more vertically and often you might also hear a plopping noise from the blade on entry. Similar to the first picture in the series of four above.

So count 1001- that's about 1 second and that's the time you hold the above position where the tip of the pull blade is about to enter the water and spear that fish swimming away from you. This drill is purely about producing a good catch. Also by pausing for a second, it will test your balance as well so it's okay to have a few wobbles, this just helps develop your core stability further. 5 minutes during warm up and or warm down.


4th Drill: This is a great drill as it kills two birds with one stone so to speak. Again count 1001 to hold the above position. Now remember this is a drill and concentrate on the positioning of the hand in front of us that is about to become our next pull. Just imagine that this hand is being extended towards the very tip of the nose of your kayak at around shoulder height and when you think you can go no further, rotate forward by another couple of inches and hold it there again, testing your balance (as in the above picture of Knut). Now it's very important here to only cross the centre line across the kayak by an inch at most. As that top hand is extended further and further away you will find that even without thinking about it, the knee on the same side as the hand you are concentrating on has begun to bend. This is because it has to make way for the rotation that is now occurring, amazing eh! I think of this point as a big watch coil spring being wound up ready to be unleashed. 5 minutes during warm up and or warm down.

Now to this day I still use these drills and I have been paddling for over twenty years. These drills are a must for beginners and intermediate paddlers to ensure that good technique is installed correctly at that deep unconscious level.


These days there is a flotilla of beginner kayaks that admittedly get people into the sport, but then for many, bad habits can quickly set in because they are so stable that they can easily paddle these kayaks with poor technique. Then the beginner paddler gets the shock of their life when they paddle it on rivers or at sea and their flawed technique and inadequately developed balance results in capsizing in the most stable of craft. This can have a very negative effect because there is no backward step to a more stable craft as they are already there. I have seen this so many times. By paddling the more elite craft, it forces you to paddle with good technique and to develop better balance. It's a harder road to follow with possibly plenty of small knocks on the way, but I think of it as the foundations of your pyramid. Without it you're going to come crashing down one day. Just something for you to think about. Keep challenging yourself and before you know it you will have made it a familiar part of your paddling.

Now one last thing to think about in relation to paddling technique is Newton's third law, 'every force has an equal and opposite reaction'. Sitting in a kayak and balancing is quite easy but as soon as you move forward using your paddle, things can go a bit pear-shaped because we are upsetting that equilibrium. Good technique upsets that balance the least and generates the most support from each stroke. The forward paddle stroke reaches the most stable point very early in the stroke when basically the top hand passes the lower hand. After that, it gets increasingly more unstable which is why an early exit is so important. Now of course the greater the pulling force, a similar force needs to be applied by the leg drive on the same side as the pull to balance the forces and prevent the kayak from rocking side to side. K1's with pull straps achieve this by a push of one foot and a pull by the other foot which very effectively balances the forces. However, river k1's, surf skis and multisport kayaks all have pedals for steering so although straps are fitted to some skis, this push/pull action cannot be used here. This is because each pedal would be pressed very hard every stroke, greatly slowing the kayak down and unbalancing it . Here a plate/ platform is required under the steering pedals so that there is more of a drive from the heel rather than the ball of the foot. Regardless of what type of kayak you are paddling, it is imperative that this pulling/pushing force is in equilibrium as this will greatly reduce sideways rock and in rougher waters you and your kayak will be much better balanced. Possibly some of the few times I have capsized, it's been from missing the water with my blade, mis-timing a wave, and unbalancing the kayak so much with my leg drive that I have fallen in.

The reverse stroke is the opposite (unstable to stable) and I don't know how many times I have watched paddlers spin out on rivers and paddle backwards down the river. When they eventually turn around safely at the end of the rapid, they are completely surprised just how easy it was. With beginners I do ask them to paddle forwards and backwacks so they can understand the importance of what is happening to the blade in the water.


Now to see a before and an after video of a previous person I worked with during a one on one coaching session. This just shows how easily one drill can make such a huge difference. I would also like to say that the "after" video was not the end of the coatching session but only what happened after using the last drill for about 15 minutes.

During the 2005 World Marathon Kayaking Champs in Perth Australia I took this footage of some excellent technique from the 1st and 2nd placed Spanish men in the K1 race and also in the woman's race which shows some huge differences in technique. Anna on the half V wash in 3rd went on to win comfortably while the woman leading got second but was completely exhausted by the end and was assisted out of her kayak.

I am in Melbourne Australia so please contact me at if you would like a coaching session or if you are elsewhere in the world then post a video of you paddling on the likes of You Tube, then email me the link and we can discuss how to further your paddling development.



1: Richard Bolstad