Forward stroke technique with a wing paddle

I recently presented a strokes clinic for the younger paddlers at our local paddling club (Likkewaan Canoe Club). This article is based on the points I covered during the clinic, dealing specifically with the forward stroke technique with a wing paddle.

Young crowd
Explaining wing paddling technique to the next generation of paddlers

To understand the anatomy and purpose of a wing paddle, and to help you decided what kind of wing paddle to buy, have a look here.

POSTURE

Before we get to the details of the technique, lets focus on posture first. If you start off with the wrong posture, you’ll struggle to get the technique right.

Head/eyes

If you paddle on your own, or leading a group of paddlers, look up and ahead. Find a beacon in the distance to aim for, and keep your kayak’s bow aimed at the beacon.

If you’re riding slip on another kayak’s wake, look at the tip of your own boat and keep it in the correct position on the wake. While doing that, don’t drop your head, it will mess with your technique.

Don’t stare down at your feet or knees when you paddle. You know where they are. Focus on where you are going.

Shoulders

The shoulders are naturally hard workers in the paddling action. Try keep them as relaxed and low as possible. If you pull your shoulders up, you will end up with cramps in your neck while messing up your paddling technique.

Back

Your back should be straight, and you should lean slightly forward. Don’t lean forward too much, as it will mess with the rotation of your upper body. Never lean back when you paddle, it is impossible to have proper technique if you do that.

Legs/knees

Your knees should be bent a little bit. Your knees should also be fairly close to each other, not more than a fist-width apart.

Paddling with straight legs puts a lot of strain on your lower back, and you won’t be able to pump your legs. Paddling with your knees bent too much, you’ll struggle to get proper rotation of your upper body. High knees also means a raised centre of gravity, which makes you more unstable in an already unstable craft.

Feet

The balls of your feet should push against a solid surface or bar. Only the toes should control the pedals.

If the balls of your feet are pushing against the pedals, you will find it difficult to keep the boat going straight when you paddle hard.

Hand spacing on the shaft

Basic rule of thumb for a wing paddle: 90° elbow bends give the perfect spacing between hands.

If you find it difficult to keep your hands in the right position, it’s a good idea to mark the position with tape. Put the tape markings far enough apart that your hand can fit between them without touching them constantly.

Tape strips on shaft to position hand.
Tape markings on shaft to position hand.

MUSCLES USED

Facial muscles

All right, you don’t actually use your facial muscles when you paddle. But I’ve seen many paddlers frown too much when they paddle hard. Frowning uses a lot of energy! Relax your facial muscles. Or if you really want to use them, smile. Smiling wastes less energy than frowning.

Neck

Your neck keeps your head facing forward while your body rotates. It’s not hard work, so relax your neck.

Shoulders

Your shoulders are working hard when you paddle.

The front shoulder muscles pushes the top blade forward during the stroke. The back shoulder muscles pull the bottom blade during the stroke. The side shoulder muscles keep everything stable and also helps lifting the blade out of the water at the end of every stroke.

Triceps

Triceps are working hard when you paddle. They keep your arms straight when you pull the blade through the water, and it takes a lot of power to do that when the combined effort of all the other muscles are trying to bend your arms.

Biceps

Biceps are highly overrated for paddling. If your biceps are getting tired first, before any other muscles, you should know that your technique is way off. Biceps act more as stabilizing muscles, and they also help a bit with the last bit of pulling action at the end of the stroke, as well as lifting the blade out of the water.

Forearms

Naturally, all the power that you generate in your body to pull that blade through the water needs to be transferred to your fingers through your forearms. They work hard, and the ligaments attaching these muscles to the joints also tend to get injured first if your paddle blades are too big or if the shaft is too stiff.

Lats

The lats provide a lot of the pulling force when you paddle forward, and seasoned paddlers tend to have well-developed lats.

Chest

Your chest muscles help to push the top blade forward during the stroke. This is not exceptionally hard work for them, but they get a workout too.

Lower back, stomach and other core muscles

Your core muscles are some of the most important muscles for an efficient paddling stroke. As explained further down, the foundation of the forward paddling stroke is torso rotation. Strong core muscles = proper torso rotation.

Legs

While the upper body does most of the hard work when you paddle, your legs are important too.

Your quads do the pushing work to keep your bum in your seat when you pull on the blade. When you do a long distance paddle, you won’t feel your quads working too hard. But when you do a sprint session, you will appreciate how hard they actually work.

Your hamstrings pull your knees up at the end of each stroke. It’s not super hard work, but like your quads, you will feel them work when you do a sprint session.

Your calve muscles don’t work too hard either, but they transfer the pushing force from your upper leg to the peddle bar.

 

FORWARD STROKE TECHNIQUE WITH A WING PADDLE

Rotation

The foundation of a proper forward stroke is rotation. Without proper rotation, the paddle action is reduced to a few muscles working too hard. With proper rotation, you gain two things: correct movement of the wing blade through the water, and distribution of the work to a lot of different muscles.

The rotation starts at the hips. Your hips stay straight, but everything above your hips should rotate. At full rotation, when the blade enters the water, your shoulders should be rotated at least 45°.

Pulling arm

Through most of the pulling motion, your pulling arm should stay almost straight, but not locked. When the blade enters the water, the pulling arm should already be stretched out. Only at the end of the stroke, when you pull the blade out of the water, does the elbow bend.

Pushing arm

The moment the blade comes out of the water, the arm that did the pulling becomes the pushing arm. The elbow bends to about 45° to get the blade out of the water, lifts it up to about shoulder height, and then starts pushing. The pushing hand should stay between shoulder and eye height all the way to the front.

To keep the paddle close to vertical during the stroke, the pushing hand needs to move across the centre line of the boat. As your confidence and ability increases, your pushing hand can cross all the way to the other side of the boat.

I’ve heard some paddlers claim that the pushing arm works just as hard as the pulling arm. That’s bullshit. Simple physics show that you pull about 3-4 times harder than what you push. The pushing hand is effectively an anchor/pivot point to allow the pulling hand to do its work. So while the pushing action is very important and needs to be done precisely, it is the muscles doing the pulling that needs to be strongest and fittest.

The catch

The catch is the moment when the blade enters the water. You want the blade to enter the water smoothly. If you slap the water, you’re wasting energy and you’re creating turbulent conditions around the blade, which makes the blade action less efficient. It’s not difficult to get a wing blade to enter the water smoothly, a few practise sessions should sort it out.

You want the blade to enter the water as far forward as possible, and as close to your boat as possible. If your upper body rotation is done properly and your pulling arm is stretched out almost completely, the blade should enter the water quite a bit in front of your feet.

You want the blade to be quite vertical when it goes in, and you want the blade to go in completely before you do the best part of the stroke. If the blade only enters the water completely by the time you’re halfway with the stroke, you’ve wasted a lot of energy.

If you’re sprinting, try to get maximum power on as soon as the blade entered the water. For longer distance paddling, don’t strain too much when the blade enters the water, rather keep a constant pulling force on the blade right through the stroke.

The pull

The pulling action is done with your whole upper body, not just with your arms. Unwind your upper body from the rotated position, letting your core muscles, your lats and your shoulders do the hard work. Your triceps will also work hard to keep your arm almost straight, and to guide the blade through the water in the correct direction.

Keep the blade completely in the water during the stroke, but don’t let it dig in any deeper.

Keep the blade as vertical as possible during the stroke, to allow the wing profile to do it’s work effectively. For most paddlers it is hard to consistently do a stroke that is more vertical than 60°, but even at 60° you’re getting substantial benefit from the wing if the rest of your technique is good.

The release

The largest part of the pulling action is over by the time the blade goes past your knees. Once the blade goes past the knees, it is time to prepare for the release. The blade should come out of the water when it passes your hips.

As you release the blade from the water, keep rotating your upper body so that you can get the blade cleanly out without scooping water. If you did a proper pulling stroke, the blade should be quite far away from the boat by the time you release the blade. This makes it easier to lift the blade sideways out of the water, scooping as little as possible.

Pumping with your legs

To counter the pulling forces during the strokes, your legs need to push back to keep your bum in position. This is commonly known as pumping.

When you do a left stroke, by the time you plant the blade into the water (the catch), your left leg will be bend all the way and your right leg will be almost straight. As you start pulling on the blade, your left leg pushes down and your right leg starts coming up. When you release the left blade from the water, your left leg should be almost straight and your right leg should be bend, ready for action.

Summary

The most important aspects to keep in mind when you do a forward stroke with a wing paddle is this:

  • The wing blade need to go into the water as vertical as possible during the catch phase of the stroke. The blade should be as far forward as possible and as close to the boat as possible when it catches.
  • During the pull phase, the goal is to keep the blade as vertical as possible, and to pull it in a straight line from the catch to the release, moving it away from the boat in the process.
  • When you release the blade, scoop as little water as possible.
  • Rotation is the most important aspect of wing paddling technique.