Getting Started as a Paddler

To ace any multisport race you need tremendous endurance, the correct technique and the right state of mind to get you through each event. When your race contains a paddling leg, then learning these tips will help you negotiate the conditions and put you in the lead.

Where to Start

Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, paddlers know that they can never take the water for granted. You need more than just a great boat to put you in the lead. If you have the right technique and training, you’ll be able to paddle your way to the front, so you’ll have a competitive advantage during the next leg of the race.

A race ski or a sit-on-top kayak does exactly that! It sits on top of the water rather than cutting through it. These kayaks are long, narrow and sturdy enough to take you the distance.

Choosing your ski

Choose your ski based on paddling conditions and the desired level of performance. Here are some basic tips that you can keep in mind:

Tracking vs. Turning:

In most cases, boats that turn well will not track well and boats that track well will not turn well. Therefore, if your paddling course has a lot of turns, then buy a boat that turns efficiently. On the contrary, if the course is more or less straight, then opt for a boat that tracks well.

Initial stability:

Boats with a low initial stability will be more ‘tippy’ and unstable. However, if the boat has a very high initial stability, then you may find it difficult to manoeuvre through big waves.

Final stability:

Aim to get a boat with a high final stability as this allows the boat to tip over all the way. However, you will need to practise your balancing skills to benefit from this feature.
Length: If you’re paddling in a straight line, then choose a longer ski, as they go faster than their shorter counterparts. Shorter boats are easier to manoeuvre and they turn easily, so these are ideal if you have to squeeze past a tight space.


The width of your ski will determine its overall speed and stability. A wider boat may be more stable and it’s easier to mount and paddle. However, as a racer, you won’t want to compromise speed for comfort. In a wide boat, a larger surface area touches the water, so it slows it down. A long and narrow ski will give you speed, but it could be more tippy that wider boats.


Light weight crafts are easier to manage, especially when you need to walk to the beach, but they can be expensive. Further, very light boats tend to become unstable if it’s windy out in the open. Heavy crafts are more stable, but you may need to put extra effort to paddle through the water.


Most paddlers either choose plastic or composite, which includes carbon, Kevlar or fibreglass. Composite materials such as fibreglass are light, but expensive. On the brighter side, these are easier to fix and are more rigid, so they go faster. A plastic ski is very hardy, durable and heavier when compared to fibreglass. It may be difficult to fix but their indestructible quality will keep them going for a long time.

Training for Paddlers

Paddling is all about dynamic balance. A common mistake would be to only concentrate on upper body strength. A smart paddler will recognize paddling as a total body sport that requires flexibility and strength, throughout every link in the kinetic chain. Your lower body is connected to the boat and generates the power behind every stroke. This power is transferred to the torso, trunk and upper body.

Paddlers need to stretch their pectorals, hamstrings and anterior shoulder girdle, so it doesn’t get too tight. Remember, you’ll need a lot of hip flexor flexibility and lateral spinal flexion to get those rotations right. Concentrate your training on muscles such as the mid and lower trapezius, hip adductors, scapular stabilizers, posterior shoulder girdle, wrist extensors and flexors etc. Address any imbalance so you can improve your overall performance and avoid injury.

Mastering your Balance

The better your balance, the better your performance, as you can put more power into each stroke. Your balance relates directly to your core or your abdominal stabilising muscles, which will help you maintain a good posture even during the last hour of a crucial race.

When your ski hits a bump or goes down or over a wave, it will tilt. Push with your heels to control the ski. If it tilts to the left, then tense your right leg against the heel to get the boat back into position again. Practise controlling the ski with your heels, instead of pushing with your toes. To do this, you’ll need to ensure that the boat is of the right length and size for you. Your core connects the balance muscles in your legs to the upper body power muscles, which eventually help you to pull.

Remember, that there’s a difference between core exercises and regular abs or stomach exercises. Your work out should include varied crunches, push-ups, balance extensions, medicine ball exercises, floor pull-ups, one leg squats, Russian twists and lots more. Your regular schedule should include stretches, hip snaps, arm and shoulder exercises, a chest and back workout etc.

Open Water Entry/Exit

Point of Entry

Check the water before you jump straight in. It is always better to paddle out to the calmest area but when you reach a broken wave, ensure that you have enough momentum to take you across. As the wave approaches, lean back so the nose of the ski is lifted over the white water. If the wave is small you can go ahead and lean back as much as you want, but on a large wave, leaning too far back can send you over the falls. Try and move sideways (zig zag) if possible, to avoid broken water as it will take you faster. Spot a wave that is just beginning to peak and then paddle away, so you stay on top.

Point of Exit

Returning to the shore can be tricky as a lot of paddlers catch a wave and then they lean back, so they don’t nose dive. However, keep paddling on the wave so you stay in front and the wave doesn’t affect your rudder and send you sideways. If you’re faced with a steep wave face, then lean back but keep paddling. You can always back paddle or throw your legs over, in case you want to back away and catch the next wave. This may seem elementary, but don’t lose your paddle or your ski. Hook your feet beneath the foot straps if required, but stay in control so you don’t end up swimming after your boat!

Paddling Technique

Firstly, check whether you are holding the paddle in the correct position. Here’s a tip- raise your arms above your head while holding the paddle in your hand. If your arms make a perfect 90 degree angle, then you have the position nailed!

Always keep the arm that is pushing forward, at eye level. Your arms should remain rigid and straight while your legs, back and abdominal muscles, do all the real work. Be sure to rotate the torso and the hip and drive your feet into the footrest with every stroke. If your arms become tired, then you’re probably using them too much. Your arms are mostly only required to keep the paddle in the right position. Once that happens, use your back lateral muscles and stomach to twist at the waist. Remember, paddling requires a full body effort.

When paddling, sit up straight just like you have rod in your back. If required, lean slightly forward, but keep your shoulders relaxed. Stretch your arms out at eye level while holding your paddle in your hands. Dip one blade into the water near the ski, but as close as possible to the nose. Twist from the waist to dip that blade right up in the front and only then initiate the stroke. The first 40cm of your stroke contains the maximum power, so remember to commence your stroke as further out as possible and then bring it in line with your thigh. If you continue the stroke beyond your waist then you’ll lose balance and slow the ski down. Only apply power when your blade is under water. Further, don’t only use the tip of the blade. Finally, remember not to lift water as splashing is a waste of energy and time.

The Power of Torso Rotation

Pure power rowing will only tire you out. It’s not about pulling the paddle all the way through the water and out. It’s about pulling the kayak past your paddle. Use the paddle like a lever to propel the ski forward. You’ll need to use all your back, thigh and stomach muscles to do this. Torso twisting will give you the added energy to power every stroke. Torso muscles are larger than arm muscles, so they can generate more energy which will keep you paddling for longer. However, at the start of the race, most paddlers use their arms to pick up momentum, but they soon transition into full rotation. Remember, not to confuse torso rotation with shoulder rotation!

Paddle Grip

Don’t grip the paddle too hard as your forearms could cramp and you may be heading for carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis. You’re gripping too hard, if your forearm and wrists are sore or swollen from paddling. Adjust your grip on the shaft so you only need to move it a little to feather the blade. Your forearm, wrist and shoulder should be in a straight line during the pushing section of a stroke.

Steering your Boat

While racing in sit-on-top kayak, be careful not to press the steering pedal when you press your foot against the footrest. To avoid over-steering, use your heel to press down, rather than the ball of your foot. However, you’ll need very flexible calf muscles to generate adequate leg drive.

When the going gets rough

Learn to adjust your technique based on the situation. When it’s windy, widen your stroke a bit, so it’s easier to keep your balance, but this may slow you down. However, when the wind is behind you, increase your stroke rate and vice versa. During rough conditions, use more of upper body rotation as using leg drive may put you off balance.

When paddling you are always on the move, so you need the mental strength and physical endurance to negotiate the toughest waves and still emerge as a winner!

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Created: June 2011
Revised: August 2011
Latest Feedback: August 2011