Use the Whole Body
Kayaking is a whole-body sport. The hands, arms and shoulders control the position of the paddle shaft and blade. The torso provides the power for strokes and braces. The lower body -- feet, legs, knees and hips - are in constant contact with the boat to maintain balance and to transfer power from the paddle to the kayak.
Fitting in the Kayak: Points of Contact
Boat control depends on good contact between your lower body and the kayak. Sit up straight with your lower back against the backrest. Adjust your foot pegs so that you feel gentle pressure of your knees against the deck and your feet on the pegs. You'll use all these contact points -- back, buttocks, hips, knees and feet -- to control the kayak. Once you have your own boat, you may want to outfit it with sculpted foam pads to customize the contact points for even better control.
Torso rotation is the primary source of power in all strokes. Think of it this way: your arms and shoulders will position the paddle shaft and blade; your wrists are important for adjusting the angle of the blade with respect to the water and the kayak; but the force you apply to the blade in the water comes from the rotation of the body! The way you use torso rotation will vary with strokes and situations, but the principle stands. Power comes from your torso. Consider how far you can throw a ball using only your arm, compared with using your entire body; or try to pull-start a lawnmower using only your arms, and you'll realize how important torso rotation is to propelling your kayak.
Theory and thinking are invaluable, but physical action -- the body -- makes everything happen. Thinking guides your practice, but only practice teaches the body. Skill and efficiency are the products of lots of intelligent practice. You'll know that you're becoming skilled when your boat and blade seem to be part of you.
Have you noticed how athletes pause just before they perform? Think about the pitcher on the mound, the bowler cradling the ball to his chest, the figure skater just before starting her routine. These highly trained people are relaxing their muscles so that they can be in control.
When we are nervous and unsure of our skills, when the wind is up and waves are churning, our nervous systems go on high alert and generate excess muscle tension throughout the body. We experience this as stiffness and loss of flexibility, and it makes everything more difficult.
In paddling, as in any sport, relaxation is one of the first keys to enjoyable, rewarding performance. When you watch athletes or dancers, you can see that their skill is a balance between knowing how to move the active muscles and knowing how to relax the rest. Relaxation will give you physical flexibility of movement and the ability to respond to the movement of the water's surface under you. It will give you the mental flexibility to focus on your goals, regardless of the conditions. That graceful balance of action and relaxation will give you confidence and sheer enjoyment.
How to achieve relaxation? Volumes have been written on this subject. For a start, be sure to warm up and loosen your muscles before paddling. Sense the tension in your body from toes and fingertips to the trunk, neck, and face. As you sense it, let it go. Notice that your breathing will become slower and steadier as you do this. The more you do it, the quicker you'll be able to recreate it when you need it. Later, some day when the wind picks up and the chop rocks your boat, you'll be able to shed that tension and paddle with flexibility, and just have FUN!