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Last year, my wife and I took a day trip kayaking to the tip of Point Reyes, a peninsula just north of San Francisco formed by the San Andreas Fault pushing a slice of California seaward.

Thirty minutes after we left, just off my bow, the water exploded with a blast and what appeared to be a gray school bus swept past beneath us. A mother gray whale and her calf were taking a rare break on their journey north for a snack.

They walked around, watched our boats and even blew on us (whale blowing is not pleasant). Motorboats often scare animals away, but our two small boats seem to blend in with the environment.

This was just one of over a hundred transcendent nature experiences I’ve had while kayaking, all just a few miles from the dock. And although we were tired at the end of the three mile trip, at no time did I worry about exhaustion or injury – not because I was fit, but because I knew my paddling technique. was correct and gentle on my muscles and joints.

Kayak sales have exploded in recent years, thanks in part to the pandemic. Many of these boats are now available for flight on Craigslist and other sites, as users find kayaking to be harder, or harder on their bodies, than they thought.

But it doesn’t have to. Changing just a few elements of your stroke can allow you to paddle further, avoid injury and turn your day on the water into a life-changing adventure.

Besides whale watching, there are several reasons to try kayaking. For one thing, it’s a good low-impact aerobic exercise for older adults or those looking to get in shape.

That’s because it doesn’t engage the body’s largest muscles, such as the thighs and buttocks, said Francois Billaut, a professor of exercise physiology at Laval University in Quebec and former chief physiologist of the Canadian National Kayak Team. The bigger the muscles, the more oxygen they need, which is why running hard, for example, takes your breath away.

Second, he says, it’s one of the few outdoor exercises that works the upper body, particularly the chest, back and core, which includes the abs and other deeper muscles around the midsection that are difficult to train outside of a gym. Dr. Billaut said to think of the paddle as a companion to cycling or running.

“For people who just run and ride bikes, they tend not to have a lot of muscle mass in their upper body,” Dr. Billaut said. “Kayaking provides balance.”

But that doesn’t mean you have to have big arms or back muscles to start with.

“Most people would jump in a kayak and immediately think they have to use their arms, they have to be super strong, and they have to grip the water aggressively,” said Alicia Jones, an artist and graphic designer in New York who started paddling five years ago. there, despite a shoulder injury. But “it became a full body workout after learning the techniques.”

The first thing to understand about proper kayaking technique is that the motion is a twisting motion, not a pulling motion.

“Your arms aren’t as strong as a lot of other muscles in your body,” said Greg Barton, Olympic gold medalist in kayaking and founder of Epic Kayaks. “The more you can get your whole body into the shot, the faster you’ll go.”

Before you even get in the boat, stand up and hold the paddle in front of you with both hands, a little more than shoulder width apart, and elbows straight as if you were a mummy or maybe a zombie. Imagine the square space between your arms, chest, and paddle is a pizza box. Pretend to paddle, but don’t break the pizza box.

The goal is to keep your elbows relatively straight and rotate from the torso. When the elbow bends, the arms take over and that means exhaustion and pain in the shoulder. Standing beside the boat, simply rotate your hips from side to side so that your lifejacket zipper swings back and forth. This is the movement you want.

Now get in the boat and hit the water. It’s crucial to have good posture in the boat, “sitting straight up to your head, like a string is pulling from your base,” said veteran NOLS wilderness school instructor Lynn Petzold.

If you’re worried about tipping, make yourself comfortable in shallow water (or a pool) with how much you can twist and squirm in the boat. Fear of tipping paralyzes your paddling technique. If you have a sit-on-top or flat-bottomed recreational kayak (with a wide cockpit that lets your knees out), you’ll be surprised how hard it is to tip over.

If you’re still worried about tipping over, sign up for an introductory kayak course and learn self-rescue.

It’s time to paddle. Settle into the same pizza box position, with the paddle held in front of you at chest height and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Start by slicing the paddle in the water, next to the hull of the boat at about level with your feet. Don’t pull it towards you, keep your elbows straight and twist your torso so the paddle glides along the boat until it’s about level with your butt, then pull it out.

“One of the first things I learned was torso rotation. That phrase stuck in my head forever,” said Ms. Jones, who now teaches at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse. “If I forget anything else in life, I won’t forget torso rotation.”

This is the secret, the difference between frustrated exhaustion and effortless paddling: Hold the paddle with your arms but use your heart to move it. If you keep your elbows relatively straight, you should feel the pull in your belly on either side as you twist.

Engaging the legs helps. If you’re paddling right, push off with your right foot on the stakes or pegs to lock in the core, Barton said, while maintaining good posture.

“You want to push on the same side you paddle,” he added. “Rather than just spinning from the waist, you are actually spinning from the hips.”

Don’t overtighten the paddle, Ms. Petzold said; it’s a matter of position, not power. In fact, she doesn’t grasp it at all, but circles with her thumb and forefinger, like lobster claws.

“That’s where the paddle rests. And I keep my other fingers loose on a paddle when I’m pushing,” she said, adding that with proper technique she’s seen beginners paddle 45 miles in a single day.

It’s a weird feeling to twist your torso while looking straight ahead, and don’t expect to get it right the first time. Try to find a rhythm. When you get the hang of it, one blow flows into the next. As you get the hang of it, you’ll find that your arms don’t tire as quickly; you will also feel a burning in your heart.

Turning a kayak means more than just repeatedly paddling to one side, it requires a different motion that sweeps from the front to the back of the boat. Now that you feel your body twisting, pushing off with your feet, and engaging your core, try the spinning kick — commonly called the sweep kick — to really lock in the torso.

Repeat on the right side. Rotate your torso to the left and again reach for the right paddle blade at your feet. Now sweep the paddle outward, this time to the back of the boat. Hold the pizza box in place and feel the twist in your stomach.

Watch the straight paddle blade like a hawk from start to finish. To do this, you will need to twist your body all around. Use this stroke to maneuver or occasionally during your forward stroke to stay the course.

Once you’ve completed those punches and engaged your core, Dr. Billaut recommended some simple intervals to get stronger. After warming up, paddle hard for five minutes, then rest for three minutes at a slower pace. Repeat this three or four times.

As you tire, expect your technique to falter and go back to pulling on your arms and shoulders. Dr. Billaut said good technique can protect you from joint injury, so be realistic about how far you want to go.

If done correctly, paddling a kayak can take you farther than you can imagine. It can take you through rockeries, through sea caves and over playful gray calves. You can ride the rolling waves of an Alaskan creek or gently break the glassy surface of a perfect Baja morning. Or you can paddle in the middle of a city.

“Have you thought about the fact that you can kayak the East River or the Hudson River?” said Mrs. Jones. “Once people hear about it, they want to see it, they want to experience it.”


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