SAN FRANCISCO – Last year my wife and I took a day kayak trip to the tip of Point Reyes, a peninsula north of San Francisco formed by the San Andreas Fault that pushed a piece of California out to sea.
Thirty minutes after we set off, right in front of my bow, the water exploded with a snort and what appeared to be a gray school bus passed beneath us. A mother gray whale and her calf took a rare break from their journey north to grab a snack.
They wandered around, eyeing our boats and even breathing on us (whale breath is not pleasant). Motorized vehicles often scare the animals away, but our two small boats seemed to blend in with the surroundings.
It was just one of a hundred stunning nature experiences I’ve had in a kayak, all within a few miles of the dock. And although we were tired by the end of the three-mile (4.8 km) trip, at no point did I worry about fatigue or injury – not because I’m fit, but because I knew my paddling technique was correct, muscle-sparing and joints.
Kayak sales have exploded in recent years, thanks in part to the pandemic. Many of these boats are now available at bargain prices on Craigslist and other sites as users find that kayaking is more difficult or tough on their bodies than expected.
But it doesn’t have to be. Changing just a few elements of your stroke can keep you paddling, avoid injury, and make your day on the water a life-changing adventure.
Besides whale watching, there are several reasons to try kayaking. For one, it’s a good, low-impact aerobic exercise for the elderly or those wanting to approach fitness.
That’s because the body’s larger muscles, like thighs and buttocks, aren’t engaged, said Dr. François Billaut, Professor of Exercise Physiology at Laval University in Quebec and former Chief Physiologist of the Canadian National Kayak Team. The larger the muscles, the more oxygen they need, which is why you get out of breath when running, for example.
Second, he said, it’s one of the few outdoor exercises that works the upper body, specifically 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 paddling should be viewed as a complement to cycling or running.
“People who just run and bike tend not to have a lot of muscle mass in their upper body,” said Dr. billaut. “Kayaking offers a balance.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to have big arms or back muscles to start.
“Most people would jump in a kayak and immediately think they have to use their arms, they have to be super strong and grab water aggressively,” said Ms. Alicia Jones, an artist and graphic designer in New York who started paddling five years ago, despite a shoulder injury. But “it became a total body workout once I learned the techniques.”
HUG THE PIZZA BOX
The first thing to understand about proper kayaking technique is that the movement is a twisting movement, not a pulling movement.
“Your arms aren’t nearly as strong as a lot of the other muscles in your body,” said Mr. Greg Barton, an Olympic kayaking gold medalist and founder of Epic Kayaks. “The more you can put your whole body in the punch, the faster you’ll get.”
Before you even get on the boat, stand up and hold the paddle in front of you with both hands, a little more than shoulder width and with your elbows straight, like you’re a mummy or maybe a zombie. Imagine the square space between your arms, chest and paddle is a pizza box. Now pretend to paddle, but don’t break the pizza box.
The point is to keep your elbows relatively straight and rotate from your torso. When the elbow bends, the arms take over and that means fatigue and shoulder pain. Standing next to the boat, simply rotate your hips from side to side to allow your life jacket zipper to swing back and forth. This is the movement you want.
Now get in the boat and hit the water. Having good posture in the boat is crucial, “sit up to your head like a cord is pulling from your base,” said Ms. Lynn Petzold, a senior NOLS wilderness school instructor.
If you’re worried about tipping over, get comfortable in shallow water (or a pool) for how much you can twist and wiggle in the boat. Fear of flipping paralyzes your paddling technique. If you have a flat-bottomed sit-on-top or recreational kayak (with a wide cockpit that allows your knees to protrude), you’ll be surprised at how hard it is to turn around.
If you’re still afraid of tipping over, sign up for an introductory kayaking course and learn how to rescue yourself.
THE ROTATION IS EVERYTHING
Paddle time. Stand in the same pizza box position, with the paddle held in front of you, chest height, and hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Begin by clipping the paddle into the water, next to the hull of the boat, about level with your feet. Without pulling it towards you, keep your elbows straight and twist your torso so that the paddle slides alongside the boat until it’s about level with your butt, and then take it out.
“One of the first things I learned was torso rotation. That phrase stayed with me forever,” said Ms. Jones, who now teaches at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse. “If I forget anything else in life, I will not forget torso rotation.”
That’s the secret, the difference between frustrated exhaustion and effortless paddling: Hold the paddle with your arms, but use your core to move it. If you keep your elbows relatively straight, you should feel the pull in your stomach on either side as you twist.
Clamping your legs helps. When paddling on the right, push down on the pins or footrests with your right foot to engage the core, Mr Barton said, while maintaining good posture.
“You want to push on the same side you’re paddling,” he added. “Instead of just twisting from the waist up, you actually twist from the hips.”
It feels odd twisting your torso while looking straight ahead and don’t expect to get it perfect the first time. Try to find a rhythm. Once you get the hang of it, one line flows into the next. As you master the punch, you’ll find that your arms don’t tire as quickly; You will also feel a burn in your core.
TIME TO TURN THE MIRROR
Turning a kayak involves more than just repeatedly paddling one side, it involves a different movement that runs from the front to the back of the boat. Now that you can feel your body twisting, pushing with your feet, and engaging your core, try the twisting stroke — usually called the sweep stroke — to really lock the upper body in place.
Start again on the right side. Twist your torso to the left and reach the right paddle blade again at your feet. Now swing the paddle out wide, this time all the way to the stern of the boat. Hold onto the pizza box and feel the contortion in your stomach.
Watch the right paddle blade like a hawk from start to finish of the stroke. To do this you need to turn your body all the way around. Use this punch to maneuver around or occasionally during your forward punch to stay on course.
Once you’ve thrown those punches and engaged your core, Dr. Do some simple intervals to get stronger. After warming up, paddle hard for five minutes, then rest at a slower pace for three minutes. Repeat this three or four times.
As you tire, expect your technique to slip and fall back into pulling 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.