Forward stroke -- how far back?

-- Last Updated: Aug-18-08 6:01 PM EST --

The article by Mark Zollitsch at is, IMHO, the best quick, non-video summary of good, forward stroke technique around. Again IMHO, it beautifully hits most major points of good touring forward stroke derived from racing technique.

I do have one quibble, however, and I'm wondering what others think. Like many coaches, Zollitsch advocates ending your stroke between knee and hip, getting the blade out of the water by the time it reaches the hip. Why? (1) "we have almost no pulling strength past the hip" (no argument there -- you're mostly lifting water behind the hip; (2) "So why not spend your time and effort in the effective zone and minimize time in the ineffective zone?"

Whoa on (2). It seems to me that depends on the balance you are seeking between speed and efficiency. If you're going for all efficiency -- most miles per calorie & whatever unit of fatigue -- then definitely exit by the hip and spend a larger percentage of time in the sweet zone. But if efficiency is the overriding goal, then you should also paddle at a much lower cadence than you probably do, to maximize glide, as that really pays off in overall efficiency.

Trouble is, if you cut your cadence too much in a group paddle, the group will soon leave you behind. (Or in solo paddling, you'll take longer than you want.) So it's a trade-off -- you need ~some~ compromise with the most efficient technique to maintain some decent speed.

And maybe that also applies to where to exit your blade.

Bottom line... I've been playing with this, in touring mode with a relaxed cadence, I find that if I stick with the pure approach and start the exit at the knees and finish at the hip, my speed suffers and I have to increase my cadence to keep up with the group, resulting in actually reduced efficiency. OTOH, if I keep pulling to the hip (with good hip/torso rotation, of course, and moving the paddle a bit away from the boat, so the blade stays relatively vertical front-back), then my speed improves and overall I do better.

So, maybe the extreme "out by the hips" advice is more for fast-cadence, speed situations, and needs to be relaxed a bit for touring. That seems consistent with the roots of this technique which, like most its aspects, is adapted for touring from racing practice.

Make any sense?


Nope !
I have tried both ways.

The only time I go beyond the hips is when I am wanting to turn.

A subtle beyond the hip on one side will turn me to the opposite side as we all know.



As I see it
Most paddlers I see are paddling with a paddle that is too long with a blade that is too big. That accentuates poor technique as you describe. High cadence in a low gear keeps things fluid and efficient. Watch your shoulder when doing your stroke. Past the hip, there is a a good chance your shoulder is coming out of the “safety box” making you more prone to a dislocation.

Not advocating “past the hip”…

– Last Updated: Aug-18-08 8:21 PM EST –

...but "TO the hip". Even more, I'm wondering if it varies with the situation.

Zollitsch (and others) are saying ~always~ to quit pulling at the knee and get it out by the hip. But is that too rigid and extreme?

In the end, it seems to me that where you take the blade out is less about exactly where it is and more about what it's doing. I'm thinking you should quit pulling where the blade is not very vertical front-back and/or you can't get good power on it, and/or it's too far from the boat. So if you're flexible enough to rotate up to and even maybe a bit beyond the hip with still decent angle and power (and shoulder safety), even if not optimal, then do it.

And again, it will vary depending on the balance of efficiency and raw speed that you are seeking in any situation. If you're on a relaxed cadence, then it might pay to trade a bit of the in-between stroke time for a little farther pull, even if it's marginally less efficient. If you're hell-bent, then pull the blade out early and get it back in fast for more time in the sweet zone.

It probably makes sense to experiment, perhaps with a gps or a partner to measure against, which is what I did that started me thinking.

And yes, make sure your paddle is short enough and your blade sized to do this style in the first place with your own body.


I figure
sit back and watch what the Olympic racers do. If they pull out at the hips, they probably know what they’re doing/a thing or two about speed.

I’m With You
That ‘exit at the hip’ thing never made sense to me. The guy who taught me to use a GP said “bring it on back”. That is what I do intuitively.

Get you a Greenland paddle and bring it on back.

When to pull the blade out
I’m not an expert by any stretch, but here’s what I’ve found.

Shorter strokes are choppy. It is extremely difficult to get my boat up to it’s efficient hull speed doing that. I find that I take long, full strokes, paying attention to where my blade is, and what my blade angle is. I enter very far forward, then pull quite far back with good body rotation. Drawing the blade out quite far back has me pointing my forward blade very far ahead, ready to put in at the bow while keeping my boat much straighter, allowing me to power further through each stroke.

It’s the most fluid method I’ve found thus far. The discussion reminds me of early techniques. I can’t tell you how many techniques were proven completely wrong as sports developed. I think much of it is individual; how your body is shaped/proportioned, what blade you are using, what your objective is when you’re out paddling, and what type of kayak you have.

Seems to me the most efficient stroke is to pull the rear blade out when the front blade on the other side is ready to go in the water. This works out to a 45-degree angle from the centerline of the boat.

Or have I fallen behind the times?

vote for behind…
the hip. I think I get pretty good power pulling back to the hip, so my blade exits the water behind the hip. I’m not pulling much at that point, mostly winding up for the next stroke.

Hand exiting at hip vs blade
Position of pull hand at release doesn’t vary much with decent technique - from what I’ve seen, and what I’ve tried with wing, euro, GP and more.

A hand behind your back isn’t really good for much besides scratching your ass (or rooting around in a day hatch, which is sort of the same thing when discusisng forward stroke).

Blade shapes and technique differences will determine where the blades release with different paddle types.

Wings will have a steeper shorter power curve and a quicker catch and release - hand at hip on exit. GPs will have a softer/longer power curve, and SEEM to exit further back (blade tip certainly does) - but hand is still generally at hip. Everything else tends to be in between these - and still hand at hip.

Biggest differences between types are the obvious differences in hand spacing and blade lengths - and how these things impact optimal technique.

Wings and EPs will more clearly benefit from quick catch and power applied up front - and suffer from doing otherwise. Applying power too early before blade is planted, or too late when rotation is used up - is going to be counterproductive. The former pushes water down, the later pulls it up. As already noted - paddles that are longer than optimal and blades larger than optimal can increase this. Moving water up and down translates into moving the kayak up and down, and it being slowed down, as well as burning up energy that is not going into forward motion.

If you want to lengthen the EP/Wing stroke - instead of carrying the stroke back farther, focus on keeping the catch forward and close to the kayak - then rotate rotate more - and more fully, from hips. This way it’s all still within the powerful torso muscles range of motion. If you hip rotates back, and you hand exits by hip - then that has moved back too.

Taking the stroke farther back will have you spending that extra stroke time with the arms doing the work. Arms have only a fraction of the power of your core - besides them not being in a good position to use what they have once behind midline. That time and effort is better spent applying full power in the next stroke’s core power section, and so on, and so on…

GP’s are a bit different. The closer hand spacing tends to make the core action more of a blend of rotation and crunch. Generally little or no hip rotation and partial upper torso rotation blending into a crunch as the upper hand crosses the deck. A softer longer power curve results from a combination of the long narrow blades which can begin to be powered during catch (soft building catch) and also continue applying power through release though same effect at the end and increasing ab crunch. As upper hand crosses the deck (core rotation) it also punches down* (core crunch).

    • The Punching down that’s natural with GP is not good with EP/Wing, as it causes you to push the paddle too deep and move more water up and down.

      Single best thing I’ve managed to keep in mind is the simple idea of levering the kayak past the paddle vs. that of pulling the paddle back through the water. Driving the hull forward vs dragging it. Do this, and all the other tips generally make more sense and fall into place.

      Trick is in weeding out all the wasted energy, then applying more where it counts. Watch the K1 races this week. All top paddlers. Some very powerful, some very smooth. The winners are always fantastic examples of both - and all that definitely applies to touring stroke. Watch them just paddle around between heats. Arms may be lower, and strokes lighter, and rotation not as all out - but they are not doing a different stroke.

      Of course, all this is somewhat in the category of “Do as I say, not as I do”. Concepts are easy. Effective application is another matter.

Thanks for the great overview!
Hey, Greyak – thanks for the great overview of technique with different paddles. Very useful.

Just to keep focussed, however, I’ll return to my original question – how far back to pull with a EP/spoon when touring.

You said it right – it’s all derived from racing technique, and watching race videos is a great way to pick up ideas. That said, my main point is that we need to modify what we see in racers, since that is for ultra-high cadence/energy/speed racing, and we do much more relaxed, slower cadence paddling when touring.

Perhaps the biggest difference I see is using a somewhat longer power stroke than a racer, not ending at the knees, but still pulling to the hip. Even though that’s locally less than optimal, my belief is that it’s overall more efficient for a touring cadence. I could be wrong, but my experimentation leans in that direction. Another, related difference, is doing a bit of gliding between strokes when touring, something a racer will go to extremes to minimize with a super-fast cadence.

In any case, we still have to observe all the other precepts laid out by you and Zollitsch, particularly: not lifting water by using a front/back blade angle greater than 20-30 degrees; pulling with both hands in fixed position and the blade at a consistent depth, so it doesn’t rotate down/up to sink/lift even more water; and rotating the hips and shoulders pretty far at the end of the stroke (as well as the beginning) to get good body/blade mechanics for that last, “extra” pull.

K1 races
When are the K1 races scheduled?


“Zollitsch (and others) are saying ~always~ to quit pulling at the knee and get it out by the hip. But is that too rigid and extreme?”

Too many paddlers pull past the hips. The advice to pull to the knees might be (in part) an attempt get people used to a shorter stroke. That is, this technique works against people’s natural inclination.

The idea might be to focus on the “forgotten” forward part of the stroke.

Forward Stroke Comfort
Every expert has his or her buzz on what is best. Fact is, you must try different approaches to paddling and pick the system which fits your particular size, and paddling requirements. The type of paddle, size of blade, and length of paddle all play a part in your stroke. The length of, type of, weight of, canoe also play a part. The type of water conditions from smooth to very choppy and rough play a part. Wind conditions are also a factor.

Generally, the rule of thumb is, if you continue the forward stroke beyond your hip you increase the pressure on your shoulders which can result in sore muscles if you are not in shape. A longer stroke does make it easier to control straight line progress if there is wind and wave action.

I think the most important thing in paddling is to find the right paddle, for the given conditions you face. Length of stroke will then become easy to establish.

Maybe ask Barton or Oscar or Brent or
any number of legitimate peformance paddling experts. My hunch is you’ll get consistent messages from these world class paddlers. They know how to efficiently propel a kayak…

What you do with that advice is up to you, and you may modify things to suit what you “feel” is right for you…and no one will care so long as you’re having injury free fun.

Lot’s of informative video out there.

2 things to consider
1 - often times when you learn a new skill, re-learn a skill, or modify an existing skill you will see a decrease in performance. As time passes you should see an increase in performance (this depends on the soundness of the new skill’s mechanics.

2 - often times when people ‘pull past the hip’ they keep the blades close to the boat and turn the blade upwards during the final part of the stroke. This lifts water, which doesn’t do a lot to propel you forward. In this context, the ‘don’t pull past the hip’ is really - don’t keep the blade close to the kayak through the whole stroke, and don’t lift water at the end of the stroke.

Brent just runs this website
that doesn’t mean he knows the price of tea in China

Brent Reitz
not Brent the moderator. :slight_smile:

Sprint Canoe???

– Last Updated: Aug-19-08 3:12 PM EST –

Just watched some of the olympic sprint canoe paddlers and was amazed to see that they do pull a lot farther back and at a lot lower angle than kayakers tend to do. Not sure if the canoe guys have not gotten "it" or they know something else -;) And yes, their boats go up and down a lot more too ... Plus, they use square and wide paddles that would not let them get right next to the boat it seems (at least compared to the cut-out kayak paddles we see on competitions).

So I'm confused why the canoe folks do it in a way most of the kayakers here would say it totally wrong.

Having never paddled a canoe I do not know the reasons. But for kayak, indeed I find it that an early enough release so that the back elbow never bends more than 90 degree seems to be the most efficient even on longer paddles (per the suggestion of Epic's forwards stroke video). My blade's tip does go beyond my hip, but my fist holding its shaft does not (at least not while in active pull - it may on the take-out).

I think that's what they are saying in that write-up. The best way to confirm the truth in this is when one's arms are very tired. Try to move the boat fast - the weak arm muscles should really complain if you put them to hard work in this case, while with proper body rotation and straigh elbows during the pull - it is not an issue as the arms do a lot less work. And to achieve that, one really has to pull at an early enough point or he will lift a lot of water as there is no other way when going for speed.

If you go slow, you can pull late and not pull-up water, because you can glide and just slide your blade out of the water late without losing anything except your forward inertia (like some GP paddlers do for various reasons). The only real drawback is that you can only do this if you do not go fast and I think and the positive is that you can maintain lower paddling angle for more of the stroke and thus last longer than with a very high angle paddling.

And as the others say, it depends a lot on the blade. I had a chance to use an ONNO touring blade for just a few minutes (large-ish one, not sure which model but carbon and adjustable length set to my size) and I did not think it was appropriate for late release - the thing is spoon-shaped rather than straight-ish and tends to dig itself down and lift a lot of water if you let it stay in the water too far back. In contrast, the straighter Epic active tour of comparable size I also had a chance to try (or for that matter my Epic mid-wing too) release easier on the rear end of the stroke as they are not nearly as curved as that ONNO was. Not picking on ONNO here as it seems to be a nice paddle, just its shape has its needs - not unlike some Werner or other curved blades do.

Anyway, all of the above is subject to change when I come back from a paddling clinc in October -;)

one opinion

– Last Updated: Aug-21-08 2:28 PM EST –

Hi Kocho :
I've been a canoe instructor for a long time, but I'm no sprint canoeist. I served on the ACA SEIC and was got a smattering of all types of canoeing and probably know only enough about sprint canoe to get in trouble, but I'll include my opinion for what it's worth. IMO, recreational canoe and sprint techniques are apples and oranges. First the hulls are so radically different. The width requirements for sprint were removed in about 2001 and the current hulls are extremely narrow. This allows for the wide paddle blades, which can be at vertical regardless of hull width. These hulls also track so straight that they can be hard to turn. Most canoes for normal use cannot be this way and that effects how the forward stroke can be executed. The porpoising is not due to lifting water with the blade, but a shift of body weight to the forward leg then back to the rear leg. This is to negate the the loss of momentum that results when leaning forward for the catch. Most of the action in sprint is forward of the beam, even though it appears that the blade is being carried back it seldom goes behind the point of rotation.

My belief is that any blade movement behind the point of rotation should be avoided by all paddlers, canoe or kayak, as it results in a tendency toward stern draw and this is the point that Mark Z. makes, referenced in the OP.