Performance Paddling for Dummies

For nearly 30 years my friend Steve has been paddling canoes “marathon style,” calling “huts” and switching sides every eight strokes or so. While some of Steve’s on-water time has been spent racing —he has been known to show up at the cottage regatta with his young son and make heads turn—far more of his days have been spent tripping across Algonquin Park and expeditioning in the Arctic.

Why does Steve paddle marathon style on trips? Steve admits that canoe tripping isn’t about being in a hurry— every canoe tripper will tell you that being outdoors in the fresh air and on the water is simply good for the soul. But you still have to achieve travel goals every day. So why not paddle the same distance with less effort and fewer sore muscles, with more time and energy left to explore when you get to the campsite? 

Marathon style melds the human body (or bodies) with an exquisitely designed canoe to achieve a cruising speed of five or six miles per hour. Steve says that, boiled down to its essence, all it takes to master marathon’s elegant and efficient style are three rules of thumb. Steve’s three rules are essentially the fundamentals of the perfect forward stroke stripped of all fancy bits, such as the J- stroke, until there’s nothing left but what makes a canoe move quickly and effortlessly through the water.

The first rule: use the big muscles of the body’s core. Too often, canoe trippers simply reach forward and pull the paddle though the water with their arms. But the arms should be merely connecting rods to the paddle, not the pistons that drive it. The real power comes from the large mus- cle groups of the body’s core—the lats, abdominals and to a lesser degree, the shoulders. The arms hold the paddle in the water while these large muscles provide propulsion.

Rule number two is the secret to accessing the power of those core muscles: sit in the proper marathon position. Sit in a comfortably padded canoe seat—most marathon style paddlers prefer the rear of the seat to be raised slightly. Keep your back straight. Position your feet less than shoulder width apart against a firm footrest just far enough in front of you that your knees are either at the same height as your hips or just slightly higher. Rest your feet against a specialized footrest or strategically placed canoe pack to take the pressure off your hips. Keep your hamstrings loose, knees together—do not press your legs against the sides of the canoe.

This an ideal posture to prevent lower back pain. It also facilitates a forward lean of about nine degrees or 10 percent and lets your hips move freely. Maintain that lean in a relaxed fashion through all phases of the forward stroke. Do not hinge forward at the waist to maximize your reach. Bending forward tires the muscles, and it makes the canoe bounce, wasting energy. In the proper seating position, your skeleton takes the load. You can paddle further and faster without fatigue.

Now you’re ready to place a stroke. Bend your paddle-side knee to let the paddle side of your body rotate forward. Drop your paddle-side shoulder to place the blade in the water at your feet. Push down with your top arm and pull on the shaft with your back and abdominal muscles. Take the blade out before it reaches your hip.

Do it again. 

Now for rule number three: you must keep your paddle perpendicular to the water surface so that it moves parallel to the keel line. Pay attention to your top hand— it should be out in front of your paddle-side shoulder from the very beginning of the power phase of your stroke, only coming low and in front of your body during the recovery. If the top hand strays, the paddle won’t travel parallel to the canoe’s keel line. The bow paddler will push the canoe slightly off course to the side away from the paddle, wasting energy that should be spent pushing the canoe forward while the stern paddler spends energy drawing to bring the canoe back in line. A stern paddler who doesn’t have the top hand over the paddle is likely crabbing the stern off course. So get that top hand out over the paddle! You know you’re doing it right if the shoulder strap on the “top arm” side of your PFD is rub- bing against your ear or even your cheek.

When both paddlers are performing this stroke correctly (wind and current effects aside) the canoe will gradually veer toward the bow paddler’s side. Call a “hut” to switch paddling sides and in a few strokes the canoe will come back on course with no momentum-wasting pries or J-strokes. 

Marathon style paddling is most effective when you have a lightweight performance canoe with a long water- line, minimal rocker, a sliding bow seat and adjustable footrests; you and your partner have correctly sized paddles—ideally bent-shafts; and your canoe is made trim by adjusting the load or sliding seats.

However, Steve’s three principles of an efficient forward stroke are the same no matter what canoe you’re in, whether you’re skirting the shores of Bathurst Inlet, crossing Lake of Two Rivers or trashing those twits who beat you at last year’s cottage regatta.

Don Stoneman has been racing marathon canoes and kayaks for about 25 years. He is the chair of Canada’s Marathon Racing Council and past president of the Ontario Marathon Canoe Racing Association. 

Screen Shot 2015 12 23 at 10.17.01 AMThis article first appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Canoeroots Magazine. For more great content, subscribe to Canoeroots’ print and digital editions here

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