Kayaking is both fun and good for your whole body.
During the pandemic, sales of boats went through the roof, and now many more garages have kayaks in them. But do you know how to get the most out of a single workout?
My wife and I went kayaking for a day at the tip of Point Reyes last year. Point Reyes is a peninsula just north of San Francisco that was formed when the San Andreas Fault pushed a piece of California out to sea.
Thirty minutes after we left, the water erupted just off my bow, and what looked like a gray school bus went under us. A mother gray whale and her calf were on their way north when they stopped to eat.
They looked at our boats, walked around, and even breathed on us (whale breath is not pleasant). Animals are often scared away by motorized boats, but our two small boats seemed to blend in with the area.
It was just one of a hundred amazing nature experiences I’ve had in a kayak, all of which happened within a few miles of the dock. Even though we were tired at the end of the three-mile trip, I never worried about getting too tired or hurt because I knew I was paddling in the right way, which was easy on my muscles and joints.
In the last few years, kayak sales have gone through the roof. This is partly because of the pandemic. People who tried kayaking and found it harder or harder on their bodies than they thought are now selling many of those boats for a steal on Craigslist and other sites.
But that’s not necessary. By changing just a few parts of your stroke, you can paddle further, avoid getting hurt, and turn a day on the water into an adventure that will change your life.
There are more reasons to try kayaking than just to see whales. For one thing, it’s a good aerobic exercise for older people or people who want to start getting fit slowly.
Francois Billaut, an exercise physiology professor at Laval University in Quebec and the former head physiologist for the Canadian national kayaking team, says that’s because it doesn’t use the body’s bigger muscles, like the thighs and buttocks. The bigger your muscles are, the more oxygen they need. This is why you get out of breath when you run hard, for example.
Second, he said that it’s one of the few outdoor exercises that works the upper body, especially the chest, back, and core, which includes the abs and other deeper muscles around the midsection that are hard to train outside of a gym. Dr. Billaut said that you should think of paddling as a partner to running or biking.
“People who only run and cycle tend not to have a lot of upper-body muscle mass,” Dr. Billaut said. “Kayaking is a way to find balance.”
But that doesn’t mean that you have to start with big arms or back muscles.
“Most people would jump into a kayak and immediately think they have to use their arms, be superstrong, and grab the water aggressively,” said Alicia Jones, an artist and graphic designer from New York who started paddling five years ago, even though she had hurt her shoulder. But “once I learned the moves, it became a full-body workout.”
Accept the pizza box!
The first thing you need to know about the right way to kayak is that you should twist, not pull.
Greg Barton, who won a gold medal in kayaking at the Olympics and started Epic Kayaks, said, “Your arms are not nearly as strong as a lot of other muscles in your body.” “The faster you go, the more you can use your whole body in the stroke.”
Before you even get in the boat, stand up and hold the paddle in front of you with both hands, slightly wider than your shoulders, elbows straight, like you’re a mummy or maybe a zombie. Think of the space between your arms, chest, and paddle as a pizza box. Now act like you’re paddling, but don’t break the pizza box.
The idea is to keep your elbows mostly straight and turn from the middle of your body. When the elbow bends, the arms take over, which makes the shoulders hurt and makes you tired. Just move your hips from side to side as you stand next to the boat so that the zipper on your life jacket swings back and forth. This is the way you want to move.
Get in the boat and go out on the water. It’s important to have good posture in the boat. Lynn Petzold, a veteran instructor at the wilderness school NOLS, said, “Sit up straight all the way to your head, like there’s a string pulling from your base.”
If you’re worried about tipping, get used to how much you can move around in the boat in shallow water or a pool. Your fear of flipping hurts how well you can paddle. You’ll be surprised how hard it is to flip a sit-on-top or recreational kayak with a flat bottom and a wide cockpit that lets your knees stick out.
If you’re still worried about falling out of the kayak, sign up for an introductory course and learn how to save yourself.
It’s all about the twist.
Time to paddle. Set up in the same “pizza box” position, with the paddle held in front of you at chest height and your hands a little wider than shoulder width. Start by cutting the paddle into the water next to the boat’s hull, about where your feet would be. Don’t pull it toward you. Instead, keep your elbows straight and twist your torso so that the paddle slides along the boat until it’s about even with your butt, and then pull it out.
“The first thing I learned was how to turn my torso. “I’ll never get that phrase out of my head,” said Ms. Jones, who now teaches at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Boathouse. “No matter what else I forget in life, I won’t forget torso rotation.”
This is the secret, the difference between being tired and frustrated and paddling with ease: Use your arms to hold the paddle, but your core to move it. As you twist, you should feel the pull in your stomach on each side if your elbows are mostly straight.
Getting the legs moving helps. Mr. Barton said that if you are paddling on the right, you should push with your right foot on the pegs or foot rests to tighten your core and keep good posture.
“You want to push on the same side you’re paddling,” he said. “You don’t just turn from the waist up; instead, you turn from the hips.”
Ms. Petzold said, “Don’t hold the paddle too tightly. This is about position, not force.” In fact, she doesn’t hold it at all. Instead, she makes lobster claw shapes with her thumb and index finger.
“There is where the paddle goes to rest. “When I push across, I keep my other fingers loose on the paddle,” she said, adding that she’s seen beginners paddle 45 miles in a single day when they did it right.
Turning your torso while looking straight ahead feels strange, and don’t expect to get it right the first time. Try to get a beat. When you know what you’re doing, each stroke flows into the next. As you get better at the stroke, your arms won’t get tired as fast, and you’ll feel a burn in your core.
It’s time to turn things around.
To turn a kayak, you need to do more than paddle back and forth on one side. You also need to make a different movement that sweeps from the front to the back of the boat. Try the turning stroke, which is also called the sweep stroke, to really lock in the torso.
Start again on the right side. Turn your upper body to the left to get the right paddle blade back up by your feet. Sweep the paddle out wide again, but this time all the way to the back of the boat. Hold the pizza box still and feel your stomach twist.
Keep a sharp eye on the right paddle blade from the beginning to the end of the stroke. To do this, you will have to turn your whole body around. Use this stroke to get around or sometimes to stay on course during your forward stroke.
Once you know how to do these strokes and are using your core, Dr. Billaut suggested a few simple intervals to help you get stronger. After you’ve warmed up, paddle hard for five minutes, then take a break and paddle slowly for three minutes. This should be done three or four times.
As you get tired, your technique will weaken and you’ll pull on your arms and shoulders again. Dr. Billaut said that good technique can keep you from hurting your joints, so think about how far you can really go.
If you paddle a kayak right, you can go farther than you could ever imagine. It can take you to places like rock gardens, sea caves, and over the heads of playful gray whale calves. You can surf the rolling waves of an Alaskan inlet or gently break the surface of a perfect Baja morning. You can also paddle in the middle of a city.
“Have you thought about the fact that you can kayak on the East River or the Hudson River?” Ms. Jones said. “Once people hear about it, they want to see it and feel it for themselves.”