by Joe Ravenna
Downhill skiing and whitewater kayaking have a great deal in common and it is not surprising to learn that some of the world’s best skiers and kayakers honed their skills between gates. As a verb, slalom means to move in a winding or zigzag fashion; therefore, a person can slalom without being on the clock or in competition. Actually, given that definition, we are all engaging in slalom anytime we make our way downstream. Unless you attach a motor to the back of your boat (and can keep that motor from getting chewed up by the rocks), it is nearly impossibly to move in perfectly straight lines on a whitewater river. Due to this fact (whether it be convenient or inconvenient), we all move in an arc-ing fashion while kayaking, using the river and it’s features to help us on our way. The act of moving from one spot on the river to the next is where slalom racers accel to the highest degree. Efficiency, then, is key.
Olympic swimmers (bear with me, this all relates to the main idea) have one of the most difficult tasks on the planet. As human beings, we are specifically designed for dry land. We breath air. We walk, upright, on 2 legs. Under clear skies, our eyes allow us to see for miles. The bottom line is this: water is not the most natural place for a human being to exist. Therefore, in order for Micheal Phelps to swim 100 meters of butterfly in 49.82 seconds (the current world record), he has to be unbelievably efficient. Efficiency in swimming, as in whitewater kayaking, depends entirely upon stroke technique.
When taking a stroke, two main concepts come in to play. The first is power: the more power you create in a single stroke, the farther you will move in a shorter amount of time. The second is resistance: the less resistance involved, the more efficient each stroke will be. These concepts are very simple in theory, but are very difficult to apply. In kayaking, as in swimming, the difficulty stems from our body’s natural inclination to create power over reducing resistance. It requires very meticulous training and drilling in order to change this inconvenient truth. Correct muscle memory must be developed in order to become truly efficient.
In kayaking, the majority of power stems from our core muscles. This concept takes time to understand, and years of conscious practice to master. Why? It appears that kayakers use their arms and shoulders to paddle (the same in swimming as in kayaking). Compared to your arm/shoulder muscles, your core is MUCH larger. Due to that fact, much more power can be created from your core, than can be created from your arms and shoulders. In order to use your core, you must rotate your torso as you take each stroke. An easy way to practice this motion, whether you’re on the water or reading this on your computer (or iphone…welcome to the 21st century…we are all doomed) try this: (no paddle necessary)
Square up so your torso and shoulders face directly forward. Lift both hands up so they are just in front of your shoulders, like you are a mime trapped in a box (try not to get carried away with this analogy). Now, push one hand forward in a straight line, at the same time twist your torso so your hand extends as far as possible. Repeat using other hand. (This is a forward stroke drill, if you allow your hand to move across your body: you are practicing a turning or corrective stroke)
If you do this correctly, you will feel your core muscles expand and contract with each twist. This is the basis of correct stroke technique: using your core for power, rather than your arms/shoulders.
Slalom racers are not only powerful, they are extremely efficient. Watch a slalom boater in a race, or just training in the gates, and you will notice one thing as they take each stroke: virtually no splashing. This is a very simple concept. If you are splashing when you take a stroke, it means that your paddle blade is not completely submerged under the water. What is the point of having a paddle if you are not utilizing it to it’s full potential? If you plant the entire blade in the water and use proper stroke technique your strokes will be both powerful and efficient.
A wiser man than myself once said “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” Basically, you can practice all you want, whether it be on the lake, or on the race course, but if you aren’t consciously striving for perfect, effective stroke technique, then you are wasting your time. Whether you’re trying to win Olympic gold, or tackling the Nantahala Falls for the first time, the fundamentals of whitewater kayaking are vital to your success. Keep these ideas in mind next time you’re on the water.