Kayak for Exercise: How Paddling Benefits Your Health

Last year, my wife and I took a kayaking day trip to the tip of Point Reyes, a peninsula just north of San Francisco formed by the San Andreas Fault shoving a slice of California out to sea.

Thirty minutes after we set out, just off my bow, the water exploded in a huff and what appeared to be a gray school bus passed under us. A mother gray whale and her calf were taking a rare break from their trip north to have a snack.

They wandered around, eyed our boats and even breathed on us (whale breath is not pleasant). Motorcraft often scare the animals away, but our two little boats seemed to blend into the surroundings.

It was just one of a hundred transcendent nature experiences I’ve had in a kayak, all no more than a few miles from the dock. And while we were tired by the end of the three-mile trip, at no point was I worried about exhaustion or injury — not because I am fit, but because I knew my paddling technique was correct and easy on my muscles and joints.

Kayak sales have exploded over the last few years, thanks in part to the pandemic. Many of those boats are now available for a steal on Craigslist and other sites, as users find kayaking to be harder, or harder on their bodies, than they expected.

But it doesn’t have to be. Changing just a couple of elements of your stroke can allow you to paddle farther, avoid injury and turn your day on the water into a life-altering adventure.

There are several reasons beyond whale watching to try out kayaking. For one, it’s a good low-impact aerobic exercise for older people or those wanting to ease into fitness.

That’s because it doesn’t engage the body’s bigger muscles, like the thighs and buttocks, said François Billaut, an exercise physiology professor at Laval University in Quebec and the former head physiologist for the Canadian national kayaking team. The bigger the muscles, the more oxygen they need, which is why running hard, for instance, leaves you out of breath.

Second, he said, 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 to think of paddling as a companion to biking or running.

“For people who just run and cycle, they tend to not have a lot of muscle mass in the upper body,” Dr. Billaut said. “Kayaking offers a balance.”

But that doesn’t mean you have to have big arms or back muscles to start.

“Most people would jump into a kayak and immediately think they have to use their arms, they have to be superstrong and they have to grab the water aggressively,” said Alicia Jones, an artist and graphic designer in New York who started paddling five years ago, despite having a shoulder injury. But “it became a full body workout after I learned the techniques.”

The first thing to understand about proper kayaking technique is that the movement is a twisting one, not a pulling one.

“Your arms are not nearly as strong as a lot of other muscles in your body,” said Greg Barton, an Olympic kayaking gold medalist and founder of Epic Kayaks. “The more you can bring your full body into the stroke, then the faster you’ll go.”

Before you even get into the boat, stand up and hold the paddle out in front of you with both hands, slightly more than shoulder width, and elbows straight like you are a mummy or maybe a zombie. Imagine that the square space between your arms, chest and the 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 the torso. When the elbow bends, the arms take over and that spells exhaustion and shoulder pain. Standing next to the boat, simply swivel your hips from side to side so that the zipper on your life jacket swings back and forth. This is the movement you want.

Now get into the boat and hit the water. It’s crucial to have good posture in the boat, “sitting erect up all the way to your head, like there’s a string pulling from your base,” said Lynn Petzold, a veteran instructor with the wilderness school NOLS.

If you are worried about tipping, get comfortable in shallow water (or a pool) with how much you can twist and wiggle in the boat. Fear of flipping cripples your paddling technique. If you have a flat-bottomed sit-on-top or recreational kayak (with a wide cockpit that allows your knees to poke out), you’ll be surprised how hard it is to flip.

If you are still concerned about tipping over, sign up for an introductory kayak course and learn the self-rescue.

Time to paddle. Set up in the same pizza-box position, with the paddle held in front of you, chest height and hands a little wider than shoulder width. Begin by slicing the paddle into the water, next to the hull of the boat about even with your feet. Don’t pull it toward yourself, keep your elbows straight and twist your torso so that the paddle slides alongside the boat until it’s about even with your butt, and then take it out.

“One of the first things I learned was torso rotation. That phrase is stuck in my brain forever,” said Ms. Jones, who now teaches at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Paddling Club. “If I forget anything else in life, I will not forget torso rotation.”

This is 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 each side as you twist.

Engaging the legs helps. If you are paddling on the right, push with your right foot on the pegs or foot rests to lock in the core, Mr. Barton said, while keeping good posture.

“You want to push on the same side you’re paddling,” he added. “Rather than just rotating from the waist up, you’re actually rotating from the hips.”

Don’t over-grip the paddle, said Ms. Petzold; this is about position, not power. In fact, she doesn’t grip it at all, but makes circles with her thumb and index fingers, like lobster claws.

“That’s where the paddle rests. And I’m keeping my other fingers loose on a paddle when I push across,” she said, adding that with correct technique, she’s seen beginners paddle 45 miles in a single day.

It’s a strange sensation, twisting your torso while looking straight ahead, and don’t expect to get it perfectly the first time. Try to find a rhythm. When you get the hang of it, one stroke flows into the next. As you master the stroke, you will find that your arms no longer get tired as quickly; you’ll also feel a burn in your core.

Turning a kayak means more than just paddling repeatedly on one side, it requires a different movement that sweeps from the front to the back of the boat. Now that you are feeling your body twisting, pushing with your feet and engaging your core, try the turning stroke — usually called the sweep stroke — to really lock in the torso.

Start on the right side again. Twist your torso to the left and reach the right paddle blade up by your feet again. Now sweep the paddle out wide, this time all the way to the back of the boat. Hold the pizza box in place and feel the twist in your stomach.

Watch the right paddle blade like a hawk from the start to finish of the stroke. In order to do this, you will need to twist your body all the way around. Use this stroke to maneuver around or occasionally during your forward stroke to stay on course.

Once you have these strokes down and are engaging your core, Dr. Billaut recommended a few simple intervals to get stronger. After warming up, paddle hard for five minutes, then rest for three at a slower pace. Repeat this three or four times.

As you get tired, expect your technique to flag and to fall back into pulling on 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.

If done correctly, paddling a kayak can take you farther than you can possibly imagine. It can take you into rock gardens, through sea caves and over playful gray whale calves. You can surf the rolling waves of an Alaskan inlet or gently break the glassy surface of a perfect Baja morning. Or you can paddle in the middle of a city.

“Have you thought about the fact that you can kayak in the East River or the Hudson River?” Ms. Jones said. “Once people hear about that, they want to see it, they want to experience it.”

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