What do I do with my legs?
BY REBECCA BARTON-DAVIS
I was talking to a fellow paddler named Bill a few months ago, and he urged me to do a follow-up post on basic stroke mechanics. Specifically, what should you be doing with our legs while paddling? Most people think of canoeing/kayaking as an upper-body sport, and it predominantly is, but if we don’t utilize our legs, we miss out on added power and stability. Many racers have been known to even break their foot braces in a hard sprint. That’s not really a good time for equipment failure, but it shows how much power can be generated from the legs to drive the boat forward.
Reaching forward during a stroke may seem like it comes from the upper body, but the longest reach comes from driving with the legs, slightly rotating the hips and following that motion up through the core and shoulders. By rotating and reaching this way, we are able to use our body weight to “fall” on the paddle as we bring our top hand over for our vertical paddle plant. Engaging the legs permits us to lean more aggressively to steer, and at the same time makes us feel more connected with the boat, thus increasing stability. Good leg drive while paddling is one of the most important components of the stroke and a key to going fast.
Before we can use our legs, it is important that our boat has a foot brace installed. Racing hulls come with both bow and stern foot braces, but if your boat doesn’t have one you will need to add one. Removable bow kick plates can be purchased from Wenonah, Southern Tier Canoe, Zaveral Racing Equipment and various other outfitters that are both sturdy and adjustable. If that doesn’t work for you, add some foam blocks (yoga blocks or similar) until you can reach. In the stern, the process is a bit more involved, but foot brace systems can again be purchased at one of the outfitters listed above and installed with pop rivets. Some paddlers find they can push against the bottom well enough that a foot brace isn’t “necessary,” but similar to clip-in bike pedals, once you know what you were missing, you can’t go back to the old way.
First, you need to be positioned properly to be able to drive with your legs. As I have mentioned in previous articles about seat comfort and stroke mechanics, paddlers typically want to sit with their legs bent like when sitting in a chair. Fight the urge to do this and set the seat so you have some leg bend when legs are relaxed, but when you push on each side the leg almost straightens; you don’t want to lock the knee joint. I compare this to the extended leg position when riding a bike. You will probably feel the back of the seat as you push with your legs but this is normal. If you feel like you can’t get your legs extended and without pushing over the back of the seat, you need to move the foot brace a little further away.
Now that our positioning is set, we want to begin “pumping” our legs as we take a stroke. This will feel awkward and take deliberate thought at first. The drive should be synchronized with the rest of the stroke mechanics. For example, when paddling on the right side, the right leg should be in the extended position “pushing” as you fall on the paddle with your power. On the return, the right knee will bend slightly as the right hip rotates forward. At the same time, the left leg is straightening out and pushing the left hip back to aid in the rotation. The opposite will happen on the left side – the left leg should be extended for the power phase of a left stroke and the right leg extended during the return phase.
While driving with the legs, make sure all rotation is extending your reach forward. Any rotation back will just cause paddle drag in the water and may hinder your forward reach. A good goal is to rotate and reach a few inches past the toes. In a long race, or a particularly hard paddle, your legs may get as sore or fatigued as your arms – this means you are fully utilizing the power in your lower body!
If you haven’t committed to using your legs while paddling yet, use this fall to test the waters and make these adjustments to your technique. Bill – If you are reading this, I hope I have been able to answer your questions. I still have many topics to cover, but I enjoy finding the answers to the burning questions of other paddlers.
Editor’s note: If you have comments, suggestions or discussion for Rebecca, feel free to contact her at email@example.com.