Articles - How To Improve Your Whitewater Kayaking Skills

Pete haveing fun!
Pete haveing fun!
Canoe and kayak - Posted on 30 Mar 2011

Trianing on the flatwater
For much of the year it can be frustrating, waiting for the rain to fall and the rivers to rise, often leaving whitewater boaters wondering how to get out and improve their paddling when all that is available is the local canal, lake or man-made whitewater courses and dam release rivers you have paddled a thousand times before…

When I’m running courses I often hear paddlers make comment like the following: ‘I am a whitewater paddler but live I in the southeast with no access to rivers. How am I supposed to improve?’

‘I’ve only got one small weir and loads of flat-water near me, what can I do to improve?’

‘When the rivers come up I always spend the first few hours getting back into it, is there anything I can I do to stop me getting rusty in between times?’

The answer in short, is that there is always a way to improve your paddling. You just need to be imaginative and focus clearly on what you are trying to achieve.
To help you achieve this I have put together this set of top tips, designed to give you some practical ideas and help you discover the challenges the lie in wait on water that you may have previously seen as not even worth the journey because its just too easy.

Plan your sessions Don’t Wing It. Plan it.
Think about things in advance, know exactly what you need to, or would like to, work on. Do a little reading or research and focus your mind carefully on the aspects of your paddling that you would like to improve. Talk to other paddlers (if possible better paddlers) about technique and exercises that help to them improve.

If you regularly paddle with the same team, get together over a coffee, or even pint or two, and talk about your development and where you are all heading. Then plan some exercise or competitive games that you can use to improve your technique. That way when you head out onto the water you will be immediately focused on your development and not spend hours splashing around aimlessly before you decide to work on your technique. You’ll also know what to look out for in each other’s technique and what areas to offer feedback and encouragement on.

Get Positive, Think Outside the Box
Take your local bit of flat water and instead of moaning about how flat and boring it is think about what you can use it for. Take time to practice your forward paddling. Not just endless laps of the pond, but short sprints just like the ones you’ll need for accelerating out of an eddy or catching a wave. Work out how efficient your strokes are. Can you gain the same speed in fewer strokes by using a more fluid technique with less splashing?
Doing sets of these sprints will also help develop your paddling fitness!

Practice smooth edge control. Paddling on your left for three strokes then smoothly switching to the right. Try paddling circles on one edge using only the inside blade.
Then try doing these same exercises with your eyes closed. That will help develop a feel for the movement and better balance.

If you have access to a range of craft then try using a sprint boat to work on forward technique or if you’re a kayaker, try jumping in a canoe (or vice versa), it’s amazing what new skills can be learnt from an experience in new craft and transferring those skills to your preferred type of boat.

Flat water slalom gates will greatly improve your stroke timing and accuracy, even a set of buoys put out in a line - paddling in and out from edge to edge will develop good timing and lead to better overall smoothness on the rivers.
These short courses also offer a chance to get the stopwatch out and enjoy the fruits of a little friendly rivalry with your paddling mates. Try to make things as evenly matched as possible by adding a time-handicap system according to your personal skill and fitness levels. That way anyone can win if they perform that little bit better or try that little bit harder.

Getting out in the seaI Can Get Out on the Sea But it’s Not the Same.

As a constantly changing and unpredictable environment, the sea offers whitewater paddlers a unique opportunity to improve their whitewater skills. Get yourself down to the beach and try a few of the following exercises.

Pick a day that when the wind is blowing on shore giving you a choppy sea state with loads of breaking waves hitting the beach. Paddle out through the waves and focus on timing your strokes and trimming the boat so the bow stays on the surface and your front deck stays dry. This will work wonders for your timing and trim adjustments when you get back to the rivers and it will help you to boof holes more efficiently, keeping your boat on the surface, allowing more control of the boat.

Try paddling in zigzags along the shore, so you are ducking and diving in and out of the waves as they break around you, surfing and turning to power back out. This is great fun and will really keep you on your toes with waves hitting you on both sides. Some big sets will keep you focused on what’s coming next.

The Same Old Rapids with the Same Old Eddies

I hear this phrase a lot when at the Tryweryn or the River Dee in Llangollen, and it’s true to some extent. The rapids stay pretty much the same, give or take a few cumecs and the eddies don’t move or change unless the levels are up a bit since your last visit. It’s not the river that needs to change It’s the imagination of you the paddler to get the best out of it!

I firmly believe a good grade five paddler can be pushed and challenged on class two/three in some form whether its technically, tactically, physiologically or psychologically.
Here are a few examples: Take three eddies you know you can make every time. Then try the following challenges on those eddies.
Count the strokes you take for the sequence and then start to eliminate any strokes that are not needed until you get the number of strokes down to only the ones that are absolutely necessary. If you can eliminate a few strokes on a small section imagine the amount of energy saved on an extended river trip! Play this game with a partner or as a small group and see who can do the moves in the fewest strokes. Try the same sequence, but this time paddling backwards, this will really develop your spatial awareness and boat handling skills, it will challenge your edge control and timing.

Imagine the rapid being harder than it actually is with must make moves and then invent new moves to avoid these ‘imagined’ features, this will keep your mind focused and prepared for the next time the rivers are up and you will feel more ‘on it’.

Another real favourite of mine on the is to run short sections of the river making loads of eddies in the best possible style I can, then see how far I can eddy hop back up! This is great for developing your river reading skills, using features and paddling fitness, power in particular. This is great with a few mates, as it gets very competitive as each paddler tries new attainments or the same move in fewer strokes.

Biking is a great way to keep fit Beyond the Boat

Other sports and activities have skills that are closely linked to whitewater paddling and doing these will benefit your paddling. Sports like mountain biking and skiing are fantastic for keeping the body and mind functioning in a fast, dynamic environment where both pre-planning your lines and read and run mind sets apply.

Any fitness training whether it be weight training or running, swimming or cycling will all help to improve your paddling by making you fitter and stronger, which will then help you cope better with the physical demands of paddling.Yoga and Pilates are hugely beneficial to the paddler as they both improve your flexibility and core stability, leading to better posture, control and helping to you to avoid injury.

In Summary

Whitewater paddling in the UK is always going to mean long periods without much water interspersed with days of heavy rain and high water that you hadn’t planned for but want to make the most of. Keeping some of the above drills, games and exercises in the back of your mind will help you get the most out of every minute on the water, even if it’s flat. Dream up more games to help you improve in your boat. Above all, change the way you think and look for the positive in every paddling experience. That will help keep you at the top of your game and ready for the next time the beautiful wet stuff falls from the sky and the rivers once again rise.

Pete is head of paddlesports at Plas y Brenin, the National Mountain Centre, to find out more about their great courses go HERE

Want to read more? Read our Canoe & Kayak UK  Top Ten Tips for Rolling on Moving Water  or check out our How to Use a Throwline feature

Got a whitewater move or gear question? Head to the Canoe & Kayak UK Forums for advice, information and discussion.

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