I remember the first time I was given a watch as a kid. My Grandpa, or simply "Ed" as he preferred to be called, gave me an old watch which had long laid with neglect in his basement. I was just as quick to make him aware that it didn't work as I was to thank him for it. Of course he demonstrated that all this old timepiece needed after all was a quick little wind of a knob, and it would rotate it's spindly hands slowly but perceptibly, seemingly forever. I was not yet privy to the complex gearing inside that would convert the kinetic energy from winding the watch to potential energy, only to release it incrementally, one second at a time, for months to come. I was mesmerized by the magic of such a device.
This ability to store potential energy is not merely limited to machines, but actually plays out in our bodies at scores of different levels. Specifically with respect to our muscles, this energy storage/release system is a fundamental component of what it means to be an efficient paddler. When we wind up by rotating our upper torso on the axial plane, this lengthens the muscles on one side of our body more than the other. This stored energy can then be released, which helps power our stroke, and also lowers the amount of energy required to generate "the wind-up" for the next stroke on the other side.
Think about your core muscle group as an interconnected system of rubber bands. The more we can stretch those rubber bands, i.e. the more muscle-lengthening load we can induce, the more potential energy we have available to assist in our stroke, which in turn means less work for other muscles in our body, like our arms. Ideally, we should use our arms as little as possible, and build a paddling style that depends primarily on torso-rotation. Not only are these muscles large and powerful, but the specific movement associated with torso-rotation creates an effective, powerful stroke technique that enables us to get the most out of paddling.
So if you want to stretch your rubber bands as much as you can, in order to gain as much power assist from your core as possible, you need to reach for each stroke with your core, through coiling of your torso, not by reaching with only your arms. By their very existence, the combination of your paddle and arm create an apparatus that has quite a bit of reach. However, when sitting with your upper torso facing the bow of your kayak, your arms and paddle should naturally reach out to both sides of your boat, not the bow. Many paddlers make the mistake of reaching for their forward stroke by pitching forward from the waist and reaching only with their arms, and maybe at the most with their shoulders. Instead, initiate rotation from the belly-button, and allow it to propagate from there through your vertebral column to your shoulders. Think of a spiral staircase. Each step can only rotate a minute amount with respect to the last, yet the cumulative rotation from bottom to top is dramatic.
Where is your lower torso in all of this? Well, other than the subtle pelvic rotation to be gained from pushing with your feet (another post altogether!) your lower torso is locked into facing where your bow faces at all times, because you are locked in via the outfitting on your feet, butt, back, hips, and thighs/knees. (You have properly outfitted your boat, right?)
An easy way to measure how much potential energy is stored in your core muscles during rotation is to note how much your upper torso rotates off of the center-line of our boat. A simple metric is to notice how much your PFD rotates in relation to your skirt, since the skirt doesn't move. Since the PFD is attached to your chest, it is a good measure of how much your upper torso has rotated. Keep in mind that for some paddlers this metric may not work well due to PFD fit and other details.
More Upper Torso Rotation = More Power!
VISUAL MECHANICS OF THE WIND UP
Let's take a look at what winding our core looks like from overhead. These shots are from the Rio Alseseca in Veracruz, Mexico - I describe our trip there this January a few paragraphs down. The Alseseca is a playground best realized through aggressive torso-rotation, and Tom Janney captured a great moment on the Roadside Alseseca where I'm sliding down a narrow passage into a large curling pillow deflecting off the river-right wall. In order to not let the pillow throw me too far to the left, and to keep my momentum and angle, I need a strong left stroke to counter the deflection and accelerate my boat into the bottom of the rapid where a ledge hole awaits. If I simply take a stroke with my arms, I will have a limited amount of power behind the stroke, and I also won't be able to rotate the boat's edge into the pillow as well. Both of these serve to limit the pillow's ability to throw me off course to the left.
Now let's diagram this photo in order to understand the mechanics of what I'm doing with my body:
This shot was taken a split-second before my blade catches at the front of the boat for a sweep stroke. My angle and vision are looking down my line, as they should be. Note that I am less reaching with my arm (my leading elbow is still bent, not locked straight), but am instead reaching toward my toes by rotating my core to the right of where my vision/angle are oriented. My chest/shoulders are parallel to my paddle-shaft, and each arm to one another, making a box shape. This box-shape is the connective structure that transfers the rotational power behind the stroke movement into the hull of the boat. The rotation of this assembly swings the blade up to where I want to catch at my toes with little arm extension. Additionally, with my torso rotated roughly 45 degrees to the right of the centerline of my boat, I have created potential energy in my core through muscle lengthening, which will be the prime source of energy behind my sweep stroke. The rubber bands are wound up, now I can let 'er rip!
In this shot, by stellar photographer Nate Herbeck, I am finishing the sweep stroke, and though the pillow has invariably affected me, the degree of deflection has been minimized, and hanging on the finish position of my sweep has allowed me to redirect some of that deflective energy through the connective structure (the blade, my arms, and trunk) down to the inside rail of my boat, which redirects it as acceleration in the direction my boat is pointing.
Not only was I able to prevent the feature from hijacking me, and not only was I also able to use some of it's power to accelerate my boat through my line, but I powered the entire move by winding up and releasing the energy from my core, instead of cranking with arm muscles.
The edging required in this move was ALSO informed by upper torso-rotation! Note in the above photo that as I'm rotating through my sweep, my connective structure (chest-shoulders + arms) is rotating to the left. Not only does this power the stroke, but it causes my right knee to lift, which allows my boat to edge to the inside of the turn. In turn, this allows my hull to soak up the energy of the pillow instead of my deck. Getting hit from the side on the deck causes flipping, whereas receiving that impact on the hull adds momentum and control.
So, rotation powers our stroke, AND informs proper edging on turns, AND allows us to embrace the energy of the river in order to re-purpose it to our own end. Because we don't use our arms (they are merely connecting rods) we can do this as many times as is required on a hard day of paddling, without the fatigue that would set in all too soon if we are only depending on our arms. To be fair, we use our arms. But the foundation is core rotation. As illustrated above, this is not merely for the sake of efficiency, but is fundamental to how we engage our edges, channel energy, and execute our lines.
Finally, if you want to make the most of rotation and your core muscle group, cross-training that focuses on increasing flexibility and strength in these particular areas will go a long way.
VIVA LA MEXICO! PADDLING THROUGH THE JUNGLE PARADISE OF THE RIO ALSESECA
To wrap up this technique article, I have to speak to the beauty and quality of rivers, as well as people, that we encountered on our recent trip to Tlapacoyan, Mexico, this past January.
Ive always wanted to check out the Alseseca River drainage, which in the last 10 years, thanks to the exploratory efforts of Ben Stookesberry and team, has exploded as a classic international destination. This season we thought we'd head down there and see for ourselves. While December may be the better time to go for ample water, Jim and Tom Janney, and Steve Krajewski had a window in early January, so after the hustle of Christmas died down, we headed south, with perfect timing, as a snow-storm was buffeting Tennessee on our drive to the airport. Knock on wood, but we're approaching mid-February, and so far, I've missed the coldest weather of winter!
After touching down in the biggest city I've ever been in, we spent the night in a hotel and then loaded into a van for a five hour ride east towards the coast. During the drive we bore witness to the reason for all the spectacular basaltic gorges and waterfalls of the Alseseca - giant volcanoes abound in Mexico, including Citlaltepetl, the third highest mountain in North America. These beasts have, over the millennia, spewed unfathomable volumes of lava eastward and down into the Gulf of Mexico. Rivers like the Alseseca begin in the drier Altiplano at the base of these volcanoes, and burrow through almost 10,000 vertical feet of basalt on their way to the Gulf. For this reason, the eastern slope of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt holds some of the highest quality and most sustained basaltic river gorges for kayaking. While there is undoubtedly more superlative canyon systems yet to be explored, the Alseseca is the centerpiece to this region, where several sections of river link up to create one of the most stacked, relentlessly vertical rivers in the world.
While many of the sections and tributaries of the Alseseca are too steep and riddled with unscoutable, unportageable, unrunnable gorges to be fodder for good winter vacation paddling, there are a handful of classic sections, including the Big Banana, Roadside, Seven Sisters, and a tributary, the Rio Jalacingo. All of these stellar runs are an hour or less from Tlapacoyan, a vibrant town that our kind hosts at Aventurec call home.
Aventurec provides the best accommodations a kayaker could want. We stayed in a clean cabana with shower/bath, took advantage of all-you-can-eat breakfast and dinner buffets with great food, and got shuttled around every day, for 8 days straight, for roughly the cost of a new paddle. I can't think of anywhere else that you'll be better treated than Aventurec. The best part is the people, who are incredibly helpful, always have a smile on their faces, and just really seem to care that you've come to enjoy their home. This facet of travel often gets left at the door on paddling blogs, but it's really the best part. To be welcomed so warmly sweetened every part of our experience in Mexico. We also made some great new friends from all over the world, with whom we can't wait to share future adventures with. The best part of travel is the unexpected gifts along the way. We all left a part of ourselves there, and I'm already scheming the next opportunity to head south.
Here's a link to my flickr page highlighting some of our experiences while paddling the Alseseca and its tributaries, which also benefit from a race that we stumbled into - it ended up being a big deal for Tlapacoyan and other riverside communities, and a load of fun too! Just click on the photo of the Gates of Mordor above to access my Flickr album.
THIS ARTICLE WAS BROUGHT TO YOU BY IMMERSION RESEARCH!
Going to Mexico in the winter is still winter paddling. Sure it's warmer - quite a bit warmer at times, but it also gets rainy and misty, and fog prevails most mornings. Combine that with predictions of highs in the low to mid-50's a few days, and it was a little guess-work on whether a dry top would be sufficient.
Enter the Devil's Club dry top from Immersion Research. Not only do I want something that will keep me dry and not wet through, but the particular style of paddling we were going to be doing in Mexico requires lots of bushwhacking through the jungle, which means lots of abuse and sweating. The thought behind the Devil's Club is to take the same degree of waterproofness and breathability that IR's top garments are known for, and increase the durability on top of that. After 8 days of crawling through the jungle, the top is as dry as brand new, and I feel like IR really has hit the sweet spot on all fronts, making a dry top that is waterproof, breathable, durable, light, and form-fitted. These traits can be somewhat mutually exclusive without the experience that IR brings to the table, but they've found a magical intersection of all these virtues with the Devil's Club. I'm using this top on days I would have normally only used a dry suit, because it does it's job so well, as exemplified by the fact that even upon my return from Mexico, I've used it many more times during cold January days, while creeking in Tennessee.
Thanks for reading, I hope this article has inspired you to seek continuous improvement. Get out on the flats and dial it in!
Until Next Time,