Current Ideas: Solo Canoeing: Stroke Effort – How Much is Too Much?

Current Ideas:
Solo Canoeing: Stroke Effort – How Much is Too Much?

No other stroke is as versatile, nor as complex, as the forward stroke. Mastery comes with understanding the vast capabilities of this stroke, the subtleties of its use and the hull speed characteristics of your canoe. In this article I’ll discuss how to move forward with just the right amount of effort so you’ll feel less tired and more in control.

When discussing effort, I’m going to express this as a percentage – 100% for maximum effort, 10% for minimal effort etc. Your level of maximum exertion may be different than mine, but most paddlers can only do 100% for one or two strokes – unless they’re an Olympic C1 slalom athlete!

So how hard do you paddle? How hard should you paddle? Spoiler Alert – for myself, the majority of the time I only paddle at about 30% effort. 

90 – 100%: Hip Thrust

I do this effort very rarely. Let’s say you want to get up and go from a tiny eddy pool with little space to accelerate. Using a Hip Thrust forward stroke with 100% effort will break the suction seal around the hull of the canoe and launch it out into current. The high level of effort with this style of forward stroke is appropriate for the task and the limited space to accelerate.  

Though strong, the hip thrust is actually rather slow and only used once or twice. To further accelerate the canoe you’ll need to shift gears to a faster forward stroke. Often a carving stroke (see 0-60%: Carving below) is selected for completing a maneuver.

Note that a short canoe is slower by nature and may only need one hip thrust to get it past first gear. Too many thrusts may cause the boat to bob and can actually limit your speed, and /or cause veering. Longer canoes weigh more, have more resistance and could likely use two, three, maybe more thrust strokes.

60 – 90%: Rotation

I use this range of effort a bit more often, but not a lot. Picture an extended ferry move across fast water without even a surf wave to help. Sustaining 70 or even 80% of your maximum effort for up to a dozen strokes would definitely be a workout, but doable. It consumes a lot of fuel and makes us tired, so use it sparingly saving it for special cases. 

The advantage of rotating the torso and using your strong abdominal muscles to propel the canoe can certainly provide a strength advantage over arm muscles alone. Some may even include a top arm punch to increase mechanical advantage. 

Be aware that using this much power will cause the canoe to veer if it is not set up on a carving arc first. Without the guidance of a bow wave, you will be forced into using corrective stern pry strokes whose friction will significantly drop your efficiency and likely kill the move.

Often overlooked with torso rotation is body size. If your canoe is wide and your arms short, you may find you can’t rotate enough before the canoe interferes with your reach. This restricted reach places the power of the stroke closer to the pivot point of the boat. Shorter paddlers need to be aware that this position will often cause veering, and thus can be a real hindrance to realizing the advantage of rotation.

0 – 60%: Carving 

Ok, 0 – 60% is a big range for sure, but this is where I’ll make a case for paddling at just 30% most of the time. At 30% you won’t get tired, you will have maximum control over your canoe, and you will look as if you are going magically fast for such little effort.

Carving forward strokes rely on arm muscles to move the canoe. Your core and legs are engaged to support your body and hold the boat, but other than that it’s mostly your arms doing the work. 30% represents a comfortable midpoint in your power range. You can add as much as 30% more or take away 30% giving a range of 0 – 60%.

A typical scenario might be starting in an eddy with a couple of boat lengths of runway ahead of you. Then use a carving start and accelerate at about 40% effort. After about a half dozen strokes you should be on a comfortable carve and arcing towards your next destination, or transition point for a new arc. At this point decrease your effort to 30% to allow the bow waves to preserve the arc.

An added benefit of a relaxed stroke rate is you will feel the canoe glide between strokes!

Now if you did need to straighten a little bit, increase your effort in the range of 30 – 60% to push the bow wave into a wider arc. After this brief effort, return to 30% for cruising speed. To tighten the arc, you can reduce your force, or even pause the stroke entirely, letting the canoe glide with 0% effort – pretty sweet!

I paddle at 30% all the time. I only use my smaller arm muscles which saves fuel and effort. My arms articulate all the movements for a carving stroke using the acronym CAPT; Cadence, Angle, Position, Tilt to help control the arcing path of the canoe. (see video:  Carving Using 2X4  )

Effect of the Hull on Speed

Step back and think of the shape of the canoe. It’s perfectly streamlined and super-efficient in the water. Once it’s moving, the canoe only needs a tiny bit of power to keep it cruising at its natural hull speed. And, here is the big take away – unless absolutely necessary, avoid paddling faster than the canoe’s natural hull speed.

Curiously, the hull speed of your canoe may not be as high as you might think. Each boat design is different. If you are constantly trying to push the canoe beyond its hull speed you are working too hard and probably not going much faster for the added effort. 

When a canoe is held at its optimal hull speed the paddler appears to be hardly working at all. Everything is at equilibrium; speed, bow waves, arc and effort. 30% effort is all you likely need. The canoe will feel and appear to be gliding.

Push the canoe too hard and a paddler must overuse correction strokes to reach their target. The “surge forward and drop back” pattern of speeding up with too much speed and slowing with friction strokes disrupts a smooth cruising canoe. It makes paddling look like work, it feels like work, and is just plain tiring.

So, How Much is Enough?

It varies. Although I can paddle hard when I need to, I rarely have to. And, even though I am pretty good at torso rotation, I don’t over use this skill either as it is often overkill for my canoe’s natural hull speed. Carving using easy forward strokes that work in harmony with my canoe’s shape, arcs and bow waves requires paddling at +/- 30% the majority of the time. 

Strategic use of the different types of forward strokes can save you energy, prevent overuse injuries, accommodate smaller paddlers, and best of all, have you paddling effortlessly like the pros!

Check out our videos here.

Carole and Andrew Westwood

Paddle Canada Instructors / Instructor Trainers

Esquif Canoe Ambassadors


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