Sam Murphy: All you need to know about canoeing/kayaking

What's it all about?

Unlike a kayak, a canoe is an open boat. Canoeists traditionally kneel in the boat and use a single-bladed paddle; kayakers sit and use a double-bladed one. Kayaking is the more common of the two paddle sports.

What the expert says... Campbell Walsh is part of the GB canoe slalom team. He is a five-time world cup medallist, and in 2004 was both world cup champion and a silver medallist at the Athens Olympics.

Get a grip It's essential to hold the paddle correctly to get a smooth stroke. Raise it above your head, with its midpoint resting on top of your head. Position your hands so that a right angle forms at each elbow. This gives you the correct placement. Grip the shaft tightly with your right hand and keep this hand fixed at all times. Let the shaft twist in your left hand to get into position for the left stroke.

Paddle up When putting the blade in the water, reach way forward for a long stroke. Put the whole blade in the water before pulling. Keep your body upright - don't rock forward or backward, or roll to the sides - and try to keep the boat level and flat.

Sit right Sit up straight and lean slightly forward, with shoulders relaxed. Definitely don't slouch, or lean back, which puts too much weight to the back of the boat. Getting this right can be quite tricky for a beginner, because you need strong core muscles to maintain this posture while pulling on the blade.

Work on your core Paddling isn't all about upper-body strength. Training concentrates as much on the core abdominals and back as on the upper body muscles, to improve the transfer of power through the paddle. If there are any weaknesses in this area, then a huge percentage of the power you are trying to transmit is lost.

Push from the feet A good kayak stroke starts at the feet, which play an essential role in transferring the power from the body through the kayak and thus moving it forward. Push with the same foot as the side on which you are initiating the stroke.

Stay balanced Everyone has a dominant side. To avoid favouring one side, try paddling over a short distance with your eyes closed. Focus on using the same amount of power for both the left and right stroke. Did you manage to stay on a straight course?

Getting started There are a number of ways to try paddle sports, from touring and recreational paddling to marathons, slalom and sprint racing, sea kayaking and white water thrills. Whatever you fancy, your first port of call should be the British Canoe Union (BCU), the governing body for the sport in the UK (bcu.org.uk, 0845 370 9500). Use the regional links to find your nearest club or approved centre, most of which offer sessions for beginners. You don't need to be a world-class swimmer, but you do need to be able to swim at least 50m in a buoyancy aid and remain confident in and under the water without panicking.

The UK offers countless opportunities for canoeing, with thousands of miles of canals and scenic coastline, rivers galore and tranquil lakes, as well as designated facilities such as the Welsh National Whitewater Centre in north Wales (welsh-canoeing.org.uk, 01678 521083). Not all inland waterways are open to paddlers - for more information, contact the BCU. Joining the union gives you a licence to paddle on 4,500km of Britain's waterways, and third-party liability insurance of up to pounds 5m.

If you fancy mastering your skills on an activity holiday, try Spirit of Adventure's week-long sea kayaking trip around the Sardinian coastline (spirit-of-adventure.com, 01822 880277). Or Headwater's nine-day, self-guided canoeing holiday in the Dordogne (headwater.com, 0870 066 2650).

The gear

You don't need any specialist gear to get started, because the essentials - a boat, paddle and buoyancy aid (and, depending on the conditions, a spray deck and helmet) - should be provided. As far as safety is concerned, a buoyancy aid is the most essential piece of kit: make sure it is comfortable and doesn't restrict your movement. The Yak Kallista Buoyancy Aid (£40) is a good general-purpose model, though if you get hooked, you may want one designed specifically for the type of paddle sport you do.

What to wear depends on the weather and water conditions. Breathable, moisture-wicking garments, worn in layers, are the best bet, and on longer outings long trousers are better than shorts, because the kayak can rub against your knees. Make sure everything you wear allows good freedom of movement.

Some paddlers prefer bare feet, but it's better to wear something for protection and warmth. A pair of old trainers will do (but cut the laces short first, so they don't get in the way) or aqua shoes such as the waterproof Keen Arroyo (£74.99, keenfootwear.co.uk, 0800 612 9292) with a high-grip outsole and looped lace system. In winter, booties provide extra warmth.

Your local canoe or kayak club should have details of gear suppliers, or contact White Water Consultancy, one of the UK's biggest stockists of canoes, kayaks and accessories (wwc.co.uk, 0800 015 1520).

The downside

Overuse injuries are common According to the University of Nevada School of Medicine, overuse injuries account for 25-40% of all kayaking injuries and are most often either shoulder or wrist complaints.

The environment is unpredictable Like any water-based activities, canoeing and kayaking have an element of risk, with conditions changing without warning.

It's not much of a lower body workout The legs don't contribute much in kayaking or canoeing, so you won't see improved strength or tone.

It's hard on your hands Forget the manicure - your palms will be covered in blisters and calluses.

The upside

Boosts cardiovascular fitness A study at Manchester Metropolitan University discovered that the average mass of the heart's left ventricle was more than 50% greater in canoeists than in people who took no exercise.

Strengthens the upper body Paddling uses most of the arm and shoulder muscles, and enhances grip strength

Improves mental health Research in the Journal of Leisurability found that a 12-week kayaking programme enhanced feelings of confidence and self-worth

Reduces body fat Research from Australia, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, reported low levels of body fat in Olympic sprint canoe and kayak paddlers

Encourages core strength The core muscles help provide a good torso twist in paddle sports and aid stability in the boat

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.