Injuries involving muscles and joints represent, by far, the most frequently reported injuries by sea kayakers. As a full body exercise, it should not be a surprise that the paddling motion offers plenty of opportunity for pulls, strains, cramps, and overuse injuries. One can assume that the most susceptible areas include the arms, shoulders, neck, and back as these are the most involved in the paddling motion. However, it is also important to consider the legs and hips as a possible injury location as well. Fear-the-not for the most common sea kayaking injuries are also the most preventable with simple measures including proper conditioning, paddling technique and position, and gear selection.
Preventing muscle and joint injuries starts with proper conditioning. Consider a 5K runner for example. Prior to a race you would expect the runner to go through a pre-race routine that involves warm-ups and stretching in order to get their body “activated” for the race. This is something that sea kayakers rarely ever consider to do and I posit that this lack of “pre-paddle conditioning” is the crux of why muscle and joint injuries are so often reported. Thus, to avoid this type of injury, consider yourself as an athlete and treat your body appropriately. Before you hit the water make sure to do some warm-ups. This may involve going for a short jog, air-paddling, or other calisthenics that act to warm up your muscles and get your heart-rate up a bit. Once you’re warmed up you should take a few minutes to do some paddling-specific stretches. With over 3 million copies sold, I’ve turned to “Stretching” by Bob Anderson to develop my warm-up routine:
The next best way to prevent common muscle and joint injuries is to use proper paddling technique. This involves utilizing the core muscles and not relying entirely on your arms for power. In short, paddling with your core muscles is called torso rotation. Start by sitting in your kayak on flat water and hold your paddle such that a square is formed between your arms, chest, and paddle. If you lock your elbows you will find that the only way to paddle is to do so by twisting with your core. Now, relax your elbows and continue to paddle using the twisting motion leaving your arms to push and pull at the end of the stroke. Using torso rotation will help prevent common muscle and joint injuries by transferring much of the stress of paddling from your weaker arm muscles and joints to your stronger core muscles. It takes some time to get used to but you’ll be rewarded for your efforts by tiring out more slowly and suffering fewer aches and pains. Also, a proper paddling position; sitting upright or slightly forward with your lower back slightly pressed against the back band will take a lot of strain off of your back. Lounging against your back-band is a nice way to relax in a protected cove but chronic slouching while paddling is a recipe for lower-back troubles.
Gear selection can also help to prevent muscle and joint injuries. This is especially true when selecting a paddle. One should consider things like blade area and shaft shape. If you are a strong paddler or someone who paddles infrequently or for short durations then you can probably get away with a larger blade area without putting your elbows at too much long-term risk. If, however, you’re a smaller paddler or someone who paddles for miles at a time then you should consider a smaller blade area to take stress off of your joints. Also, if you’re someone who is susceptible to elbow or wrist trouble then you should consider a neutral bent shaft when purchasing a paddle. These funky looking shafts are ergonomically designed to keep your wrist and elbows well aligned throughout the paddle stroke and prevent the typical twisting motion that can lead to over-use injuries such as tennis elbow and carpel tunnel syndrome.
In summary, the most common paddling injuries (those to joints and muscles) are also the most preventable. Taking 10 to 15 minutes for warm-ups and stretching prior to each paddling adventure will condition your muscles and joints to prevent sprains and strains. Proper paddling technique including the use of torso rotation and an active paddling position will help to take the stress off of your arms and back and result in fewer post-paddling aches and pains. Finally, thoughtful paddle selection with respect to blade area and shaft shape can go a long way toward preventing overuse injuries to the joints in your arms. I hope that these tips will help you find many years of pain-free paddling!
Happy and Safe Paddling!