Fitness for Sea Kayakers 3 – Back

by Nancy Soares on September 23, 2013

Editor’s note: Thanks again so much to Barbara Kossy, our indefatigable model! You rock!!! 

Begin with the paddle behind your shoulders. Allow your arms to drape over the paddle shaft and relax your hands.

Begin with the paddle behind your shoulders. Allow your arms to drape over the paddle shaft and relax your hands.

Actually, these stretches are for the entire torso. As we know, torso rotation is super important for kayakers. Also, if you’re rolling or getting worked in white water, it’s very helpful to be strong and flexible in and around the spine and ribs. The spine needs to be able to move easily in all directions. The following stretches can help you significantly in limbering up the appropriate muscles: the intercostals between the ribs, the erector spinae along the spinal column, the quadratus lumborum on the side, and the lumbar muscles in the low back.

Engage your core and slowly bend to one side, keeping your chest lifted.

Engage your core and slowly bend to one side, keeping your chest lifted.

With the paddle behind your shoulders, bend sideways as far as you can. Repeat on the opposite side. Go back and forth slowly. Just go as far as you can to feel a good stretch in your sides. If you aren’t able to get the paddle behind your shoulders, you can hold it in front of you at the collarbones. Or you can put your paddle down, take your arms out shoulder level, bend your elbows to a right angle “cactus” style, and use that position instead.

After you do the sideways bend, twist from side to side. You can try keeping your feet planted or try rising on the toes of the opposite foot. Both ways give you a good stretch. Keep your shoulders level! About six times on each side is a good number of reps.

Twist from side to side.

Twist from side to side.

Now take your paddle in both hands and reach high overhead. Feel the stretch all along the front of your body, from your pelvis to your shoulders and all along your arms to your wrists. Continue to reach high to the sky and repeat the bend from side to side. See if you can get your paddle blade all the way to the ground.

Stretch from your toes to your fingertips.

Stretch from your toes to your fingertips.

Bend from side to side with the paddle held overhead.

Bend from side to side with the paddle held overhead.

See if you can bend so that the paddle blade touches the ground.

See if you can bend so that the paddle blade touches the ground.

After you do the side bend, repeat the twist, continuing to hold the paddle overhead. Keep reaching out to elongate the muscles in the sides all the way to the armpits. Allow your head to turn as well and look over your shoulder in the same direction to that in which you’re turning.

Lastly, keeping your arms long, reach behind you with the paddle and hinge forward from the hips. Keep your knees soft and your weight centered on your feet as you bend forward. Raise the paddle as far away from your body as you can. Then press into your feet and engage your abdominal muscles to rise to standing.

Keep your core muscles engaged while bending forward. Press into your feet and "root to rise".

Keep your core muscles engaged while bending forward. Press into your feet and “root to rise”.

These are just a few very basic stretches to help keep your back limber. They also enhance shoulder flexibility. A healthy back requires a strong core and strong, flexible hips and legs are needed too because tension in the hips and legs can affect the back. We’ll cover these important topics in future posts. As Tsunami Ranger Don Kiesling pointed out in his comment on our last fitness post, it’s a good idea to do these types of stretches after paddling to release muscles after exertion. A good approach would be to warm up dynamically beforehand with these or similar movements without holding them for any length of time and then when you get off the water go deeper into the stretches, holding each one statically for a count of 10 to 20 seconds. Remember to breathe deeply and rhythmically. Your breath is a good indicator of how well you’re doing the stretch – if the breath is jerky or shallow you’re probably going too fast, too far, or too hard. Now is the time to be mindful of each movement and respectful of the body.

We hope you find these stretches useful. If you have any questions or would like to offer any additional stretches or advice for back health, please let us know by clicking below!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Moore September 26, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Thanks, Nancy, for the article. For me, my back is the “weak link” when I’m on a long kayak paddle. This is especially the case when I do my once-a-year 40 mile paddle. I’ll be incorporating these exercises into my pre-paddle routine…the photos are great, much better than any written explanation by itself.
There is one trick I have learned concerning the back that works for me. I discovered it last year on my 40 mile trip. Since I do this paddle non-stop, (except for a five-minute break to replace drinks and food from my hatch), I needed something to address my aching back while underway. What I do is approxamately every half-hour, I lean as far forward as I can a dozen times, followed by leaning backwards a dozen times. And I am paddling the whole time. This works well for me, I believe it may simply help blood circulation to the back.

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Nancy Soares September 27, 2013 at 11:40 am

Funny you should mention it, Tony. As I was reading your comment about the 40-mile trip the first thing I thought was, “I bet forward and backward flexing would be easy and good for that” and bingo! A couple of questions: where and when do you do this trip? and what do you think about pausing in your stroke to reach with your paddle forward and back? I ask because I often stop to take my paddle back and over my head toward my stern and just lie there on the rear deck for a bit. Feels great. Then it occurred to me you could reach with your left arm toward the right side of your bow and vice versa to get the obliques. I like your idea of repeating the movement 12 times – that’s basically what Don K. was suggesting – dynamic as opposed to static stretching.

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Tony M. September 27, 2013 at 2:16 pm

I’ve been doing this annual paddle for 4 years now, and this year I did the paddle around Aquidneck Island, as I have done in 3 out of four of the paddles. ( Located in Narragansett Bay, Aquidneck Island includes the cities of Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth ) . All four annual trips so far have included an exposed coast portion, which I plan to continue in future annual paddles. You can circumnavigate Aquidneck Island in 37 miles going the shortest distance from point to point, but I cut in, following the coast, so the trip is 40 miles. It’s kind of funny why I started doing this annual trip, and it has to do with my wife Aline, also a kayaker. As I get older, I’m afraid she’ll say something like “You’re getting too old to do (fill in the blank)”. So I figure, if I can do a 40 mile trip virtually non-stop, that gives me a free ticket for that year. I’m not a great kayaker, but if I do have a strong point it is endurance…I can cruise at a good clip all day, or surf the waves for hours, without a rest or break.
As far as pausing in my stroke while bending forward and backward, I never thought of doing that. If I did, it would be on the bending back portion of the stretching, as you mentioned. On the forward bending, it’s just like an exaggerated aggressive forward stroke, where you do bend forward a bit…the only difference is I bend forward much more than I would with simply an aggressive forward stroke. I know what you mean about it feeling great when you lie back on the rear deck, but on my 40 mile trip, I like to keep moving the boat through the water…it may feel TOO good, and I may end up taking a nap!

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Nancy Soares September 27, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Good point. I do spend a fair amount of time hanging out in that position because it does feel fantastic. I have to say I’m impressed both with your apparent degree of flexibility and your endurance. My legs would fall off if I did even 10 miles without exiting my kayak and swimming around from time to time. And now I’m wondering if there should be a change from that old question “Can you touch your toes?” to “Can you touch your nose to your front deck?” One more thing: never forget, age is just a number!

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Tony Moore September 29, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I must have given you the wrong idea as far as flexibility…my flexibility is not that great. When I say I lean forward as far as I can, that’s not as far as I’d like to be ABLE to lean forward! Something I definitely should work on.
Tony

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