Fitness for Sea Kayakers – Hips

by Nancy Soares on May 19, 2014

Have you ever exited your kayak after a long paddle to find your first steps stiff and awkward until you find your “land legs”? When we kayak our hips are mostly stationary at about a 90-degree angle. Apart from getting in and out of the boat there’s not a lot of movement in those joints. That means our hips, legs and backs can get stiff or even numb after extended periods in the cockpit.

There are four primary hip movements: flexion, extension, adduction (moving inward) and abduction (moving outward). The hip joint is capable of rotating but that’s not something we’ll address. Hip flexion occurs when we sit. To allow the hip to flex the quadricep muscles connecting hip to knee in front are shortened and the hamstrings in back are partially lengthened. These muscle groups are big and because they’re mostly static when we paddle it’s important to address them in a fitness program. With healthy hips in mind, here are some protocols.

Quadriceps stretch

Quadriceps stretch

Knee flexion/extension: Because they’re shortened in sitting the quads need to lengthen. Try this stretch: grab an ankle with the corresponding hand and take the heel toward the hip (knee flexion). When you’ve gone as far as you can go, gently press the ankle into the hand as though you were trying to straighten the knee (knee extension). Hold that stretch for 20 – 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side. Remember to breathe. This practice also challenges your balance if you do it without holding on to something. You can develop more core strength and stability by closing the eyes.

Forward flexion (forward bends): Although the hamstrings are partially lengthened in sitting, immobility is still a problem. The tension required to hold the hamstrings static creates rigidity both in the muscles themselves and in the lower back since the hamstrings pull on the muscles in the buttocks and up into the back.

Forward flexion

Forward flexion

 

You can address this problem by using three positions in forward flexion: feet together, right ankle over left, and left over right. This targets the full range of muscles that make up the hamstring group and when you cross ankles challenges your balance again. Also studies show that crossing an arm or leg over the midline of the body changes the dominant side of the brain used, helping us become more ambidextrous both physically and mentally.

 

Forward flexion with crossed ankles

Forward flexion with crossed ankles

 

 

There is of course, the classic position janusirsasana (head to knee pose) but this can be difficult. Standing postures are generally more doable for people who are less flexible. Standing poses also tend to be less challenging for people with back issues. Be sure to keep a microbend in the knees.

Janusirsasana modified

Janusirsasana modified

 


The piriformis:
The quads and the hamstrings are the two biggest muscle groups affecting the hip joint but the adductors, abductors and piriformis are important too. The piriformis is the muscle typically associated with sciatica. The piriformis runs under the gluteus muscle in the hip. Sometimes it actually runs through the muscle and these people will be more prone to suffer from sciatic pain. A good stretch for the piriformis is “eye-of the needle” pose which can be done supine or standing. Of course, rajakapotanasana (pigeon pose) is even better if you can manage it. (The above crossed ankle stretch addresses the piriformis as well.) Click on the thumbnail photos below to enlarge them for better viewing.

Eye of the needle standing

Eye of the needle standing

 

Eye of the needle supine

Eye of the needle supine

Pigeon pose

Pigeon pose

 

 

 

 

 

Adductors and abductors: The adductors, the inward movers, perform as stabilizers in kayaking. Their action is mostly isometric (the joint doesn’t move when the muscles contract). The adductors are part of the “core” complex. The outward movers, the abductors, are more active in kayaking than the adductors but still mostly isometric as when bracing the legs against the cockpit. Try these helpful stretches for the outward movers below. “Windshield wipers” is a gentler version of suptapadangusthasana (big toe pose) in which the knees are taken gently from side to side.

Suptapadangusthasana

Suptapadangusthasana

Windshield wipers

Windshield wipers

Although the adductors are pretty inactive in kayaking, it’s always a good idea to address all the major muscles that affect a joint. Again, the adductors are part of the “core” muscles that help us balance and stabilize. They activate mostly isometrically as we balance, edge, and brace in our kayaks. The more active our kayaking the more the inward and outward movers get worked. Wide-legged forward bends can take care of the adductors.

Wide-legged forward bend

Wide-legged forward bend

Creating movement and flexibility in the muscles affecting the hips not only helps those joints stay healthy but also helps the back. In fact, low back pain is frequently a manifestation of tight hip muscles. The stretches above will help keep your hips healthy and prevent stiffness and pain. This will increase the longevity of your kayaking career, always a desirable result. Hold each stretch for a minimum of ten seconds. A protocol I like is to stretch side to side six times or so for short periods of around ten or fifteen seconds. Repeat as needed. And BREATHE!

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Fat Paddler May 20, 2014 at 7:45 am

Keeping in mind I’ve broken a hip (amongst other things), I do a lot of gym work to strengthen my lower body. Apart from the squats, single leg squats, leg curls etc, the best exercise I do is rolling out the various hip muscles using a foam roller. Quads, glutes, hammies, ITB etc….. time on a foam roller everyday is amazing for opening up hip flexibility. Cheers, FP

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Nancy Soares May 20, 2014 at 9:40 am

OMG, the foam roller! You just gave me an idea for a future post. I have a love/hate relationship with mine. I love how I can roll my back and get adjustments. I hate going over my IT bands and TFL’s (speaking of parts that affect the hips) – the pain, the pain. Of course if I do it regularly it’s not so bad, but yeah, the foam roller. Thanks so much for bringing that one up. It’s huge.

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Fat Paddler May 20, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Agreed, I’m pretty sure foam rollers are banned under the Geneva Convention. Pure agony. They work though!

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Paula Renouf September 5, 2014 at 3:54 pm

just discovered SOFT foam rollers.. MUCH much less torturous!

Reply

Nancy Soares September 6, 2014 at 6:47 am

Yep, Paula, foam rollers have advanced a lot since they first came out. I still have my original though – in fact I was giving the old IT band a workout last night. Talk about having to regulate your breath! It was hard not to gasp. My question is do the softer ones work as well? I had a little hip pain and after about 10 minutes on the torture device it was all gone. This morning it’s still gone. If I can get the same bang for my buck on a softer unit I’ll invest in one. I’d love to hear how the softer version is working for you.

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Don May 24, 2014 at 10:06 am

Great stretches! I’d add one specific to the hip flexors, which are active with good posture in the kayak, and remain flexed (shortened) if we sit throughout the day. There are several ways to do it, but the key is to get the knee behind the hip. Your standing quadriceps stretch works, but with the knee farther back. It can help to put the back foot up on a piece of furniture (either standing or kneeling), and then move the rest of the body forward, and you’ll feel it!

And a big second (third?) to foam rollers!!

Reply

Nancy Soares May 24, 2014 at 11:03 am

Hey Don, good to hear from you. And yes – shortened hip flexors = bad! Knee back = good. I know pigeon pose is difficult for most people but you get an awesome hip flexor stretch on the rear leg if you can manage it. Otherwise standing poses are much easier and putting the back foot up is a great idea. The heel doesn’t have to be at the hip either; the knee can be at a 90 degree angle and you can still get a great stretch. Thanks for your comment!

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