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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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