How To Paddle for the Long Haul

©istockphoto/marekuliasz

Nobody is get­ting younger. Unfor­tu­nate­ly for you and I, that includes us. For every friend who is pad­dling well past retire­ment age—and I even have a friend who’s pad­dled water­falls in his 80s—and I have anoth­er who is com­plain­ing about how pad­dling is now tough on his back, shoul­ders, or some oth­er joint. How can we set our­selves up for long and endur­ing careers on the water?

Pro­tect Your Back
Pad­dling is hard on the back. As we age and become less flex­i­ble, sit­ting for long hours in the kayak­ing posi­tion gets hard­er, and we have less flex­i­bil­i­ty to rotate. That means mak­ing sure you’re doing a good job warm­ing up, stretch­ing, and head­ing to the gym to restore lost flex­i­bil­i­ty ear­ly and often. As I’ve aged, I’ve become a lot more picky about my kayak out­fit­ting and seat posi­tion. When we can’t rotate far enough on our strokes, we tend to com­pen­sate by reach­ing with our arms, and that will not help you.

Pro­tect Your Shoul­ders
Shoul­ders, along with backs, are the main area for pad­dling injuries. Instruc­tors use a vari­ety of tech­niques to get pad­dlers to keep their shoul­ders intact, rang­ing from the “paddler’s box” to teach­ing stu­dents to roll hold­ing a sponge between the elbow and the tor­so.

The main thing to focus on is to avoid reach­ing, and instead focus on mov­ing the legs, hips and tor­so to keep your shoul­ders in a pro­tect­ed posi­tion. Phys­i­cal ther­a­pists and med­ical pro­fes­sion­als can help you devel­op strength in the small mus­cles that sta­bi­lize the shoul­ders. Over my pad­dling career, my pad­dles seem to get short­er with each one that I buy. A short­er pad­dle reduces the lever­age on your soft tis­sues, espe­cial­ly if you’re using a large blade with a stiff mate­r­i­al like car­bon fiber.

Don’t Squeeze The Pad­dle
Now that we’re talk­ing pad­dles, grip it light­ly. A clenched grip will only result in arm fatigue, and even­tu­al­ly, elbow ten­donitis.

©istockphoto/marekuliasz

Free Your Hips and Your Mind Will Fol­low
Sit­ting in a kayak for long hours will stretch the ham­strings and com­press the hip flex­ors. Work hard to off­set that effect by stretch­ing the front of your core. Find com­pli­men­ta­ry stretch­es and work­outs that off­set the mus­cle imbal­ances that can come from too much time in that posi­tion.

Warm Up and Stretch
As we age, we lose flex­i­bil­i­ty and resilien­cy— I have to stretch much more reli­gious­ly and slow­ly than I did when I was younger. Remem­ber: don’t stretch while you’re cold: a fac­tor to keep in mind when you’re pad­dling in the win­ter, and when you have a bunch of boats to get down to the water after you’ve been sit­ting stiffly in a car for an hour.

Be Care­ful on Land
Most pad­dling acci­dents don’t hap­pen on the water—they hap­pen on land. Hoist­ing kayaks off trucks, car­ry­ing boats or gear over slip­pery rocks and load­ing cool­ers on and off rafts are the places you’re most like­ly to hurt your­self far more than a big surf zone. Take your time and watch your step.

Train for the Long Trip
As a 20-some­thing, I could dive into a big trip with lit­tle train­ing or prepa­ra­tion. As I’ve got­ten old­er, I’ve learned that I need to train, ramp up and build my endurance more. Give your­self a reg­i­men. If you haven’t spent much time in your boat, give your body time to adjust, and then start to build up the miles. As rac­ers do, let your­self taper off a bit just before the trip.

Don’t Be Macho
“It’s just a flesh wound” brushoff of a lit­tle pain didn’t work for The Black Knight in Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail. It won’t work for us as we age either. We need more time to heal from “minor” tweaks. Don’t push your return to the water too fast.