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.
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.