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Avoiding Back Injury and Paddling Faster

It’s not uncommon for people to have low back pain.  Chiropractors, make their living off treating back pain and will tell you that much of what drives people to see them is the result of poor posture.  Fix one’s posture, they say, and you’ll fix the problem and prevent further problems.  

It’s not just sedentary people with bad posture who experience low back pain, however.  Athletes will often suffer from back pain due to poor biomechanics while executing their sport motion.  Often, this results from muscles in the low back, which are primarily designed for promoting proper posture, being used to produce power instead.  As it turns out, this can be a major issue in SUP.

For much of the 2021 season I experienced low back pain, and for the first time in my life began seeing a chiropractor regularly.  His treatments helped with the pain, but it was the education about posture that really made a difference.  That, and the video I got a friend to take of me paddling in mid-September.  I hadn’t seen good, close in video of me paddling in more than two years and what I saw immediately explained why my low back was hurting.  It also captured  and allowed me to recognize an error in technique that was negatively impacting my performance.  

Whether you paddle SUP to race, train for fitness, paddle occasionally for recreation or are new to SUP altogether, it’s worth understanding how you can minimize the risk of injury or back pain while paddling more productively.  Let’s take a look at the paddling motion, how it can impact your low back and how good technique can minimize the risk of it leading to injury or pain while maximizing your performance.

The paddling motion

Effective paddling requires that we bury the paddle blade while we paddle.  In fact, really effective paddling requires that we not just bury the blade, but we bury it as quickly as possible, loading body weight on it as we do.  As we pull, we probe the tip of the blade deeper into the water column as we continue loading weight on the paddle, before eventually unloading and bringing the blade towards the water’s surface at the exit.  It is this path of the paddle though the water, which sort of mimics the shape of the Nike swoosh, that allows us to maximize our connection each stroke, in turn increasing the efficiency with which we’re able to pull ourselves past the paddle and propel ourselves forward.

The problem with SUP is, we’re standing up.  Our bottom hand is a long way from the water’s surface when we catch the water and, if we’re going to get the blade buried quickly and loaded with body weight during the stroke we have to do something with our body to get the blade deeper into the water.  Standing upright and just using our arms isn’t going to cut it.  

The options we have available to get the blade deeper into the water and support our body weight are two-fold.  We can either bend more at the waist so that our paddling side hand gets closer to the water and the blade tip therefore gets deeper or, we can bend our legs more, getting our hips and everything above them lower to the surface of the water as we pull.  

Unfortunately, if we choose the former we end up doing lots of work with our low back muscles which are primarily designed for posture rather than power.  We end up having to bend over further during the pull every stroke which means we then have to come up further on every exit.  This creates a tremendous load on the muscles of the low back.  

A basic principal of effective technique – use big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles

One of the most important principles of paddling technique is to use big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles.  If you’re using the comparatively small and weak erector spinae muscles which run up your back on either side of your spine to come up with the stroke after each time you’ve pulled, there is a problem.  You’re not only asking too much of muscles that weren’t designed to produce this type of force, but also choosing to use muscles that are smaller and weaker than other muscles available.  You’re risking injury to these muscles, injury to other muscles in the area, injury to your spine, and sacrificing power in your stroke. 

A better approach is to use your legs by bending more at the knees to get the paddle blade deeper into the water.  This allows your legs to assist your hips as they work against the water held on your blade through the pull and takes much of the load off the muscles of the low back.  Essentially, you’re exchanging weaker, comparatively fragile muscles for more powerful muscles designed for this type of work.  Furthermore, once you’ve finished using your hips and your legs to pull yourself to the paddle you can begin to reload your hips forward and straighten your legs back to their original degree of bend to push yourself past the paddle at the exit.  In this case you’re once again using bigger force producing muscles over smaller, weaker and more fragile postural muscles.  You’re increasing your power output while minimizing your risk of injury.

Let’s look at the difference between each approach in a couple of videos.  First in video 1, we see paddling with less legs and more low back – both to get the paddle buried and loaded through the pull and to unload and prepare for the next stroke at the exit.  We see that as the paddler unloads, the motion begins from and is driven by the muscles in his low back and his hips only begin to move forward once the paddle is almost completely out of the water.  

Now, contrast that with video 2 in which we see more use of legs and less reliance on the low back.  Notice that the blade gets buried more quickly due to more ankle flexion and a slight forward lean coming right from the feet.  Not only does this allow for a longer stroke with more work being done with a positive blade angle, but it also allows for more body weight to be loaded onto the blade starting the instant the blade begins to enter the water.  Legs bend more through the pull, helping get the blade deeper into the water without bending too much from the low back, and the hips drive back harder in conjunction with the legs to provide the bulk of the force working against the water held on the blade.  

Still looking at video 2, we see that once the loading is finished, the legs stop bending and hips stop driving back and almost immediately the paddler begins to unload.  Here the hips drive the movement, moving forward under the body and allowing the legs straighten to their original degree of bend, all this movement being done while the blade is still buried.  This allows the paddler to push himself past the paddle at the exit more forcefully using big muscles in the hips and legs that are designed to produce power, accelerating the board more in the process so that it carries more speed between strokes.  

It’s pretty clear when comparing video 2 with video 1 that less low back is involved, thus reducing risk of low back injury, and that more big muscles of the legs, hips and core are involved – all capable of generating more power than muscles of the low back which are primarily intended to assist with posture.  The cool thing is, this is the same paddler in videos 1 and 2, with the videos taken about 8 weeks apart.  This is a great example of how quickly one can improve technique with a real focused effort. 

So, the take away here is that by protecting the low back from injury from doing work it is not designed it also results in more effective and efficient paddling through the use of bigger, more powerful muscles.  

Good posture and the “neutral spine”

When I started going to the chiropractor in August 2021, I realized for the first time in my life that my posture wasn’t ideal.  From years of paddling sprint canoe on the right side only I have some degenerative scoliosis and arthritis in my spine.  But these conditions were being exacerbated by bad posture – primarily my shoulders being rolled forward, pushing my head a little forward in the process.  Fortunately, by simply being aware of my posture I was able to pretty quickly improve it.  However, I was still suffering from some lower back pain, even after improving my standing, walking and sitting posture.  

It wasn’t until I saw video 3 that I realized why my low back was hurting.  You’ll note that while the front of the stroke is pretty solid in this video and I do a good job of using my hips and legs in the pull, I am late unloading in the second half of the stroke and not using my hips properly at the end of the stroke.  My hips are late and therefore their movement reloading forward is incomplete when the blade is exiting the water.  Moreover, once I’ve exited, I am standing in a position through the most of the recovery which resembles anything but the good posture of a neutral spine.  My butt is sticking out behind me which is putting a lot of pressure on the erector spinae muscles of my lower back at a time when these muscles should be totally relaxed.

Try standing in this position, bent over slightly with your butt stuck out behind you, and place one of your hands on your lower back.  You’ll feel the erector spinae muscles, which run up your back on either side of your spine, and they’ll feel rock hard.  Now, bring your hips forward so your butt is underneath your upper body like you see in the illustration of a neutral spine in figure 1.  You should feel your erector spinae muscles relax.  

Figure 1

Imagine paddling for 80 minutes almost every day without ever giving these muscles a rest by standing with a neutral spine.  No wonder my low back hurt.  

I immediately set to work adjusting my technique to look more like video 4, taken a few years ago when I had no back problems.  You’ll note in this video that, while the loading portion of my stroke is quite similar, the exit starts earlier and my hips move more forcefully forward, continuing until they are under my upper body and I have a more or less neutral spine from my hips to my head.  Though I am leaning forward from my feet in this video, my spine is aligned almost exactly the same as in figure 1. 

Protect your back, and paddle faster

This adjustment didn’t take too long, probably because I had paddled properly in the past and the mistake I was making, which was causing my back pain, was simply a bad habit I had picked up largely because I hadn’t seen myself on video for a couple of years. Within a short time, my back stopped bothering me and my exit was more forceful and faster.  I got better acceleration off the exit in each stroke, which allowed me to carry more speed between strokes and keep my board more on top of the water.  This in turn made the catch at the start of the next stroke easier.  Addressing my “posture” on the board not only “cured” my back issues but improved my speed.

As it turns out, this is not an uncommon issue.  In the last few months I have spoken to five different paddlers complaining of low back pain.  I was able to see two of them paddle in person and recognized immediately that they were making the same mistake I had been making in video 3.  However, there were three other paddlers I did not see paddle, either in real life or on video.  It just seemed like the pain they were describing was familiar and that they might be making a mistake that I think is actually pretty common.  I mentioned my story and suggested they focus on finding a neutral spine for at least a moment during the recovery of each stroke by making sure they unload both on time and by using their hips correctly.  Both reported back to me a week or so later that they no longer had any back issues.  

We’ll be looking at “unloading” and the exit in greater detail over the next few months, including a discussion on the most common errors, how to identify them and what to do to correct them.  For now, here’s hoping this discussion and the exemplar videos included have enhanced your understanding of how you can protect your low back from pain or injury while paddling more efficiently and effectively at the same time.  

Happy paddling!


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