Avoiding paddle boarding shoulder pain and back problems can be a challenge. You can always ‘take it easy’ as soon as the tightness and pinching feelings begin and refrain from that level of exertion- but eventually you will want go a little faster or stay out a little longer as you progress. For standup paddle boarders the back and shoulders are the most common areas that become irritated. Of course, your abdominals and quads will ache when first starting out but this is due to those muscles strengthening and building and not a sign of injury. The spine and shoulder joint, on the other hand, are highly complex structures that perform equally complex tasks. So they are more prone to develop glitches if the musculature is not supporting them adequately or they are being forced to move in ways contrary to their natural operation. Quite often the latter is caused by bad paddling technique and posture. So let’s talk a little about how to mitigate paddle boarding back and shoulder pain.
If you have a day job that requires you to sit in front of computer screen for hours on end it is very easy to slouch forward without even being aware of it. The key is to correct that posture as soon as you realize it. The natural position for your back is to have all the vertebrae stacked directly on top of each other. If your back is bent over your keyboard the soft discs between your vertebrae will be forced to bulge out. This is not natural and the nerves that run through these areas will be impinged from above and below by the bone and pain will result.
Likewise, it is important to keep a straight back when you are paddling. When you bend forward into the catch phase of your stroke make sure that you bend from the hips while keeping your lower back and shoulders aligned- not slumped over your feet. In addition, it is always a good idea to hold your head up as much as possible. Simply focus on keeping your line of site on the horizon, or directly in front of you. This will force you to keep your back straight without slumping. Looking down will have the opposite effect.
Use Your Whole Body
When you begin your forward reach to plant your blade in the water you should be extending your hip and torso and knee along with your arm. Only extending your arm puts undue stress on shoulder in the same that way hunching over your board will place extra burden on your lower back. The idea is to bring your entire body into play so that not just one area of it is carrying the entire load. This technique not only saves shoulders and back from undue stress but it is also the most efficient and powerful way to paddle. Also, try not to lift your top hand above shoulder level. Rather, keep it at, or just below shoulder level. Many shoulder injuries are caused by raising the high in the air during the recovery and power phases.
Your stroke should begin by moving your hip (the on the side you are paddling on) forward as you reach out with your lower arm keeping elbows straight and unbent. Your shoulder on that side will also follow your hand forward. Keep your knees slightly bent at all times. Remember, the lower you are to the board, the more stable you will be and your balance will remain consistent even as your ride through bumpy conditions. As you plant the blade in the water push down on the handle with your top hand. Forcing the blade down in this fashion will make it easier to start your counter rotation. At this point you will move your top hand shoulder forward driving the energy into the handle at the same time your hip will turn in the direction of your stroke. This will engage your core muscles, which are incredibly powerful, and take the stress off of your back and shoulders.
By utilizing these two strategies as much as possible you will notice that you will have a lot more energy to paddle faster and harder for longer periods of time without risking injury to yourself. There are also a number of additional ways that you can help mitigate paddle boarding back and shoulder pain including practicing various stretching techniques before heading out onto the water. Check out this Standup Paddling Fitness and SUP Magazine for some great ideas on how to improve your fitness and stay strong for paddle boarding. You should also never over exert yourself when first going out on your paddle boarding routine. Start out slowly and give your muscles time to warm up. This will greatly enhance your time out there and possibly save you from having to take time out of your routine to recover from a pulled ligament or strain.