SUP AND YOUR BACK
By: Basil Tydings
The other day a friend of mine approached me about starting the 2014 SUP season and having to deal with back issues. We didn’t have time to chat in depth about what might be happening so I thought I would go into more detail for him and anybody else who might be experiencing back issues this early in the season. If you are over 30 and have put in a day or two of hard work in your life you probably have dealt with or are currently dealing with some back issues. Pain happens. The back is chock full of muscles, bones, cartilage, nerves, and other tissue than can be affected. We need to take care of the complicated system that is a large part of our physical architecture. As of right now, if you are paddling and having back issues, in my humble opinion, you are doing something wrong.
At this point you might be wondering who the hell am I and what authority do I have to talk about back issues since I don’t have any other initials after my name other than Jr.? (Some of you may have already read one of my older blogs about my back trauma but for those of you who haven’t here is why.) I am an athletic guy that in 2010 had a disc (L5) explode in my back while doing seated rows at the gym. What I mean by explosion is this: a disc in your back is like a jelly donut. I executed poor posture while doing seated rows and squeezed a disc so tightly that all the jelly shot out of the right side of it and ended up floating around my lower right side. The pain I was experiencing was my body dealing with all this new fluid trespassing in areas it was not supposed to be.
I didn’t have health insurance so I did not go to the emergency room. I didn’t get any pain meds. I tiptoed to a chiropractor’s office and begged for some help and got some of that electro stimulation stuff done and a brace. Basically, I collapsed on my floor for a month in order to heal up. It was awful, one of the worst times of my life. I don’t know what I would have done without Gracie’s help as I lived an existence where I was hardly able to go to the bathroom without stifling cries of pain. Eventually, I began to mend and I was able to start being somewhat active once again. Then Cousin Neil got me into SUP and I felt myself come alive once again. Stand up paddling, if executed correctly, should be prescribed to anyone with back issues. I am no tough guy and I don’t do well with the sniffles or playing through pain. Luckily, thanks to stand up paddling and the healing powers from above, I feel like I have made a complete recovery.
I went through a real tough time, gained a huge amount of weight, and truly thought I was doomed to live the sedentary lifestyle less than 3 months after turning 40. Neil’s prodding, a Jimmy Lewis Albatross, a 5lb. Kialoa paddle, Lake Michigan, the Tred Avon River, and my belief in a Higher Power completely turned my life around. Since, I have listened closely when my back speaks and had to make many adjustments in order to paddle pain free. When you go through something as traumatic as a disc bursting under pressure your inclination to listen to your body becomes much more acute.
Let’s examine some reasons as to why pain might occur in a paddler’s back this early in the season. Please feel free to add comments below because this is a post that will hopefully help someone’s current situation and prevent another from suffering any pain. The more ideas the merrier as we all must always strive to continue learning about our bodies, especially with race season getting ready to throttle up.
Did you start too fast too early? This was a tough winter. A lot of us were kept off the water for a lot longer than we expected. With all the talk of Global Warming we all probably thought we would be back in board shorts by March! Did you finally get out on the water and really get after it during your first couple of sessions? Being excited can easily make you lose focus on executing proper techniques and keeping in mind that you are starting your training cycle over. Think of this time of the year as a new beginning. After a long winter break you need to spend time re-building your aerobic base. This is especially true for paddlers over 30. Your body needs to adjust as you begin to put on years. Trying to get in some sprints before your body has a good foundation to build upon can definitely cause you problems. Building an aerobic base means long, slow, boring paddles that will make you want to pull your hair out, but if you put the time in to build up a solid foundation now you WILL reap the benefits come June, July, August, and September. You need to take it slow and you should take it slow for longer than you think necessary.
Are you doing enough of a warm up before a training session? If you are going out to train that means you are on the water to put in some work. Are you spending enough time warming up? Many of you are overwhelmed with work, kids, dogs, errands, etc. When you do finally get out on the water you try to jam all your goals into one short paddle. Stop this right now! Make sure the quality of the work you put in is of a high standard. If you know your workout is going to be short re-think your game plan. Instead of focusing on too much, focus on one aspect of your paddling that needs work, whether it be buoy turns, starts, switching sides, strengthening your weaker side, or falling off and getting back on. In my humble opinion, the one aspect of a training session you should definitely NOT cheat on or skip is the warm up. I firmly believe that a warm up should be NO LESS THAN 15 minutes. With everything else going on in your daily schedule you absolutely must make the transition from real life to a paddle as smooth as possible. The less of a jar the transition is to your body the better you will feel and the more you will get out of the work you put in. Time can always be an issue so if you are going to cheat, cheat on the backside of your workout but try to cool down as soon as you can. This can mean a walk with your crying baby, raking mulch at a very slow pace or walking around your kitchen in circles while making spaghetti.
Is your paddle size too short? Last year going to a shorter paddle length was all-the trend. Did you cut your paddle down an inch or two from the length you were originally paddling? Bodies change from one season to the next. I know I cut one of my paddles too short but I am too cheap to throw it away or buy a new shaft so I paddled with it anyway. My back let me know this was not a very good idea. A super short paddle works for a 30-knot upwind battle in a washing machine, but that is about it. If you are just getting back on the water your posture could be off from where you ended last year. You might need to start the season with a longer paddle. As your body adjusts to being back on the board you can play around with paddle lengths but make sure you are working into the body position that works best for you and make sure you are working into it slowly.
Also, might your paddle blade be too big and your shaft too stiff? Technology has allowed for quite an evolution in the equipment we use. Did you change to a bigger size paddle blade at the end of last year? If you are using a bigger paddle blade you are gathering more water behind it to move your board forward. At this time of the year can you handle this amount of exertion? Are you getting just a wee bit older and need to use a more flexible shaft? Examine your paddle and make sure you have what suites you best for this time of the year. You will grow and improve your strength if you build up to where you were at the end of last year by starting smaller and slower.
In the catch phase of your stroke does your blade hit air before your blade hits water? Larry Cain brings up a great point in his awesome blog about not air paddling as you go to bury your paddle blade. I think this can affect someone who has back issues. If you are paddling, especially in a race, and you are putting in a lot of effort, you can constantly jar your back if you are hitting the water AFTER you begin to pull back. Larry Cain says that you should spear the water, meaning the blade should still be moving forward as the blade enters the water. Then gather water behind the blade as you begin to try to pull your board past your paddle. If your paddle blade hits air as you pull back you are creating a little shock that will affect the muscles engaged in the stroke. How many strokes do you take a session? How many times are your muscles feeling that shock? That tiny abrupt stoppage that happens when you paddle air before you paddle water can add up over the course of a session or a race! You are creating unwanted momentum and an unnecessarily abrupt deceleration when you hit air before water. This has always been a problem for me. I have slapped that water so hard my paddle blade sounds like a beaver tail. As Larry Cain states: (and I paraphrase and add a bit) if you hear your stroke you are not doing something correctly. You are not burying your blade far enough and you might be slapping the water coming backwards instead of spearing the water moving forward. Now is the time of the year to focus on perfecting the technique that works best for you. Check out Larry’s blog and reap the benefits. http://www.larrycain.ca
Are you reaching too far forward? All the pros say reach reach REACH. If you can reach all the way forward and bury the blade near the nose of your board and not get hurt while passing the rest of the field good on ya! My reach is pretty short. I have stood on my board a bunch of times trying to determine how far forward I can reach without overtaxing my muscles. I don’t reach very far. I see pictures of people all twisted and turned around so far extended that I feel pain in my back just seeing this! There is an obvious point where the angle of the blade in the water becomes too far away from the body to be of any value to your stroke. Make sure you are well aware of where this point is for you so you do not tax your muscles too much, especially if you don’t get any benefit from the movement! Check out some videos of your favorite paddler and see how far forward they reach when racing…it might not be as far as you think!
Are you twisting too much? Torque can be defined as a turning or twisting force. Obviously there is torque in a paddle stroke. Some of us cannot twist as much as we are advised to do from instructional YouTube videos and in clinics. I know I should not twist very far to either side in order to be able to paddle for a long time. I want to be in top form in 5 years when I hit the Masters division and finally get away from all these young guns!! When you add too much torque to your stroke you are twisting your spine and throwing too much strain on one side of your body when your spine is NOT in its strongest position. Your spine is strongest when all the discs are stacked on top of each other with a slight arch. Any time you move out of this position you are not in your strongest most tolerant position, so you need to watch what you do if you have any type of back issues. Reach too far forward in all this and you could be a strong candidate for pain. Watch the twist, especially at this time of year, and execute a stroke that does not tax your body. Build now and keep it close. As you build strength you will begin to be able to do more, whether it be twisting and adding more torque, reaching a little further forward, and/or increasing your cadence.
Good form and good technique are great if you can pull it off. NEWS FLASH—–some of us can’t. Look who is giving some of the more popular clinics and classes these days: Larry Cain, Jimmy Terrell, and Danny Ching. You have two Olympic athletes who have trained for hundreds, possibly thousands of hours, and a guy who has been paddling since he could hold a paddle. Most of us on the east coast were throwing around a lacrosse ball or playing Little League baseball. That being said, I have taken a Danny Ching clinic and constantly study Larry Cain’s blog for tips that might help me improve. Most of us have not been paddling all of our lives so it is important to realize that not everything that works for these gentlemen will work for us. Some of it will but, in reality, some of it may be too much for us to handle. I take away what I can from these guys but I also know my limits. Sometimes I discover my limits by going too far, experiencing some pain, and then pulling way back. I cannot twist like Danny Ching does. I wish I could. I tried to but it hurts my back!
I have always been a big fan of knowing your own body’s limits by listening to how your body speaks to you. We all want to paddle as fast as our body will allow us to. If you are experiencing pain then you need to take the time to LISTEN carefully to what is going on inside your skin as you lead an active lifestyle.
Also, winter was mean to us paddlers. Not many of us were able to put the necessary time in on the water to have a strong aerobic foundation to build upon. If you are hurting you need to think long, slow, and boring. Paddling with a heart rate monitor, at your MAF (maximum aerobic function), is a good idea if you are trying to heal a minor injury or wanting to build a better base. July, when most of the races take place in Maryland, is a long a way off. It is better to go slow and get strong now than to deal with pain for the next several months.
Anybody else have any ideas on how to deal with or prevent back pain?