We’ve had a lot of people tell us that their hands/arms/shoulders/back are sore for a day or so after a paddle. Now these are not people who race or normally battle cross-winds/waves, but our typical participants on rather leisurely trips where we spend as much time looking at wildlife as actually paddling. So if you are an occasional and/or leisurely paddler, here are a few thoughts on that topic, based on what we have observed on the trips we lead. Note that these suggestions are for fairly relaxed, low angle paddling and aimed at instilling an understanding of proper paddling techniques. After a high mileage day battling head-winds we ALL may be a little sore, no matter how good our technique is.
An extremely common source of temporary joint pain and muscle soreness is dehydration. Remember, by the time you feel thirsty, dehydration has already started. So it is wise, especially here in Florida, to drink small amounts of water frequently during your paddle, even when the weather is cool and you don’t feel like you need it. Also remember that coffee, tea, alcohol and soft drinks are diuretics. So even if you are drinking a lot you can still become dehydrated if you are drinking the wrong thing. It’s fine to haul along a soda or ice tea for lunch and for kayak touring there’s nothing like a nice glass of wine or a margarita around the campfire, just make sure you have plenty of good old water and are sipping it throughout the day.
One of the biggest problems we see for paddling efficiently is poor posture. If you don’t sit up straight can’t keep the paddle in the water close to your boat and you simply cannot paddle efficiently. This puts greater stress on your body, particularly your arms, shoulders, and back.
Now part of this is a function of the boat. For example, a wide boat means you have to reach out wider with every stroke so it takes more of a toll on your shoulders and back. And another part is the way some seats are built, especially in recreational kayaks where we tend to use them as lounge chairs. But most of it is how you sit in your boat. If you lounge back you simply cannot bring your core muscles into play. Now that is not to say you can’t relax on leisurely trips, but don’t try to put a lot of power into your strokes unless you sit up into proper position or you will end up straining muscles.
So what is the proper position? You should be sitting up straight or even with a slight lean forward. Your foot pegs should be adjusted so that your legs are just slightly bent at the knees, with your knees turned slightly to the outside – slightly frog-legged, as one participant described it. The forward edge of your seat should be just slightly higher than the back edge. The back of your buns should be settled all the way into the back of the seat and the seat back or back strap should cradle your hips, not your back. Now you can easily reach forward to insert your paddle in the water and even in a wide SOT you can keep the paddle close to the boat and parallel with your direction of travel as you bring it back instead of sweeping out to the side. This means you will be translating the power into going straight ahead instead of to the side and using your core muscles instead of the muscles in your shoulders and back.
Another factor involved is the length of the paddle. We see a lot of people using paddles that are just too long for their stroke. 240 cm is a length we see a lot of people using which is usually too long unless you have a really wide SOT or are very tall from the waist up. Generally speaking, you should use the shortest paddle you possible can. If when taking a relaxed stroke your blades are way out to the side of the boat or way under the water, you run into the same problem as when you are lounging back in your seat. That is, more of your effort is going into paddling in a sweeping motion than into a straight ahead motion. And your shoulder and back muscles are being used more. What you want is a length where the blade is just fully immersed when it is in the water between your knees and hips. And for most people and boats that will be around 220 cm in length.
PUSH OR PULL
Here’s another good piece of advice we picked up from an instructor. Your push muscles are stronger than your pull muscles. Try to remember that as you make each stroke. Keeping your hands below your shoulders, PUSH out from the shoulder with your upper hand and guide, DON’T PULL, with your lower hand. As you push out keep your knuckles up and your elbow slightly bent and your hand will automatically cross to the middle of your body – towards the center line of the boat. If you do this correctly (and your boat is not really wide) this automatically brings about body rotation involving your core muscles and takes most of the strain off your shoulders and arms.
If your hands hurt after a day on the water you are probably holding the paddle too tightly. Your lower hand does need to grip the paddle firmly, but without any strain, to help keep it parallel to your boat. But your upper hand is pushing against the paddle, with the shaft cradled between your palm and thumb. You can even open all your fingers without losing control. So try that next time you are out. Push with your upper hand with fingers open and guide with your lower hand using a loose grip. Concentrate on doing this for a while on each trip and we guarantee it will help with the hand strain.
We have a lot of woman on our trips and women’s hands tend to be smaller than men’s, but there are no women specific paddles. Usually if you keep a loose grip on the paddle you won’t have any problem using a regular diameter paddle shaft. However, Werner does make paddles with a shaft in a slightly smaller diameter. So if you have small hands and are still having problems after watching to assure that you are using a loose grip, you might give a small diameter paddle a try.
We also had one case of a person with very large hands who was able to get a more comfortable grip by adding YakGrips to the paddle shaft. These padded sleeves can be slipped over the two ends of the paddle shaft to make the paddle “fatter”. So if you have have large hands and have to grip the paddle hard to keep it from slipping, try padding the shaft.
Try using some of these techniques on you next paddle. We hope they help!