Words: Leanne Bird
Photos: Leanne Bird, Simon Bartlett, Piotr Kadziela, Chris Davies and Jon Siddal
SUP is a fun and generally low impact sport. However, the wrong choice of equipment, poor technique, muscle imbalances, tension and overuse can lead to muscles strains or joint injuries. The last thing you want is to take time out of your beloved sport, particularly if you’re doing it competitively.
It’s important to remember no individual is the same, and therefore there are differences in limitations and ways our bodies behave. My yoga teacher says, ‘there is no perfect pose; there is just your perfection in that pose’ (Jeenal Mehta); I feel this is true in paddleboarding. There’s no one size fits all; your size and proportions; previous injuries; they all play a part. Consequently, although this guide gives you some general tips, it is often with research, exploration and time you find what is suitable for you.
Further, it’s not all about the body. The body does as the mind tells it. Thus, your mind can also play a huge part in paddle performance and injury risk.
The most common issues are lower back pain and shoulder injuries. People also suffer from problems with their knees and feet. Within this article, we will explore some contributory factors to these injuries/issues and how you can prevent and rectify them.
When choosing your board and paddle, it’s essential to think about how you will use them and what suits you. This will not only make your sessions more enjoyable and enable you to take on more challenging conditions but cause less strain on your muscles and joints and stop you tiring prematurely, a cause of injuries and mistakes. It’s also important to consider the weight of and how you carry your equipment to the water, e.g. using shoulder straps, taking bags off the board, adjusting for the wind, and switching sides to keep muscular balance.
In the simplest terms, the bigger the surface area of the board, the more resistance in the water. Therefore, too big a board can lead to early fatigue and poor technique, potentially resulting in injury. A board too small for you, however, can lead to bowing or be too unstable. Poor quality and ill inflated boards also cause excess resistance.
Various board shapes help reduce resistance, improve stability, or work with the conditions, e.g. longer narrower boards, particularly those with hull shaped noses, have improved glide and consequently are better for touring and racing. A wide board can make it more difficult for those with narrower shoulder girdles, reduced mobility or previous/existing injuries to keep the paddle vertical (if looking face on) and lead to strain.
Therefore, look for a board that’s a suitable volume for your weight and appropriate shape for you and your discipline. All-rounders are great if you want to do several disciplines but can only afford one board; however, they often lack more specialist features.
Paddles that are too long will begin to strain your shoulders and upper back, often leading to impingement injuries. Paddles that are too short for your discipline will cause strain on the lower back through over hinging. The general guide is for the paddle height to be 6-8” higher than your head, but this does change slightly with various disciplines, e.g. shorter for white water or surfing and longer for racing.
The weight and flex of your paddle is a factor too. Aluminium paddles, although robust, are heavy, causing unnecessary strain. Fibreglass paddles are lighter, and carbon fibre is even more so. The less flex, the more efficient the stroke; however, too much stiffness puts unnecessary strain on the body. The taller and larger you are, generally the stiffer you need the shaft to be, thus accommodating for added stress you put through the paddle and increased shaft length. Adjustable paddles provide options but also add weight.
Finally, consider the blade. Larger blades are suitable for power and speed, so they work well for surfing or sprint racing. However, for longer distances, bigger blades place added strain and cause early fatigue. Also, the taller and heavier you are, or the larger board you have, the bigger blade you may need.
Before deciding on a suitable paddle and board, please do your research, get advice from your SUP coach, speak to SUP retailers, look at what brands themselves recommend and wherever possible, try before you buy.
Position, posture and paddle technique
When paddling regularly or doing more challenging and longer paddles, position, posture, and paddle technique are key.
Your feet should be either side of the handle for general paddling to make sure the board is ‘in trim’, but this may need adjusting for bags, little ones or pups! Being in the wrong place can cause excessive effort from increased resistance or dealing with the board wanting to turn. As you progress or do different disciplines, you will find instances when moving your feet into different positions is beneficial.
It would be best if you stood with your knees slightly bent, weight over toes and heels. When you paddle, you want to bend forward from the hip, extend your arms, engage your core, and keep your back straight. As you power through, lift your chest upright, thrusting your hips to create drive, using your paddle as a lever. An effective paddle should be creating power mainly through the core and legs, and your arms should not be the main source of power.
Paddling injuries or issues can be caused by; not keeping your neck neutral; overreaching from the shoulder girdle; lifting the top arm too high; bending at your spine instead of from your hips; pushing your hips to the side; twisting from your hips, putting pressure on one knee; or, gripping the board with your feet. If you struggle to achieve the desired technique, it’s often one or more of the following; poor body awareness, muscular imbalance, muscle weakness and previous injuries.
Another key consideration is warming up and cooling down. An effective warm-up will ensure muscles are warm and joints are fluid. Stretches following a session will help prevent muscles shortening.
Once you’ve been paddling for a while and want to challenge your technical ability or distance, these finer aspects of technique are essential. Therefore, it’s helpful to get progressive lessons. You could attend improver sessions, club sessions with a qualified coach, or ideally, approach a qualified ASI SUP Technical Coach who will analyse your stroke more thoroughly using video analysis.
Suppose you want to improve your range of movement and strength generally (which I recommend for all paddlers). In that case, attending regular yoga or SUP yoga classes will help increase your mobility and balance your posture. SUP fitness sessions or similar land-based training helps increase strength and endurance, but make sure to balance your training to avoid joint instability and muscle imbalances.
Where poor technique is down to muscular imbalances/weakness or previous injuries, you can work on this with a SUP Mobility & Fitness Coach or Physio for specific support. Always check with your GP or physio if you have previous injuries or current issues before starting any new exercise programme.
To get you started, here are five exercises you can do at home to help improve some of the most common muscular imbalances that can lead to injuries.
For many, getting onto the water can instantly calm the mind and relieve tension. However, often when we are less confident, in a new environment, facing challenging conditions, or generally stressed, we can start to tense up. Tense bodies are more prone to injuries or bringing up old injuries. Being tense will also affect your balance and cause you to tire more quickly. Tiredness and anxiety affect your concentration, increasing the likelihood of falling off and impacting your technique.
Therefore, being calm in the mind is also an essential aspect of preventing injuries. Focusing on your breath can make a big difference, e.g. breathing in for a count of four and out for eight will start to dissolve that tension away. Also, try shrugging your shoulders on the inhale and slowly releasing them as you exhale. Tense shoulders can lead to shoulder injuries.
Another tip is to focus on what’s happening in the present moment, the air on your face, the feel of the blade in the water. Furthermore, good preparation can relieve anxieties. Do your research on the location and conditions, bring safety equipment and supplies, and have an emergency response plan. Finally, your concentration and energy are affected by hunger or cold, so make sure you stay warm and are well fuelled.
Assess and consider
So whether you’re already struggling with strains or injuries, or you’re just ready to challenge yourself more, take time to explore your ideal equipment, assess your paddling technique and any muscle imbalances. Also, consider your mindset, or speak to a SUP mobility and fitness coach such as myself, to work to alleviate, and better yet, prevent any issues.