Avoiding SUP related back pain

Words and pics: Elaine Farquharson

We don’t always consider what our core is doing when we are catching a wave or cruising down the river but it’s an invaluable skill to be able to selectively position our spines in a good alignment for paddling. SUP racers save on efficiency through precise adjustments of muscle control to enable them to achieve performance, speed and balance. It’s a skill that will help all of us to stay healthy and enjoy our SUP experience more on the water. The reason I want you all to be aware of this skill is because I meet so many of you in my clinic who have niggly back problems which could easily be avoided with a bit of education and awareness.

So what is a good spinal alignment? The spine is a S shaped curve of bones and discs stacked into a column to provide us with structural support and mobility. It helps protect our nerves through the spinal canal and foramen as well as important blood vessels. In the upright neutral S shape most of our structures are working at their optimum and there is less strain through the system helping to prevent overload or injury. I guess you can see our dilemma as SUP is not very forgiving on our posture and to be honest we cheat a lot and don’t realise that we have lost our S shaped when we are having so much fun!

To maintain neutral we need to coordinate all our muscles, be aware of where we are (a sensation called proprioception) and have the joint range and muscle length to get there. Within our spine we have local muscles which is our inner core, slings of muscles our global core and on top of that our power muscles. So, there’s a lot going on to keep you in a healthy position on your board and we have even mentioned kit and waves yet.

Natural standing posture
The first thing is to be able to get into neutral. Take a look in the mirror what is your natural standing posture? If you bow forward where do you move from? Can you isolate movement at your hips like a graceful ballet dancer bowing forward whilst keeping your S shape or do you round at your spine like Quasimodo? If you’re the latter don’t worry, I was too when I started. This can affect our discs and overload our neck through rounding the mid-back and causing hinging which then indirectly causes arm and neck pains.

Let’s look at some reasons why you do this. Hamstring tightness affects your ability to bend at the hips so you could either stretch pre-paddling or soften your knees more to keep your spine in neutral. Hip stiffness and lack of knee bend also means you throw your weight back rounding your back. So you could practice some gentle hip and knee range of motion movements for example lie on your back and slide your foot up and down bending your knee and hip. Try to keep your back still whilst moving the leg. If you can’t change your flexibility for whatever reason, then you need to adapt, and a longer paddle might be better for you to avoid over flexing in other areas such as the mid back as a compensation.

Elaine Farquharson back problems

Lack of core strength
Ok you bowed forward but there was no sign of Quasi more a hyper extended gymnast over emphasising the spinal curves. This isn’t a great thing either as it shows a lack of core strength, which is going to load up the hinges in your back or create a floppy core which loses energy in our forward paddling. The fault here is our anterior slings, the abdominal muscles transversus and obliques but NOT our six pack. Caution to popular belief planking or sit ups aren’t going to fix this.

Elaine Farquharson back problems

Practicing Pilates to learn about precision and awareness is the most important thing here. A simple exercise you could try is on all fours in a neutral S-shape just see if you can move an arm or a leg whilst keeping your body perfectly still. Do you continue to slouch or can you maintain throughout the exercise? Do you wobble from side to side or do you twist when moving? Try to control this by moving carefully, slowly or stick within the range you can control. This is also a good exercise to practice on your board for balance and confidence too or just as a warmup.

Ok so we have the ability to maintain our S-shape whilst moving forward and backwards. Now we need to think about standing on the board. Choosing the conditions for your ability and matching this with the width of the board is important here. The reason being balance. Unsteady and you’re going to lose side to side control which will change your ability to move forward and backward plus potentially overload your hips and tense up your back muscles.

Elaine Farquharson back problems

Learning paddling stability
Are you tall and is your board narrow? This is going to need an exceptional core; you really need to be accurate at using your muscles especially if we add in some chop and waves as well. A large board width for a small person is going to cause you to have to lean to the side more, again giving some lateral overload. Learning paddling stability and support strokes can help to steady you so you can reduce your board width but also simply improving your balance on dry land will help. Try practicing standing on one leg for 10 seconds and if that’s easy close your eyes but don’t forget to keep that S shape and if you’ve mastered that and are feeling brave see if you can do this on your board. If you watch the pro’s they are so graceful at moving up and down their boards with ease because they all have bomb-proof balance.

We already touched on blade length however having a blade too short is obviously going to cause you to have to flex your spine causing disc overload. So get some good advice before hand or even start with an adjustable paddle before you progress to a fixed carbon shaft.

Elaine Farquharson back problems
Elaine Farquharson back problems

The biggest time for injury is actually in the car park. Carrying the board to and from the water and lifting it onto the car are your biggest risks. Eliminate or reduce the load by working with your chums, don’t be a hero. Watch the S shape and keep the load close to your body. If you can’t stand straight to carry your board to the water then invest in a set of wheels and please if you’ve done a long drive help your spinal discs by enjoying a little walk first to reduce the strain before you start lifting.

Elaine Farquharson back problems
Elaine Farquharson back problems
Elaine Farquharson back problems

Losing our S-shape
Of course, there are times when we need to lose our S-shape that’s the beauty of the wonderful motion our spines have. They should be dynamic with the ability to move in and out of this neutral position so don’t be too rigid with my advice, just be aware, it might help to keep you healthy and improve your performance.

If you have any questions or would like some follow-on info from the article, please let the editor know.

Elaine Farquharson back problems
Elaine Farquharson
Elaine Farquharson

Elaine Farquharson

Elaine owns and runs Dorset Sports Physio, based in Weymouth community college sports centre. She offers sports physiotherapy, biomechanics and coaching to the Dorset communities. Elaine’s specialist interest is tri sports and SUP, not only as a competitor but also through her work as a coach and physio. Elaine’s specialist work with the lower quadrant has helped her achieve advanced practice recognition in hip and pelvis and works closely alongside Dorset’s expert hip surgeons and lower limb specialists. Elaine’s facilities offer a large private treatment room, three sports halls, a fully equipped gym, sports pitches, and also racquet courts across the two sites. Elaine also has a hydrotherapy pool and Pilates studio off campus. @dorsetsportsphysio

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