Shoulder health in paddling

Continuing Elaine Farquharson’s series on your health and SUP techniques…

Words: Elaine Farquharson
Dorset Sports Physio, Dorset SUP Coaching and Guiding

Pics: Elaine Farquharson and Peter Tranter

If I had to pick one joint that was very important to a SUP paddler, I would say it has to be the shoulder – it is one of the most common injuries through paddling. In surf or white water, there are more reports of dislocation, whilst in racing and touring the micro trauma often leads to rotator cuff tears and tendinitis. In this article I hope to give you some understanding of the joint, along with some tactics, and techniques to help keep it healthy.

Our shoulders are the most mobile joints in our bodies. They move through all three planes of motion in any combination to give us extreme possibilities of function. This ball and socket joint sacrifices its stability to be able to do this for us. This means the ball shaped humerus articulates with a very shallow socket formed by our shoulder blades.

It has ligaments providing static stability stopping dislocation but these are much less dominant and a lot weaker than other joints making it more vulnerable to injury. Luckily the shoulder has a clever dynamic group of muscles called the rotator cuff, which when strong keep the ball in the socket, whilst still allowing and co-ordinating movement.

Neutral scapula
Neutral scapula

Posture and dynamic movement is very complicated in the shoulder but I will try to simplify it for you. The shoulder blade is suspended on the chest wall by muscles. Correct muscle balance keeps the blade in neutral and hence the socket is in a happy alignment for pain free arm movement. Tight pecs and weakness at the back of the shoulder blade tends to round the posture causing winging. This changes the shoulder joint alignment.

Shoulder diagram

Equally the shoulder joint itself needs a healthy alignment from the rotator cuff muscles. If they are out of balance we get laxity and hyper mobility or stiffness and altered movement mechanics. All of which changes the ball’s trajectory in the socket causing problems, which could weaken its stability, or cause miscrotrauma to the bone and tendons, creating long term structural degeneration or soft tissue changes. We want to try to prevent this as much as possible to keep our shoulder strong, healthy and pain free.

When we think of the forward paddle stroke we break it down in to the catch, power phase, exit and recovery.

Power phase
Power phase is when we engage the bigger powerful muscles of the shoulder to create momentum against the water. A way to reduce strain on them is to use the legs and trunk muscles more and vary the technique by switching around the muscle groups we use the most. Keeping the arms straight and legs rigid as in this picture puts a lot of strain on the shoulders. Try slightly changing the paddle lower hand position too as it will change the pull and angle of fatigue on longer distance races or tours.

This phase is also the most risky for the back of the shoulder and the collar bone joints, especially if we haven’t controlled the shoulder in the horizontal plane. If we allow the arm to come across the midline of the body instead of using trunk rotation, there will be too much force on the back of the shoulder plus the ligaments at the collar bone will be loaded at their most vulnerable range. This is particularly challenged in cross board paddle strokes. Try to think of yourself as a dancer with a frame – no spaghetti arms please, save that for dirty dancing!

As we continue through the pull we unwind the trunk but the shoulder girdle should keep moving through the sagittal plane with the elbow flexing into the waist. If we allow the elbow to stick out to the side, we then start to cause vulnerability in the front of the shoulder causing the ball to translate forward in the socket and hence creating over stretch and potential impingement. If the paddle is too long or we don’t pop the blade in the water properly, then we end up shrugging, which loads more strain on the collar bone joints and neck. We also end up shrugging if our blade size is too big, as we are subconsciously trying to reduce the load during the pull. This is either through fatigue or a lack of strength in the shoulder. Consider starting with a smaller blade whilst you’re building up your endurance.

At the exit we need to ensure we remove the paddle unloaded before it travels past the feet, otherwise we create fatigue in the arms and shoulder. Also the exit should cut through the water to avoid lifting water weight and creating more fatigue.

Exit and recovery

Recovery can be loaded or unloaded depending upon wind assistance. If we feather we ensure we cut through the wind but we can also slice back up through the water if we are trying to avoid wind or create some stability during choppy conditions. It’s a good habit to practice as it keeps us more in a lower brace position for stability strokes, which are much safer for the shoulder than higher brace strokes, which is the most common dislocating position in white water and surf. It also encourages us to keep the shoulder low, which again is a safer shoulder position than feathering high above the water.

Shoulder girdle dissociation

Shoulder girdle dissociation
Lie in the pilates rest position and practice moving the arms up and down maintaining the frame and shoulder neutral, which means avoiding crossing midline or pro or retracting the shoulder blades. To spice it up a bit try balancing on a foam roller or add hand weights. 3 x 10 reps.

Scapula control

Scapula control
On all fours with knees hip width apart and shoulder blades sucked against the chest wall, avoid breast bone sagging and winging the shoulder blades but do not compensate by rounding the back. Try to hold the position for 10 seconds, if this is easy you can take a hand away or extend one leg but try to maintain a neutral posture. Want a bit more challenge then pop a wobble cushion under your knees or an easier variation is to perform a mini press up against the wall. 3 x 10 reps.

Shoulder girdle proprioception

Shoulder girdle proprioception
Without the added complication of balance try to practice your paddle stroke on dry land breaking it down into the catch, powerphase, exit and recovery. Think about the gap between the coracoid processes when you do so, do you use trunk rotation, where is the top hand, do you push with the top arm and pull with the bottom arm? Become more sensory aware and correct your proprioception. 5 x 10 reps each side.

Loaded frame control

Loaded frame control
Load up a paddle or pole with theraband and maintain a static hold avoiding loosing the frame. To challenge this more add in body rotation but avoid slouching, protracting the shoudergirdles or allow the arm to cross the midline into horizontal adduction. 3 x 10 10-second holds.

Low brace balance drills

Low brace balance drills
Practicing the low brace paddle stroke during balance drills can be a useful way to ensure that you are receiving the correct support and using a video screen can help you to see your shoulder posture is maintained in neutral throughout the drill. 3 x 10 reps each side.

Other exercises
There are many more exercises you can perform to strengthen the shoulder like seated rows, or rotator cuff pulley rotations, however good proprioception and technique will help prevent most injuries. I hope you found this useful and have some ideas about shoulder health in paddling, which you can benefit from.

Elaine Farquharson

Elaine Farquharson
Dorset Sports Physio
Dorset SUP Coaching and Guiding

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1 Comment on Shoulder health in paddling

  1. Seems informative and useful, especially for new paddlers. But half of it went right over my head. Beginners are still not fluent on the terminology used here. I wish I could find this information written in layman terms.

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