Stand-up paddleboarding delivers health rewards and injury challenges

Date Published: 
july 25, 2014

Coastal Point • File Photo : Two stand-up paddleboarders enjoy a night ride near the bridge in Fenwick Island during a stand-up paddleboard event held last year.Coastal Point • File Photo : Two stand-up paddleboarders enjoy a night ride near the bridge in Fenwick Island during a stand-up paddleboard event held last year.Have you tried it, yet? Stand-up paddleboard is one of the hottest new sports. It doesn’t require much gear, and it lets you enjoy lakes, rivers or the ocean. Aside from having a great time, stand-up paddleboard’s biggest reward is that it gives you a terrific full-body workout and develops core strength.

The rewards, however, come with challenges. In this sport, it’s important to understand that, while it looks simple, looks can be deceiving. Along with lacerations and whacks to the head and other body parts from falling, overuse injuries are a big issue. Your back, knees, ankles, wrists, shoulders and elbows are all at risk because of the increased demand placed on them from being in a stand-up position while using your body’s force to push the paddleboard forward.

Back injuries are amongst the most common problem, because of the constant bending and pushing motion required to maneuver the paddle and propel your paddleboard. They are a part of your core and a significant stabilizing mechanism for your body. Improper technique often leads to back strain and disk problems.

Rotator cuff and shoulder injuries are also extremely common, because stand-up paddleboarding makes a big demand on these muscles. Doctors are seeing patients complaining of burning sensations from the elbow and shoulder into the hand, while other patients are complaining of numbness from the shoulder to the fingers.

These are all common signs of muscle overuse.

When it comes to the shoulder, the muscles there can really take a beating. The connective muscles from your neck to the top of the shoulder, your trapezius, or traps, are what stabilize your neck and shoulder when you are paddling.

The constant paddling motion requires serious stamina from these muscles, as it does of the rhomboids, which are significant muscles in your shoulder blade. Injuries to these muscles can be extremely painful. Joints like knees and ankles take the same kind of beating in this sport, and it’s obvious why.

What do you do to keep yourself injury-free and enjoying your summer on the water? It comes down to focusing on a few key factors. Your equipment and the techniques you use, your body status, and strength and flexibility training.

Choosing your paddle wisely is important. If you choose a shorter paddle, it will reduce the strain that’s placed on your joints. But, it doesn’t stop there. You should also look at using a smaller-sized blade and a flexible paddle shaft. This reduces the demands placed on the muscles and tendons in your rotator cuff and shoulder, as well as on your back. A smart paddle selection will make an enormous difference in reducing the potential for damage.

Evaluating your body and being honest with yourself is another key safety component. It’s time for a reality check, because we all know that every one of us is different. Our age, our history of injuries, our flexibility, fitness level, strength and stamina all are factors in deciding how you participate in this sport.

What water you should paddle in, for example, depends on factors like whether or not you have experienced lower-back problems. If you have, it’s better to paddle on calm water versus ocean surf, where the strong water and movements required to stay on your paddleboard have a dramatically higher likelihood of causing an injury.

Another crucial part of the injury-prevention picture is technique. Sure, anyone can go out and give this sport a try and it seems so easy, but learning proper paddling and the importance of dual-side paddling is critical in preventing overuse injuries. Muscle balance is maintained by learning proper technique, but when you move improperly over and over again, you are setting the stage for some serious hurting.

If you are going to make stand-up paddleboarding a regular part of your sports experience, you need to cross-train to avoid injuries. You want to choose a program that includes exercises focused on cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility and balance.

Always begin your exercise program with stretches to warm up. Make a big part of your focus balance training, because it will make a huge difference in improving your motor skills and coordination, as well as joint health and your ability to control your body. It also helps prevent injuries from falls.

Leg squats and pushups are among the exercises you can do without any equipment, to improve your balance, strength and agility. Exercising with free weights is particularly impactful on your large and small stabilizing muscles and improves strength, balance and core stability.

Band exercises offer good resistance training, and that’s going to be especially important for your rotator cuff. You can also use them to stretch and strengthen your hamstrings. An exercise bike or a treadmill is great for aerobic training, cardiovascular and leg strength.

Obviously, these are just a few of the types of exercises you can incorporate into a flexibility and strength-training program. The key is to have a tailored program that works for your body and individual health needs and conditioning. Many physical therapists with experience in sports training can develop a customized program for your specific needs.

As with any sport, remember to listen to your body and see a medical professional if you suffer an injury. A trained professional will evaluate your problems, order X-rays or other scans, and may also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs, depending on the nature of your injury.

Expect that overuse injuries, sprains and tears will require a rehabilitation recovery program with a physical therapist who will coordinate with your medical professional so that you will get back on your feet and back on your board.

I heard a great quote the other day that really describes how many stand-up paddleboarders feel about the sport: “I don’t stand-up paddleboard to add days to my life; I stand-up paddleboard to add fun to my days.”

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.