by Chris Moore
You don’t have to be a conditioned athlete to enjoy kayaking, but for occasional paddlers and those north of forty, the right exercises can help you enjoy it more. Here is a suite of paddler-tested exercises to help you warm up and stay happy in your boat after you’re on the water.
Section 1: Warm-up
This is the shortest routine I know that loosens all the parts you’ll be working when you paddle: back, shoulders, obliques and legs.
1. Sun Salutation.
No other stretch prepares and renews a body like this yoga classic. Stand, feet together with your arms at the sides. Breathe in as you extend your arms out to the sides and raise them up to steeple your fingers over your head. Tilt your head back so you’re looking at your fingers. Pause and think of nothing for two seconds. Then bend forward, keeping your hands together all the way down until they can grab your legs just above the ankles. Bend your elbows to pull your upper body close to your legs. Pause and think of nothing. Repeat 3 times, remembering to breathe innnnn on the way up and ouuuut on the way down.
2. Twisty Triangle.
Stand with feet apart and arms straight out to the sides. (Think the DaVinci man in the circle.) Keeping arms straight, bend forward and twist to grab your left ankle with your right hand. Twist your shoulders and head even farther so you can look up at your left hand in the sky. Hold for 2 seconds and think of nothing. Then go back to the DaVinci pose and do the same exercise on the other side. Repeat 3 times on each side, breathing out going down and in coming up.
3. Bendy Back.
This stretch will wake up your vertebrae. Begin standing with feet slightly apart. Lift your arms up and steeple your fingers as if doing a Sun Salutation. Bring your hands down in front of you in dive position then walk them out about 4 feet in front of you and place them flat on the floor so your back makes an “A”. Breathe in as you cave in your back to make it a “U”. Hold for about 3 seconds while you think of nothing. Then breathe out as you make your back an “A” again. Repeat 3 times.
Tip: When you’re a “U,” arch your head back as far as it goes and roll your eyes to look through your eyebrows. When you’re an “A,” pull in your chin and look at your belly-button.
4. Seated Sun Pose.
Sit down with your legs straight out in front of you. Bring your arms up from the sides (a la Sun Salutation, again).Then breathe out as you lean forward and grab your toes – or as close as you can get. Hold for 3 seconds and repeat 3 times.
5. Seated Twisty Spine.
Sit with your legs straight out in front of you. Place your right foot on the far side of your left knee. Brace your right elbow against the raised knee and use it to twist your trunk to the left as far as you can, turning your head even farther. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat on the other side.
6. Seated Push & Pull.
Sit with your legs straight out in front. Stretch your arms straight out in front of you as if you were stopping traffic. Now push your right shoulder and right hand as far forward as they can go … while pulling the other hand all the way back to the shoulder. Your head should be looking straight ahead. Now twist the other way and reverse hand positions: one as far out as it can go and the other as far in. Repeat 6 times.
These last two exercises do more than loosen important paddling muscles. They get you used to twisting your shoulders. Body rotation is the secret to easy paddling because the big muscles of your trunk do most of the work.
Section 2: On-Water Exercises
New and infrequent paddlers, especially, suffer from staying in one position too long. Using these exercises during rest stops will help unkink you and refresh your legs and back.
1. Spine Twist.
Sitting in your boat, hold the paddle out in front of you as if stopping traffic. Twist your body to place the right paddle blade against the left side of the boat by your feet. Gradually straighten both arms until your elbows lock. Hold for 15 seconds. You’ll feel the torque in the paddling muscles of your upper back. Repeat on other side.
2. Toe Point + Pull.
Inside your boat, extend your legs between the foot-pegs. Pull your toes back as far as they go. Then push them forward so they point straight out. Repeat 3 times. [This exercise is used at Hospital for Special Surgery after knee-replacements to get leg muscles working and prevent blood-clots.] In a narrow boat, you might have to do this one leg at a time.
Section 3: Trouble-Shooting Pain Points
If your legs go to sleep, it may be because the front edge of the seat is impinging on your circulation. One on-water fix is to place a partially-inflated paddle float under your thighs. This has the effect of extending the seat and softening the pressure point.
If you have back issues, add these exercises to your warm-ups before you paddle.
Lie flat on your back. Pull your right knee up against your chest. Tuck in your chin and hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on other side.
2. Knee Side-Pull.
Lie flat on your back. Place your right foot next to your left knee. Grab your raised knee with your left hand and pull it across your left leg … while keeping your shoulders flat on the ground. Hold for 30 seconds. You should feel a stretch just above your hips. Repeat on other side.
If your back is killing you and the trip has miles to go, try switching boats with someone else. Different kayak models vary as much as shoes in their fit and feel. The new boat may not solve your problem entirely, but it usually takes awhile before you start hurting in new places.