Paddling Health & Fitness


What do we mean by paddler health? Why not call it paddler fitness?

Fitness is of course part of health, but in this article we’d like to address the broader aspects of not only fitness, but injury prevention and developing, vs. hindering paddling ability over the long-run.

Paddlers have specific needs that need to be addressed. For example, we use our arms a lot. For most paddling styles we don’t use our legs as much, (at least with full range of motion) We generally sit or kneel, or stand in place. Our motions are generally repetitive which can lead to overuse and chronic injuries if those motions are done incorrectly.

Please post questions & comments at the end and add to the discussion.


First we need to address what we do on a regular basis that either adds or subtracts from our health as paddlers.

  • How often do you paddle?
  • What other sports do you do?
  • What is your job?
  • What is your age?

Maybe you thought “exercise” when I mentioned routine. Routine is more about how we live our lives every day. If you want to be an Olympic level paddler you’ll need a very specific routine. To run class 5 rapids you’ll need a routine, and as a part-time recreational paddler you also have a routine.

Our routine will tell us what we can and shouldn’t try to do while paddling. Getting off a winter at a desk job and then paddling hard can lead to injury; Believe me, I found out the hard way when my shoulder popped out from muscle fatigue and poor joint mobility.

You need to change your routine sometimes months in advance of doing a long trip or challenging rapid, especially as you get older. At age 43, I now start my shoulder conditioning exercises in February, while I don’t paddle hard until April. I start gradually, envisioning the good stuff to come during paddling season, and it motivates me. Little by little spring starts to show, and my routine gets more specific to paddling. By April I’m ready to go.


I’m not sure when this phrase was coined, but let’s use it to describe the “best” way to approach paddling preparation from a long and short-term perspective.

According to ES, we perform better when we warm up first. Better for paddlers is comprised of endurance, joint mobility, and sometimes explosive power. You just need to increase blood flow to your muscles and joints until you feel at your peak, but not peak-ed.

Don‘t stretch to do this. Current studies show that stretching can lead to lower performance and unstable joints. It has it’s place in your routine, but not yet.

Instead, do some of those semi-embarrassing warm-up drills on the beach or put-in, such as jumping jacks, push-ups, or hey, just go out and paddle for a bit at medium intensity. You should work your whole body and work on full mobility. I like to do this by doing every paddle stroke I know, starting slow and increasing in intensity until I feel warm.

After a warm-up You should feel better about being in your boat, be able to perform with better technique because you’re more relaxed, which in turn develops proper muscle-memory and better habits. Without the warm-up you will develop habits that you may not want. (Like the habit of hopping in your boat cold, tight, and with poor balance 😉

MOBILITY as a passageway to better technique

Let’s think about kayaking as an example. Most folks don’t sit with their legs out in front of them for very long, if ever. Some people fall out of love with kayaking during their first trip due to feet and legs falling asleep, or just general pain down there. Well guess what? Correct boat padding and fit aside, you as a human have the ability to adapt, gain flexibility in the hamstrings, rear-end, and lower back, and therefore be much more comfortable, for longer, in a kayak.

Bends: You’ll want to warm up first, focusing on the muscle groups that you will be using. Bends include toe (ankle, shin, knee, whatever) touches. Slightly bent knees work great to target the hamstrings. You can bounce slightly if you’re not at your max stretch. Be gentle with yourself. Stretching is a discipline. It takes a little while to see results. Do them every day after you warm-up, or as a long-term practice sit on the floor with your feet out while watching TV. Remember ROUTINE  will get you there.

Always balance your stretches. If you went forward now go backwards. Breath!

Now bend sideways. Want to learn or do a better roll? Side bends!

Rotations: Still warm? You can sit on the ground with legs out in front. Bend to 90 degrees and use your arms to help you twist one way, and then the other. Breath. Rotations help you loosen up to better perform torso rotations during your strokes. You can also lay flat and lift your knees, or if feeling strong your legs straight in the air, and allow the weight of them twist your lower spine. Be careful at first.

Shoulders: Don’t stretch your shoulders before paddling. Push ups, chin ups, or stroke practice with full range of motion are great, but if you tax the small rotator cuff muscles early on, they become less stable during your all day paddle. I’ve experienced a shoulder dislocation due to fatigued rotator cuff muscles. The only bonus was that the shoulder joint slipped back in easily because the muscles were so tired from an all-day paddle (and not strengthening them more before-hand.)

Shoulder Girdle: Here I’m talking about all of the muscles and bones that allow your shoulders to move. Scapula, Deltoids, Trapezius. Basically, you want your shoulders to look the opposite of a hunchback. You want to try and squeeze your scapula together, and bring your shoulders down. Down and back, down and back. This will keep your shoulder in a safer position when paddling. Yoga has some excellent poses for this, one of which being “downward-dog”. Look it up! Also, clasping your fingers behind your back and pinching your scapula together while thinking “down”.

To reiterate, stretching the muscles and tendons of the limbs that you are expecting to use is NOT what you want before performing (paddling) Only stretch supporting body parts (like hamstrings if kayaking) that will not be tasked to perform during the day. You CAN stretch your shoulders and such AFTER the day is done if you feel that you need to increase mobility in those areas.



The shoulder isn’t really a “joint”, is it?. It’s just so flexible. This allows us to do those cool freestyle paddling moves, the roll, and lots more, but it’s mobility is also its inherent weakness.

The Deltoid muscles are the larger ones you see that allow you to lift some heavy weight. The rotator cuff muscles (4 of them) are the ones you don’t see and are responsible for keeping your shoulder joints in the right place. Weak rotator muscles and you have a weak joint.

To strengthen the rotator cuff area you must apply some resistance, but not too heavy. 20 reps of a weight is a good number to start with. These are endurance muscles, just like paddling is an endurance sport. You don’t take just one stroke per day, you take more like 10,000 per day. This means your rotator cuff needs to be trained for endurance.

Start these rotator cuff exercises at least a month before the paddling season, do them every other day, and only on days that you are not paddling.


Any movement where you begin from the core is great. Good paddling technique is a great way to work out your core muscles. Realize that when I say “core” that I’m not talking about building a six-pack.

Same as with the shoulders, there are some hidden muscles you need to think about. The muscles that support your back are not just on the surface of your stomach. They are on your sides (obliques) on your back, and INSIDE you. There are muscles that run on the inside of your spine, just in front of it. On a cow these are called tenderloins, on a paddler they need to be exercised.

One good “tenderloin” exercise is to lay on the ground, drawing your belly button in all the way (while breathing) and then up in to your ribs (still breathing) and hold for a few seconds. Repeat every other day for 3 reps.


One Response to Paddling Health & Fitness

  1. Pingback: Paddler health – a winter venture « Lost Creek Adventures & Folk School BLOG

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