Updated: Aug 4, 2022
I originally wrote this article for the World Paddle Association about Stand Up Paddleboarding. However, I've noticed it applies to a lot of paddle sports. So here is the re-worked, re-release!
When people first get into paddling they often buy an all-around board, kayak, or canoe and adjustable paddle. While this introductory gear is gentle on the wallet, it isn't so gentle on the body.
The aspects of beginner paddling craft that make them excellent for beginners are ironically the traits that make them harder on the muscles and joints. Beginner friendly boats and boards are often: 1) wide for stability, 2) heavy so they are more durable and/or cheaper, and 3) come with heavy, low-cost adjustable paddles for many family members to use.
What you may not consider is the increased drag you get with an all-around boat or board, and the increased torque on the shoulders from wielding a heavier and larger paddle blade. There isn’t anything wrong with these beginner kits with a big, stable all-around boat/board and a beginner paddle (adjustable or not).
These boards and boats are amazing options for those learning how to paddle and figuring out which disciplines (i.e. surf, race, yoga, whitewater, open ocean, touring) they like best. It's a great idea to buy a lower cost vessel with a plan to "test the waters" [gee, I love puns] and pick a new board or boat that is more specialized to the discipline you end up liking most!
When entering any paddle sport, people often grab a less expensive paddle to go with their beginner board. Grabbing an adjustable is a wise choice, because you can experiment with the length and getting the most out of your paddle stroke. Some people will be more upright paddlers and need a longer length, and others will use more body and need a shorter shaft. However, many less expensive, entry-level paddles have big blades. Some assume that they will get more power per stroke, and thus more glide and go further. What they don’t consider is their muscular ability or technique. Larger blades are more taxing on the muscles, and although paddling is a low impact sport, each stroke is still an impact. A larger blade = a larger impact.
Now pair this larger impact each stroke with undeveloped technique on a board with higher drag (higher drag because of the weight and the width!) and you’ve set yourself up to potentially wear out your shoulder muscles, or worse yet, cause injury. I'm not in the business of scaring people away from paddling, I want everyone to go out and have a great time... SAFELY. But, the most common injuries in paddlesports are in the shoulders, mainly rotator cuff issues.
When you get the urge to enter your first few races, keep in mind that if you’re on a wide, heavy vessel with a large paddle blade that you actually have more force on your muscles than the pros do! When you get that competitive spark as someone creeps up on you and you want to punch it into a higher gear, remember that the all-around board you’re on may have a lot of drag, and that the large blade on your paddle will have quite a bit of resistance. This could be a recipe for an injury. Even if you're never going to race a day in your life, you could be out enjoying a nice day on the water when... the WIND comes up (or a shift in the tide/current). This is a common occurrence, even if you were diligent in keeping an eye on the weather forecast. You'll make it home, but that heavy board/boat and your big paddle may leave your shoulders tweaked for a few days afterwards.
How can you reduce the chances of this kind of paddle related injury?
There are a few different ways to go about this - some more budget friendly than others!
(I'm listing what to do in order of most expensive to least expensive).
1. Buy a boat or board with less drag and more glide: This is not always the most feasible option for everyone, but if you get into racing competitively or are going out regularly and are paddling hard for fitness, it may be a worthwhile investment. Paddle craft with displacement style hulls offer less resistance per stroke making it easier to reach your top speed without blowing out your shoulders. The same goes for SUP surfing, where a board made of carbon fiber instead of heavy plastic will accelerate much faster with less effort to get into the waves.
2. Buy a quality paddle with a smaller blade: This is definitely the easiest option with the most bang for your buck! Ditch the heavy, aluminum paddle with the 110 square inch blade. Grab a nice carbon fiber, fiberglass, or carbon/fiberglass blend paddle with smaller blade. For a Stand Up Paddleboard (which yields the most shoulder fatigue of all paddling craft due to the long shafts), Quickblade paddles recommends you stay within 5 square inches of this formula: (your body weight in lbs. + 200 lbs) / 4 for blade size.
By grabbing a smaller blade you’re able to reduce the force on your shoulders by decreasing the resistance in each stroke. You’re also able to work on keeping a consistent cadence and focus on technique without as much muscle fatigue. BONUS: Even as you upgrade or trade in your boats or boards, you will keep a great paddle for life! This is a piece of gear that if you go ahead and splurge a little on, it will be around for a while and you get what you pay for. For a good balance of cost and quality, I like the Hippostick Paddles (and you can use code: April10 for an extra 10% off).
3. Cross training for Strength: If new gear isn’t in your future, you can help prevent injury by building up your paddling muscles with a structured training program. By incorporating some strength training in your week’s activities you can build a solid base and be able to withstand some of the impact you’re putting on your body while paddling. A little bit of strength will help move a slower board and also make a solid connection between your paddle and the water.
Most paddle injuries are due to an imbalance in the push and pull muscles of the chest, back, shoulders, and arms. To balance my upper body and activate all the smaller muscles I use the Crossover Symmetry system. That way, even if you do find yourself up wind or up current in the creek, you'll have confidence that you can paddle home without destroying your shoulders! Following a simple protocol like the one created by the guys at CrossOver Symmetry is a recipe for BALANCE and SUCCESS! (Use code: April15 for 15% off at checkout.)
4. Take a technique lesson: Another way to ensure you paddle injury free is to take a lesson with a trained professional. Finding a reputable, local instructor is a great avenue to learn proper technique which will help you paddle properly and decrease injury. If virtual learning is a more feasible route, be sure to pop in at members.theathleteagenda.com for feedback on your stroke or to see resources on technique! Professionals can help you with paddle length, proper reach, driving with the hips, and using the proper muscle groups to generate forward momentum. Without a lesson, paddlers may be paddling too much with their arms, or have shoulders extended too far overhead; both ways of generating discomfort while paddling.
To wrap it up...
Whether you update your gear, strengthen your muscles, or hone in on your technique, be sure to think about long-term, sustainable paddling. Paddling is more fun when you can get out and enjoy it more often, or for many years to come. Paddling injury free is a great personal goal to have, one that is arguably the most important (along with having FUN of course)!