Here in the U.S. we spend over 100 billion dollars per year on low back pain relief (trying to get it). What is most astounding about this is that most, if not all, low back pain is avoidable. The key is knowledge, understanding and a little discipline too.
First, your low back pain and discomfort have nothing to do with your low back. Paddlers who get out of their boats or off their boards and immediately do a forward fold to stretch their low backs are actually exacerbating the problem. We incorrectly assume that the discomfort we feel is directly related to where we’re feeling it in our bodies. Sometimes the pain we feel is directly related to a specific area such as indigestion, a broken bone or something like appendicitis. When it comes to the musculature, things work a little differently. That’s because every muscle in our body is connected by a layer of connective tissue called fascia. Not only that, but muscles are connected to bones via tendons. This means that when one muscle or muscle group becomes chronically contracted (tight), it pulls on the tendon, which in turn, pulls on bones.
For example, the hip flexors include a muscle called the Illiopsoas. It runs from the inner thigh, across the front of the pelvis and attaches to the lumbar and thoracic spines. This muscles gets tight from sitting or hinging at the waist. When you think about it, our culture tends to sit a lot – at our desks, in our cars, in our kayaks or canoes. For SUP paddlers, the hinging at the waist with every stroke, plus the balancing can tighten up the hip flexors. Because the Illiopsoas runs across the pelvis and attaches directly to the spine, when it gets tight, it can actually pull our pelvis and spine out of alignment causing low back discomfort and pain. When no countermovement is done to release tight hip flexors, the misalignment over time can cause disk herniations and bulges.
The key to relieving low back discomfort and pain is to stretch (lengthen) the quads and hip flexors. As they lengthen they release their grip on the pelvis and spine and allow the body to come back to balance (alignment). When the body moves toward optimal alignment, we experience relief from low back discomfort and pain caused by these muscle imbalances.
Stretching the quads and hip flexors is key for paddling health, comfort and performance. Here are two of my favorite (aka effective) poses that do just that:
The first is standing thigh stretch. This one is easy to do right after you get off the water. Still in your gear, go ahead and take a minute to do this stretch. In fact, do it several times a day when you take a break from sitting.
- Keep your knees together.
- Take your sitz bones back and apart (think sticking your butt out to bootie dance).
- Press your foot into your hand.
- Lengthen down through the knee and up you back body and out the crown of your head.
- Hold for 5 deep and easy breaths and switch sides.
- If you can’t reach your foot with your hand then use a picnic table, chair, raft or other nearby prop that you can place your foot on.
The second pose is called Windshield Wiper. It’s one of the best poses for paddlers because it’s done lying on the back so our spine stays in alignment and our muscles don’t have to engage for balance. It’s also a passive pose so it allows for relaxation, an important aspect of health.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet wider-than-the-mat distance apart. Keeping your feet wide is key for this pose, if your feet are too close together it becomes a twist instead of a hip flexor stretch.
- Take both knees over to the right and allow your body to relax.
- If you want to feel more of a stretch in your left hip flexor then move your left foot further left or up toward your hip.
- Be mindful of your knees. If you feel tension in your left knee then flex your left foot and spread your left toes.
- Take your arm overhead, to the side or in ‘cactus arms’ to stretch the whole left side.
- Hold for 5 deep and easy breaths in and out through the nose before switching sides.
- You can also bring movement to this pose by inhaling the knees to center, exhaling them left, inhaling center, exhaling right and so on – this creates the windshield wiper movement.
To recap, if you experience low back discomfort or pain from paddling or sitting, then stretch your quads and hip flexors. Remember that doing these two stretches consistently 5 – 7 times per week (this is where the discipline comes in) is more beneficial than doing one yoga class per week. Take small, consistent steps to care for your body. They will pay off over time.
For more in-depth info on the anatomy of paddling, body alignment and more stretches for the quads and hip flexors, pick up a copy of my book Yoga for Paddling. It’s available on Amazon and in our online store!