The Unfit Paddler

Outdoor adventure sports continue to increase in popularity. Mountain biking, trail running, climbing, snow sports, and paddling continue to see increasing numbers. As a physical therapist I evaluate physical abilities. I do this not only formally in the office, but also out in the field informally. I notice when people have bad posture or they have a running stride limited by tight hamstrings, or they walk with a leg length discrepancy. This is what I was trained in and this is how I see things. Its no different than looking at a abnormally worn car tire and thinking that car wasn’t maintained well. When looking at the active crowd, I see a lot of fit individuals across the board, but I also see a lot of unfit individuals. However, I see more unfit individuals in the paddling crowd when compared to other outdoor pursuits. This observation is supported by the almost complete lack of any good information about the demands of paddling and how to get into shape for it. There is a rise in fitness paddling information, specifically using paddling to get in shape, but not much specific to actually getting in shape for it. Go to the sports section the next time you’re at your favorite book store. There you will find books on running, biking and everything in between and how to get in shape for those, and as you guessed…. nothing on paddling. You might find bits and pieces on the web: “do this stretch, do this exercise”, but nothing comprehensive. Why is this? Lets take a look at a few things.

First let me describe what I mean by fit and unfit, but let me start by making the point that as a physical therapist trained in anatomy and physiology, I look at the body as a machine. As with any machine, the body has a certain capacity for work, a certain ability to handle stress. If those capacities are exceeded, then things start breaking down. It’s that simple. So the fit person generally looks like a fit person. When we look at what determines fitness we think of strength, flexibility, endurance, posture, and sport specific skills. Paddling requires all of these to do safely. So quite often I see people on the water that really don’t fit the definition of being fit. I see people with bad posture, poor muscle tone, and poor skills. Couple that with being in a static posture of long sitting, which is already hard on the back and sets the shoulder up for bad mechanics, and we have a recipe for injury. I point all this out as a wake up call to paddlers to take that self-ownership and really think about their abilities. It’s not just whether they can hit a roll or execute a proper eddy turn, but truly whether their bodies are up for the task.

There are several reasons why the paddling crowd is less fit. First, but in no particular order, is the fact that paddling is more recreational than other outdoor pursuits. Most people paddle because they like to be on the water, not because they are using it to get in shape. That’s fine, that’s why I do it. Second, paddling is not as physically tasking as other outdoor sports. You can pretty much float down a lazy river. Remember, I am making a general statement about the physical demands of paddling. Yes, there are many physically demanding aspects of it, such as playboating. Third, there are several hurdles that have to be overcome to get on the water, so people don’t get on the water as much as they’d like. (If you live on a lake or river, lucky you). This happens to me quite often. I’d love to be on the water more, but don’t always have the time, due to my schedule, time to load equipment, drive time to accessible water, etc. Compare that to just being able to hop on the bike from the house and be on country roads in a few minutes or strapping on a pair of running shoes and off you go. Expand on this thought: just before, I said that paddling generally is not as physically demanding as other sports, but that there are aspects of it such a playboating that are more demanding. But I doubt that the average playboater spends enough time in the boat to get in shape for it. Again, comparing it to running, you get in shape and stay in shape for running by doing it on a consistent, regular basis. Practically speaking, one can get in shape for running by running alone. Also one could get in shape for paddling by paddling if done on a consistent regular basis. Most paddlers I know, even die hard whitewater boaters here in the midwest, might only get on the water every few weeks. That’s a lot of time in-between of deconditioning. And fourth, paddling up here in the northern climes is a seasonal thing. That’s a huge amount of time to fall out of shape if paddling is the only real physical activity you do. It’s similar to snowsports. I stay in shape all year and start gearing my training toward snowboarding in the fall, but nothing I do can perfectly get me in shape for a full day on the slopes. I wish I could board all year long.

So what’s the point of this post? I want it to serve as a wakeup call to all paddlers no matter what kind of paddling you do. We all need to ask ourselves that most basic question: “Can I handle…am I fit for what I am about to do?” Believe me - the answer to this is so often, “no.” I treat these injuries all the time. But its not only fitness now, but will you be able to paddle that river 5yrs down the road, or 15, or 30?
So some things you can do:
1) Do a personal fitness assessment. This isn’t so much fitness testing, but a real world understanding of your abilities versus what you want to be able to do. (Hint: If you haven’t been doing that activity lately, you’re probably not in shape for it). As a therapist treating orthopedic injuries, I find that many people have a very unrealistic understanding of their abilities and/or the task at hand.
2) Learn more about fitness in general and how that relates to paddling.
3) Learn about the demands of the sport.
4) Form a fitness plan and a yearlong plan. Being fit for an activity requires doing it or something similar on a regular basis. It’s a lot easier to get in shape for paddling and stay there than to do it so infrequently that you get out of shape in-between. Lets say you are a 2-3 times per week paddler. That may be fine to stay in shape during the summer, but what about the winter? It may be time to hit the gym a few times a week and do some paddling specific exercise.