If you are planning to learn how to kayak or are already an experienced paddler, the most important issue you need to be aware of is safety; safety not only on the water but also using safe basic techniques in all of your strokes and river maneuvers. Good technique can make the difference between a great day on the river or a trip to the emergency room.
The most common debilitating injury in kayaking is a shoulder dislocation. The most common type of dislocation is an anterior dislocation. An anterior dislocation is where the head of the humorous (the end of your upper arm bone) levers out forward and drops down below and in front of the Glenoid Fossa (a cup shaped depression at the end of the scapula that the head of the humorous is held into by ligaments and tendons). With improper technique it takes very little pressure in the wrong direction to lever the head of the humorous out of the glenoid fossa.
The shoulder joint allows you to position your arm in an infinite range of positions. There are six basic motions/positions that the paddler needs to be concerned with when kayaking or canoeing. These motions can be done individually or in combination. Of these six positions there are three good motions/positions and three bad motions/positions that affect your shoulders in a positive or negative manor. Any one of the bad motions/positions can cause a shoulder dislocation, combine two or all three and the result is usually disastrous.
Here are the six basic motions/positions of the arm and elbow that can affect your shoulders.
1. Adduction (Good Position); Elbow to the side kept below your shoulder plane pulled down toward the side of your torso.
2. Abduction” (Bad Position); Elbow to the side raised above your shoulder plane reaching up in a position like when starting a pull up.
3. Internal Rotation (Good Position); Arm and elbow in a position as if you were thumbing-a-ride. Rotate your forearm and hand forward and down in front of your body.
4. External Rotation (Bad Position); Arm and elbow in a position as if you were thumbing a ride. Rotate your forearm and hand back behind your shoulder plane.
5. Flexion (Good Position); Arm extended to the side, move your arm around in front of your torso (in front of your shoulder plane).
6. Extension (Bad Position); Arm extended to the side, move your arm behind your torso (behind your shoulder plane).
The safest positions for your shoulders are when your hands and elbows are kept in front of your torso and below your shoulder plane.
Dislocations can develop from various situations and strokes. Below are several examples of ways shoulder dislocations can and have happened and some hints on how to avoid them.
Note: Working blade refers to the paddle blade that is in the water doing the stroke. Working hand, elbow and shoulder are on the side of the body that is holding the working blade. Non working blade, hand, elbow and shoulder are opposite to the working side.
1) Reverse Sweep; (Reverse Rudder)
There have been a number of dislocations resulting from paddlers doing Reverse Sweeps incorrectly. This injury usually occurs at the beginning of the stroke when the paddler reaches behind their body to place the working paddle near the stern of the kayak. Doing this places their working arm in an extended position where any extra force, water pressure or hitting anything solid can push their arm back and put stress on the shoulder joint.
The correct technique to avoid this potential dislocation is to rotate the torso as far around toward the back of the kayak before placing the working blade in the water. The paddler’s shoulder plane should be as parallel to the ends of the kayak as possible at the beginning of this stroke. One way to make sure the shoulder is in a safe position is to twist your torso around so that you can easily look at the working blade of the paddle before putting it in the water. Looking at the stern of the kayak ensures that the torso is fully twisted. Remember that the beginning of the reverse sweep is normally started with a reverse rudder. The correct starting position for the reverse rudder is done by winding up your torso and positioning the working elbow on the edge of the back deck of the kayak 8-12 inches behind the paddler’s body. The working elbow should be bent to about 90 degrees. Push the working blade out to the side of the kayak and then unwind your torso to complete the reverse sweep. The beginning of the reverse sweep is done with the paddlers arms, pushing the working blade out to the side of the kayak. The reverse Sweep is done by unwinding the torso. The reverse rudder is the stroke used in surfing waves. If used improperly, excess stress can easily be developed on the shoulder while surfing. Again the secret is to rotate the torso to face whatever side the stroke is being done on.
2) Forward Sweep; (Stern Draw)
The end of a Forward Sweep can also put a paddlers arm in a bad position if done incorrectly. If a paddler leads with the paddle rather than twisting the torso, the paddle gets behind the shoulder plane. This puts the paddle in the same position as at the beginning of an incorrectly done reverse sweep with the working arm extended.
The correct technique to avoid this problem is to focus on the use of the torso throughout the stroke. The paddler needs to make sure they are leading the working blade with their torso. Power for the stroke should be felt from the twisting of their body through to the finish of the stroke. Wind the torso up with the working shoulder pointed toward the front of the kayak, watch the working blade of the paddle as it arcs from the front of the kayak to the back of the kayak, this will help train the paddler to twist their torso. Once the motion of twisting the torso is automatic the paddler can continue looking forward in the direction they are turning and still be confident that their torso is twisted to avoid a dislocation position. Similar to the beginning of the reverse sweep, emphasis is placed on keeping the working arm straight until the torso has twisted around full range to the side of the kayak. Then opposite to the reverse rudder the working blade is pulled to the stern of the kayak by bending the working elbow to a 90 degree angle and pushing up and out to the side with the non working arm. This is the Stern Draw. One important thing to note is that the forward sweep is done with the torso twisting to the side, the stern draw is done with the paddlers arms by pushing and pulling the paddle.
3) Low Braces;
I have heard kayakers say that “as long as you do a low brace you are safe from dislocations.” This is not entirely true! The first dislocation I ever saw was from an open canoe doing a low brace on a lake. This happened when the paddler reached out to the side of the canoe to do the low brace but had their working hand and elbow positioned behind their torso. In this case even though the paddler’s arm was adducted and internally rotated, they still were in a dislocation position due to the working arm being extended behind the shoulder plane.
The correct technique to avoid this position when doing a low brace in a canoe or kayak is to make sure the torso is twisted to the side facing the working paddle blade. If a paddler is surfing in a hole on a low brace, and is sculling back in preparation to exiting the hole in reverse, they may be in risk of injury. Avoid letting the working blade get behind the paddlers shoulder plane. Always make sure that the working blade is oriented in front of the torso. A good technique that helps maintain this safe position is to make sure the paddler is looking at the working paddle blade at all times when on the low brace.
4) High Brace
I have seen several shoulder injuries from improper high bracing technique. Injuries often occur when a paddler does this type of brace with their arms too high and/or with their working paddle blade too far behind their body. A common situation where both of these mistakes can happen is not being balanced while side surfing in a hole. The paddler reaches to far down stream, thinking that the further out to the side they reach with the working blade of the paddle, the more support they will have to stay right side up. The problem here is that the further out to the side the paddler reaches the more off balance they become and the more weight is placed on the working blade, consequently they start to flip down stream. At this time their arms are becoming more and more abducted, putting more strain on the shoulder joint. As they start to tip over more, the paddler normally will turn their head to try to keep it above the water in order to continue breathing. At the point that the paddler turns their head the working arm now starts to get externally rotated as well as abducted and extended. When the paddlers arm is externally rotated, abducted and extended with the weight of their body along with the force of the water, results in probably the most common of all the dislocations on the river.
An analogy that best describes the balance needed in a kayak is to envision walking a tight wire with the paddle is the balance pole. What would happen if the balance pole is pushed to one side? The wire walker would fall to that side of the wire or would have to counter balance by shifting their weight away from the side the pole is extended out to. The same thing can happen in a kayak. When reaching out down stream with the working blade, the paddler falls over down stream putting more weight on the working blade or ends up shifting their weight upstream. Shifting the weight upstream causes the upstream edge of the kayak to catch and causes the kayak to window shade upstream. This is one of the ways that a non working shoulder can be injured.
To simulate what will happen in a surfing situation, the paddler only needs to sit in a kayak on the lake and place the paddle perpendicular to the kayak centered in relation to the paddler’s body. This is a balanced position! Edge the kayak up slightly to the side in a hole bracing position. Now slowly reach across in the direction of the lean. A small amount, just a few inches of reach to the side will cause the boat to become unbalanced and begin to fall over down stream.
The best way to avoid injuries while bracing in holes is to keep balanced. Sit up, and keep the body centered over the kayak! Keep the paddle centered across the boat and body while bracing bracing, do not reach out to the side away from the kayak. Keep elbows low and close to the torso. And as always, do not let the paddle get behind the body. Look at the working blade to keep a visual reference on where it is.
Recovery braces can also cause injuries if done improperly. This happens when a paddler does a normal brace and throws their head up and away from the working blade. The result of this brace error is that the paddler’s arm is now in extension and external rotation.
The way to avoid injury is to keep the body and paddle in a balanced position. When bracing, do not reach away from the side of the kayak, and also push the head and in particular the ear against the working shoulder. This is very counter intuitive, but will stop the paddler from throwing their head in the other direction, setting up a reverse hip snap and loading the working shoulder with extension, abduction and weight.
5) Eskimo Roll;
There are as many ways to roll a kayak as there are people teaching the roll. And there have been more problems with shoulder injuries from rolling than ever before. Following are a few examples of things to avoid.
A. When a paddler does a roll with the working blade sweeping all the way around toward the stern of the kayak, it sets up the potential to put the working arm in an extended and externally rotated position. Even if the sweep is done right by doing an extreme twist of the torso to keep the paddle in front of their body, finishing with the working blade at the stern of the kayak leaves the paddler in an unbalanced position. If a paddler rolls up twisted toward the stern of the kayak all it takes is a small tap on the non working shoulder and they will oft times fall back over. This is because they are not balanced in the kayak nor is their working paddle blade in the optimum position for a brace.
A kayak has an axis of rotation that runs from the bow of the kayak through the middle of the boat to the stern of the kayak. Your paddle creates an arc out to the side of that axis of rotation, forming a semi circle from bow to stern. The most efficient position of resistance and balance for rotating the kayak upright is when the paddle is perpendicular to the axis of rotation. The more the paddle moves from perpendicular toward one end or the other of the kayak the less efficient that position will be. Everything in kayaking is based off of balance. A good way for a paddler to test different positions of balance is to sit in a kayak on the lake with their shoulders square to the boat. Everything is well balanced in this position. Now twist all the way around so the shoulders are as close to being aligned to the ends of the kayak as possible. The question in this position, does this feel balanced? If a paddler swings their paddle all the way to the back of the kayak and fails to roll, the working arm can easily end up in an extended and externally rotated position. Falling back over in this position puts force on the working shoulder and can lead to a dislocation injury. The only way to avoid this is to make sure your body is twisted as much as possible toward the back of the kayak and make sure your elbows are low and in front of your body plane.
B. Another way that paddlers have injured their shoulders is by finishing their rolls with their torso leaning forward. The problem with this position is that in order to have the working blade of the paddle perpendicular to the kayak while leaning forward, puts the working arms in an externally rotated position. The motion of leaning forward while rolling up puts more external rotation force the working shoulder while weight is being applied to the working blade. Add a hit on a rock with the working blade or the working hand, elbow or arm and the force will be more than enough to dislocate a shoulder. Many paddlers think they are avoiding the possibility of hitting their face on a rock because they are leaning forward throughout the entire roll. But remember that if the roll is done correctly the paddlers face will be protected by their working arm, which should be in front of their face. Another problem with leaning forward on the roll engages the paddlers abdominal muscles which will kill their hip snap. This is why it is not uncommon to see a paddler using leaning forward roll, finish the roll very slowly. To help the paddler understand why this happens, sit in a kayak on the lake, lean forward and try snapping the kayak back and forth. Now sit up with an arched back in a well balanced position and snap the kayak back and forth. It will be obvious that there is more flexibility and a stronger hip snap when sitting upright than leaning forward. The way to avoid externally rotating the shoulder in this roll is to finish the roll with the paddlers back arched and arms and paddle in a balanced position.
C. One more way that paddler’s can hurt a shoulder is to twist their body away from the paddle while doing a hip snap. This normally occurs when the paddler is trying to raise their head to get a breath of air. This will put their arm in an extended position. This is the same problem that can occur when doing an improper brace. To avoid this problem, when doing a hip snap it is important to come up facing forward with your elbows at your sides and back slightly arched. The paddle shaft should be centered in a balanced position on the paddlers chest with both wrists cocked back. The finish position is very much like the position a weight lifter is in when doing a clean and jerk just prior to thrusting the weights above their head. As well as being a balanced position this is also a very strong position. Remember to push the ear against your working shoulder while looking up. Looking up ensures that the paddlers back is arched. Remember the kayaker’s adage “You go where you look”, so don’t look back down into the water.
There are other mistakes that can cause shoulder injuries. But in general if you remember and practice these paddling tips you can limit the potential for shoulder problems and continue to paddle for many years to come.
1. Keep your hands and elbows below your shoulders.
2. Keep your hands and elbows in front of your shoulder plane.
3. Watch your working blade on sweep strokes until you have trained yourself to automatically twist your torso to keep the paddle in front of your body and shoulder plane.
4. Finish your kayak roll with your working blade perpendicular to your kayak in a balanced position.
5. When bracing, stay in balanced position to keep weight off of your paddle blades and stress of off your shoulders.