I started kayaking two summers ago and progressed quickly throughout the first season. As time passed, however, a roll that had once been very reliable became less so, even as other skills progressed. I started having to work harder to come up, lying further and further on my back deck to compensate. High braces were similarly performed lying on the back deck, arms high and far beyond the safety of the paddler’s box. I had an offside roll that quickly became better than the “on” side, but muscle memory (and pride) continued to set me up on the right. I thought I just wasn’t practicing enough, and shrugged off the lower back aches that became increasingly more common after paddling.
Last year I had the pleasure of attending the Girls at Play Costa Rica trip. Part of the experience was daily yoga with Anna. I had been nervous that my back would not be able to handle a full week of paddling, but to my surprise and delight, I had less pain during that week than I’d had in a year.
Unfortunately, when I got home, I slipped back into the average paddler’s river preparation regimen: none. Soon after that, I threw my back out paddling a highly committed gorge run, then, when boating out, badly wrenched my right shoulder with that lamentable high brace. I spent the rest of that season in physical therapy.
Once I healed and started boating again, I was careful…at first. As I started feeling better, I showed up to the river a little later and was less diligent about warming up with mobility exercises. On the third of a four-day exam to become a swiftwater rescue instructor, I injured my shoulder again with a high brace. It took another round of physical therapy and a second season on the bench to fully hear what my body had been trying to tell me: That what I was doing was not working.
My right side roll and brace had fallen apart not because I needed to try harder, but because it hurt when I did it correctly. Forced to do the movement anyway, my body searched for a way to roll and brace without back pain and found it – without my realizing it. Lying on the back deck stabilized my lumbar spine and stopped the pain, but ultimately invited injury.
Being unable to paddle does give one lots of time to think. What had I learned from all this? That I needed to quit doing that terrible high brace for starters, but other lessons emerged as well.
First, pain is a message from the body, not an inconvenience to be borne and ignored. I say this as a nurse who fully understands that many people suffer disease-related pain they can do little about. However, our culture encourages us to “buck up” and soldier on in spite of pain or to take a pill to drown it out. However, pain can contain useful information. For instance: I know now that pain and stiffness in my glutes and hips is a sign that I need to skip heavy deadlifts in the gym that day and do some mobility work like yoga instead.
Second, injury can be an opportunity for us to learn and grow, if we let it. Want to know how I discovered that I need to skip deadlifts when my back is tight? By giving myself several back spasms and weeks of lost progress by deadlifting anyway. While the setbacks have been extremely frustrating, they are gradually teaching me what works and what doesn’t.
Last, but most importantly, self-care is and should be a full-time job. This one’s the kicker. I used to feel that it was sort of selfish and unwise to spend time, money, and energy taking proper care of myself. I still struggle with doing my time-consuming mobility exercises, having been told my whole life by an infomercial culture that I, somehow, should have better things to do. The truth is this: we get one body in this life and every minute spent treating it well is absolutely worth it.
If you would like to start a river preparation regimen to increase mobility, strength, and reduce chance of injury, I highly recommend yoga. Yoga specifically designed for paddlers by Anna Levesque is fun, accessible, and hard to beat. Check out Anna’s new book Yoga for Paddling or her DVD Yoga for Kayaking.