Kayaking Injury Prevention and Recovery

5-minute read

Alexander “Jalle” Stjernberg is a member of Aqua Bound’s Ambassador team and is uniquely qualified to talk to us about common kayaking injuries and how to prevent them.

Jalle Stjernberg hits a wave in his sea kayak

Jalle Stjernberg sea kayaks off the coast of Sweden

Jalle has his own clinic in Gothenburg, Sweden where he works as an osteopath. He helps his patients move towards a pain-free life using this form of manual therapy that focuses on the musculoskeletal area.

He’s also a wilderness guide and sea kayak instructor, primarily in the Nordic countries. In his years training kayakers to an advanced level, Jalle developed an interest in osteopathy from seeing injuries and pain in both his clients and himself.

AQUA BOUND: What are the most common injuries paddlers experience?

JALLE: There is a difference between injuries and general pain in an area of the body. Injuries are normally associated with some sort of trauma, while general pain can happen over time just by doing an activity.

For example, in sea kayaking pain and discomfort are common between the shoulder blades, shoulders, lower back and neck. For whitewater kayakers, the risk of shoulder dislocation and head injury is higher due to rocks and the force in the water.

AQUA BOUND: How can paddlers help prevent these injuries?

(NOTE: For simplicity’s sake we’ll focus on sea kayaking—but most of Jalle’s advice applies to all types of kayaking as well as canoeing and paddleboarding.)

JALLE: My first recommendation is to have a proper sea kayaking lesson so you can learn the proper technique. You will reduce the risk of injuries. It will be the same with pain and discomfort—by learning the proper technique, you will learn to use the major muscle groups to develop energy in the kayak.

Jalle instructs a sea kayaker along the shore

Learning proper kayaking technique can go a long way in injury prevention

Shoulders—Many beginners rely on the strength in their arms and shoulders instead of core rotation. If you feel fatigue or ache in the shoulders, it’s good to consider mobility training or even strength training for the shoulders.

Shoulder blades—If you feel a burning sensation between your shoulder blades, my recommendation is to go back to the basics. Practice your overall technique, especially your core rotation. Make sure the energy comes from your feet, through the pelvis, so you can do a proper rotation with your upper body. This decreases the strain on the shoulder blades.

Lower back—Stiffness in the lower back is common after a day of kayaking. There could be a variety of factors that make your lower back feel stiff, but you can always look over these things:

  • Make sure you sit comfortably in the kayak.
  • Tighten or loosen your support in the back.

Sometimes you may feel stretching and stiffness in the hamstrings. It could be hard to sit in the kayak for a long period. Choose a bigger kayak or try some mobility training and stretching that focus on the hamstrings.

sea kayaker "surfs" a wave

The higher the activity level, the more important proper technique is

Wrists—In the beginning, it’s common to tighten your grip around the shaft of the paddle. This can cause overuse of the muscles around the wrist and forearm. Over time you will loosen your grip which will relax the muscles in the forearm.

There is also a time aspect to this. If you kayak once a year and decide to go for 25 kilometers, you probably will feel soreness and even pain in different areas of your body.

Instead, if you gradually increase the activity over time, your body will adapt more easily and you can probably do the activity more often pain-free. This is not exclusive to sea kayaking, but for any activity or sport you do.

Please note that pain and discomfort are highly individual. If you experience this, it’s always good to consult a manual therapist or a physical therapist for advice.

AQUA BOUND: What role does overall physical fitness play in injury prevention?

JALLE: If you have good overall physical fitness it could be helpful with injury prevention. However, it depends on how you do the activity and at what level.

The beauty of sea kayaking is that you don’t have to have high physical fitness to do it. It’s an activity that suits everyone. It has more to do with how you apply the activity over time—you need to find your level of activity.

Physical fitness will play a higher role when it comes to doing long excursions like a multi-day trip. If you are in good condition this will be helpful.

Jalle S assists a sea kayaker on the shoreline

Besides his osteopath work, Jalle is a sea kayak instructor

AQUA BOUND: What gear adaptations could help in both prevention and recovery?

JALLE: First, look over your kayak. Make sure you can sit comfortably in the kayak with good support for your back. Your thighs should have contact with the sides of the kayak, and you should be able to relax your feet on the foot supports.

If you are having problems with your wrists or shoulders, try different paddles. A bent or crank shaft paddle may help relieve some tension in your wrists. If your paddle is heavy, I suggest you switch to a fiberglass or even a carbon fiber paddle. If you’re lifting your paddle 500 times during a trip, that adds up to be quite heavy.

Other adaptations are highly individual. The key thing is that if you are comfortable in the kayak while you are kayaking, it’s more likely you will be comfortable over time as well.

All photos courtesy of Jalle Stjernberg. We thank him for his time and expertise!

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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