Sea kayak essentials: Are you sitting comfortably?

Are you sitting comfortably?
Dynamic posture for sea kayakers

In the last OP issue, we took a closer look at changing the sea kayak’s hull shape to influence its maneuverability. The key aim was to alter the boat’s ‘footprint’ in the water, using balance techniques that kept body tension to a minimum.

Here we consider the importance of an effective posture when sea kayaking – creating a more efficient power transfer from paddle to kayak and making best use of the ocean’s energy. It’s time to switch from passenger to pilot!

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Dynamic Posture

Are you sitting comfortably? Are you, really? Can you imagine sitting in comfort for the next two, four, ten hours – or however long your next sea kayaking adventure takes you – between landings? If you’re reading the paper version of OP, grab your magazine and sit on the floor with it. If you’ve got the e-version, save it to your iPad and do the same. Let’s take a closer look at effective posture in our sea kayaks.

In an ideal world we would all be lithe paddling athletes with excellent muscle tone and flexibility…of course, we’re all in that category! Reality dictates that’s not the case for most of us, squeezing sea kayak adventures into busy lives with little time to properly develop our paddling-related muscle groups. Accepting this, we can still aim to make the best of our present shape and form, and try to achieve small changes that will make big differences in our paddling efficiency. Let’s take a look at a few simple ways in which we can improve our paddling posture.

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With an upright, dynamic posture, you should be able to rotate freely, remaining relaxed and tall in the kayak.

Sitting Tall

So, you should be on the floor by now – sit on a cushion if you like, we could be here for a while! One important way in which we can improve and develop our posture is to sit as ‘tall’ as possible. Sitting tall will allow us to rotate more freely, to separate upper- and lower-body movements and to stay more relaxed in our kayaks. It’s worth developing this ability, which depends in part on the shape we give to our lower back. To improve awareness in this area of the body, experiment with two extremes:

First, slump down into a ‘low’ sitting position: feel your shoulders drop, your spine become rounded and compressed and your backside flatten onto the floor. You might notice that your lower back changes position as your pelvis tilts backwards.

Now, try to adopt a ‘tall’ sitting position, as if a cord attached to your head is gently pulling you upwards. Notice how your spine straightens and lengthens and how your backside lifts, bringing your body weight slightly forward. Most important, your pelvis tilts forward and your lower back becomes straighter and slightly ‘hollow’. This ‘tall’ position brings benefits to our sea kayaking, as described below.

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An upright posture, with the pelvis tilted forward, enables us to ‘sit tall’ and rotate freely with every paddle stroke, bringing great benefits to our paddling performance.

But how comfortable are you? Do you feel muscular tension or tiredness? Can you maintain this position for long, without fatigue? It’s much harder – and quite revealing – to hold this posture without the support provided by the kayak. It also emphasises two key areas in which we can develop dynamic posture to improve our sea kayaking:

Core Strength

The ‘core’ refers to the muscle groups around the middle of the body that stabilise movement and provide a link between the upper and lower body. When sitting tall, we ‘switch on’ these muscles to engage and maintain body position, rather than relying on the support of backrests and thigh braces to do the job. We can train our bodies very easily to ‘switch on’ the core by practising ‘sitting tall’ at every opportunity – watching TV, driving to work – and when sea kayaking! We may not achieve it 100% of the time, but a bit of quality practice will reap huge rewards in our paddling.

It’s not about developing a ‘six pack’ or any of that nonsense – you’re reading the wrong magazine, I’m afraid! Abdominals are only a small part of the ‘core’, which is made up of a large number of muscles from the neck to the lower back, stabilising the spine, pelvis and shoulders and adding to power to the extremities. Paddle your kayak while ‘sitting tall’ and you’ll actively strengthen these muscles, giving your kayaking skills a stronger, more balanced platform for performance.

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With an upright, dynamic posture, you should be able to rotate freely, remaining relaxed and tall in the kayak.

Flexibility

This is the place in a technique article when many of you will throw down the magazine – I know, there’s nothing more tedious than being told to improve your flexibility! But stick with me, we’ll get it out the way as painlessly as possible…

Still sitting on the floor, sitting tall? Good. Are you experiencing any lower back discomfort, any resistance to tilting the pelvis forwards? If not, you’re lucky – you can skip this bit and go to the next section. Most of us, however, can feel a little tension in the lower back with this posture. The cause is often a relative lack of flexibility in the hamstring and hip flexor muscles that have their origin in the base of the pelvis. If they’re tight, they pull the pelvis back and often create lower back pain. Many sea kayakers battle on with tight muscles for years, working far harder for their miles than necessary.

So, what to do? Well, there are plenty of simple stretches that can improve this area – a quick Google search reveals a host of options. Some years ago I did a lot of stretching to fix a minor lower back problem, and learned a few important lessons on the way:

We’re creatures of habit, so taking 5-10 minutes a day for gentle stretching becomes easier once you’re through the first week. You don’t have to work too hard – your body will respond naturally over time to achieve the new positions you’re seeking. A little discomfort may accompany the sensation of stretching, but not pain. If it hurts, stop.
Some people are naturally flexible, others less so – it’s better not to compare yourself to your paddling friends.

Don’t overdo it – 10 minutes of gentle stretching after exercise is often enough.
If – like me – you get bored easily, distract yourself by reading a couple of OP articles or watching a chapter of the latest sea kayak DVD. The hamstring and hip flexor stretches are quite compatible with this ‘lazy’ approach! Stretching can be quite addictive – beware, you might sell your kayak to buy a mat and leotard…

Lizzie Bird’s recent article included a variety of stretches – here’s another to get you started:www.sportsinjuryclinic.net/sport-injuries/thigh-pain/tight-hamstring-muscles/stretching-tight-hamstrings

Boat-Body Connections

It’s time to get up off the floor and sit down again – in your sea kayak. If you can’t get on the water, find a soft area where the boat sits flat without too much lateral movement. Let’s compare the feeling of ‘sitting tall’ on the floor with the same exercise inside the kayak – do its size, footrest position, thigh braces and backrest allow a comfortable ‘tall’ position, or are you more constrained by the posture you’re forced to adopt?

Starting with the seat, find the most natural position for your backside – check that it allows a comfortable position without pressure points. You’ll need to relax the back strap to find this starting point.Now you need to consider the position of the footrest. If you’ve a bulkhead footrest, hopefully it’s adjustable or can have layers of foam added and removed.

Experiment first with positions that are too long and too short for your leg length. A footrest too far away will force you to stretch down the kayak and will hinder a dynamic, forward posture for the upper body – it’s therefore tempting to get a snug fit by bringing the footrest much closer. Many paddlers feel more secure with solid points of contact – the classic white water ‘frog’s legs’ position, however, with the heels together, toes splayed out and thighs pressed under the deck of the kayak, can seriously reduce your ability to ‘sit tall’ in the boat.Try it, and experiment with titling your pelvis forward – feel the resistance?

If you need convincing, adopt this ‘tight’ position and check out your upper body body rotation – it’s much harder, and requires more muscular energy to rotate freely in the kayak. The resulting lack of flexibility can affect paddling performance in many different ways.So give yourself a little more space inside the kayak – length the footrest a little, bring your feet into a more upright position with the feet less splayed out – and allow your legs to drop a little from under the deck of the kayak.

Finally, adjust your back rest to ensure that it provides a little support if you need it, or ideally adjust it so it lightly touches your lower back when ‘sitting tall’. Above all, it should be unobtrusive – too tight a position will affect you comfort and flexibility.

Now get out on the water – and be ready to make small adjustments to find a comfortable sitting position that combines upright posture, positive foot pressure against the footrests and freedom to rotate with excessive effort.

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With only a light grip on the points of contact inside the kayak, I’m able to stay relaxed in moving water with independent movements of the upper and lower body.

Paddling Lightly

It’s time to get afloat and experiment with your body-kayak connections. For these exercises you’ll need a venue with conditions that comfortably challenge you – an ‘interesting’ sea state for your level, but not a ‘difficult’ one. To build awareness of your interaction with the kayak, check (in the protection of the bay), the tensions in your points of contact:

1. Press each foot hard against the footrest, then relax each foot completely.

2. Grip the kayak tightly with your legs, then relax them completely.

3. Shift your body weight from one side of the centre line to the other, then return to a
central position.

4. Rotate your upper body, checking how much resistance there is with less/more pressure on your points of contact.

5. Change the boat’s footprint in the water with weight shifts/leg pressure, checking your sense of balance and comfort.

Now it’s time to paddle out into the conditions, observing the changing tension/relaxation in your body as the sea state increases. In green (unbroken) waves, can you ‘paddle lightly’, with only gentle input from your points of contact? In other words, can you allow the kayak to ‘follow’ the surface of the water as it passes under your kayak, or do you grip the boat and work to keep it ‘level’ in this dynamic environment? You may need to experiment with footrest and back rest positions, to compare looser and tighter set ups.

Clearly, we can conserve a great deal of energy by ‘paddling lightly’, remaining relaxed in the kayak and only ‘gripping’ the kayak when paddling in broken waves, turning quickly or making extreme changes to the boat’s footprint. With an upright posture and an active core, we can allow the kayak to move under us while the upper body remains balanced over this moving object.

If you feel a little uncomfortable with this ‘relaxed’ approach, remember that changes in technique can bring these negative responses. As you get used to the changes, your mind will accept your new posture – and your body will learn to balance effectively without conscious instructions from the ‘pilot’!

So much for effective body position – but what are we going to do with it? How can ‘sitting tall’ and ‘dynamic posture’ actually help our sea kayaking performance? In simple terms, dynamic posture allows us to move more freely in the kayak, to rotate the head and upper body, shift weight forward and back, separate lower and upper body movements, and to react to the ever-changing ocean environment. Let’s find a few examples.

OP03.12.4Sitting tall in the kayak allows me to make effective, powerful paddle strokes with a full upper body rotation.

Power Transfer

As sea kayakers we spend the vast majority of our time paddling forwards. Each paddle stroke requires a rotation of the upper body to enter the active blade as far forwards as possible. A free rotation of the upper body, with a relaxed sitting position and good posture, will reduce the effort required to achieve this ‘entry’ position. We can conserve this energy or channel it into the power phase of the stroke – increased speed, more waves, more fun!

To test this technique, pause between paddle strokes and observe how much resistance you feel when rotating fully before the entry of the paddle blade. Are you sitting tall? Is your arm fully extended – or your elbow bent? Are your gripping the paddle shaft tightly – or are your fingers open and relaxed? It’s far easier to relax your hands with effective upper body rotation.

Dynamic posture can also develop your turning skills. A full body rotation will allow you to place the active blade in the water in an effective position towards the front or back of the kayak, with an efficient power transfer from blade to boat. We can apply fewer strokes to turn the kayak, with more accuracy and power.

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Dynamic posture even allows me to look at where I’ve been and where I’m going!

Body Rotation

Perhaps the best advantage of dynamic posture is the ability to rotate freely in the kayak. In fast-moving environments such as surf or tide races, the ability to ‘lead with the head’, to open the upper body towards our next target and to stay ahead of the kayak’s movement, is a vital element of effective rough water paddling. Crossing eddy lines, riding waves, turning in broken water – all require the combined skills of boat trim and body position.

One simple way to develop these skills is to practise foundation turning skills on flat water. With both outside- and inside-edge turns, lead with the head and shoulders by looking into the inside of the turn, focusing on a target over the inside shoulder. Focus on maintaining an upright posture throughout, keeping your centre of gravity over or slightly forward of the hips.

In conclusion, dynamic posture can be a satisfying element of your paddling technique to develop. Improvements in flexibility combined with good body position will improve your balance, reduce the effort needed to make your moves and will help you you to avoid injury, paddle further and faster, sea kayak more easily and have more fun.

So get out there, work on the exercises introduced here and step your paddling up a gear!

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Barry enjoys the ride as his kayak finds the sweet spot on a North Stack wave. Although he appears to be leaning back, his weight remains centred over his hips as the bow drops down the wave face.

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