The Lower Back
Low back pain is an extremely common symptom in the general population and effects 85% of us at some stage in life. The majority of back pain is caused by repeated strains associated with bending forwards. When you think of the technique used in SUP boarding it’s easy to see that there is a risk of doing some damage.
You only get one back, continuously straining it is likely to cause structural problems that will catch up with you in later life. So even if you’ve never had back trouble you should consider trying to keep your back as healthy as possible. As the sport becomes increasingly popular, I am concerned that people who paddled for years will start developing back problems later in life. This all sounds quite worrying doesn’t it? Well don’t panic, the good news is that there are things you can do to help prevent this from happening, and keep you paddling into old age.
The spine is made up of individual vertebrae which each produce a small amount movement. In the lower back (the lumbar region) there is a natural curve, which is known as a lordosis . This is particularly relevant when it comes to potential stresses and strains that go through this part of your back when paddling i.e. when reaching to place your paddle in the water you need to keep the hollow (lordosis) in your back.
Each individual lumbar vertebra allows a small amount of flexion (forward bending). But this region isn’t really designed to do this job excessively. Problems begin to arise when bending forwards from the lumbar spine becomes excessive and puts a strain on the soft tissue structures that maintain the natural curve (lordosis). You need to teach your back and hip muscles to hold a slight curve in your lower back and to do some of the bending at the hip.
How does this relate to SUP?
The natural design of human biomechanics allows us to bend forwards. SUP technique requires an element of bending forwards to produce the maximum power delivery though the paddle itself.
The key to reducing lower back injuries caused by SUP is pelvic tilt. If forward bending is done while maintaining the natural curve in your lower back then the strain on your lower back will be minimal and less likely for injuries to occur – see picture on the right. If pelvic control is poor and the pelvis is tilted backwards, the hinge point comes from the lumbar spine rather than the hip, which leads to injuries – see picture on the left.
The blue line shows the tilt of the pelvis. If the pelvis tilts forwards (in the right hand picture) the hips flex as well as the lower back, the natural lumbar curve is maintained and there is less stress on the lower back.
How can you reduce the risk of getting lower back injuries?
1. Have a think about your posture whilst paddling. Can you maintain a neutral lumbar spine position? Take your paddle and hold it against your back. Try and keep 3 points of contact on the paddle whilst bending forwards.
– At the sacrum – the boney bit at the base of your spine.
– The mid-thoracic spine – between your shoulder blades.
– The back of your head.
Bend forwards with the paddle and keep all three points in contact with the paddle (Pelvis tilts forwards and bend at the hips).
2. Work on strengthening off the water… A lot of people think that SUP boarders develop “good core stability” and therefore strong around the lumbar spine. In some ways this may be true, but it’s dependent on you maintaining the correct posture and technique. Paddling with the correct posture will help you develop the correct movement pattern and strengthen your core muscles
3 Adapt according to conditions so you don’t strain your lower back. Try to maintain a natural lumbar curve even when there is a lot of swell, choppy or windy… and especially when you are becoming fatigued. Whilst surfing this is even more difficult. Some people favour a shorter paddle, which means you are more inclined to bend at the waist. In this case in order to place the paddle as far forward as normal you may need to stretch further forward with your arms and bend more at the hips and knees.
4. Flexibility… I know stretching is often the last thing you want to do when you could be on the water. But if a muscle group that attaches to the pelvis is tight (hamstrings, hip flexors, lumbar extensors and abdominals), it can alter pelvic mobility, which could impact on your lower back. Include major muscle group stretches in a warm-up/cool down as a minimum. I will also try and discuss this and the kind of things to look out for soon.
5. Don’t be lazy when lifting your board… Too obvious to even mention? Probably, but a 15 kg board puts enough force through the lumbar spine to cause a disc injury.