Paddle Healthy | Five Post-Race Mobility Exercises

mobility exercises
The body takes its share of abuse behind the paddle. With these post-race mobility exercises, it doesn’t have to be harmful. Photo: Kelly Starrett

Paddle Healthy | Five Post-Race Mobility Exercises

What’s your usual routine after paddling? If it’s just putting your board back on your car and driving away, you’re undermining training gains, short changing soft tissues and generally under-recovering. If you’re doing a few static stretches –pulling your arm across your chest, grabbing a foot and pulling it up behind you, etc. – you’re doing some good, but taking our muscles to end range and hanging out there for a while can actually be harmful. Just as you wouldn’t want to overstretch the fibers of your favorite cotton t-shirt, you don’t want to extend your muscle fibers beyond the point of their elasticity.

Over the past 10 years, Kelly Starrett—physical therapist, founder of San Francisco CrossFit and former member of the national whitewater rafting and slalom canoe teams—has been refining a post-exercise movement and mobility system. With it, top athletes in every sport are learning how to get into the fundamental athletic shapes Starrett identifies in his New York Times bestseller, Becoming a Supple Leopard and recovering the ranges of motion needed to do so. Starrett is also helping paddlers such as Anik and Jay Wild identify and fix soft-tissue restrictions that limit performance, increase injury risk and cause pain.

Here, Starrett highlights five post-race mobility issues and offers exercises to help remedy them. He recommends that you perform these exercises for a minimum of two minutes per side after a five- to 10-minute cool-down. Remember to breathe deeply from your diaphragm to enhance relaxation throughout each mobilization, and if you feel any nerve pain or joint discomfort, stop and back off the intensity a bit.

1)     Free your T-spine

When thinking about correct mechanics and mobility, we should start at the spine. It’s the job of your trunk to stabilize you throughout your stroke and to protect your central nervous system by ensuring you stay in a braced position. Trouble arrives when we fatigue during a race, and start hinging in the middle of our backs rather than at the hips. We then start generating stability and producing force from an up-and-down, forward-and- backward flexing motion rather than through rotation. This creates a lot of neural tension in the thoracic spine, in the scapular area between our shoulder blades. Here’s how to release it.

Kelly Starrett displays how the back tends to round forward when paddling rigorously. He remedies this issue in the text below. Photo: Juliet Starrett
Kelly Starrett displays how the back tends to round forward when paddling rigorously. He remedies this issue in the text below. Photo: Juliet Starrett

2)     Shoulder internal rotation fix

Far too many paddlers are guilty of paddling as we stand in a slumped position with our shoulders rounded forward. This prevents us from generating the external rotation torque needed to both stabilize the shoulder and generate powerful strokes. Take a couple of thousand strokes in this position and you’ll smoke your shoulders, overtax your bicep tendons and clamp down on nerves that cause neck pain. The mobility exercises in this video will help restore internal rotation capacity, which will help you relieve pain, achieve full range of motion and get your shoulders into a better position next time you hit the water.

3)      Hip-opener

If you’re an avid racer, your hip rotators may well be fried and your glutes may be tight to the point where they noticeably tug on your lower back. This prevents you from hip-hinging correctly and contributes to piriformis syndrome, sciatica and a whole slew of other issues. Use this mobilization exercise to unglue this troublesome area.

Liberating the lats is among the most critical components of the post-paddle warm-down. Photo: MobilityWOD
Liberating the lats is among the most critical components of the post-paddle warm-down. Photo: MobilityWOD

4)     Lat lovin’

One area that gets abused during hard paddles is the lats, the big, wing-shaped muscles on your back. They get tacked down during a hard race and limit extension in the reach phase of the stroke, while also preventing you from achieving the optimal overhead shape needed for efficient, powerful paddling. Free up your lats with these mobilizations.

5)     Gut smash

When you’re trying to address lower back pain, you normally don’t think about your gut. But that’s where one of the most powerful muscles of the lower back—the psoas—inserts. When you’re tight in your abs—inevitable after a race—the psoas start pulling on your lumbar spine. Add in the tension created in the transverse abdominis and obliques by stabilizing your trunk during each stroke and you’ve got a tacked down mess. Smashing this area can remove restrictions in all these muscles and the overlying fascia, and liberate your diaphragm for more effective breathing.