Paddle Healthy: Reducing Shoulder Stress With Dave Kalama

When it comes to SUP training and racing, there are several joints and body parts that can suffer from overuse injuries, including knees, wrists and back. But the number one complaint we hear about from fellow paddlers is sore shoulders.
To help you get your rotator cuffs ready for the water, we caught up with legendary Hawaiian waterman Dave Kalama. As well as being from one of Hawaii’s revered families, joining Laird Hamilton in pioneering tow-in surfing and popularizing SUP, Kalama is still a force on the race circuit, finishing just seconds behind Connor Baxter in the record-setting Molokai-2-Oahu race in July.
In this installment of Paddle Healthy, we’ll cover Kalama’s paddling technique tips to reduce stress on the shoulders. —Phil White

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama
Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

1. Paddle Relaxed
Enrollees at the Kalama Kamp might be surprised by one of the first things Kalama shows them at the SUP clinic, which has to do with water but is firmly on dry land.
“I take a glass of water and put it on a table,” Kalama says. “Then I pick it up like you normally would – with a relaxed arm, hand and shoulder, normal range of motion – and take a drink. Next, I pick it up again with everything tensed, muscles flexed, like how 90 percent of new paddlers grip their paddles. The water starts to shake in the glass, I have limited range of motion, and it’s a lot harder than it needs to be.”
Using this illustration, Kalama busts the myth that your muscles need to be tense to be working. “If you relax your muscles during each stroke, you’ll greatly reduce shoulder stress and fatigue,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama
Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

2. Reach!
Another mistake newbie paddlers make is not extending their stroke enough, or going to the other extreme in moving the blade so far forward that they’re not generating any power on the pull. Both can put undue stress on the shoulders. Here’s Kalama’s advice for a long, efficient stroke that doesn’t overemphasize the joint:
“Extend the paddle as far forward as you can while keeping your balance centered over your feet, so that you can engage your whole body and pull yourself forward,” he says. “Adding even just half an inch to each stroke might not seem like a lot, but over thousands of strokes it’ll make a big difference.”

Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama
Photo courtesy of Dave Kalama

3. Stack your Shoulders
Lack of alignment between your shoulders is a major stressor on the joint, as tension is distributed unevenly. You can remedy this by stacking the shoulders during each stroke:
“If you put a stick between your shoulders when your shoulders are stacked correctly, it should be almost parallel to the paddle as you move it up and down during the power phase of your stroke,” Kalama says.

Check back soon for Part 2.

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