Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Water is not always predictable, and conditions change day to day. As a whitewater kayaker for over fifteen years, I have learned it is important not only to condition the body to paddle, but also the mind.
Not only do the water levels change, but the weather, and unlimited variables of nature are in constant flux. Just like the Pilates method, changing resistance, and movements add a challenge for the whole system-Body, Mind, and Spirit.
5 years ago, I met Devon Barker-Hicks on the river. She is a professional kayaker with years of competing around the world, and an ACA kayak instructor. We instantly connected as friends, kayakers, and teachers of movement. A few months after meeting, we decided to coordinate our passions into a program called Pilates for Paddlers.
Pilates is a perfect fit for any paddler. We organize wellness retreats on rivers around the world. Each morning we warm up with Pilates, and at lunch, we do dynamic stretches for our lower back and legs. The water is a perfect fit to understand how our bodies move similar to the rivers. Water is truly not just something we paddle on, but also within.
Here are a few fundamentals to consider teaching to any kayaker, whitewater paddler, stand-up board rafter, and rafter.
Learning how to take long inhalations and long exhalations when paddling in whitewater is important. Anxiety and fear can build when attempting a challenging rapid. Paddlers can psyche themselves out even when the rapid is within their ability. By practicing lateral breathing while paddling calm water, and continuing that type of breathing throughout the rapid is important. Also, practice-rolling in flat water and holding the breath is important for any whitewater kayaker. Whitewater kayakers need to learn how to hold their breath without fear.
We have come up with a mantra to “stay calm” when upside down under water. Staying calm in mind and body as you set up for your roll is key. A rigid body will struggle rolling back up. Learning how to create calmness in the storm is key to advance to the next level. Holding your breath calmly is an important physical skill to develop. Devon was recently at the Santa Cruz Paddle Festival in Santa Cruz, California where being calm in her mind translated to solid rolls in a tricky situation.
The surf break, Steamer Lane, can go toward the cliff. On one ride she ended up close to the cliff and upside down. Her first roll worked, but she was close to the cliff as the next set of waves rolled in. She practiced the task at hand, meeting the wave to paddle out and create distance from the cliff but went upside down from the force. Devon’s mantra for rolling is “tuck to side and push paddle up.” These are two positive positions for rolling and can be achieved with a flexible, not rigid, body position. After the fourth roll, she was able to paddle out of the impact zone. During this time she recalls repeating her mantra to keep calm while holding her breath. This allowed her body to do its job without her thoughts negatively impacting her task at hand. “Our muscles know what to do, we just have to keep our thoughts positive so they do not interfere negatively,” Devon shared. “Then, I took a long lateral breath.”
Condition the Opposing Muscle Groups:
Paddling can involve many hours of sitting in a kayak with your legs in external rotation, and feet in dorsiflexion. Rafting can involve lots of hours sitting. Stand up Paddling involves lots of standing. There is not a lot of leg movement happening in either sport. Usually the paddler is fixed in a position that does not allow much lower body movement. As a whitewater kayaker, we sometimes get out of our small boats with legs that feel asleep or tight. Devon and I have created a stretch and exercise routine for before, during breaks, and after paddling. We find it important to stretch out the legs, hip flexors, hamstrings, quads, upper back, lower back, and chest. Most paddlers run a shuttle for river sections and also drive hours to and from the river or ocean. Or if they are staying on the river for a self- support trip they are pulling the heavy boats and gear on shore. Without a stretch-exercise routine before, during, and after, the paddler will usually suffer from lower back pain or neck pain due to tightness in the upper back and shoulders.
Pilates for Paddlers program:
Here are a few stretches we recommend before paddling that can be done with a paddle:
- Lateral Side Bending with paddle shoulder width apart
- Standing Roll downs with paddle
- Upper thoracic extension with paddle behind the hips
- Saw rotation seated or standing
- Mental breath-holding exercise
Exercises that can be done during a break:
- Standing Hip flexor stretch
- Internal rotation for legs (Supine)
- Bridges with hip dips
- Upper thoracic extension with paddle
Exercises and stretches after:
- Knee sways
- Internal Rotation for legs (supine)
- Hamstring stretches
- It Band stretches
- Chest stretches
A few key exercises we have found to be helpful for paddlers in the studio are:
In the studio
- Foot work on Reformer External and Internal rotation
- Psoas Stretch on Reformer with foam roller
- Long stretch on Reformer
- Swan on Reformer
- Thigh Stretch on Reformer or Roll down Bar
- Scapular patterning with push through bar
- Quad stretches on ladder barrel
- Oov Core work (supine), Side bending and breathing on Oov
The key to a long lifetime of paddling is not only consistently being on the water, but also having a well-rounded and variable Pilates routine. Water and Mother Nature are not always predictable, but through conditioning paddlers can prepare for variable conditions. Challenging the body and mind is important to a well-rounded and happy paddler.
Join Lisa Marie and Devon Barker-Hicks on their next Pilates for Paddlers trip on the Lower Salmon River. Lisa Marie offers workshops for Pilates instructors at her studio in McCall, Idaho. Devon offers one-on-one private kayak instruction. Check out www.mccallpilates.com for more information.
Link to trip wellness trips:
Devon Barker-Hicks is a native Idahoan of Basque heritage and a world champion kayaker, with a goal of kayaking on all seven continents (only Asia and Antarctica to go!) She instructs with Lisa Marie on their Pilates for Paddlers Whitewater Wellness Retreats (open to kayakers, rafters, and SUP paddlers). In addition, Devon is passionate about helping kids find exciting alternatives to drug and alcohol abuse through her Dare to Kayak program. Contact Devon at email@example.com .