Many kayakers believe that forward folding to stretch the hamstrings is a good way to protect their low backs and relieve back pain. Lengthening the hamstrings is important for back care, but unfortunately, a lot of paddlers who use forward folds may be exacerbating disc problems such as herniation.
I'm not a medical doctor, but I do have a good understanding of the body mechanics of paddling and of stretching. And, I feel that most paddlers are better served using poses other than forward folds to stretch their hamstrings. Most of the time it isn't tight hamstrings that lead to back pain and injury, but tight hips. And paddlers tend to have tight hips due to the amount of sitting we do in our kayaks. Add on top of this the sitting we do at our desks and in our cars and you have a recipe for tight hips and poor posture that can pull our pelvis and spine out of alignment, leading to back pain and injury. The biggest muscle group in our hip flexors is actually directly attached to the lumbar spine and can literally pull our spine out of alignment if it is too tight. For more in depth information on this please see my previous article "Stretching for Paddling Longevity."
If paddlers already have tight hip flexors and then only fold forward they are just making the front of their hips tighter! And if there is a disc that is about to bulge out from the spinal column toward the back of the column then flexion of the spine will only speed the process of injury. My favorite series of hamstring/hip stretches are done lying on your back. Stretching the hamstrings while lying on your back keeps the spine in alignment and that is wonderful for paddlers.
Instead of doing a seated or standing forward fold to stretch when you feel your hamstrings getting tight, try the following poses. Even better, do these poses once a day. Even if you didn't paddle that day these stretches will help clear the body from all of the sitting you may have done throughout your regular work day. For best results a consistent practice is needed.
For these stretches you'll need a strap. You can use a belt, a cam strap, a scarf - anything that you have nearby or in your closet. Random pieces of clothes such as jackets and fleeces work as well. Whatever you choose, make sure that it is between 4 and 6 ft long.
Start lying on your back with your legs extended and your strap nearby. Inhale to bend your right knee and place your right foot flat on the mat. Now bring your attention to your left leg. Pin the inner thigh of your left leg into the mat and make sure that your middle left toe is pointed straight up to the ceiling. These actions bring awareness, tone and alignment to your stretch.
Maintaining the tone in your left leg, take your strap, extend your right leg toward the ceiling and place your strap on the ball of your right foot. Hold each end of your strap in each hand. Loosen the strap enough so that you can lengthen your hamstrings and press your right foot strongly into the strap. The idea is to lengthen the hamstring, not draw your leg really close to your chest. You also want the strap to be long enough so that you can press your shoulder blades into the ground creating a small lift in the chest. Keep a slight bend in the knee so you don't hyper-extend.
Hold the pose for 5 -10 deep and easy breaths. Breathe in and out through the nose.
Next, take your strap in your right hand and, on an inhalation, draw your right leg out to the right. As you do this keep pressing your left leg and hip strongly into the mat. Your left middle toe should still point up to the ceiling. This is a wonderful hip and hamstring stretch.
Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Inhale while bringing the right leg back to center and take the strap in your left hand. Draw your leg over to the left about 10 or 20 degrees. Inwardly rotate both thighs towards one another. You may want to move your strap so that it is across the heel of the foot. Isometrically draw your right hip down into the mat. This means that your hip won't actually move down, but you'll feel an opening in the outer right hip/glute area. You can use the strap across your heel and pull down.
Hold for 5 to 10 deep and easy breaths.
On an exhalation, draw your right leg all the way over to the left into a reclined twist. You can keep your leg extended with your strap or release the strap, bend your right knee and enjoy the twist. Some of you may prefer to draw your hips over to the right a few inches before bringing the right leg all the way across to the left. This creates more of a twist.
Hold for 5-10 deep and easy breaths.
Inhale the leg back to center, stretch it up one last time and then release the strap and let your leg float down. Pause and relax here, noticing the difference between both legs/hips. You've just created space in your right leg/hip so take a moment to enjoy it!
Repeat all steps on the other side.
While you are practicing these stretches focus on the tight spots and send your breath there. What I mean by that is pretend that you could actually inflate that area with the air you're breathing. Of course, that is not truly possible, but by focusing and breathing into the tight spots you will feel and create an expansion and a lengthening.
Here's to happy hamstrings, hips and backs!
If you enjoy these stretches you'll want to check out my DVD "Yoga for Kayaking with Anna Levesque and Joe Taft". These are some of the first few stretches in the first sequence.
Anna Levesque is a world-class kayaker who has a passion for inspiring and teaching women. Her experience as an accomplished international competitor, author, instructor and business owner has placed her as the leading expert in her field. Her top accomplishments as a whitewater athlete include a bronze medal at the 2001 World Freestyle Kayak Championships, a spot on the Canadian National Freestyle Team five years in a row, and many top 3 finishes in both Freestyle and Extreme Racing. Anna combines her international expertise in kayaking with her experience as a yoga instructor and student of meditation, to inspire women in confidently creating success and happiness in all aspects of their lives. She offers women's paddling retreats, clinics and trips in Mexico through the her company, Girls at Play, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. For more information please visit www.watergirlsatplay.com