Several people, myself included, experience a growing sense of discomfort in the legs and low back the longer we sit in a kayak. This discomfort can range from feeling stiff and achy to more sevire symptoms of numbness and tingling. There are many possible causes for this discomfort. This web page addresses the problem by looking at what you can do to adjust your body to better fit your kayak. It is also important to adjust your kayak to better fit your body but, except for a few suggestions, that is beyond the scope of this page.
I am a massage therapist. That means two things: my suggestions come from that perspective and my medical training is limited. I suggest measures to make yourself more comfortable in your kayak based on my perspective as a massage therapist. These are very useful and I believe will help many people. But the cause of some people's problems may be beyond the training that I have and beyond the measure I suggest. If you have severe symptoms or a long history of them you may want to seek out advice from other medical profesionals such as physical therapists or medical doctors.
The legs are very passive in a kayak. As much as you might use your legs to push on peddles or grip the boat they do not go through any where near the range of motion of your paddling arms or your legs as they walk. Nor do they take anywhere near the amount of stress of walking, let along running or backpacking. But still many people find that the limiting factor of their time in a kayak is discomfort in their legs. This discomfort
Basically, any kind of achyness in the legs. More sevier would be numbness and tingling anywhere in the legs or feet. Low back is more likely to be generally achy to more specific sharp pain. Some of the low back problems may be related to your legs and some may not.
Here are some of the possible causes:
Short posterior leg. Many people are short in their ham string and calf. Shortness develops as a result of daily activities. If you spend a lot of your day sitting in chairs or other postures with bent legs this will allow the back of your leg to shorten. When you then sit in a kayak with your legs straight you are asking the tissue to stretch more than it is accostomed to and it will complain.
Worse, this shortness may cause stress or misalignment in other parts of the body.
This may compress nerves resulting in numbness or tingling. It may also cause your low back to
body is very adaptable and readily takes on the shape of it's habitual activies. But
as much as it will grow to accomodate new uses it will also give up mobility in directions
that are seldom used. Thus, if you spend more time with your posterior leg in a
shortened position that tissue will loose it's ability to strech.
It's common for people to spend their time sitting or standing, which only require moderate strech from the back of the leg. Sitting in a kayak with straight legs and bent waist requires much more strech in the back of the leg. If the tissue is tight it will soon get uncomfortable.
Bad pelvis position. If you're posterior leg is short it may prevent you from rotating your pelvis to sit fully up right on it. The hamstrings will pull down on the back of your pelvis creating a sort of slouch. This will round the low back, possible causing back pain. And it will shift which part of your butt takes your weight, possible putting more pressure on nerves.
Pinched Siatic Nerve. The siatic nerve this is a large nerve bundle that inervates most of the leg. It passes through your rear between your sits bones (the bones you sit on) and the hip bone (side of your hip), and is very susceptible to compression. It is possible for the siatic nerve to be compressed by tight tissue in your butt, often the piraformis muscle which is an external leg rotater. It is also possible for the nerve to be compressed by how you sit on it. If your hamstrings are short they may shift your pelvis enough to increase the pressure on your sciatic nerve.
Pressure on the back of the thighs. This can impinge nerves or circulation.
Immobility. The body just does not like to be immobile for that long.
Increase flexibility. I believe this addresses the root cause of the problem and will provide a long lasting solution that will also help you in other activities. The basic program is to engage in more activites that use the legs in lengthend positions. This requires changing habits and is not always easy.
After last summer's kayak trip I realized how important flexibility is going to be to my staying active as I grow older. More than strength it is what will allow me to adapt to new sports. So this fall I started doing hatha yoga twice a week. Flexibility requires dedicated consistency. If you don't consistently stretch the tissue it won't retain the ability to stretch. Fitness centers offer plenty of stretching classes. There are good books about stretching.
Streching. Take a yoga class or a streching class and then strech regularly. For kayaking emphasize forward bends that strech your hamstrings. Watch your technique to avoid cheating by rounding the back. To be effective the strech must come from your short hamstrings, not your already hyper mobile low back. The other streches are important too, don't ignore them. Stretching regularly maybe the hardest and most valuable change you make.
Changing Habits. Stop doing the things that shorten the back of your leg. Look at your daily activities and figure out what you do that keeps the back of your leg short then change it to give it more length. Probably you spend a lot of time sitting in a chair. Can you change your chair so that you rest your feet on a foot stool some of the time? A little stech done very often will make a big difference.
Massage. Massage is great for loosening muscles. All massage will help to some degree but the most effective will be massage therapists trained in myofascial release (MFR) of some form. Simply put, MFR is the process of giving more length to muscle (myo) and connective tissue (fascia). There are several different massage modalities that are myofascial release. Here are places that you can get more information:
Adjust your cockpit fit. Short of the full outfitting there are a few things that you may be able to change which could solve the problem:
If there is a lip on the seat that cuts in to you thigh cut it off or raise the seat till it doesn't.
Move the foot pegs forward so you point your toes. This will give some slack in your posterior leg.
Don't let your low back slouch down. Sit up right on your sits bones. This requires slack in your posterior leg. Moving the foot pegs forward will help with this. This may take weight off your siatic nerve.
Bend your knees. This also will slacken your posterior leg. When I got really uncomfortable I would put a small dry bag full of soft clothing under my knees which supported them in a bent position. I had the luxury of a fairly large cockpit.
But the best solution is to increase your flexibility through stretching and massage.
Live long, stay active.
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Page last modified: Feb 18 08:58 2010 by Tom Unger