A common complaint that I have heard from some people who have tried kayaking is that they find it to be uncomfortable after awhile, if not downright painful. It is unfortunate when people have this experience because in most cases it can be corrected and the discomfort will be eliminated. The first thing to check if you are having some lower back pain is whether you are using good posture in your kayak. You should be “sitting up straight” just like your mother and teachers told you to do long ago. You shoud not be slouching or even worse, leaning back against your backband or seat back. A kayak is not a recliner! Leaning back puts strain on the lower back and is not a position that is conducive to good torso rotation when performing your strokes. Sitting up tall and straight with perhaps a slight forward lean will be much more comfortable over the long haul. If you are not able to sit with good posture, it most likely means that you have tight hamstring muscles and/or weak abdominal muscles. Start working on a stretching program to gain some flexibility in the hamstrings and see about doing some crunches or other exercises to firm up those abdominal muscles. When you go paddling, focus on using those core muscles like the abdominals while doing your forward stroke. Paddling with good technique will strengthen and tighten your abdominal muscles. If you are unsure what is meant by “good technique”, take a lesson or check out the following DVD’s on the forward stroke – Brent Reitz Forward Stroke Clinic and The Kayak Forward Stroke by Greg Barton and Oscar Chalupsky.
If posture or technique are not the problem, it could be boat fit. By that I mean, you may need to make some adjustments in the foot braces in your kayak, or the kayak itself may be too large or too small in the cockpit resulting in you not being able to sit in a comfortable position. A cockpit that is too small or has a low front deck may cause you to have to keep your legs too straight which can be uncomfortable for many people. A cockpit that is too large or wide may have you splaying your knees too far out to the side resulting in hip pain. If you find your legs or feet going numb or “falling asleep”, you may have the foot braces too close to you, or the front edge or sides of the seat may be pressing into your legs or hips cutting off circulation or pressing on a nerve. Try rolling up a towel and putting it under your thighs to keep the backs of your thighs from pressing into the seat. If this solves the problem, you can take steps to create a more permanent change to your seat. If your calves are cramping up, you probably don’t have the foot braces adjusted properly. They could be either too far forward or too close to you. You should be able to relax your legs easily, but with a slight tensing of the leg muscles you should be able to grab your thigh braces for more control. If your thigh braces are constantly digging into the tops of your legs, your legs are most likely going to go numb after awhile.
Another common pain in kayaking is the “pain in the butt”. Normally, I do not suffer from this problem and I can usually sit in my kayak for hours on end with no problem. However, this past week on vacation in Florida, my husband and I rented some recreational kayaks to paddle down the Myakka River. After 2 hours, both of us were feeling significant discomfort on our backsides despite the padding on the seats. The more we thought about it, we came to the conclusion that it was most likely the “pads” that were causing the problem. The foam ribbing on the seat pad was causing uncomfortable pressure points. I paddle a kayak with an unpadded fiberglass seat. My weight is distributed evenly over the entire seat pan causing me no discomfort whatsoever. My husband, likewise, paddles a kayak with a relatively hard seat. If you are experiencing pain in your seat, you may want to consider removing the existing padding, if possible, and see if that helps at all. If there is improvement, you can either leave the padding out, or look for other forms of padding that might be more comfortable for you. For example, Cascade Designs, the makers of Thermarest camping mattresses, makes a seat pad for kayaks using similar technology. The pad has foam and air in it with a valve that lets you adjust the amount of air in the pad. Another pad option is the YakPads gel seat. There may be other manufacturers of gel seat pads as well. On the other hand, the whole seat pan may be shaped wrong for your derierre. I have a friend who would immediately remove the fiberglass seat from every new kayak he bought and replace it with a contoured foam seat that was glued into the bottom of the kayak. If you find a kayak with a seat that is comfortable for you, you may be able to buy just the seat from the manufacturer and find a way to retrofit the seat into your kayak.
If you are one of those people who has found kayaking to be uncomfortable, don’t be too quick to give up on the sport. Try many different kayaks, and if you have your own kayak that is giving you problems, be open to making some changes in the seat before assuming that you need a different boat. Kayaking should not be “a pain in the butt!”
Keep it comfy!