How keeping your back loose can make your surf session that much better

By Jake Howard

Surfing often leads to lower-back pain. The older you get, the harder it is to escape.

With all the paddling, it’s easy to over-arch your back and put a lot of stress on all of the nerves and muscles at the base of the spine. This causes tightness and flare-ups that can keep you out of the water when the next swell rolls in. Some of this can be alleviated by proper paddling technique, but in reality, stretching before you jump on your board is the best defense against inflammation and injury.

Before we look at the solutions for back issues, it’s important to understand how, as surfers, we end up in pain in the first place. First, we put a lot of pressure on our lumbar vertebrae through over-arching when we lie on our board and paddle. As the spine gets compressed, muscles tighten and become sore and inflamed.

Unfortunately, your daily surf sessions may just be part of the problem. Sitting too much affects your hip flexors, which in turn affects your pelvis, which in turn jacks up your back and leads to increased discomfort. Your back pain may, in fact, just be where the problem is manifesting. A lot of times, lower-back pain is a result of tight hips, groin, quads, hamstrings and calves. And a weak core is going to make other muscles overcompensate and pull your back out of alignment. That is where regular yoga or Pilates classes can make a huge difference.

Once you’re aware of the causes of lower back pain, you can start to treat it. Keep in mind, before you do anything, you should start with a light stretching routine to loosen up the muscles in the area and get some blood flowing to them. This will wake them up and get them warmed and prepped for deeper stretching. Exercises such as simple roll-downs to touch your toes, rolling your shoulders and neck, and basic quad and lunge stretches are all great.

A surfer stretches on a beach in Brazil. Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
A surfer stretches on a beach in Brazil. Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Once you are feeling a little looser, you can start to focus more specifically on the back. Used extensively in yoga classes, the child’s pose is an easy place to start. Beginning on all fours, rest your rear end on your heels and sit back onto them. Focus your weight back, slowly curve your spine until your forehead is resting on the mat. Start with your arms resting by your side with your palms facing up to the sky. This will help release tightness in your upper back and shoulders. Extending your arms above your head, stretch forward and feel the stretch through your lats and ribs. This will help lengthen and stretch the spine. While you’re doing all of this, take deep breaths from your diaphragm, making sure to expand your ribs every time you inhale.

Bridging is a sure-fire way to get the quads and glutes firing, which will, in turn, provide your back with stability. Lying flat on your back, place your legs hip-width apart. Bend your knees so that your feet are firmly planted on the mat with toes facing straight forward (make sure your feet, knees and hips are all in alignment). Place your arms straight by your sides with palms facing down and scoot your feet back until your fingertips touch your heels. From this position, lift your hips toward the sky until they’re in alignment with a straightened spine. Your weight should be focused on your feet and your neck at the base of your spine. As you roll down out of this position, sink each vertebra down one at a time. This will help articulate each joint and loosen up the entire spine. Repeat several times until you feel your hips, quads and glutes are all warmed up.

The Figure Four stretch is another one that’s great for surfing. Lying on your back, place your legs hip-width apart. Bend your knees until your feet are flat on the ground. From there, rest your right ankle on your left knee. With your arms, reach between your legs, interlacing your fingers behind your left thigh and cautiously pull your knee into your chest, exhaling as you do so. Hold the stretch, then switch legs and repeat. You should feel this stretch in your glutes, hips and piriformis.

There are obviously a lot more stretches, yoga poses and strength routines that can benefit surfers, but these are few stretches that are easy enough to do on the beach before you paddle out and could make a difference when you’re trying to squeeze yourself in that next barrel section.

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