BY REBECCA BARTON-DAVIS
In my neck of the woods this time of year, the ski and paddling seasonal overlap. We are finally able to get back on the water consistently, and we can enjoy some great crust skiing. After a winter of little time on the water, the first two-hour-plus paddles usually leaves me a little sore – not just in the shoulders, but from my seat. Butt pain while paddling is distracting at best. Many an early season paddles have left me vowing “never again” to my formerly beloved canoe. Of course this violent reaction doesn’t last long, but avoiding it would be even better.
The first thing that most people do when their seat is causing some serious pain is to add more cushions. I find this only makes the problem worse in most cases. Seeing 3-plus layers of foam tells me that someone’s butt is hurting and they don’t know what to do. Rip that foam off like the band aid that it is, and start with the basics. Usually, once the foam is gone, you can narrow it down to one or two areas that are causing you the most pain.
If you notice that your hamstrings start to burn after just half an hour, it’s probably because the angle of the seat is too flat or even angled back with the front of the seat higher than the back. Recreational boats often come with the seats with little or no tilt forward because people like to “lounge” as they float down the river. This is not comfortable for most paddlers and can even cause your toes to fall asleep. To fix this problem, you can stick some spacers under the back of the seat, or drop the front down. Usually we start with half an inch of change and then adjust more or less from there. Any boat with a mounted seat can be adjusted this way.
If it feels like there is compression in the lower back it usually means the seat is angled forward too much. To me it feels like my spine is being driven down, and I can feel the pain across my back just above the back of the hips. This adjustment comes from too much of a good thing: “If I can get a good pelvis tilt and rotation from angling my seat one inch, I should be even better for two inches of angle!” Again, start with half-inch adjustments and fine tune from there.
This is not the most common problem, but if you notice fatigue on the front of your hips, it’s most likely caused from having your foot brace too close to the seat. Most paddlers starting out want to sit with their knees bent like in a chair, but in order to get good core rotation, you need to be able to pump the legs while paddling. By holding the legs close and knees bent, you can feel some tightness in the hips. If you can’t decide if your foot brace is too close, test it just like you would seat height on a bike – legs should be bent in the “resting position” and nearly straight when you are pushing on the foot brace. You don’t want to lock out the knee at any time or feel like you have to reach to have your feet on the foot brace, but having a fairly straight leg will enable you to use leg drive to aid in rotation. giving you more power in your stroke; plus the hip flexor pain should disappear!
Sits bones and tailbone
Now that we have looked at the three big culprits, we can add some foam. Foam will change the contour of the seat a little bit and make it more comfortable for the sits bones. If it feels like the curvature of the seat isn’t wide enough to fit your sits bones, adding one or two layers of foam may adjust the curve of the seat enough to make things line up. If this still doesn’t help, you may need to cut holes in the foam to take pressure off of the sits bones, or try a different seat design that fits your pelvis more comfortably. I find the standard seat can be adjusted to work for most, but wider and narrower seats are available from most manufacturers.
Once paddlers start utilizing leg drive, it is not uncommon to get a raw or bruised tailbone. By adding a layer of foam to the seat and then notching out a “v” where the tailbone goes, you can relieve some of the pressure. In extreme cases people will cut out the seat itself, but I would recommend at least trying it with foam first. If it still is bothering you, I would guess the foot brace may be a little bit too close, causing you to really jam against the back of the seat with every stroke.
If things are feeling better, but you still have pain that annoys you while paddling, address your own flexibility. By sitting for so long, paddlers tend to develop hamstring, glute and hip-flexor tightness. Stretching after completing a paddle – or making an effort to fit in five minutes of flexibility training a day – can go a long way in increasing paddling comfort.
Even if seats look the same between boats, they may not feel the same, so give yourself room to experiment and customize each seat. You may find that you like different things between bow, stern and solo boats. The height of the foot brace from the floor, the height of the seat from the floor, your stability, stroke mechanics and flexibility will all play a role in what is comfortable. What works for one person may not work for another, so don’t expect your partner to love what you have done to your seat – they probably won’t. By addressing pain early in the season, we can have a long and comfortable summer on the water!