So before I start this little novella, I'm going to have to knock on some proverbial wood. I like to share my thoughts on these matters based on my experience, but whitewater is an inherently dangerous medium, and I hope I don't jinx myself by putting forward some guidelines to maximize your time on the water, and minimize your time in the hospital/on the injured list. I have learned a couple of things over the years though. The following are some tips that I tried to share with my clients at Liquid Skills
and elsewhere when I'm instructing, as well as my friends that I paddle with on a regular basis:
1) Warm up before you stretch.
It's always best to have some form of physical activity, kayaking or not, to get the blood flowing through your muscles and signal that a workout is about to start. I like to throw a football around. A number of studies have shown that stretching on cold muscles is worse for you than not stretching at all.
Duhh. Kayaking puts us into compromising positions that are much more manageable if we make it a habit of doing our hip mobility, core, hamstring, rotator cuff, and other important stretches.
3) Cross train.
Kayaking is a great workout, but the people who go out and only run class 5 all the time without any other physical activity are going to hurt themselves. The simple fact of the matter is that the stronger/more flexible you are, the more you can take a hit. Take it from Pat Keller, he landed on the Big Boy rock(that's 33 feet onto a flat rock) when he was 15, and walked away from it. Ride a bike, run, wrestle, ski, lift weights, swim... stay as active as you can across the board, and you will see great results in your boat.
4) Know when to walk.
So many people decide that once they've run a rapid once, they've got to run it every time. This is a dangerous mentality, especially when it's an ego-driven decision because some other individuals are around. Your decision to run a rapid should be based on a million different factors including: river level, group size, group mentality, daylight window, personal abilities, personal feeling that day, weather, etc.
Fergus Coffey once told me a very important piece of information. He shared a study with me which states that the two leading causes of accidents in the outdoors are:
-Desire to please others
-Trying to adhere to a predetermined schedule
5) Wait for safety.
The social trends of the sport of kayaking are interesting to watch. Recently it's become the cool thing to always be first... running huge waterfalls blind with newbies following, running them before other people have ropes set up, are back in their boats after portaging, or in extreme cases before they even get out of their boats above the drop. This is a trend that has almost resulted in several fatalities in the Southeast alone, and will result in one if things don't change. It's not cool, and it sets a bad example for the impressionable youth.
6) Quality, not Quantity.
Paddling every day of the year will not make you a better paddler than paddling 1/6 of that amount of time SMART. Whenever I have not listened to my body telling me not to go paddling that day, I have regretted it. Paddle when it feels right, and paddle smart. I love running quality class 3/4/5 whitewater on a regular basis, and once in a while stepping things up to the top of my ability level.
7) Account for mental fatigue.
When you push yourself super hard one day, give yourself a break the next. The day after I ran the Toxaway for the first time, I went out for a "mellow" run on the Green. I got worked! Running fringe rivers takes it out of you, and we need to allow our mental abilities to bounce back after that. Obviously the more you practice, the better you get at keeping yourself in the right mental state for overnighters, etc.
8) Use therabands.
Shoulder dislocation is the most common injury for whitewater kayakers, and it is a devestating one. Backpaddle a lot, and use theraband exercises to keep your rotator cuff muscles strong and keep that joint stable.
9) Hinge theory!
You can break your back on a waterfall in the 20 foot range or over. If everything else fails, and you are boofing out, punch both hands and your paddle as far forward as you can, and focus on pivoting forward at your hips and getting your upper body flat on your deck. Don't just arch your lower back forward but pivot at the hips. This will allow you to take a huge hit without breaking your back, although you may sacrifice your nose in the process.
10) Hydrate/eat well.
Bad situations are made much worse by a lack of energy. Pack more food and drinks than you think you will need and plan for the unexpected. I made this mistake on the Middle Kings River and fortunately my friends Pat, Dylan, and Cooper were there to help me out.
Ultimately, all of our abilities and styles are different, but these are the rules that I have learned through the school of hard knocks. I have gotten every one of these things wrong at least once in my life, and learned from the consequences. I hope that this write-up helps you to cut out that step in the process, and continue paddling hard for as long as possible.