Canoeing makes my shoulders hurt

Been kayaking for a few years with no shoulder problems. Got into canoeing this summer with a Bell Magic and bent shaft ZRE and shoulder pain almost immediately ensued. Not a sore muscle type of shoulder pain, but a sharp joint type of pain, both shoulders. I’ve always paddled canoes a little bit but this was the first summer I’ve done any real paddling in a canoe.

Started with a 52" bent paddle, which is shorter than any I’d used before, and when my shoulders started to hurt figured it must have been too short. Got a 55" and found that certainly was NOT the answer. I ended up cutting the 55" down to 50" and that feels like a good length to me (lower hand a couple inches above the blade). I paddle hit and switch with what I guess is a fairly high cadence. I try to keep the paddle pretty vertical.

The only time I feel like I can paddle without much pain is if I lean pretty far forward at the waist with every stroke and pull back mainly with my torso. This keeps my arms out in front of me the whole stroke.

Can you help me with my stroke?

Too little info
What PART of the stroke is causing the trouble? For example, which shoulder is hurting (that of the high hand or the low hand?) and at what point during the stroke does it hurt? Maybe there’s nothing you are doing wrong and your shoulders have chronic injuries that get irritated during paddling, or maybe your shoulders are fine but your stroke is incorrect. At this point, there’s no relevant advice that can be given.

starts with top
If I remember right if I start with shoulders that don’t hurt the shoulder for the top arm starts to hurt first. The longer I paddle the worse they get and will start to hurt whether the arm is top or bottom. Last half of the stroke seems to be the most painful.

I feel like it might be from trying to push forward with the top hand. With such a short shaft and vertical stroke it just doesn’t feel right when I’m trying to push forward with the top hand, like I’m not able to.

I’m 31 years old and haven’t experienced any shoulder problems before. Kayaking has never been an issue and I like to paddle hard and fast.


Now it’s time to analyze the details, …
… but that’s really out of my league to try (unless maybe I could actually see how you paddle). I posted because I figured that the first step would be to try to figure out what is going on, with more detail being better than none at all. Hope someone can help you.

I don’t know of any rule
that says you must use a canoe paddle in a canoe, and

not a kayak paddle. I have been using a kayak paddle in

canoes for a few years, and occasionally switch to a

canoe paddle for some aesthetic enjoyment.

I believe the kayak paddle is more efficient.

Try it.

I’m exactly the opposite
I use my ZRE weather I am in my kayak or canoe. Much lighter than the kayak paddle, and I can go just as fast.

"pull back mainly with my torso"
And that reduces the problem if I get the message right.

So maybe look at where in the stroke you are relying heavily on pulling with your arms?

I agree with captain about the weight
factor of the paddle. I should have mentioned that my

kayak paddle is an Onno carbon paddle, and very light.

The paddle I had before that was an aluminum shaft with plastic

blades, and it so heavy it beat me up every time I used

it for paddling.

Go light, by all means.

couple of thoughts

– Last Updated: Nov-26-09 11:13 PM EST –

You are correct in leaning forward - you have to do that if you want to engage the torso muscles.
The question is how much to lean.

I may be misunderstanding your description of your technique, but you don't pull back with the top hand to apply power. You drive the paddle down with the top hand.

When you are driving the paddle down with the top hand, the power is actually coming from the torso. The hand and top are are just connecting the paddle to the torso. Apply power to the paddle by driving down with the shoulder.

Consider trying a paddle with a different bend angle. The Zaveral is, if I remember correctly, 12 degrees. I have a 14 degree bent shaft that seems to hit the muscles a bit lower than the Zav. It isn't a lot, but just enough to reduce the impact on the shoulders. I use a Zav almost all of the time because of the light weight, but do switch to the other paddle when my shoulders start to hurt.

The above could just be an indication that my paddling form isn't that great, but it has helped me with the same problem you are describing.

One other thing I almost forgot - my shoulders feel a lot better when I am doing exercises to strengthen the muscles around the joint.

some thoughts …

– Last Updated: Nov-26-09 11:31 PM EST –

...... sometimes after pushing it a bit too much I start to notice a wee discomfort in the shoulders too .

At those times I'll do a couple things different . First I'll back off the power I've been applying to the paddle , that seems to stop further aggrevation .

Sometimes I switch paddles also which makes a difference .

Now I haven't used these personally , but others often mention foot stops (or braces) which are said to help get more "whole body" into the paddle stroke as opposed to just upper body (or discribed something like that) ... maybe foot braces can help relieve shoulder stress , I don't know ??

My shoulders are almost twice as old as yours , so you gotta figure out how to keep it from messing you up ... at the least , like the ol Dr. joke goes when the patient said "it hurts when I do like this doc." (man raises arm over head) , and the doc. replies "well stop doing it that way then" .

“I try to keep the paddle pretty…
verticle” -Your words …

this could possibly be your problem.

The paddle should only be verticle when you are planting it.

Hopefully you are not fighting it and trying to keep it verticle throughout the entire stroke.

When I first got into racing, I got a video from J &J in up state NY on Marathon canoe racing by a couple by the name of Fries.

It was unbelieveable how much I had been doing wrong with my paddle stroke for many many years.

He takes you through ever bit of the stroke.

Every time I watched it I would pick up some new tid bit.

you might want to think about getting it, or a book that shows the forward stroke.

Good luck



Where is your top hand ?
If my top hand is too high at the start of the stroke my shoulders will hurt after a while.

With the blade planted in the water, before I’ve started to apply power I like to have that top hand no higher than my nose.

Some guessess/things to try

– Last Updated: Nov-27-09 8:49 AM EST –

When you say "last part of the stroke seems most painful", is it the pulling ot pushing arm that hurts at the end of the stroke?

If it is the top/pushing arm, then see if your elbow is too high. If it is the low/pulling arm, see if you have been pulling with it rather than rotate with your body (as Ceila suggested - rotation minimizes shoulder movement a lot).

Having never paddled a canoe myself, howeve, the above advice is purely theoretical and based on my extrapolating from kayak paddling... When I overextend my pulling arm back (as in late release at the end of the stroke or in correction strokes) and do it because I do not rotate my body, I feel a lot more strain on the shoulder, especially if at that very moment I need to brace or if I need to take a reverse stroke without proper rotation first. What's enough rotation? Hard to tell, but if the angle of one arm to the shoulders plane is considerably different than it is on the other, then rotation is not enough... I would imagine a similar concept holds true for canoe paddling as it does for kayaks.

The other reason might just be overuse. There are a ton of tendons in the shoulder and you may simply need a break or different activity to not aggitate them. But most likely, a question of something you are doing less than optimal in your stroke...

I did have some problems earlier
when I was canoeing. My top hand shoulder would hurt after a few hours. I switched to a shorter paddle and it helped a LOT. I was using a 52 and went to a 46 1/4 inch paddle (Zav) by keeping my upper arm lower I don’t think I am putting as much stress on the shoulder. My next Zav will be an inch shorter even. I paddle a QCC 700 and a Kruger with it, both of them you sit lower than a regular canoe.

Might be something worth trying.

shoulder pain
You should get this checked out by a doctor. If you live in the Eastern US, you should have your doctor test you for lime disease. A lot of doctors don’t automatically do this for some reason. You might consider using a FrontRower ( as an alternative to paddling. A few people have reported solving shoulder pain problems this way.

Tried it
Tried my double bladed Onno when I first got the Magic but just didn’t like it that much. Partly from all the dripping on my lap and partly because a Zav makes the Onno feel like a lead bar. Nothing against the Onno, I love it, but a single blade is only half the length with half the blades.

I’ve got an even shorter Zav that I use in my kayak quite a bit. It’s really nice. Maybe I should try it some more in the Magic.


>I may be misunderstanding your description of your >technique, but you don’t pull back with the top hand >to apply power. You drive the paddle down with the >top hand.

I’m not pulling back with the upper hand, or at least I’m not trying to. I always thought the top hand was supposed to push forward and down. I seem to have difficulty doing that with my current stroke/paddle. I can’t explain why. I’ll have to get out paddling this weekend and pay more attention.

Consider trying a paddle with a different bend angle. >The Zaveral is, if I remember correctly, 12 degrees. >I have a 14 degree bent shaft that seems to hit the >muscles a bit lower than the Zav.

I’ve got an old Black Buck that must be about 14 degrees and is a couple inches longer. Have hardly used it (came with a boat I bought), I’ll give it a shot too.



forward and down
You don’t want to push forward at all - just down.

That is so the paddle face stays vertical, or close to vertical, in the water for as long as possible. If you push forward and down with the top hand, the pivot point on the paddle is your bottom hand and the useable part of the stroke is short. If you just push down, the pivot point is the grip. The paddle stays vertical or close to it for a bit longer when the pivot point is the grip, so you get a more efficient stroke. If you try it when you are just sitting on chair you should be able to see the difference.

By vertical I mean getting the top hand closer to the gunwale instead of in front of my body.

But now that you mention it I wonder if I am keeping the blade too vertical in the way I think you’re referring to. Perhaps I’m reaching too far ahead when I plant the blade in the water? Putting my bottom hand well out in front of my top hand and making it difficult for the top hand to push forward.

I’ll look into some videos.

Will try to get out this weekend and try a few things.



Top hand location
My top hand is probably chin level I’d say.