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kiteboarding with back pain

Kiteboarding with Back Pain: How to Cope With a Bad Back

We kiteboarders are likely to suffer back pain at one point or another throughout our kitesurfing life.  Whether such back problems are due to kiteboarding or not, they can greatly impact our ability to keep riding and can sometimes keep us out of the water for long periods.

Can you kiteboard with back pain? Having suffered both acute and long-term chronic back issues myself, I have found that kiteboarding can actually improve my condition provided I follow a regular and focused core strengthening and stretching routine, use an adequate kite harness, and avoid riding overpowered for extended durations.

In this post, I’ll talk about chronic back pain, a problem lots of kiteboarders suffer from, and how it affects our ability to kiteboard.  I’ll then talk about the most effective approach I have personally found to get back to kitesurfing after a back injury.

I’ll then look at the best kite harness to use for someone with back pain, and whether to choose a seat or waist harness.  Finally, I’ll suggest ways to avoid getting back pain when kiteboarding.

My experience kiteboarding with chronic back pain

Long-term, chronic back pain – such as that resulting from a bulging disc – can initially creep up without you really noticing.  I had this kind of sneaky, lingering pain in my lower back for two whole years – before my back eventually went out.

During that time, I was able to continue kiteboarding regularly, even though the mere fact of bending to pump my kite and set up my lines triggered an annoying pain in my lumbar area and left upper buttock. Once in the water, though, my muscles and tendons would warm up and I would feel OK.

I thought my pain was due to stiff hamstrings, and I kept doing simple stretching movements every day, thinking the pain would eventually go away.

As I found out later (see next section) I had a bulging disc resulting from compression in my lower spine, a very common condition.  In my case, the compression resulted from continuous bending of my spine due to bad posture when sitting at work and bad movements when working out  (keep reading for more about how I fixed it).

While I had that permanent chronic pain in my left buttock, I actually felt better each time I was riding.  The reason is, your body position for edging upwind on your kiteboard forces you to put your lower spine into extension, pushing your pelvis forward into the harness and engaging your lumbar muscles and core.

 

That’s exactly the type of posture I needed to help pull my bulging disc back into place (vs pushing it outward onto the nerve).  Basically the opposite of flexing/bending my spine.  So going out kiteboarding was actually beneficial for my condition.

Another key aspect of kitesurfing with a bad back for me was the harness.

Choosing the best kiteboarding harness for back pain

best kiteboard harness for back pain

There’s always been a lot of debate about which kiteboarding harness to use for a bad back.  The harness is obviously a crucial piece of equipment for a rider with back pain, it can make or break your ability to keep kitesurfing.

From my experience, the best harnesses for back pain are those with the largest surface area, providing the best support for your lumbar area.  Another key aspect is how the harness evolves over time: some harnesses go soft and lose support over the years, whereas others fit better after some use as they mold perfectly around your body.

Seat harness vs waist harness for a bad back

A related hotly debated question is whether to wear a seat harness vs a waist harness.  Many kiteboarders with back pain swear by a seat harness as they say it helps significantly reduce, or in some cases eliminate, their back pain when riding.

The thing is, on a seat harness the hook is lower than on a waist harness, at the level of your hips (the body’s natural pivot point) as opposed to above them with a waist harness.  Also, seat harnesses are stiff from the lower back area down to the butt.

As a result, the kite’s pull is on the hips and butt instead of on the waist and lumbar.  You’re “sitting down on the power” which puts a lot less load and stress on your lower back, particularly when riding powered up.

A seat harness acts a bit like a lower back brace, keeping your spine locked in between your lower back and glutes.  While this works well for some conditions, it’s not always a good thing though as a brace keeps your core muscles from working and strengthening.

As a result, a seat harness can give you spinal compression with strong kite pulls.  The way I see it, this happens because you’re typically riding in a sitting position, making your form suffer with your core muscles relaxed vs being engaged to keep your spine braced.

Are waist harnesses any good for back pain?

A waist harness can be good for back pain depending on your back issue.  In my case, having a forward pull from the kite on my lumbar area forces me to engage my lumbar, ab, and hip muscles including deeper muscles such as the multifidus, transversus abdominis, psoas, and hip flexors, to straighten and brace my spine.

A waist harness, however, only helps with back pain if it sits precisely in the right place on your body.  That is usually the case when not riding powered.  When overpowered, though, particularly for less experienced kitesurfers, the harness often rides up your torso, leaving your lower back muscle fighting to keep your spine straight.

OK so … which should I choose for my back?

Based on the feedback from kiteboarders around me, I’ve come to these conclusions: if your back pain stems from a problem low down your spine, a seat harness may make things worse.  You should probably give a good supportive waist harness a try instead as I did.

When I was suffering chronic pain from a bulging disc in my lower spine (L5-S1 – see next section), going out on a kiteboarding session with my Dakine Pyro harness actually made me feel better most of the time.   My friend who had a similar condition was using a Dakine Fusion seat harness which made his pain worse. Switching to a waist harness significantly reduced it.

If, on the other hand, your back injury is located higher up your middle or upper back, or if you’ve just pulled some back muscles kitesurfing, using a seat harness (or alternating between a seat and a waist harness) may help reduce your pain when riding.

A seat harness is typically better if you’re a learner as you often find yourself overpowered and your waist harness ends up riding up under your armpits – that’s not only bad news for your lower back, it can also hurt your ribs from the pulling and rubbing.

Recap: seat harness pros and cons for bad backs

Seat harness pros:

  • Below the waist hook height + locked-in core puts kite pull onto hips and glutes – many riders choose to stick to a waist harness because of the high hook
  • Keeps your lower spine locked up with nothing moving
  • Ability to sit down on kite power
  • Harness is fixed around your butt, won’t ride up your upper body (good for powered riding)

Seat harness cons:

  • Acts as a lower back brace, keeping core muscles from working and developing
  • Harder to push your pelvis forward and lean back for edging
    • May encourage bad form and flexed / compressive lower back posture
  • May squeeze your stomach and trigger acid reflux for some people
  • Harder to ride toeside jibe strapless with a seat harness
  • Thigh straps keep the water trapped around the crotch
  • Diaper looks  🙂   – not all of them though

A few harnesses kiteboarders recommend

Examples of popular seat harnesses among kiteboarders:

  • Dakine Nitro: an evolution of the XT windsurfing harness specifically created for riders with back problems
  • Mystic Force Shield: not bulky, doesn’t look like a diaper
  • Ion Echo

I myself wore a used the Mystic Aviator (Amazon page) all the time I was learning, that harness is very supportive for a beginner and virtually indestructible!

Harness shorts like the Ion B2 (Amazon) also focus kite pull around the top of your bun cheeks, without looking like a diaper.

As for waist harness, I’m a huge fan of the Dakine Pyro and Renegade – read more about my personal experience with these harnesses here.

Many kiteboarders also recommend using the Dynobar sliding hook spreader bar with your harness.  This spreader bar lets the hook travel from hip to hip, resulting in much less side pull when carving turns, riding toeside, or even walking up the beach upwind.

Important final tip for choosing your harness for back pain: make sure you choose the right size for you!  Picking too small a harness (for “snugness”) will squeeze your body and may add to your back pain when riding high-powered.  Getting a larger size can help reduce the pain – I always wear my harness with lots of wiggling room.

Returning to kiteboarding after a serious back injury

After months of gentle but persistent chronic back pain, one day as I was working out gently at home, my L5-S1 disc slipped and I got stuck. I could no longer move, stand or even lie down without feeling excruciating pain in my lower back and upper leg due to my pinched sciatic nerve.

My heel and two of my toes went numb.  For 3 months, I was unable to walk other than bent in half.  They say herniated disc pain is one of the worst, I believe it.  It felt like I would never be able to kitesurf again.

Some people have it even worse, e.g. with full disc extrusions resulting in loss of feeling in parts of their lower body (e.g. foot drop), often leading to the need for surgery.

There are many stories of people getting back in the water within 12 weeks of getting back surgery.  I didn’t have surgery but it took me almost 6 full months to start kiteboarding again.

How I recovered and got back in the water

For many people with a slipped disc, the pain from the pinched nerve usually starts to fade away after a few weeks (e.g. 8-12 weeks).  3 months after my back went out, however, my pain didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I decided to take control and began looking for core strengthening exercises.  I tried a bunch of classic stretching and core strength exercises but most of them only made my pain much worse.

Then I came across Foundation Training (FT), a bodyweight, isometric exercise program focused on chronic back pain created by chiropractor Dr. Eric Goodman.  The training program teaches you to correctly use your posterior muscle chain for every movement and posture you take.

Basically, you re-learn to bend, reach, and lift by engaging your core posterior muscles instead of your spine.  This addresses the root cause of many types of back problems and prevents them from coming back.

Not only did this training routine get me back in the water within a couple of weeks, 3 years later I’m still completely pain-free.  I still do the exercises almost daily (about 10 minutes per day) as part of all my workouts and riding sessions.

According to Foundation Training, the following key factors often end up causing chronic back pain :

  • Incorrect use of your posterior muscles:  failure to correctly engage your posterior chain puts the burden of movement upon your spine. Over time, your body compensates and adapts to these bad positions, leading to imbalances and chronic pain.
  • Rotational imbalance of the hips: many people have externally rotated hips, with the hips, knees, and feet turned outward apart from one another in a “duck stance”.  Over time this leads to the ball and socket parts of the hip joints misaligning, creating friction and chronic hip issues.
  • Rotational imbalance of the shoulders: chest and shoulders are often turned inward and pushed down, with arms positioned in front of the body. Over time such posture can prevent shoulder joints from functioning normally as their components are not correctly aligned.

The Foundation Training exercises

The FT isometric exercises are designed to help us solve these problems.  The movements revolve around a few key principles, the two most important ones being:

  • Decompression breathing: expanding and elevating your rib cage up away from your hips lengthens your back and reduces compression in your spine, increasing the distance between the vertebrae.  Spine flexion often leads to back pain by causing compression and resulting disc herniation.
  • Hip hinging: most of the time chronic back pain is due to the way we make our spine perform the work our hips should be doing, shifting the burden onto our skeletal system vs of our muscle system.  Hinging at the hips vs at the spine is crucial.  

FT’s most fundamental exercise, called the Founder, combines the above two concepts.  Here’s a simple version of the exercise:

This exercise alone helped me get back on my feet and stand upright again within a few days.  Amazed by the fast results, I ordered the DVDs on Amazon and worked my way through the whole FT program.  A couple of weeks later I was back in the water – those who had seen me crippled couldn’t believe it.

The Founder exercise is only a first step.   FT taught me to bend and lean the right way, build a strong core through targeted isometric moves, and stretch my hips, hamstrings and lower back in an incredibly effective way.

I completely re-learned the correct movement patterns for  “pulling, reaching, lifting, folding”, including when surfing and kiteboarding.  Flawed movements are what over time caused my slipped disc.

Fast forward a few years, I still rely on FT for my main core strength training, warm-up and stretching routine on a day-to-day basis. I recently bought a subscription for their new online streaming platform.  FT has kept me completely pain-free throughout my kitesurfing, surfing and SUPing life ever since.

For more information, see my detailed review and personal experience of the FT program on my other website.

Preventing back problems when kitesurfing

So we’ve discussed kitesurfing with back pain and severe back injuries.  But even assuming a relatively healthy back, how do you prevent back problems from appearing due to kitesurfing? These are some important tips I’ve learned the hard way.

1. Pump your kite the right way

A lot of people actually strain their back (or make it worse) by pumping with the wrong posture.  Make sure to keep your spine braced and avoid rounding your back.  If you’ve read the section on the Founder earlier, pumping a  kite is a perfect application of that exercise!

So when pumping my kite, I stand with my feet shoulder width apart or wider, put my weight in my heels, and push my hips and butt towards the back.  I load up my posterior chain, tense up my lumbar muscles and feel the stretch in my hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

Not only is that movement completely safe for your spine, but it actually warms you up and stretches your posterior chain thoroughly while you pump!  It’s simply an amazing way to prepare for your session, added to some integrated squats and “woodpeckers”  (these are FT specific exercises – if you want to know more about them just hit me up in the comments below).

2. Learn the right position when riding

I see many people riding with their back hunched, particularly when overpowered.  Such spine flexion can really kill your back over time, including causing disc bulges/herniations (see previous sections).

Whether you’re using a waist or seat harness, try to always brace your spine by tensing up your lumbar and ab muscles – again, you should basically be pushing your butt out all the time and keeping your rib cage up for decompression.  I know it sounds weird at first, but it can really save your life.

Using the right kite and board size can also make a big difference on your long-term back health.  Too much kite can make you overpowered most of the time, which leads to less control over your posture and movements.  Having the right amount of power helps prevent back injuries.

3. Do appropriate pre/post session stretching

While everyone knows the importance of it, kiteboarders almost never warm-up and stretch before or after sessions.  We kiters are always time-strapped, we want to expedite the setup process and get in the water as fast as possible.  After a session, most kiters have precious little time to fold up and leave!

I learned my lesson from my back injury.  As I mentioned, I take advantage of pumping my kite to warm up and stretch my posterior muscle chain, followed by some squats and hip hinges.  After a session, even though I often don’t have time to stretch before driving back, I make sure to do so after getting home.

Trust me, warming up and stretching is extremely effective in preventing lumbar and other back injuries – which often only appear long after the session once your muscles, tendons, and joints start to cool down.  Doing so doesn’t have to take hours, a few minutes before and after the effort are usually enough.

4. Consider going strapless

Kiteboarders with a bad back often make the switch (no pun intended) to strapless kitesurfing – as I have.  Without straps, you’re able to constantly rearrange your feet around the board and redistribute your weight and posture.

If you use a regular polyester resin surfboard, over time you can observe the board collapsing under your foot pressure.  This is a good indicator of the kind of force generated when kitesurfing, which gets applied to our spine and joints when we ride strapped using the wrong postures.

Riding strapless not only eliminates the nasty impact on your hips and knees of your feet being stuck in duck stance, not being able to rotate because of the straps.  If also forces you to engage your posterior muscle chain and hip flexors to keep yourself on top of the board under your kite’s constant pull.

Strapless riding significantly reduces the amount of stress on your back. Ever since I got into it, I haven’t looked back.  See my essential tips on directional board kitesurfing.

Safe riding!

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