It used to be “pedal.” I would pedal my bike at a wonderful regular pace, my mind roaming from idea to idea, hot riders male and female blowing past me up the hills and down the valleys. Riding provided the free thought time that, when combined with exercise, led to a productive day — and sometimes to a bounty of new ideas.
Today it’s “paddle.” Stand-up paddling (SUP) has rocketed to the top of the watersports world, with sales of new boards growing at more than 20 percent per year. I started on a long version of a surfboard designed by Donald Takayama. As I paddled rhythmically, letting my mind wander, I found new levels of fitness. SUP develops balance, coordination and power through the trunk, core and shoulder muscles as no other sport does, and with almost no injuries.
But like cycling, some enthusiasts of the sport have succumbed to newer board and paddle designs and a “modern” style of paddling. Short, powerful strokes with high stroke rates beat out the longer, deeper paddle strokes. The sport is becoming a frenetic, high-velocity competition waged on high fat long boards that separate the paddler’s toes from the waves. Weeknight races and downwind multihour events are now staged at every port.
The injuries are piling up, too. I see shoulders with inflammation from overloading and frank rotator cuff tears from pushing through the pain. Back injuries roll in from torquing the spine. Crash injuries show up, with lacerations and torn tissues caused by paddling down rivers and into huge waves that are unforgiving to fat boards with stiff paddles. The exhilaration of taking a new sport to unexplored territory still thrills all the suntanned watersports fanatics, but the pressure to compete is not for everyone. When thrill replaces serenity in a sport, physical creativity may go up, but mental creativity is put on pause.
My old, thin, surfboard-like paddle board, responding to my metronomic paddling, carrying me through the ocean chop to the local surf spot, still works just fine. My mind is unencumbered by the need for speed. My breathing is regular. And my uninhibited, productive thoughts continue to flow. I never paddle faster than I can daydream.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco. He pioneers advanced orthopedic surgical and rehabilitation techniques to repair, regenerate and replace damaged cartilage and ligaments.