Time to Toughen Up Your Paddle Hands!

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This time of year we talk a lot about training….training our cardiovascular system in preparation for our planned races and events. Training our bodies with nutrition modifications. Strength training to increase our paddle power and complement our endurance.  Overall training and toughening up to be able to best handle the conditions that we are going to love come race day. 

Training Works

But right now, my skin also needs training.  Specifically the skin on my hands.  Very specifically, the skin on my thumbs.

I have spent over six years getting the callouses on my hands and fingers strong and tough enough to handle the 32 miles of Chattajack every October.  I am extremely proud of my “Chatta-callouses” and have taken great care to keep them supple and soft yet strong enough to do the job. For the last two years, I haven’t had a single blister, nary a hot spot on my hands after those 32 miles.  And no, I do not wear gloves. Can’t stand ‘em.  When a recent route in the climbing gym resulted in one of those callouses getting scraped off (more or less) you would have thought someone sliced my finger to pieces.  I was that upset.  That’s how important they are to me.

Heretofore my routine for keeping the hands in shape for the demands of sup and outrigger paddling has involved rotating through several different salves: All Good Goop, MJ’s Herbals, Joshua Tree Paddler’s Salve and Surfer Salve.  For long training sessions, I use wax on the shafts of my paddles.  Be diligent and the reward is sufficiently thick but not rough natural protection on my fingers and palms.

Recently though, I discovered a flaw in my regime.  Paddling with the wing paddle in the surfski requires a different grip and a different motion, causing friction in the area between the base of my thumb and its knuckle,  slightly on the inside.  After two days of solid, longer distance paddling in the ski, I rubbed raw two spots on my left thumb – my left side is my more powerful side.  

Ouch!!! Kayaker Thumb the day after two long-ish ski paddles.

This is sometimes referred to as “Kayaker’s Thumb” in double-bladed paddle circles. And it’s no more a technique issue than blisters are for the single-bladed set.  Friction happens.  Yes, it can be exacerbated by gripping too tightly, but as ii I have been paddling kayaks for  over 20 years, that’s not the issue.  It is a good reminder, though to make sure I am relaxed when paddling.  

Nope, I just need to focus on  getting this particular part of my hands paddle ready, the same way I would focus on strengthening a specific paddle muscle.  I am not as used to paddling the ski as I am the OC and SUP.  

And apparently, neither are my thumbs.

I need to pay more attention to them, then.

So, what that means is this….first taking care of the abrasion from my recent paddles. 

I should probably mention here that I am not a doctor.  I do have certification in Wilderness First Aid from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS.) And I have had a bit of personal experience with care for severe paddle-related wounds. 

Some of my lotions and potions

For the Acute Skin Injury

My first aid routine involves regular applications of Active Skin Repair.  If you don’t already have this stuff in your medicine cabinet, first aid kit and toiletry kit, GET SOME.  You can read about why this stuff is a must here. 

To protect the wound from getting dirty and re-opening, I use Manuka honey-infused bandages.  Manuka honey has natural healing and antibiotic properties.

If I am paddling or climbing during this phase of my “training” … I lightly wrap a protective layer of cohesive bandage (coban) or climbing tape over the wound site. Coban is great because it provides a nice cushion and is water resistant.  For fingers and thumbs, 1-inch wide rolls are perfect.  

Keep a supply of cohesive bandages on hand for blister prevention and other first aid needs.

Why not just wear gloves? Ever try wearing appropriately form-fitting gloves when you have a bandage on?  You run the risk of dislodging the bandage and re-injuring the sore spot when the putting the gloves on or when taking them off.  Seams on the gloves can add to the problem as well.

Watch for the Signs and Symptoms

I am going to make sure to keep the area clean and to keep a watchful eye for the tell-tale signs of infection: angry redness, heat, and any sort of discharge that is a weird color or smells, as well as any pain that isn’t commensurate with the severity of the injury.

Next Phase Care

Once the raw spot is well on its way to healing, I use one of my salves to help continue to promote healthy skin growth and to make sure the skin around the wound stays supple. Last thing I want is some sort of scenario that will make me want to “mess” with the spot as new skin is growing.

Prevention

Once the injury is completely healed, I will be using a light application of paddle wax on my wing paddle shaft.  I might continue to use the Coban to wrap my thumbs for a bit, until my hands get used to using the kayak paddle. And I will make sure that I liberally apply Paddler’s or Surfer’s Salve regularly to keep my thumbs and the rest of my hands in shape.  Especially during the colder weather, when my skin tends to be drier and especially after climbing sessions where the use of chalk also adds to the dryness.

Again, I’m not a doctor, but this routine has been helpful.  What do you do to protect your hands from the rigors of paddling?

  1. This is great, thank you! I will try the products out. I just started to surfski a few years ago, it is always strange to see the new wear spots from the wing. I also get a massive blister during Chattajack on my left pointer finger.
    The thing that kills me most is the friction burns at the waist, and especially the tailbone. If you have any secrets for that, I would love to hear them!

    • Hi Julie!! I hope my little routine here helps!!! As for the friction burns…I wonder if a change in paddle attire might help? If you have not tried any of Vaikobi’s paddle shorts and tights, I highly recommend them, although I have not had issues in either of the spots you’ve mentioned. I have had them elsewhere and usually a different piece of clothing has helped. If you aren’t using any sort of padding in your ski’s bucket, perhaps that would help too. Let me know what you’ve tried!

Lisa
Lisa is managing editor of PaddleMonster.com and is an avid paddler of all the things - including sup, SurfSki, outrigger canoe and prone, though she especially enjoys paddle surfing and downwinding. She is a former journalist with more than 30 years experience in print and broadcast journalism and in government communications. She is a six-time Chattajack finisher, racing both sup and OC2. When not paddling, she is an outdoor instructor.

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