Skimboarding Safety

There are essentially two kinds of skimboarding injuries, obvious and hidden. Obvious injuries are those that any Mom or Dad would be worried about: broken bones, sprained joints, torn ligaments etc. Although these kinds of injuries should be points of concern, the most common skimboarding injuries are less obvious. The more common injuries involve repetitive actions. People run into a lot of spinal and knee problems not because they fell on a rock, but simply due to the extreme stress that skimboarding places on your body every time you go out. Here is some information on some of the more common injuries and how to prevent them, if possible.

Obvious Injuries

These injuries always have one thing in common, the skimboarder lost control and suffered as a result. Most often the injury involves some sort of contact with the board. Skimboards are very hard and when they hit you they can cause great damage to even the hardest parts of your body (such as your head). In fact, as I write this, I have a huge welt on my forehead from last weekends skim session.

Of course, the obvious way to avoid these injuries is to stay in control! Be prepared for the wave conditions and be sure that you are not skimboarding over your head, so to speak. No matter how prepared you are though, you are going to fall, in fact you should fall! If you are not falling, you are not pushing yourself and are probably not improving your skills (What’s the point?). The key is to learn to fall where you still have some degree of control. If you are going to try something new, make sure you have everything worked out in your head, including how to fall in case things don’t go as planned. Make sure that you have enough control get away from your board if you start to go down (or get the board away from you!). As long as you can distance yourself from the board and manage to land on your feet, you should be able to avoid serious injury.

One more thing to be aware of is ocean skills. Unlike in other wave sports, it is possible to become a fairly competent skimboarder without developing strong ocean swimming skills. Because the sport normally takes place so close to the shore, it is possible to advance essentially to the pro level without ever having to swim in sizeable waves (unlike surfing). This makes it very easy for a skimboarder to get in over his head when visiting areas they are not familiar with. I have seen too many skimboarders almost drown at sidewash beaches because they didn’t have strong enough swimming skills or enough knowledge of the ocean, but were good enough skimboarders to hop on a sidewash and ride out into the impact zone. I will not name names but I have watched some pro skimboarders who’s names you know be pulled from the water. The bottom line is, that if you are traveling to a beach that you are not familiar with and has larger conditions than you are used to, be careful. People who skimboard better than you have had problems, and so will you if you don’t take care of yourself.

Hidden Injuries

I would estimate that 80% of professional skimboarders have some sort of skimboarding injury that bothers them repetitively. These injuries were not caused by single events but rather years worth of bodily stress. These are problems which *you will* run into if you skimboard long enough and do not take appropriate precautions.

Surfer’s Ear

Surfer’s ear a condition in which the sides of your ear canal grow towards the center, effectively blocking off your ear canal. The bony growths are the result of years worth of exposure to cold water and wind. Besides affecting hearing, these growths help trap water in your ear which results in recurring ear infections. People who surf or skim for long periods of time always develop this condition, it is only a matter of time. The operation to fix the condition involves cutting off your ear, taping it to your forehead, and drilling out your ear canal with a Black and Decker type tool. As if this wasn’t discouraging enough, a major nerve runs dangerously close to the operating zone. If this nerve is damaged, you will lose feeling and muscular control in one side of your face.

So how do you avoid it? Ear plugs. Buy them, wear them, love them. There are numerous types available from the two dollar silicone variety to more sophisticated plastic ones designed to let sound in but keep water out. It doesn’t really matter which kind you use just as long as they stay in and keep the water and wind out. Many if not most of the “old time” skimboarders have had to deal with this and even some of the younger guys like Bill Bryan and myself (currently 23).

Spinal Injuries

While spinal injuries can be caused by bad falls, they are more often the result of repetitive motions. Back injuries in particular are very common among skimboarders. Because skimboarding requires a lot of twisting and bending of the back, it is common for muscles to be pulled and disks to be worn out (literally, at age 14 in my case). There are however some easy steps to take to help prevent back injuries.

Stretch. I hate stretching, that’s why three of my vertebrae are touching each other. By stretching your back and more importantly, your legs (hamstrings), you can avoid putting a lot of stress on your back while skimming. When I was 17 my back problems got to the point where I couldn’t do anything, including sitting for any length of time. After visits to three different orthopedic surgeons and two M.R.I.’s (the second one was ordered because they thought the first one had an error) I was admitted into a physical therapy program. With a minimum of effort I was not only sitting again, but skimboarding without too much trouble (all in 2 months). Besides stretching, the only other part of my physical therapy was very light muscle building in my upper back and abdomen. Skimboarding had made my lateral muscles and lower back much stronger than other parts of my body, which was pulling my back out of place. Bottom line, due some sit-ups. The worst that could happen is you don’t get a beer gut.

Eye Problems

Skimboarders on the west coast have a problem. Because we are all lazy and don’t get up till noon, we often skim in the late afternoon, all the way until sunset. As we stare out into the sea hoping for one last set we rarely realize the damage being done to our eyes by the glare on the water. The polarized light is very damaging to the eyes over a long period of time. Besides gradual loss of vision (not total loss, just some), growths can grow on the surface of the eye. The operation to remove these growths involves a scalpel, a steady hand, and a local anesthetic. The growths are literally scraped off the surface of your eye while you are awake. Nick Hernandez, who has done battle with a Man o’ War in Indonesia, said it was the most painful thing he has experienced (Man o’ War’s have been known to kill people).

Unfortunately there is less that can be done to prevent this condition from happening while skimboarding. You can’t very well wear sunglasses while you skimboard! Soon there will probably be “sunglass contacts” available but until then it is wise to make sure you are wearing your shades whenever you can (sitting in traffic etc.) to avoid some damage to your eyes.

Knee Problems

Continuing in our exploration crap I have had to go through, we come to knee problems. Most of the old time skimboarders have minor knee problems. Skimboarding puts more stress on the knees than probably just about every any sport.

But how can you prevent them. Well light physical therapy will help. Exercising your knees using ankle weights and doing lots of ‘leg lifts’ (bending at the knee) will help keep the surrounding muscles strong. Since the muscles are able to take some of the stress, this will lighten the load on your ligaments. Also, since the tendons will be well exercised, damage to them will be less likely. But you and I both know that you are not going to do this. So what else can be done. The single most important thing that can be done while skimboarding is to take care in how you walk up the beach. When you walk up the beach at an angle all of the water rushing back out to sea puts a sideways stress on your knee. It doesn’t hurt, but every time it happens, your ligaments are stretched just a little. Over time this can develop into a real problem. The way to avoid to is to walk straight up the beach so that the water doesn’t push your knee sideways. It may sound kind of stupid, but trust me, it will help in the long run.

Groin Pulls

Causes: The immediate cause of a groin pull is bruising or tearing the muscles that run from the pelvis down the thighs. Groin pulls are usually caused by overexertion, lifting heavy objects improperly, or failing to warm up properly before strenuous activity (such as skimboarding). Groin pulls are common among football defensive backs, hockey goalies, skimboarders and other athletes who change direction quickly (and often out of control) and put lots of torque on their trunks (and slip a lot). Another reason skimboarders are particularly susceptible to this injury is because people usually skim in fairly cold water which tightens all muscles and makes them less flexible and more likely to be pulled. When you pull your groin it will be very painful and difficult to lift your leg forward (such as lifting it to get out of the car) and you can’t skim.

Treatment: To combat inflammation and pain, apply an ice pack ASAP (an ice cold can of soda or beer works too) to the area, which is your upper, inner thigh where it attaches to your pelvis (*Warning: be sure to put a cloth or something between the ice and your nads!). Keep the ice on for 10 minutes, take lots of ibuprofen, and keep re-icing for 48 hours. After 48 hours you can start applying heat to the area to increase blood flow and promote healing. If you do this (especially ice and ibuprofen consistently) you should heal pretty quickly and be back skimming in a week or so. Resist the temptation to ‘skim through the pain’ – it will make the injury exponentially worse.

Prevention: Obviously you want to stretch and warm up thoroughly. If you’ve had a previous groin injury you must warm up first because they tend to come back. Less obviously, try and avoid soft sand. Check out the area you will be skimmin first cause there is no better way to pull your groin than run full speed only to have one foot sink in a soft spot–ouch! Also, if you are a beginner do not chase your board and jump on–this will cause uneven strides and hopping around. Learn the one step drop right away (see ‘how to skim’). Last, to prevent recurring injuries (or to skim while recovering) wear compression shorts under your trunks or under your wetsuit. They keep the area compressed-duh-and warm while not hurting mobility at all. You can find them at the drug or sporting goods store…they really work for groin and hamstring injuries.