This dynamic sport is the latest craze in the workout world, and its fitness benefits are plentiful.
By now you’ve probably heard that stand up paddle boarding is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. It’s easy to see why. First, it’s incredibly enjoyable. Second, it delivers a near full-body workout — without telling your body. Third, being on the water provides a refreshing perspective on the world, not to mention your core sport.
Runners and multisport athletes such as former professional triathlete Roch Frey tout SUP as a fun and functional cross-training tool.
“I was burned out of triathlon, and my hips and knees were shot,” says Frey, 46, a San Diego-based multisport coach and co-author of Riding Bumps, a SUP racing and prone paddle training book. “I moved from prone to standup and I was hooked. I was swimming and paddling three to four times a week, and my swim times were the fastest I’ve ever had.”
SUP develops stability, Frey says, as you balance vertically on the board while paddling forward and backward. It works for cross-training because it hits those small, intrinsic muscles that running just can’t fire.
“In extremely stable, controlled shoes, we don’t work those muscles,” he says. With proper form, SUP also strengthens the upper body and core through the paddling motion and gentle twisting actions required to propel. “It gives you more overall stability, like standing on a Bosu ball,” says Frey, who notices significantly greater ankle stability when running.
Kiwi native Annabel Anderson, a former national-level junior skier, triathlete and runner who is now a SUP world champion, says SUP’s training benefits are most obvious when running uphill.
“It makes me really stable, allowing my deep core muscles to switch on easily,” she says. “I feel ‘torsionally’ strong.” Anderson, who has had nine knee surgeries, says the biggest gains come from what you can’t really see or necessarily feel. “Unlike in the gym, on a board you are constantly stabilizing and re-stabilizing. It’s like thousands of tiny muscle vibrations are training the little muscles to do their jobs so you can harbor the strength of the big muscles.”
The safest way to start SUP is on flat, calm water, such as a lake, says Frey. Local SUP meetup groups are cheap way to learn on a loaner and take in tips. It’s also helpful to take an initial lesson to ensure proper form. Anderson winces watching excited newbies over-paddling with bad technique, which can lead to painful repetitive-use injuries in sensitive places like the lower back and wrists.
“Like being set up on the right bike, it’s about biomechanics. You can create a new problem if it’s not set up right,” Anderson says. As you progress, it’s easy to add challenges, from the length, size and shape of the board to tougher bodies of water like rivers and oceans, filled with currents, waves and obstacles.
What You’ll Need
Start with a wider, more stable SUP board, the length of which will depend on your height and weight. Renting either a hard board, the most popular type, or inflatable version for easy transport, is a great way to take the sport for a test ride, according to Boulder Outdoor Center manager Eric Bader, who has seen SUP rentals and sales skyrocket. There are also used board deals on Craigslist, for example, which often lists solid starter boards for about $600.
You’ll also need a proper SUP paddle, a personal flotation device, which is required at most recreation areas, and a way to transport the board. While inflatables, which have come a long way in terms of stability, can collapse into a large bag, hard boards require little more than car-top crossbars, bungee cords and a couple of protective pool noodles for scratch-free conveyance.
While SUP’s shallow learning is a plus, don’t let the simplicity of the sport fool you. It demands instant respect. “I see people with a strong core whose legs are shaking in two minutes. Sometimes people who look aesthetically the most fit are the worst at it,” Anderson laughs. “It’s a real wake-up call.
That said, Frey, Anderson and athletes all over the world seem downright giddy about SUP. “You can feel like a surfer; then there’s the view from your board. You get addicted,” Frey says.
According to Anderson, SUP’s greatest advantage is it’s an amazing, powerful sport that “gets you fit for the game of life.”
Sign me up!