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A New Angle on the Water: Stand-Up Paddling

Pete Williams

It’s a warm fall afternoon in St. Petersburg, Fla., and the water in Tampa Bay, as usual, is flat. That mean’s surf’s up for the dozen or so people standing on boards and using long paddles to navigate between North Shore Beach and the St. Petersburg Pier. Depending on your vantage point, stand-up paddling (or “SUP” for short) is a popular new sport, a challenging core fitness routine, or a recreational alternative to kayaking and boating.

“It’s all three,” says Brody Welte, who owns and operates Stand Up Fitness Inc. in St. Petersburg. “You’re not going to find waves everywhere and this is an awesome workout you can do year-round. Plus it’s a lot of fun.” Stand-up paddling dates back centuries in Hawaii, but has taken off in the last few years. From big-wave surfers such as Laird Hamilton to people who have never been on a surfboard, large numbers of Americans are standing on boards and paddling.

Much like a stability ball or BOSU ball, a paddleboard requires athletes to perform a balancing act that enlists the pillar muscles of the hips, shoulders, and core. “The board forces you to stay balanced,” Welte says. “If you have any asymmetries, they get exposed and you can work on them.”

First timers kneel on the board initially but soon find they can stand up without too much effort. Welte says only five percent of his newcomers fall in the water unintentionally.

“The key is to keep moving,” says Jeff Archer, co-owner of YOLO Board, a board manufacturer in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. “It’s like riding a bike. If you come to a stop without putting your foot down, you tend to fall over.”

The learning curve is much quicker than surfing because of the flat water and the wider board. Beginner paddle boards are about 32 inches wide, a foot wider than a surfboard, though paddlers can advance to more narrow boards. Feet should be positioned in an athletic stance, shoulder-width apart, and in roughly the center of the board. (Many boards have inset handles that serve as a good reference point.) Most newcomers to the sport are surprised that they rarely fall into the water—even on their maiden outing, though personal flotation devices are recommended for first timers and required for non-swimmers.

Just as newcomers to the Core Performance program quickly learn that movement begins not from the limbs but from the pillar, newbie paddleboarders realize that the long-armed paddling stroke is something of an optical illusion. Though it’s performed in a sweeping motion with a paddle 8 to 10 inches taller than the paddler, the power comes from the hips and midsection, with the arms mostly just along for the ride.

“You’re using your hip flexors, core, shoulders, and triceps and transferring that force from the water through the board and your feet up through your entire body,” Welte says. “That’s why from a fitness standpoint it’s one of the best exercises you could ever do. It’s zero impact and you’re really working on everything.”

Like cycling or swimming, stand-up paddling can be done at an all-out pace or more leisurely. It’s perfect for interval training. Boards come in numerous sizes depending on the paddler’s height, weight and how the board is to be used. There are longer, heavier boards for exploring nature, sleeker models for racing, and smaller versions that can double as surfboards.

High-end boards range in price from $800 to $2,000 and paddles cost $150 to $300. Like the cycling industry, there’s an arms race in SUP, with carbon fiber race boards approaching $3,000. In recent months, Costco has sold a soft board and paddle combination for $429.

A number of races have popped up in recent years, mostly in Hawaii, California, and Florida but also in inland areas. Many consist of a 3-mile recreational division and a 7-mile elite class. In August, New York organizers staged a 28-mile race around Manhattan.

Newcomers can enter a race almost immediately. The 3-mile events are likened to 5K runs and take only slightly longer (30 minutes on average).

Welte, 34, has spent more than a decade as a personal trainer but began focusing on stand-up paddling two years ago as a way to get clients out of the gym. Now a typical workout can entail seeing dolphins and stingrays up close. He finds children more receptive to SUP than adults.

“Kids have fewer reservations about encountering big scary stuff in the water,” Welte says. “They think it’s awesome and get right up on the board. Once adults get over the mental hurdle, they have a blast.”

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Balance, Outdoor Recreation, Cardio, Health, Build Muscle, Leisure Time, Pillar strength, Stability