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Train Your Balance and Footwork on Land

New paddlers, understandably, often feel uncomfortable and reluctant moving around on their boards.  This not only limits their ability to step back to turn or properly trim their board in waves, but makes it more likely their feet will go numb or they’ll get stiff in their legs and low back on a long paddle because they don’t move enough.  Being able to freely and comfortably move around on your board allows you to adjust your stance to prevent numb feet and stiffness, making paddling more enjoyable.  And, of course, if you’re racing or downwinding, it is essential for turning and being able to properly trim your board and catch waves.

Obviously, if you’re picking up your feet and moving around on your board it takes a certain level of comfort and familiarity with the primary and secondary stability of your board.  These can take time to develop and vary from board to board.  However, for most people, and in particular new paddlers, the reluctance to move around on their board with good footwork is more about an overall lack of coordination and a lack of proprioception in their feet and lower legs than it is anything else.  Trying to develop coordination and proprioception on a tippy board is going to be a challenge for anyone, let alone an inexperienced paddler.  If you want to kickstart the process of developing good footwork and expedite the learning, you’re better off spending some time working on the necessary coordination and proprioception on land, before attempting to do it on your board.  Once you’ve established on land the stepping movements you want to do on the water, it is far easier to do them on your board.  This is particularly true if you’re practicing your footwork on land in a way that simultaneously heightens the proprioception in your feet and lower legs.  

Way back when I was just starting to paddle SUP and was quite uncomfortable moving around on my board, Chris Hill, a paddler I used to race against in North Carolina, shared a trick for developing footwork skills with me.  I tried it as soon as I got home and stuck with it, and sure enough, it really helped.  All it involved was a trip to Home Depot for a $10.00 eight-foot long 2x4.  

All you need to do is lay the 2x4 down on the ground and then start cross stepping back and forth on it.  If you cross step up and down a 2x4 you’re training your balance a little, but what you’re really training is your agility and coordination so that your feet know what they are doing when you try to cross step on an actual board.  People unfamiliar with the cross-stepping motion generally have enough balance to do it, but what they don’t have is the coordination.  Their feet get tangled and that’s what causes their problems with balance.  

Most people, who have had no need to do it before, have a problem cross stepping on any flat, stable, surface on land without tripping themselves up.  Lay a 2x4 on the ground and ask them to cross step up and down it and they’ll have an even harder time.  Now imagine how hard a time they’d have trying to do it on a board on the water.  However, 

if you lay a 2x4 on the ground and start cross stepping back and forth you’ll find your coordination improves really quickly and it will definitely carry over to your board.  You may feel shaky to start with, but you’ll quickly improve and before you know it get pretty good at it (see video 1). You’re well on your way to it becoming easier to move around on your board.  

While walking up and down a 2x4 is great for your coordination, if you really want to train your balance effectively you’ll have to take this simple drill to another level.  What I did was place my eight-foot 2x4 on top of two balance training cushions (see figure 1).   These cushions are about 14 inches in diameter and about 2 ½ inches thick.  They’re partially inflated so that they are a little squishy, which makes them quite unstable if you stand on them.  One side is smooth and the other is covered with little knobs. They’re inexpensive and available at almost any fitness store.  I place my cushions knobby side down and lay the 2x4 on top between the two cushions.  Then I hop on the 2x4 and start to cross step back and forth on it.

These balance cushions take things to another level.  The 2x4 becomes pretty unstable, tilting from side to side very easily.  You’ll find balancing on the 2x4 quite difficult and keeping it level very hard.  Of course, this makes cross stepping back and forth very hard.  As you can see in video 2, you’re now truly working on your balance as well as your agility and coordination.  

I’ve made this a regular part of my gym routine each winter and it’s had a big impact on my balance and ability to move with precision and confidence on my board.  When I was unable to paddle in the winter, I’d have noticeably better balance on my board when I returned to the water in the spring than I had the previous fall, simply because I regularly did this drill.  Additionally, I found the muscles in my lower leg (calves and tibialis anterior) had much better endurance despite doing little to target those muscles specifically in any strength training.  

For the last several years I’ve paddled through the entire winter, but still do this drill as part of my gym routine.  While I don’t see the same effect from one paddle to the next that I did from the start of the winter training to the end, I can still see that this drill has a positive effect on my balance.  

While the best way to develop the balance and footwork you need on your board is by doing balance and footwork drills on your board, I’ve found walking on the wobbly 2x4 incredibly effective because it trains the proprioceptors in your feet and lower legs.  Proprioceptors are sensory receptors in skeletal muscle, tendons and joints that detect changes in body position and forces exerted on the body by integrating information they collect about joint angles, muscle tension, muscle length etc.  As you’re moving on the 2x4 and it wobbles, the proprioceptors detect that wobble by the minute changes in muscle tension it creates in your feet and lower legs.  Sensory neurons take this information to the brain which determines an appropriate response, which is then carried to back to those muscles via motor neurons.  When the muscles receive the message from the brain they make the adjustments required to maintain balance and stabilize the wobbly 2x4.  The more finely tuned this system is, the better dynamic balance you’re going to have and the more naturally and effortlessly you’ll make the necessary adjustments required to maintain that balance.

I find walking on the wobbly 2x4 is actually much harder than moving around on my board.  Because it really challenges my balance, if done repeatedly, it really fine tunes the proprioception required to maintain that balance.  Though the nuances of balancing on my board represent an entirely different skill, the neuromuscular pathway required to maintain that balance is the same, and the work I’ve done on the wobbly 2x4 to train it bears almost immediate benefits when I get on my board.

Once you’ve become proficient at walking up and down the 2x4 on the cushions, carefully and at slow speed, try to speed it up.  You can add difficulty by keeping your hands on your hips.  I generally do cycles (back and forth) of 10 to 20 reps starting in both regular and goofy stance, and usually do three to four sets.  It usually takes between five and ten minutes at the end of my gym workout.

Over the years, this simple exercise has made a big difference in my balance and confidence in moving around on my board.  Try it; especially if you are frozen off the water for part of the year.  I bet it will make a big difference for you as well.

Happy paddling!

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