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Summer Fitness and SUP

 Summer is such a great time for fitness activities.  Warmer weather and longer daylight hours allow for so many more fitness options than you have in winter.  Plus, there’s something to be said for fresh air and vitamin D, compared to the recycled air and artificial light in a gym.

Paddling, and SUP in particular, is a great fitness activity.  Not only does it provide you with all the pleasures of being outdoors and on the water while you do it, it is particularly effective at promoting the entire spectrum of components of fitness.

Paddling is an endurance activity that allows you to train all your energy systems.  Longer, slower, steady-state work helps you develop your aerobic fitness.  Harder paddling for longer distances and longer interval training allows you to train your anaerobic threshold – the point at which the ATP production in muscles begins to switch from being primarily aerobic to primarily anaerobic.  Lastly, paddling lends itself well to shorter, higher intensity intervals so you can do high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts that are popular in many gyms and fitness programs.

Paddling requires a good deal of strength and, as such, is a great activity for developing strength and power endurance in your core muscles, legs and upper body.  It also requires balance, and is a great activity for training balance and enhancing the proprioception in all of the muscles you use for balance and stability.

Not only is paddling a full-body activity, it is also a completely bilateral activity, meaning you do it more or less equally on both sides.  Therefore, it is a great activity for not only developing a strong body, but also a well-balanced body.

So, let’s take a look at how to incorporate SUP into your summer fitness plan, first from the perspective of a new, novice paddler and then for a more experienced one.

SUP for fitness for new paddlers

If you’re looking for a new summer activity to build your fitness, SUP is a great choice.  Not only does it allow you to address all of the components of fitness described above, it allows you to do it on the water where you can make the most out of the beautiful summer weather while it lasts.

If you’re new to paddling, you can use SUP as a fitness activity regardless of the type of board you’ve purchased.  While race and touring boards might lend themselves a little better to doing higher intensity work and intervals, there’s no reason you can’t do this kind of work and enjoy the benefits of it while paddling a recreational board.  The key lies in knowing how to paddle your board to get the most out of it.

If you’re going to use SUP as a fitness activity comparable to the way you’d use a piece of cardio equipment that you find in a gym, you’re going to have to learn how to paddle hard enough to elevate your heart rate to a similar level.  To do this, you’re going to need to learn how to feel stable on your board and paddle using your bigger muscles preferentially over smaller muscles.  You’re also going to need to learn how to track your board straight so that you are not constantly changing sides or having to stop to correct the direction your board is heading in.

These skills have been covered in detail in previous posts so we won’t get into them in detail here.  What I’d like to present here is a plan for integrating these skills into your paddling and, in the process, making you more “workout ready” so that you can more quickly start to use SUP as an effective part of your summer fitness plan.

Learn stability first

Before you’re going to be able to paddle hard enough to work comparably to the way you’d work on a treadmill or exercise bike at the gym, you’re going to have to establish some familiarity with your board and develop some confidence in your stability.

I discussed stability in detail here .  This post outlines how to become familiar with the stability limits of your board and tips and techniques you can use while paddling to enhance your stability.  While these tips and techniques are extremely powerful and will make a huge difference, they’re going to take a little time to master and successfully apply.  I’d suggest while incorporating these skills and developing your balance, you may want to do your aerobic work on land in another activity.  You’ll have your hands full initially developing the comfort on your board that you’ll need to be able to work aerobically for an extended period. However, this process doesn’t necessarily have to take a long time.

If you’re willing to get out a few times of week on your board and make a real effort to incorporate the suggestions provided, you should feel quite confident on your board in flat water within a couple of weeks. Having this confidence opens up a whole new world of possibilities for you on your board, allowing you to not only do harder work, but also learn to paddle safely and enjoyably in a greater variety of water conditions.

Once you feel stable, learn how to steer your board

When you feel confident enough to paddle harder and can feel your heart rate elevating as you do, you’re ready to move on to the next step – learning to track your board straight.

Why is tracking straight important?  Well, if you’re constantly changing sides every 3 to 5 strokes to keep your board running straight, it’s going to really impact your ability to work hard enough to keep your heart rate in a training zone.  I’d suggest that if you’re going to really be able to work hard aerobically, you’re going to need to take at least 12 to 15 strokes a side before having to change sides to steer.  This will allow you to spend sufficiently more time paddling and less time changing sides, thus allowing you to work harder and load your cardiovascular system more.

You’ll find all the information you need to know about tracking straight here.  If you feel stable on your board, are paddling in calm water, and take some time to practice these suggestions on land a bit first, you should be able to make significant improvements to tracking your board straight within one workout.  You’ll probably find one side easier to successfully execute these board tracking techniques on than the other.  My suggestion would be to really work on be “easier” side first, till you feel like you can do it very successfully.  Then, you’ll find it easier to successfully learn to track straight on the side that you find more difficult simply by mirroring the process that you used on your stronger side.

If you practice these skills regularly you should be able to track straight for well over 15 consecutive strokes within a week or two.  Before you know it, you’ll be able to paddle indefinitely on your stronger side before needing to change sides.  While it may take a little longer to get to that point on your weaker side, you’ll be able to paddle straight enough to make your paddling more about “work” than “steering” fairly quickly.  This will dramatically change your ability to get a good aerobic workout while paddling and make paddling very much like any other cardio activity you might do, from running and cycling to activities you do in the gym on cardio machines.

Improved technique allows you to work harder

Once you’ve got a good sense of stability and can track straight it is time to really refine your technique.  Good technique allows you to paddle more efficiently, thus allowing you to go a particular speed with less effort and therefore paddle longer.  However, it also allows you to engage more muscle mass in each stroke and this allows you load your cardiovascular system more making paddling a much more effective aerobic workout.

As you learn how to gather and hold more water on your paddle blade, you’re learning how to increase the load of each stroke.  It’s comparable to being able to work with a heavier weight in the gym or pedal in a bigger gear on your bike.  And, as you learn how to engage larger muscles more effectively in the stroke, it allows you to elevate your heart rate to levels comparable to those you’d be able to work at on a treadmill, exercise bike, or any other piece of cardio equipment in a gym.

There’s a lot involved in good SUP technique.  Consider that I’m in my 50th year of paddling and my 14th year of SUP and that I am still learning to paddle better.  However, if you’re interested in doing effective aerobic work on your board, you don’t necessarily need expert technique.  What you do need is the ability to engage your bigger muscles (think those of your hips, legs and core) preferentially over the smaller muscles in your arms and upper body.  If you feel stable on your board and can track it straight, you can learn to engage these big muscles enough to get a good workout fairly quickly.  You likely want to continue to refine your technique by working at it throughout the season and being mindful of it while you’re doing your workout, but you’ll be able to effectively use your SUP as a vehicle for doing great aerobic workouts.

Here are some links that you’ll find really useful in helping you better learn to use your big muscles while paddling.  They’re broken down into different phases of the stroke, but they talk a lot about the use of your big muscles so they’re sure to be helpful.  You’ll find them particularly helpful if you get someone to video you so that you can actually see what you’re doing as you paddle.  This will allow you to more easily understand exactly what you are doing as you paddle and what you need to improve on.

It might take a while to learn how to stop using your arms when you paddle and use your hips, legs and core better, but everything you need to do that is included here.  I’d think that if you’re able to practice somewhat regularly, you should be much more “workout ready” in terms of using big muscles within just a few weeks.

Once you’ve mastered the skills described above, you’re pretty much as ready to use SUP for your fitness work as a more experienced paddler.  So, let’s move on to how to incorporate SUP into your fitness program.

Building SUP training into your fitness program

The first thing to do when setting up a fitness program is to figure out what elements of fitness you want to train and how often you’re going to do it.   For simplicity’s sake, we can break most fitness programs down into two main elements – strength and cardio – and then look at the specific nature of the fitness that you’re trying to develop in each.

SUP lends itself well to the development of both strength and cardiovascular fitness.  Now, if you’re really going to specialize your strength work and take it to a high level, your SUP work will be complimentary strength work only.  To really develop strength, you’ll need to spend time in a gym.  However, unless you’re a really advanced strength trainer, SUP should really help your strength development.  You’ll strengthen and tone your legs, core and upper body and you’ll develop some functional strength endurance that will make other sport activities easier to do.

From a cardio perspective, SUP can be used for the bulk of your training if you want.  It’s an excellent activity for developing aerobic fitness, particularly if you are able to effectively use your hips and legs in your stroke.  It’s a great choice for making up the bulk of your summer cardio program if, for one reason or another, you are unable to run and don’t own a bike.  That said, I honestly believe SUP is best used as a cardio training tool in conjunction with at least one other activity.

While SUP paddling is unquestionably an aerobic activity, the amount of lower body muscles used, even if you use them very well, is less than what you’d use running or cycling.  You’re simply using your legs a lot more to propel yourself in those activities than you are on a SUP.  Because your legs are the biggest muscles in your body, they have the greatest demand for oxygen when doing work.  This means that activities that use your legs more place greater demands on your oxygen delivery systems – your cardiovascular and respiratory systems – than those that use your legs less.  You’ll find it easier to create an aerobic training stimulus in these activities than you will paddling.  That said, if you can use the big muscles of your legs and hips effectively on your SUP it can still be a very good aerobic activity as well.

Variety in your training activities is really important.  Doing different activities helps prevent overuse injuries common when you do too much of one activity, especially without a strong background in that activity.  Using a variety of activities for your cardio training also makes training more interesting and mentally stimulating.  This is really important as the most crucial element in the success of a fitness program is adherence.  If you’re consistent in your training and don’t regularly skip sessions, your fitness improves more and more quickly.  Anything that makes training more interesting likely also makes it more enjoyable, meaning that it makes it less likely that you’re going to skip sessions.

Here are some tips for making SUP a part of your fitness program:

  • Figure out how often you’re going to train, or need to train, to meet your fitness goals.Then figure out how many of your training sessions are going to be on the water.
  • If you opt to train every day, consider whether you want to paddle every day or alternate paddling with other activities.There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make the most of the summer on the water and paddle every day while you can.  Summers can seem really short and before you know it they’re over.  If you choose to paddle every day it can really help you make the most of your summer.  If you choose to alternate paddling work with other activities, choose activities that you enjoy and provide an equally effective workout.  There is no shortage of cardio activities to choose from.
  • If you choose to train every day, alternate harder days with easier days.You should be doing this whether you are paddling every day or alternating paddling with other activities.  Alternating harder with easier days reduces the risk of injury and overtraining and helps make your hardest workouts higher quality and therefore more effective.
  • If you’re new to paddling, build up your time on the water gradually.There’s no better way to develop an injury that doing too much too soon.  Listen to your body.  If you go too far one day, take a few days easier to recover.  You’ll pretty quickly figure out where your limits are.  Don’t worry if you can’t initially stay on the water for a long time.  Your ability to comfortably handle longer sessions will increase fairly quickly.  Within a month or so you’ll be much more comfortable with longer sessions.
  • Remember that you don’t have to go hard to develop aerobic fitness.Research has demonstrated that base level aerobic fitness essential for heart health doesn’t require you to work extremely hard.  Adaptations begin to occur even at low level work at level 2 (approximately 60-70% effort).  More important for these adaptations to occur is the duration of the effort, rather than the intensity.  Forty-five minutes is better than thirty minutes, and an hour is better than forty-five minutes, etc.  If you don’t feel comfortable going harder on your board, don’t worry.  The time you’re spending on your board is still really effective in developing fitness.
  • Research has also demonstrated great value in doing shorter, higher intensity training sessions.You may have heard of this as high intensity interval training (HIIT).  These sessions create a different training effect and develop higher level aerobic abilities which can enhance health and, if you are an athlete, are essential for higher level performance.  Work at threshold or higher (80% effort or higher), done in intervals (for example, 10 x 2 min, 1 min rest) is very effective.  I’d suggest that before you attempt this work on the water, you make sure that you’re able to do it safely on land.  But, if you’ve done this time of training regularly in land-based activities, doing it on the water can be really fun and challenging.
  • Don’t do more than 2 high intensity sessions/week and make sure they are well spread out from each other.This will ensure that the high intensity sessions you do are high quality and provide appropriate recovery time between them.  It will also prevent overloading your nervous system and overtraining.
  • Strongly consider taking a day off each week.A day of rest allows your body to recover from work that you have done during the course of the week, allowing you to then train more effectively (and therefore get more out of your training) in the ensuing week.
  • Cycle your training by doing 2 or 3 harder “high load” weeks and then a much easier “low load” week. Training hard, even if you take appropriate time to recover and take a rest day each week, creates cumulative fatigue that increases over time.  Every third or fourth week it is a great idea to reduce the training load by 50% or more.  This allows muscles, connective tissue and the nervous system a chance to recover.  This helps minimize the risk of overtraining, allows you train effectively more sustainably through the entire year and helps make the training in the next 2- or 3-week loading cycle higher quality and more effective.
  • Finding others to train with makes training more effective and way more enjoyable. Having someone else to push you and motivate you usually helps make your training effort higher quality.  Also, having someone to share the experience of being on the water with makes it way more enjoyable.  Your training can become a social experience as well and the whole process from arriving at your training location, paddling, and packing up provides an opportunity for healthy interaction with like minded individuals.  You may even find yourself going for coffee or breakfast with them after training, and can develop long lasting friendships on the water.
  • This should go without saying, but be mindful of all the details and concerns essential in safe paddling. Have your PFD and wear your leash, check the weather apps before you go, know the water you’re paddling in and stay in water that is appropriate for your skill level, especially if you are paddling alone.


Paddling is a ton of fun and, for most, a much more enjoyable and less sterile fitness activity than those you do in a gym.  You’re outside in fresh air, on the water and in tune with nature.  You’ll see things on the water, or from the perspective of the water, that most people on land will never see.  And, you’re getting a health promoting workout while you’re doing it.

Here’s hoping you’re able to use your summer and your paddling gear to enhance your fitness and create great memories doing it.

Have a wonderful summer on the water.


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