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SUP Stability Tips for All Paddlers

Whether you’re someone who races SUP, uses it to train for fitness, or are brand new to SUP and just learning to paddle, stability is an issue.  Even if you’re fairly experienced, there are going to be conditions that test your ability to balance and paddle comfortably.  

I was reminded the other day by someone that until 2015 I did all my SUP paddling and racing on a 28-inch-wide board.  At that time, though really confident and competent in flat water, I was a pretty inexperienced rough water paddler that struggled when conditions got a little messy.   Today, I’m paddling a 14 x 19.75” Starboard Sprint in a variety of conditions and doing my best to make it work in almost every condition I face on Lake Ontario.  It’s pretty amazing that I’m finding I feel surprisingly stable.  For sure, there’s always work to be done and I’ll always be playing catch up to paddlers who grew up from a young age paddling on the ocean, but It’s actually kind of remarkable that an older paddler without an ocean background or an ocean to regularly paddle on can still develop big water skills.   If I can do it I am certain that anyone can.

More and more we’re seeing people racing on narrow, 23” wide or under boards and handling them successfully.  In part this is due to advancements in board design which have allowed boards to get narrower without much in the way of a loss in stability. But it’s also a result of people paddling better and doing things in their stroke that don’t just move their boards forward more effectively but also enhance their stability.

I can remember when we hosted our first Paddle Monster Training Camp in Fort Pierce, Florida.  There were a number of camp participants who, for one reason or another, couldn’t bring their own boards and relied on us to provide them with one.  Most of these paddlers were novice to intermediate in level and were asking for boards in the 27” to 24” range.  Unfortunately, we were only able to find boards for them in the 23” range.  

I spent a lot of time in the lead up to the camp worrying about the disaster we’d experience if people coming to the camp were unable to stand on the boards we provided them, especially since there is a pretty gnarly inlet we have to negotiate in every paddle there.  So, I thought about some of the things I’d learned transitioning from a 28” wide board down to a 23”, then to a 21.5”, and ultimately a 19.75”.  I also reflected on the process of learning to paddle effectively in the messiest of conditions over the prior couple of seasons and became convinced that if I shared these things with the group at the camp, they’d be able to handle the narrower boards confidently in flat water with just a little bit of practice.  Guess what?  For the most part it worked out really well, demonstrating without a doubt that there’s a few things you can do as you’re paddling, whether brand new to the sport or experienced and transitioning to a super narrow board, that greatly enhance stability.  Let’s take a look at them.

Trust your paddle

Your paddle is the single biggest tool you have to help with balance.  One of the first things we learn when we step on our boards is how to use the paddle to brace.  Generally speaking, slapping the paddle blade down flat on the water when we’re losing our balance is the most effective way to save our stability and keep from falling in.  The flat blade on the water provides just enough support for us to lean on it long enough to regain our balance.  Sometimes, it’s not a question of actually having to lean on the paddle to stay on our board but simply having the flat blade skip lightly across the water surface to the side of our board.  That light, intermittent contact between the paddle blade and the water provides just enough of a sense of security that it helps us feel much more stable and confident on our boards.  In this sense it acts much like training wheels on a bicycle or the ama on an outrigger canoe, providing stability through a wider base of support that is there when we need it. 

In order to become more stable while actually paddling we need to be able to visualize and understand that using our paddle in a forward stroke is essentially no different than using it to brace.  The reality is that a forward stroke, in which we effectively gather water on the blade and subsequently load our body weight onto it, is at once what moves our board forward in the water and something that provides support and enhances our balance.  It’s kind of counterintuitive, but the more you can get your weight off of your board and onto your paddle during the stroke, the more stable you’ll feel.  For many this is a bit of a leap of faith, but once you fully appreciate that a fully loaded paddle at the catch does the same thing as your basic brace, you’ll not only start going faster but feel much more stable doing it.  

Know your board

A board has two types of stability, primary and secondary.  Knowing what they are, and specifically what the limits of each are on the board you’re using is an important part of feeling stable when paddling.

Primary stability is the “twitchiness” that you feel under your feet when you stand on a board.  It’s what determines whether the board feels inherently “stable” or “tippy”.  Getting comfortable with the twitchiness of your board is important.  It is also important to realize that to some degree every board is going to feel twitchy underneath you.  The key is to let the board twitch and not really try to fight it.  

Secondary stability is essentially the board’s resistance to capsizing.  It’s the point at which the board, once twitching and starting to roll to one side, stops rolling.  You can find this point on your board by pushing down on the rail on one side with your foot.  You’ll find that the rail sinks easily and then eventually stops, resisting your best efforts to push it further. This represents the point of secondary stability of the board.  Knowing where that point lies is extremely useful and helpful in keeping you on your board.

Most of the time, when people fall of a board it is not because the board capsizes, but rather because they jump off the board when they think it is going to capsize.  Letting the board twitch underneath you, trusting the secondary stability of the board, and utilizing the tips you’re learning here is going to help you understand that boards rarely capsize and are far more stable than you might think.  The most important thing you can do before practicing the tips being presented here is become accustomed to where the secondary stability lies in your board.  

Focus on your paddling rhythm

Most paddlers can find and describe a “paddling rhythm” in flat water.  Simply put, your rhythm is the cyclical movement of both muscles and body weight during your paddling stroke.  There is a clear sequencing of body movements, muscles contracting and relaxing, and the loading and unloading of body weight onto the paddle.  Really good paddlers engage lots of big muscles – hips, legs and core – and lots of body weight in their stroke.  As such their rhythm is very pronounced.  Less experienced paddlers, while working towards more engagement of big muscles and body weight, have a less pronounced but still discernable rhythm to their stroke whether they even realize it or not.  

One of the best things you can do as a novice paddler is paddle on perfectly calm, flat water and focus on the rhythm of your movement.  Try to identify the subtle changes in distribution of body weight during the stroke – when it is slightly more on the paddle and when it comes back onto the board.  Try to recognize the sequence of contraction and relaxation in your paddling muscles and the body movements those muscles create through the stroke.  Lastly, focus on the reaction of your board.  Recognize that it moves in rhythm with you, responding to every movement you make.   Don’t paddle hard, just relaxed and consistently.  You’ll soon start to become locked into that repetitive and cyclical rhythm of your paddle stroke.  

Once you’ve become attuned to your rhythm you’ll find it much easier to incrementally put more body weight on the paddle during the stroke or engage a little more legs and hips as you pull yourself to the paddle or push yourself past it at the exit.  The key is to make these incremental changes within the context of your paddling rhythm rather than in conflict with it.

For more experienced paddlers who are already very aware of their rhythm, paddling in similarly calm, flat water with your eyes closed is a great way to become even more attuned to your rhythm.  Closing your eyes requires you to do everything by feel in the absence of visual cues, and this in turn helps you better feel connection with the water, the sequencing of your body’s movements, and the way the board moves in the water.

Novice or experienced, if you can find your rhythm in flat water, you can find it in rougher, messier stuff.  Similarly, if you can find your rhythm on your 26” board you’ll be able to find it on a 23” board in flat water, and in time, the ocean.   The trick is not just to focus on maintaining your rhythm but exaggerating it.  This will be counter-intuitive for most but is essential for making paddling on a narrower board or paddling in rougher water feel more stable.  You’ll find that by focusing more on your rhythm you focus much less on “feeling tippy”.  Your rhythm, and the body movements and weight transfer associated with it, will dominate the “twitchiness” you feel under your feet.  You’ll also find that maintaining your rhythm helps keep you and your muscles more relaxed and moving freely which is critical to feeling stable.

Move more, not less, during your stroke

This goes along with focusing on your rhythm.  Whether you actually end up moving your hips and legs more in your stroke isn’t really the point.  What you want is to be thinking of moving your hips and legs more to ensure that they aren’t actually moving less.

The reality is that most people, when their balance challenged, tend to tighten up to some degree.  They’ll tense up their legs and hips like they are bracing for an impact, thinking intuitively that this will help them more easily ride out any wobbles they feel underneath them.  The irony is that this is exactly the wrong approach to take.  

Standing more rigidly on your board with tensed up hips and legs essentially turns you into something the resembles the mast on a sailboat.  You become a vertical pole that moves as the board moves, not independently of it.  Take the time to watch the next time you see a sailboat in waves while not under sail.  You’ll see as the boat rocks from side to side in the waves, the mast moves with it.  Watch the top of the mast and note how much more it moves than the base.  When you tense up on your board and lose your paddling rhythm, you end moving like that mast.  As the board rolls to one side you roll with it, but unlike the mast which has very little mass at the top of it, the mass of your upper body and head is quite significant.  As that mass moves towards the rails of your board, your center of mass moves outside your base of support.  You become unstable and will eventually need to do an emergency brace or you’ll fall off your board.  

In contrast, if you stay relaxed in your legs and hips and keep them moving within the pattern of your paddling rhythm, that movement dominates.  The board might still wobble from side to side a little, but with your paddling movement uninterrupted, it just wobbles underneath you.  You’ll find it becomes very easy to absorb movements of the board with your feet and lower legs which not only helps you feel more stable but will allow you to be able to foot steer effectively with a little practice.  Board movements that you can’t “absorb” won’t throw you off as the board will just wobble a little underneath you.  Your paddling motion will remain unaffected.  

So, whether you’re paddling a board that is narrower than you’re used to or challenging yourself in gnarly, messy water, exaggerating your paddling movements and moving more rather than tensing up and moving less is essential.  You’ll be more stable, feel what your board is doing underneath you and be able to control your board better, have a more powerful stroke, and be able to paddle more sustainably because you’ll be more relaxed and won’t get as tired.

Get low

This sort of follows moving more because if are, you’re probably bending your legs a little more.

Bending your legs at the knees and ankles a bit more helps you get a little lower, with your center of mass closer to the water.  In pretty much every sport you can think of, that generally translates into more stability.  

Bending your legs at the ankles and knees also tends to help you get more weight on your blade at the catch and continue to load weight on the paddle during the first part of the pulling phase of the stroke.  If you’re doing this, the blade will be supporting more of your body weight and you’ll actually feel like you can lean on it for support.  This makes you feel considerably more stable.  

Don’t be tentative

When you get on a narrower board or venture out into challenging conditions, the more you just charge ahead with a “full speed ahead” attitude, the better you’ll do.  The absolute worst thing you can do is be tentative.  

Being tentative leads you to lose touch with your rhythm and usually results in your moving less in your stroke.  As we’ve seen, neither is helpful in maintaining your stability.  The amazing thing is, if you’re aggressive and throw caution to the wind, you’ll find you’ll pretty quickly end up doing things you didn’t think were possible for you.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced this since I started really pushing it on a narrow board in challenging conditions.  There’ve been countless times where I’ve felt my balance going and am certain I’m on the verge of falling in, yet because I’m so focused on my rhythm, movement and being aggressive, by some miracle I don’t.  My board doesn’t even lose any speed.  In fact, this scenario often happens just before I catch an awesome bump that gives me a fantastic, fast ride.  

If you’re a new paddler, this is much easier to practice on a warm, sunny day when you know the water is warm.  Be prepared to fall in as you practice this.  You probably will at some point as it’s part of learning, but you’ll also quickly see how much more stable you feel if you paddle aggressively, rather than tentatively. 

Again, like moving instead of tensing up, being emphatic and aggressive with everything you do on your board when your brain is telling you that you should be concerned about balance and stability is counter-intuitive.  Get yourself into a state of mind where you don’t hesitate but just go for it with your paddling, the consequences be damned.  You’ll actually find things end up being much easier, you’ll feel more stable, and go faster.

Don’t be afraid to fall in

It doesn’t matter what we are doing, fear of failure is paralyzing.  So, if you’re afraid of falling in it is going to be hard to do everything I’ve mentioned above.  No matter the time of year, it’s not unusual for me to fall in.  The inevitable consequence of pushing it and being aggressive is that sometimes it won’t work out, you’ll over extend yourself, exceed your limits and end up in the water.  It’s the price you sometimes have to pay to improve.  

If you’re a more experienced paddler, my recommendation is to get the right gear so that falling in in cold weather or water is not a major problem.  You’ll be able to stretch your season out and increase your learning opportunities.  A longer season will allow you to build on your successes and establish some continuity and momentum with your progress.  If you’re a newer paddler, choose some of those really warm summer days to challenge yourself and when you do, really push it.  Expect to get wet sometimes.  It’s a water sport after all.  You’ll find that falling in on a hot day is refreshing and not nearly as bothersome as you think.  And once you’ve gotten wet, any fear associated with falling in seems to totally disappear, making everything that follows seem so much easier.  

There’s no shame to falling it.  When I was training with Connor Baxter in Hawaii he fell in almost as much as I did.  Pushing it in your training at the risk of falling in means you’ll be less likely to fall in while pushing it in your races or when you really don’t want to fall in.  And occasionally falling in in practice means you’ll get better at getting back on your board in a hurry which is always handy as well.  

It’s a process that can’t be rushed – be patient and give yourself some time

If everything were easy then everybody would be an expert at everything.  Thankfully the world doesn’t work that way, meaning that expertise is well earned and something to be respected.  That said, nobody should look at something like paddling in challenging conditions or paddling a narrow board as something that they can’t achieve.  We can all do it with some level of competence.  All it requires is commitment and time.  

If you’re prepared to spend the time necessary, you can become quite good in conditions that currently intimidate you, or on a much narrower board than you’re currently using.  You just have to understand that there are no short cuts to getting there.  It’s going to be an extended process that you’ll have to embrace, full of setbacks and small moments of triumph.  

What you really need to understand is that it is a process that never stops.  The pros that we marvel at when we see them doing what they do in the ocean on their skinny little boards are engaged in the same process as you.  They’re just further along.  Don’t think for a minute that they aren’t challenging themselves to get better, downwind in more extreme conditions or paddle on faster, narrower boards.  The most amazing thing about this sport is that you never stop learning.  As long as you’re interested in getting better there are next steps to take.  Embrace that and be thankful that you got involved in something like this.

Whether you’re new to paddling or experienced, whether it’s a case of getting more comfortable on your new, narrower board, or just being able to venture out into more challenging water conditions, or a combination of both, using the tips I’ve shared here should be really helpful.  They’ve all made things much easier for me and I’ve seen them make a big difference in a surprisingly short period of time for others.  

A challenge should be something that is fun, not something to be afraid of.  Challenge your stability when you paddle with confidence that you’re equipped to meet the challenge.  Your paddling will improve dramatically and you’ll end up exposing yourself to entirely new and fun experiences on the water.  Happy paddling!

Larry

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