How to Stand Up Paddle Board: 7 Tips for Beginners

SSummer brings an opportunity to partake in all sorts of intimidating water sports (surfing, water skiing, and scuba diving, oh my!).

But personally, my favorite summer activity is one that seems much more difficult than it really is and offers the perfect balance between exercise and relaxation: stand-up paddle boarding.

Despite my evangelization of stand-up paddleboarding, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends resist the offer to try it because they fear their balance isn’t good enough. While you might fall over on your first few attempts, which isn’t the worst thing on a hot summer day, with the proper guidance, stand-up paddleboarding is easy to learn and comes with a host of benefits. You get a full-body balance and stability challenge, plus a core, glute, and arm workout. Not to mention that wonderful sensation of sliding through the water.

“Anyone can do it,” says Curt Devoir, director of the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association. “You don’t even need to stand up, many people just sit or kneel.” Plus, the sport is very versatile: depending on your preference and comfort level, you can play in a pond, catch some waves in the ocean, do yoga, or even compete on a stand-up paddle board.

Ready to start? Here are some tips to know before you jump on board.

1. Learn from an expert

The best way to learn to paddle is to let a professional teach you, says Devoir. If you try to learn on your own, you could unknowingly introduce bad habits that are hard to break, she says.

You can find introductory classes almost anywhere there is a rental shop, most of which will provide the boards as part of the class. If you have the option, opt to learn in a calmer body of water (such as a lake or pond) before taking on the challenge of riding the ocean waves. (But many beginners learn in the ocean, Devoir says, just know that you may not be able to stand up completely, which is totally normal.)

2. Start on land

Before you hit the water, take some time to familiarize yourself with your equipment on land, Devoir says. You’ll want to test your life jacket and leash, and adjust your paddle to make sure it’s at the correct height: if you raise your arm in the air and place the paddle on the ground in front of you, the handle should come up to your wrist.

Practice placing your hands. When your paddle is to the right of your board, your left hand should hold the handle of the paddle and your right hand should hold it halfway down. When you switch to paddling to the left of your board, your hands also switch. (If you’re going to row while sitting or kneeling, you’ll want to take a lower grip.)

You can even do a full dry run. Stand in the middle of the board with your knees slightly bent and one foot on either side of the carry handle (your feet should be hip-width apart, but try a wider stance if that makes you feel more stable) and try to paddle in the air, shifting the paddle from one hand to the other and transitioning from standing to kneeling and back without losing your paddle.

3. Get up slowly

Actually standing up can be the hardest part of paddleboarding. But that shouldn’t be your first step: Get comfortable paddling on your knees first, Devoir says, especially if you’re out on the ocean.

When you feel ready to stand up, take your time, suggests Candace Young, DPT, SCS, CSCS, a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Although you’ll want to plant your feet quickly so you’re not in limbo, keep your center of gravity low in a squat until you feel balanced, then rise fully. (Still maintaining a gentle bend in the knees, which will help you maintain your balance.)

A common mistake to avoid: pulling the paddle out horizontally in front of you once you stand up, which Devoir says won’t actually help you balance. Instead, go ahead and stick the blade of your oar into the water. “It adds some stability,” he says. “It’s like a third stage out there.”

4. Move

Just like it’s hard to balance on a bike that’s going nowhere, you’ll find it easier to stay stable once you start moving, says Devoir. For his most efficient paddle stroke, “you don’t want to stroke the water,” he says. “Just putting a couple of inches of the trowel in, you’re not going to get anywhere.” Instead, “reach forward, bury the paddle in the water, and pull it back, keeping the paddle as vertical as possible,” he says. Once the paddle returns to your legs, take it out of the water and start over.

Conditions and exactly where you’re trying to go will determine how many shots you should take on one side before switching, but you should generally avoid switching after each shot for efficiency reasons.

Time to turn around? You can place your paddle in front of you, then sweep it in a circle, or plant it behind you and push it forward. As you get more comfortable, standing on one foot or the other can also help you steer.

And if you’re trying to stay upright in the ocean, you might want to start facing or away from incoming waves, rather than having them slam into your side, which will be more of a balance challenge.

5. Relax your feet

When you’re feeling off balance, it’s natural to want to grab the board with your toes. Avoid this urge, Devoir says. “After a few minutes, you’ll start to cramp and your feet will hurt,” he says. Instead, try to relax your feet and spread your toes apart. Your weight should be evenly distributed throughout your feet, Young says.

6. Don’t look down

“A lot of times when people first stand up, they look down and end up with this hinge in their torso,” says Young. “If you start looking down, your entire center of gravity starts to lean forward and you won’t stay on the board very long after that.” Keep your chin and chest up, eyes on the horizon, and shoulders stacked above your hips.

7. Use your whole body

Although it may feel like your arms are working harder when you’re stand-up paddleboarding, it should be a true full-body sport, says Devoir. In other words, “if only your arms hurt, you didn’t do it right,” she says. “I’ll have days where I’ll go upwind and use my legs more than my arms because you can get more power out of them.”

Paddleboarding should be fun, so don’t worry if you’re working the right muscles while you’re out there, says Young. As long as he maintains a slight bend in his knees, his quadriceps and core should engage to help him maintain his balance.

Looking to improve your rowing game with cross training? Young suggests alternating reverse lunges, “so you have that strength to push up off the board,” as well as squats and planks, “so you can keep that straight line from head to toe, which is what you want while rowing,” in addition to any balance exercises that have you practicing standing on one leg.

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