Standup Paddle Board Basics & Improving Your Technique

Standup paddle boarding is a great way to get out on the water and enjoy a low-impact workout that keeps you fit and improves your overall wellbeing. It’s also an incredible way to connect with nature, practice mindfulness and help your balance. Plus, paddle boarding is generally so fun that you don’t even realize that you’re getting a workout in.

However, there is a right and a wrong way to paddle. Paddling the “right” way will help your efficiency, strength, and endurance while paddling the “wrong” way can lead to muscle strain and possible injury. Therefore, to enjoy the maximum benefits of standup paddle boarding, it’s good to understand the basics and dive into the sport the right way rather than try to fix your bad habits later.

Getting on your SUP (and how to get back on your board after falling off)

Standup paddleboarders always look graceful when they’re standing up and paddling along, but it takes practice to learn how to quickly and easily get on and off your board. The most common is to start from the shoreline or the dock, carefully climbing onto the center of the board in a kneeling position. Then you grab the paddle and start stroking away from the shore. Once you feel comfortable, stand up, face forward, and continue paddling.

If you’re challenging yourself or simply haven’t gotten your balance quite down yet, then falling off your board into the water is inevitable. Sometimes it just takes a big wave or some boat chop to take you out. While it can be a little embarrassing (and shocking depending on how cold the water is), the best thing to do is to figure out what you did wrong and get back on your board as quickly as you can.

When you’re in the water and need to get back on your board, start by swimming towards the middle of the board (flip it over so that the back fin is in the water and the grippy padding is facing up), grab onto it, and pull yourself up onto your belly. From there, you can get your knees under you so that your kneeling on the board and can then stand up and paddle, or you can sit or lie down the board to catch your breath if you’re not quite ready to get up yet.

The other less common way to remount a SUP is to swim to the tail of the board and grab onto either side, pulling yourself up on your belly that way. The tip of the board flips up as you do this, but it naturally meets the water as you climb onto the board.

It’s fun to test your balance by trying new yoga moves or practicing buoy turns and partly expecting to fall in the water, as challenging oneself is the only way to get better. And once you embrace it, and paddleboard often enough, then quickly getting back on your board becomes second nature and something you don’t even think about.

A paddle board yoga class on Lake Tahoe
A paddle board yoga class on Lake Tahoe -- photo by Kayla Anderson

Basic Standup Paddle Board Safety

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The whole goal of standup paddle boarding is to get outside and have fun, but the best way to do that is to be prepared and know what you’re getting into. Whether you are paddling in the ocean, in a lake, or on a river, it’s important to keep these three things in mind:

  1. Research the weather and water conditions ahead of time. Before even entertaining the idea of going out on the water, check the wind and weather conditions. The Windfinder app is a great resource for showing what wind gusts will be like on the lake, whereas NOAA shows basic rain/sleet/snow/sun forecasts. For river paddling, you want to talk to local rafting outfitters or find online river guides to know what class of rapids or current is that you’re getting into. Realizing the water temperature is important, too- for instance, where I live there are a lot of alpine lakes that get have collected their water primarily from snow runoff, which means that it can get pretty cold (think hypothermic temps) and somewhat dangerous when you fall in, especially in the winter.
  2. Have the right equipment. Many regulated bodies of water require that you have a Coast Guard-approved life jacket and a leash for your board. Some state/country laws vary and so it’s good to err on the side of safety by wearing both a life jacket and having the leash attached. For instance, here in Lake Tahoe paddleboarders must have a leash attached to the board and body, although you don’t have to wear your life jacket. The idea behind this is if you get separated from your board, your leash brings you back to it where you can climb up on it and put on your life jacket. However, paddling in rivers is different- it’s a good idea to always wear a life vest and maybe not have a leash as it could get caught up on rocks, trees, or hazards that end up holding you underwater.
  3. Dress appropriately for the weather. It’s always a good idea to dress in layers and wear clothing that dries fast. Bring a hat, sunglasses, and wear sunscreen too- even if it’s overcast outside. People have asked whether they should wear a wetsuit or not, but I think a wetsuit is too constricting. Since you’re not going to be in the water the whole time, but you are still exerting energy that could cause sweat, it’s not fun to sweat in a wetsuit. I personally prefer somewhat loose, comfortable clothing- on warm days I wear a bikini, a tank top, and shorts; on chilly days I wear a bikini, dryfit T-shirt/long sleeve, leggings, and even neoprene booties and a beanie if it’s on the colder side.
  4. Paddleboard with friends or tell someone where you’re going. What’s great about paddle boarding is that it’s something to enjoy with other people but if you live close to the water and have your own board then it’s also an activity that you can do by yourself. But unlike going to the gym, you are outside dealing with the natural elements and weather conditions and believe me when I say that anything can happen. That’s why it’s best to always tell someone where you’re going and how long you expect to be gone. It’s a good idea to bring a dry bag with a charged-up waterproof cell phone, whistle, and stay close to shore on days where there’s variable weather.
Having a leash and a life jacket are a must
Having a leash and a life jacket are a must -- photo by Kayla Anderson

Improving Your Technique

As mentioned earlier in the article, there is a right way to paddle that helps tone your muscles, increase your strength, endurance and lose weight. Or you can accidentally pick up bad habits that lead to muscle strain and injury. Therefore, to avoid injury, make sure that your equipment is properly fitted and appropriate for the type of paddling you’re doing. Some things to check for are:

  • That the paddle is at the right length and type. Some paddles have adjustable handles/grips and some are fixed, but most local board shop to cut it down to your size. If you’re paddling a lot, then the material that it is made from and its shape (a board with a displacement hull versus a planing hull) also makes a difference in comfort, strength building, and quickness.
  • The board is the right type for what you’re doing. Different boards can be used for different things, like an inflatable board works well for rivers and backpacking trips whereas a wide board is better suited for yoga. A skinnier lighter board is likely to be more efficient in a race-like setting. The hull type makes a difference, too- a board with a displacement hull cuts through waves whereas a board with a flat planing hull bounce over them.
  • Make sure you have all necessary accessories to stay safe and happy, such as a fitted Coast Guard-approved PFD, a leash, water, sunscreen, and that you’ve researched the weather conditions so that you know what you’re getting into.
Standup paddle boarding on Lake Tahoe
Standup paddle boarding on Lake Tahoe

Additional Tips for Improving Your SUP Technique

  • Find a pro in your area. Google local board shops and take a class
  • Visit PaddleGuru to find the closest races in your area and sign up for a race.

Taking a paddleboard class, finding some paddling buddies, entering a race, or even using the rowing machine at your local gym will all help you become a better standup paddleboarder so that you can be more confident out on the water, stay fit, and continue to enjoy the sport.

Now let’s go have some fun out on the water 😊