If you’ve been keeping up with Mark’s Daily Apple, you know that standup paddling is a longtime favorite pastime of mine. And though I was into it before it was “cool,” I’m certainly not the first. Fishermen have been paddling their water vessels from a standing position for thousands of years and pre-contact Hawaiian surfers employed long paddles to reach the best waves on their 3-5 meter-long boards. In the mid-20th century, Oahu surf instructors would lead classes atop longboards with paddles, but it wasn’t until Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama started standup paddling (and being filmed doing it) that the sport gained broad “sport” status and board makers began producing dedicated SUP boards.
So, a lot of people have asked: why do I love paddle boarding so much?
I love the minimalism of paddling. Consider snowboarding, which I also love. Snowboarding requires a bunch of equipment. You gotta get the lift ticket. You gotta wear the cold weather gear. You need to strap on the boots. You gotta ride the lift and wear the goggles and check the conditions. It’s exhausting. Exhilarating, too, and I look forward to it every season, but you can’t beat the simplicity of slipping into the water and hopping up on your board with just some shorts and a paddle and no plan at all.
I can’t do traditional meditation. I’ve tried. I know the benefits. It just doesn’t work for me. But paddling? Getting the angle of the paddle just right as it enters the water with the least resistance? Engaging every muscle, however minor and seemingly inconsequential, to pull against the water? Paddling is my meditation. To get the angle of the paddle as it enters the water just right with the least resistance. I never even really think of it as a workout, although there’s not a better core program if you have good technique. Since taking up paddling, I’ve really developed my serratus anteriors to go along with the standard abs.
Shoulder problems? Don’t worry. With proper form, the shoulder is stabilized when you paddle. The arms in both top and bottom position are maintained fairly straight throughout the stroke; think of a “V” emanating out from the shoulder, formed by the two straight arm. Most of the actual “work” is done with the lats, the serratus, the abs, the hips, and the legs. Overall, paddling with proper form is a fantastic shoulder external rotation “pulling” movement. Since the majority of people are biased toward interior rotation of the shoulders, tight pecs, and a slumped, inactive thoracic spine, usually from too much computer and smartphone usage, standup paddling is a godsend for shoulder health. Even gym rats, who tend to be bench press addicts, can benefit from adding more restorative pulling or external rotation at the shoulder. Many experts think your pulling (pullups, rows) should outweigh your pushing (pushups, bench, overhead press, dips) by at least 2:1. Paddling is a productive and enjoyable way to do it. When I have shoulder problems from the gym, paddling actually helps iron them out.
Compared to kayaks and canoes, standup paddle boards give you a unique vantage point. Whereas the seated water vessels direct your focus toward going and moving forward and working hard, standing up directs your gaze downward and outward across the horizon. When I paddle, I can see everything below and around me, and because paddling itself is such a relaxed, meditative process, I’m inclined to take advantage of the increased visibility. If the water’s clear (as it is in Malibu), you’ll see some incredible things swimming below that you’d simply miss if you were trying to catch waves or cut through the water in record time. Standup paddling encourages exploration, and rewards it.
Cool things happen when you paddle. You might meet new people (SUPers are some of the coolest folks around, in my experience), you might catch a wave or two, you often see incredible wildlife (especially in Malibu – seals, dolphins, schools of bat rays and other large fish, etc.), because you can see straight down below.
A few weeks ago, I bought a new “starter” board on which to train first-timers (Costco, delivered free to the house!). The next Saturday I went down to the beach locker where I keep my boards and saw that there was a SUP race taking off just a few hundred feet up the beach. I figured I’d try the new board out in that race, so I registered. Big mistake. 20 paddle strokes in I could see that this board, while extremely stable and easy to ride, was a barge compared to my regular sleek board. This 5-mile ocean race was going to be a hurt dance if I was thinking of maintaining any real speed. And I couldn’t just drop out because, well, I knew too many people watching on the beach, so I settled in for a good workout and vowed to enjoy whatever happened. Rounding the final buoy about a mile and a quarter off shore, lost in the meditative paddling “zone” but aware of my surroundings, I was startled to look up and see not 50 feet away a large mama gray whale and twin calves just lolling in the water. This is a rare, rare sight, the kind of thing whale watching enthusiasts dream about. The people on SUPs around me were equally surprised, and we all just stopped — mostly because we were waiting to see if she and the kids might dive underneath us. It was fantastic and exhilarating to be that far from shore, in fairly choppy water wondering who would make the next move. As it turned out, we racers all agreed to take a 2-minute timeout and just “be” in this once in a lifetime moment. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. And that’s the kind of thing that can happen when you paddle.
Interest piqued? I bet it is.
Here’s how to get started:
For beginners, I always recommend larger, wider boards like the Costco board mentioned above. The bigger the board, the better the stability. There’s nothing so demoralizing (and quick to discourage further paddling) to a newbie than repeatedly falling into the water because the board’s too wobbly and your balance is too underdeveloped. People with extensive surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding, or other board-riding experience can probably get away with smaller boards, but the majority of beginners will get the most out of a wider, more stable board. Softer tops (as opposed to harder ones) also tend to favor the beginner.
Another choice to make is between planing hulls and displacement hulls. Boards with a planing hulls are like surfboards, sitting flat atop the water. These are great for all-around use, catching waves, and general fun on the water. Displacement hulls cut through the water, more like a kayak. They’re intended for racing and long-distance touring. I recommend most beginners start with planing hull boards until they get a feel for what they want out of paddling. If you get really into the sport and want to start racing or going long distance, you can always switch to a board with a displacement hull.
Buy at a shop rather than online for your first one. Many shops offer renter programs where you can try before you buy, and they’re full of passionate experts who will guide you toward the best board for your situation. Also, get fitted for a proper non-adjustable paddle; they tend to be higher quality than the adjustable ones.
Other than that? Just go try it. As I said earlier, it’s so simple and requires so little equipment (beside the board and paddle) that you can slip into the water and have fun. Ocean, lake, pond, river — all it takes is some water. If you’re a little unsteady, start on your knees. If you fall off, laugh and get back on. No one’s watching. No one cares.
Oh, and be sure to respect the locals, particularly if you’re trying to surf waves.
That’s about it for today, folks. If you have any questions about standup paddling, leave them down below. If you have any comments, tips, or advice for beginners, do the same.
Thanks for reading, everyone!