Supboardguide.com contributor Bill Dawes looks at why SUP is just so damn good for you…
It’s official, stand-up paddleboarding is not just fun and cool, it’s also genuinely good for you in a whole variety of ways. Indeed, it may well be one of the very best exercises you can do. SUP ticks a whole lot of healthy boxes, even if you’re not paddling particularly hard.
Paddle Boarding is good for your muscles:
While it’s not muscle-conditioning with weights as you might do at the gym, a paddleboarding session puts a whole lot of muscles under load – and any resistance/load above and beyond what you normally experience is beneficial. It’s not just the paddling, it’s the whole experience – carrying the board down to the water, lifting it off the roof rack, etc etc. If you’re already a fit healthy specimen then you may scoff at this, but if you’re coming into SUP from a relatively sedentary existence then the session will be challenging all the main torso muscle groups in a very desirable way. And if you are prepared to push just a little harder, the benefits are that much greater still.
It’s all body:
This is an exercise where force is literally transmitted from your fingers (where you’re holding the paddle) to your toes (as the power from the paddle goes into the board), so it really does impact pretty much every major muscle group in the body. Assuming you’re standing up, then all those stabilizer muscle groups in your torso are having to engage. The more active and dynamic your paddle stroke is, the more of an all-body workout it becomes.
It’s low impact:
While there is a slight risk of RSI if you paddle very significant distances (ie 30 miles a week or more) and/or have really poor technique, in general, SUP is a very kind and gentle exercise for your body because it is not jarring or high impact in any way. So you can do it a whole lot, without the risk of wearing out your knees, hips, ankles, etc, as happens when you’re out pounding those pavements. Nor are you likely to injure yourself by falling, as is the risk when running or cycling.
It’s great for your balance:
Balance is a really important aspect of well-being and fitness, particularly as you get older. However, the good news is that you can learn to improve your balance whatever your age. Balance is a really interesting aspect of fitness because it’s all mental. Unlike working on strength, stamina, suppleness, etc, you don’t need to build up muscles or strengthen tendons or anything like that; to improve your balance you just need to train your brain. Balance is all about the brain knowing which muscles to fire at the right moment and how much to fire them (and of course, which muscles to relax, because muscles usually work in opposition) This learning only comes with practice. And paddleboarding is phenomenally good balance practice! If you told your physiotherapist that you’d spent two hours standing on a wobble board yesterday, they’d be well impressed. But that is what is happening every time you go paddleboarding. Every little wobble or movement underfoot helps teach your brain. And the narrower the board, the greater the wobble factor that your brain is having to deal with.
Every paddleboarder who gets into racing goes through this process. First time out on a 27” wide race board it feels wobbly as hell, but after a few weeks of training it starts to feel more comfortable. But when they step down to a 25” wide board – again, whoa, wobbly as hell!!. But after a few weeks… and if they then step back onto that 27” board which felt so tippy just a month ago, it now feels like an aircraft carrier! Simply by paddling, they have improved their balance.
(Top tip: If you want to increase your balance training, just stand with your feet closer together! You don’t need to buy a tippy board to get a great balance workout)
Paddle Boarding is great for burning calories:
“Eat better and exercise more” is the standard mantra for losing weight, but as you probably already know it actually takes a whole lot of exercise to shift those stubborn pounds. It’s rather depressing to check your FitBit or Garmin after a two-hour hike to discover that you’ve barely cleared out the calories from that candy bar you had earlier! Getting a decent calorie burn in exercise normally means actually having to go pretty hard, which is unsustainable for longer periods unless you’re extremely fit. Whereas with paddleboarding, you can burn up to 500 calories an hour without even breaking a sweat. If you’re a fit paddling athlete with good technique you can literally burn up to twice that – and sustain it too. It comes back to SUP being such an all-body exercise. When pretty much every muscle in your body is involved, you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck. If you want to burn calories then SUP is one of the very best ways to do it, indeed possibly the very best. (If you can name an exercise that allows you to sustainably burn more calories then please tell us!). Even if you’re just pootling about at a gentle pace you’re still burning many more calories than going for a stroll.
Paddle Boarding is good for your head
For most people, just being on the water is a positive thing. It’s hard to explain but if you’re already a keen paddleboarder then you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s just good for the soul. There’s a sense of freedom, of disconnect from the man-made stresses and strains of modern life. And paddleboarding allows us to really maximize this; we can launch easily, from pretty much anywhere, so we can explore further, we can get out onto waters that others can’t. We don’t make noise or fumes (well hopefully not regularly – I don’t know what you had for dinner last night), and we don’t disturb the wildlife. Being out there on calm clear water with no one else about and spectacular sunrise or sunset lighting up the sky is about as good as it gets. Escapism in its purest form.
Plus, there is a meditative quality to paddleboarding; the rhythmic, repetitive nature of the action allows the mind to turn inwards. It can be great for deep thinking, but likewise, it can allow you to empty the mind and just lose yourself in the mechanics of the stroke cycle.
Even when I have a full schedule of coaching or training on the water ahead of me, I will often start the day by going for a dawn paddle, I find it so centering, and a perfect way to prepare for the day ahead.
And then there is the whole breathing thing. Focus on your breathing. If you’re into yoga and/or meditation you’ll already know all about the importance of breathing in finding that inner calm and balance. Paddling is a fantastic way to engage the parasympathetic nervous system.
These are all things that it is very hard to do in most other outdoor activities because there are usually external factors at play. It’s exceptionally hard to get meditative when cycling, for example – whether you’re on the road or off-road. Your mind can certainly roam when trail running, but you’ve still got to watch your step and your cadence is constantly changing. Other paddlesports probably come closest, but because they’re seated and tend to happen at a higher cadence, you still don’t get quite the same natural breathing rhythm connection to your paddling that you get in SUP. It’s a challenge to think of anything else that comes close to what SUP can offer in this respect.
Paddle Boarding is good for the back.
I believe this to be true, because I regularly find that people who have niggles and minor issues with their back tend to find paddleboarding extremely beneficial, to the point where those niggles and aches very quickly go away. Unfortunately, as far as I am aware, there has not yet been any rigorous peer-reviewed research done on this, so it’s just anecdotal. However, in the 15 years that I have been teaching SUP, I have encountered this so many times, as has pretty much every other SUP instructor I have discussed it with. Indeed I know plenty of GPs, physios, chiropractors, and osteopaths who are in full agreement and recommend SUP for their patients.
To be clear, we are not talking about SUP being the cure for a slipped disc or any sort of serious spinal injury. However, non-specific back pain is an incredibly common complaint these days in the modern world – people are sitting down far more than the body was ever really designed for, resulting in weakened backs. The under-used muscles give less support to the skeletal frame, and those little niggles and pains set in. Whereas the paddleboarding motion gently activates and engages those muscles, and the human body does seem to respond well to rhythmic repetitive motions. Muscles like to be used! And it doesn’t seem to take a lot, to make those niggles and aches go away. We regularly encounter people reporting huge improvements in literally just a few weeks.
Is Paddle Boarding Good for The Core?
This is one of the most commonly quoted supposed benefits of SUP, but unfortunately, it’s not entirely true. The core muscles are that very important set of stabilizer and load balancing muscles between your chest and your pelvis, and there are huge benefits in training and strengthening them, for posture, balance, pain management, and injury prevention. However, there is a common misconception that because you’re bending at the waist or twisting your hips a bit while you’re paddling you must be engaging your core, and therefore any SUP is a great core workout, but it doesn’t really work like that. While for sure they are getting a bit of light exercise when you’re paddling (as discussed in the back section above), since that power from your paddle has to pass through them on its way to your feet, they are not really engaged properly unless you specifically know how to activate your core muscles, which is best learned through doing pilates, yoga or similar. It won’t automatically happen. But if you do know how to engage them, then paddleboarding can definitely be a great core workout.
Summary So Far:
SUP is a great all-body low-impact workout for your muscles that burns calories, seems to be good for your back, and is definitely good for the head too. And the gear is light enough that you’re not likely to give yourself a hernia lifting it into the truck at the end of the session. That’s ticking a whole lot of boxes right there! Even if you have no intention of ever breaking a sweat when paddling, it will benefit you.
Turbocharging the benefits
If you’re looking to step things up a bit, there are two simple ways to increase the physical benefits of SUP yet further:
- 1) Do it more. If you can get out there three or four times a week, it will benefit you a LOT.
- 2) Do it harder. Just try and paddle a bit more vigorously, either by increasing your cadence (ie more strokes per minute), or applying a bit more power and force to your stroke. Just a small change will increase the challenge to your muscles and you will reap the benefits. A very easy and effective way to do this is simply to paddle into a breeze for a while. You’ll have to work harder, and when you’ve had enough you can just turn around and enjoy the ride home!
Taking it to the next level
If you are already fit and sporty, and/or are looking to increase your fitness yet further, then paddleboarding can give you everything you need. Indeed, you’re missing out if you don’t incorporate paddleboarding as one of the cornerstones of your cross-training! Many top athletes swear by paddleboarding, particularly in the build-up to a major event when the risk of injury from cross-training on the road or track is just too great. Paddleboarding is a fantastic tool for sustained aerobic/threshold training (you can literally pick your heart rate or power output and sustain it for as long as is required), and is perfect for all forms of anaerobic/interval training too. All with the added benefit of simultaneously improving your balance and conditioning, and giving you a core workout too, if you know how to engage it. SUP also has great potential for resistance training and indeed strength training. We’ll save this for a separate article in the future.
One thing to note though, if you intend to use paddleboarding as a proper fitness tool then you’re going to need the appropriate gear; ideally a race-orientated board, (at very least a touring board), and a high-quality paddle. The paddle is particularly important because if you’re going to be out there working hard, a heavy paddle, or too big a blade, could well lead to strain or injury. But the right board is important too because it’s just so much nicer and easier and more motivating to be on a fast board, that responds to your input. Trying to paddle a wide beginner board is just demoralizing! It does not want to go fast, it isn’t designed to go fast, it will slow right down the second you relax. Check out our reviews of touring boards and race boards. Having the right tools for the job is vital. As is knowing how to use them. Good paddle technique is also vital. Get some coaching on your paddle technique, and it will allow you to get so much more out of your fitness training. (Online/remote coaching is very affordable and can work really well, click here for more information.
Just one final consideration – the health benefits of going paddleboarding are very much dependent on your getting back to shore in one piece at the end of the session! So don’t forget your safety basics.
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