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How to Improve Your Balance on a Paddleboard

Everyone finds paddleboards wobbly at first. But then, after a while, those wobbles somehow disappear (for most people!). So how can you get to that point where your board no longer feels wobbly as quickly as possible; are there shortcuts or tricks? coach Bill Dawes has taught many thousands of people to paddleboard and here’s his inside track on how to make those wobbles go away…

Understanding Balance

Before we even get anywhere near the board, let’s just take a moment to understand what is actually going on with balance, because it’s a really interesting aspect of physiology. It’s all in the head! Literally. Improving your balance does not require that you build up muscles, strengthen your sinews, improve your fitness, or anything like that. Balance all happens in the top two inches. It is your brain instructing the right muscles how much (and exactly when) to contract. Plus of course, if there are opposing muscles (which there usually are), they have to be relaxed at the right moment also. So basically it’s all happening up top. If you can stand up, you can stand up paddleboard – all you need is for your brain to work out how to compensate for the extra movement of the board underfoot.

Which actually is surprisingly little, and this in itself is half the problem in the early stages of learning to paddleboard. Your typical general-purpose/all-rounder paddleboard is actually astonishingly stable. The reason it feels wobbly when you first stand up is because your brain is overcompensating. It detects that your board is tipping to the left, so it sends instructions to the body to compensate by leaning a bit in the other direction. But it doesn’t get the amount of lean required quite right, so you lean a bit too far, which causes the board to lean too much to the right, and your brain says whoa, quick, lean back to the left! And so it goes. The wobbles are all self-induced. Your board is saying ‘hey relax, I got this! Why are you wobbling around on me?’ But to you, it feels as though the board is bucking underfoot like a demented bronco. However, once your brain has worked out how much to adjust – and as your balance improves even further, eventually to anticipate and pre-empt – those wobbles miraculously disappear.

This is what is so phenomenal about balance. It is a mental skill as opposed to a physical thing like strength or stamina, which does require training and actual changes to your body to improve. All you need to do to improve your balance is stimulate and challenge it. We can all improve our balance, no matter what our age or fitness. You are never too old to improve your balance.

And you should be thinking about trying to improve it. Like any skill involving multiple muscle movements and coordination, balance degrades if you don’t practice it. Yet as we get older we tend to challenge our balance less and less, so it does get rusty. However, unlike cardio fitness, strength, and suppleness, which does degrade permanently as your body ages, your balance loss can easily be reversed. I hear it all the time: “Oh I have terrible balance, I won’t be able to do this”… Yet just a few weeks later that person is out there on their paddleboard cheerfully cruising around without a wobble in sight.

As I said earlier; if you can stand up, then you can stand up paddleboard! And improving our balance is always a beneficial thing, especially as we get older. How much money gets spent in the healthcare sector on dealing with the effects of geriatric falls? Get out there a few times a week on your paddleboard and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favour. Every time you go out there you’re training and improving your balance skills. This is one of the so many direct health benefits of stand-up paddleboarding.

Balance is Not a Transferable Skill

It’s important also to understand that every sort of balancing requires its own learning. You can stand in many different ways – feet side by side, one foot behind the other, feet facing forward, feet facing sideways (surf stance), etc. Or just standing on one leg. Each of these requires a different working relationship between the various muscles involved, which in some cases may even be different muscles altogether. So you basically have to start over and learn afresh when you subject your body to a requirement to balance in a stance or environment it hasn’t encountered before. I regularly see this in action when teaching surfers or skateboarders to paddleboard – they’re aghast to discover that their fabulous board-riding balance skills are irrelevant on a SUP because of the different body position. So don’t assume that just because you have good balance in one activity it will automatically transfer to another.

This actually applies also to other balance exercises such as using a wobble board. For sure spending time on a wobble board will improve your wobble-board balance – but I’m unconvinced that it helps too much with balance on the water. Paddleboards wobble at a much lower frequency, and also in three dimensions, so that’s what your brain has to learn how to work with. The only guaranteed way of learning paddleboard balance is by paddleboarding! But you can learn it, and you will. I have never met a person I couldn’t teach to stand up on their board.

So now that I have hopefully convinced you that you can learn to balance, because everybody can learn to balance, let’s look at how we can assist, simplify and accelerate the process.

Pre Session Preparation

Before we get anywhere near the water, let’s check a few fundamentals.

Choose the most stable board

The width of a SUP is its primary source of stability. The wider the board, the more stable it will be. If you try to learn on a paddleboard that is too narrow, then it’s going to be a whole lot harder – quite possibly impossible. Those initial over-compensation wobbles, while your brain is trying to work out what’s going on, will result in a ducking every time. Remember, when you start out paddleboarding there’s a whole lot going on for your brain to process. Paddling is quite a complex action in itself, and then you’ve got changing sides, steering, thinking about where you’re going, how everyone else is getting on, and a whole lot more. In your early days of paddleboarding, your brain is having to consciously process all of this; it has not yet become an unconscious process. So it’s pretty busy already, even before you throw the whole balance problem at it. This is why it’s best to start out on the widest board possible, as if you can reduce the balance challenge as much as possible it will make it so much easier to get through this early stage.

Don’t worry too much about the other board measurements. As long as the board is a general-purpose SUP suitable for learning on, and you’re not on some specialist race board or surfing board, then it’s almost certainly long enough and has sufficient volume. The width is the number that matters because general-purpose SUPs do come in a wide variety of widths. So how much width should you be looking for? To be honest, while learning to balance it’s hard to have too much. However, to put some hard numbers on it I’d recommend at least 32” for anyone much over 150lbs (70kg), and anyone above 175lbs (80kg) should be looking wider still. If you’re more than 200lbs then go at least 34”.

Note also, that tail width and nose width also influence stability. The wider they are, the more stable the board will feel. So just beware that it’s not just about maximum width; a wide board that also has a wide nose and tail will feel even more stable.

Choose the most mellow conditions

Ideally, you want water that is glassy flat, with not a ripple in sight. This will make things so much easier! If the water is already ruffled then that is going to make the board feel wobbly underfoot (and this time it genuinely is the board moving, not just you overcompensating.). Waves or swell should absolutely be avoided. Ideally, try for windless conditions too. Any breeze will ruffle the water’s surface, and that wind will also push the board around, which gives you another factor to deal with. Likewise, stronger current flows of tides or rivers can disturb the water surface too, so try and avoid currents.

Inevitably, we don’t always have the option of getting out on flat calm glassy current-free water. But if you can find conditions like this you will most definitely benefit from it!

Onto Your Board

Before you get out there on the water, do a little bit of dry land practice. Do this in your lounge, your garden, or at the beach before you go out. If you can take the fin out, great – just lay your board on the ground. If it has soft permanent fins, try and position the board so that there’s not too much load on them.

And then – on you get! This is the perfect opportunity to practice a couple of really important points that will significantly increase how stable the board feels underfoot.

Stand in the right place

Your feet should be equidistant on either side of the centre handle. That’s the balance point for the board and that’s where you need to stand. Not further forward, not further back, right there.

Stand in the right stance

Your feet should be facing forward so that your heel and toes are on an imaginary line running parallel to the longitudinal centreline of the board. Imagine that you are standing on railway tracks. This is the most stable stance you can be in. Most people’s normal stance when just standing around is ‘duck stance’, with the toes out. But this is a bad stance for paddleboarding. It’s significantly less stable as when your weight is on your heels they are a lot closer to the centre line, and it tends to lead you ‘out’ towards the side of the board if you get a wobble. Whereas the proper ‘straight’ stance ensures that your natural ‘wobble axis’ is front-back.

Stand Shoulder Width Apart

Next up, check how wide your stance is. Your feet should be directly under your hips or your shoulders, whichever are wider. But not further out. Avoid the temptation to plant your feet wider still; it may feel more stable but actually, it isn’t. A wider stance encourages a lot more upper-body movement and is destabilising.

Stand Loose

Your knees should never be locked out when you’re standing up on your board. You most certainly do not want bent knees, which will max out your thigh muscles very quickly. But you do want relaxed legs, so a little bit of flex in your knees. Let your hips come forward just a bit, too. Your weight should be spread evenly between heels and toes.

Now Practice Standing Up

Have a few goes at getting up from the kneeling position, and ensuring that you hit the correct standing position with all these points in mind: Feet shoulder width apart, equal distance from the centre handle, and facing forward. This practice will pay dividends! If you can’t do it on the beach it’s almost certainly not going to happen on the water, and you’re going to be standing on that wobbly board in a very sub-optimal position.

Onto the Water

So you’ve found the flattest, most wind-free, and current-free bit of water in your local area, you’re on the most stable board you can get your hands on, and you’ve practiced getting up into the right stance. Now let’s go and do it for real. Because you have so much to think about already, I’m going to limit the work-ons for this to just two really simple points.

Let Your Paddle Help!

Your paddle can and should always be your third point of contact.

If getting to your feet from the kneeling position is a challenge, try planting the blade of your paddle on the deck squarely in front of you on the longitudinal centreline, so the paddle is a vertical pole you can climb up to reach the standing position.

Once you’re stood up, you can come back to this planted-paddle position at any time in order to stabilise, have a rest or micro-adjust your foot position. (More on this anon). When you’re paddling too, the paddle continues to act as a third point of contact. The force you apply to it to propel the board through the water allows you to brace and balance. Indeed, this is the only reason that really small and/or narrow boards can be used – they’re super wobbly (indeed almost impossible) to stand up on without wobbling (violently!), but as soon as you get going the paddling action gives you a very effective ‘dynamic brace’.

Whenever you stop paddling, leave the paddle in the water. Even when you’re not moving, it still gives you something to brace with. Or plant the paddle on the deck again, so as to give you that third point of contact. Just don’t leave it waving around in the breeze.

Keep Your Head up!

This is the most important tip of all. There is a natural tendency in paddleboarding to end up staring down at the nose of the board, and this is fundamentally destabilising, for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s not great because you’re now looking at something that is moving and close, which really doesn’t help your natural balance mechanisms (made worse by the fact that you’re looking down). To assist your balance it is always best to be looking at something stationary and middle-far distant, ie the horizon. Pick a point; a tree, a house, a stationary boat, whatever, and keep your gaze upon it with your head up.

Secondly, when the head goes down there is a tendency for the legs to straighten. It sort of drags your butt up and encourages the knees to lock out. Stand up and try it right now. Stand normally looking forward, and then let your head drop forward so you are looking down at your feet. You’ll feel how it straightens your legs. Only slightly, but enough to be destabilising.

So, keeping your head up is actually the top tip of all. It’s so simple but so profoundly effective. Both when you’re standing up, and once you’ve stood up. In the actual stand-up it’s absolutely vital – if you try to stand up while keeping your head down your legs tend to straighten immediately, putting you into a horribly unstable position, head down and butt high. You should always try and stand up like you’re doing a squat in the gym, driving up with your glutes and thighs, keeping your butt low, your back straight, and your head up.

Other tips

A couple of other suggestions, which aren’t specifically about making the board feel less wobbly, but can still be useful in helping you learn to deal with the wobbles.

Wobbling your board

As said earlier, your board is actually much more stable than you may think. As well as its primary stability (ie basic resistance to wobbling), it also has secondary stability, which is its built-in resistance to being tipped over too far. When you press one side of the board down, it wants to bob back up. Learning that the board is actually on your side and really doesn’t want to tip over can be quite helpful in overcoming the natural instinctive worry about falling off. So, while you’re on your knees, deliberately wobbling the board from side to side is a great way of learning about the board’s secondary stability and just how much you can trust it. Once you’re standing up and feeling brave, you can try wobbling it side-to-side from a standing position too. You might just find that doing this gives you a bit more confidence.

Getting wet

If you’re dry, then the natural fear of falling in can increase the nerves and make your movements stiffer and more timid, and that extra adrenaline in the bloodstream is also more likely to induce a bit of muscle shake. So getting wet first may help you overcome the psychological fear of falling. You’re already wet, no big deal if you fall in again, nothing to lose, go for it! However, I’d only recommend this if you’re in a warm water environment and appropriately clothed. Being cold and miserable is not in any way going to accelerate your learning capabilities!

Get a Lesson

It’s always a great idea to start your paddleboarding career off with a lesson from a competent qualified instructor, because this too will reduce anxiety, make you feel safer and more receptive to learning, and they may well have even wider gear at their disposal than your existing board. It’s just another of these factors that can enhance the learning environment.

Strength Conditioning

While you don’t need to improve your strength in order to improve your balance, better muscle condition in the legs and core will always benefit you. There are plenty of simple routines you can do daily in your lounge to work on your core and upper leg muscles. You don’t need any specialist gym equipment, it only requires a few minutes a day, and everyone should be doing them, whether you’re into paddleboarding or not. It’s never going to hurt to have a stronger core. So if you start doing them because there’s a chance it may also help with your stand-up paddleboarding balance then great – go for it!

Alternative Stances

Every paddleboarder should start off in a straight stance (or square stance, or parallel stance, whatever your instructor chooses to call it.) However, this is just one of a number of stances that can be used on a SUP. Many people find a slightly staggered stance (where one foot slides back just a bit, although no closer to the centreline and still primarily facing forward) to feel much more stable. The great thing about staggered stance is that it allows you to absorb front-back bumps or jolts more easily, as you can transfer your weight between your front foot and your back foot to compensate. And as long as your feet are still the same distance from the centreline you still have the amount of side-to-side control. This isn’t something for messing with when you first start out, but if you are struggling to feel comfortable in straight stance then it’s worth checking out.

One vital tip – to change your stance while you’re standing up, first plant your paddle on the centreline of the board as discussed above and lean on that, so you can unweight a foot just enough to ‘heel and toe’ it back a bit. Never just lift a foot off the board to reposition it; you’ll be in the water in a heartbeat! If you lift one foot off while in normal stance, all your bodyweight transfers to the other foot, which is not on the centreline, and your board will react accordingly! You really need to have your basic paddleboard balance very well sorted before you’re ready to start moving around on the board.

Footwear Considerations

Learning balance is easiest barefoot. Shoes with thick or spongy soles make it harder for the brain to process the information coming from the nerve receptors in the foot. If you need to wear shoes for whatever reason (and they are a necessity in many venues, likewise in cold water etc), then wear the thinnest shoes that you can.

Common Misconceptions

Speed does not equal Stability!

This is one of the most common misconceptions in paddleboarding, I see it pretty much daily in the advice being given out online. “Get a bit of speed up first and it’s easier to balance, just like on a bike”. Unfortunately, there is no truth in this at all in a paddleboarding context. The reason you can balance on a bike when it’s moving is because your brain has learned to ‘steer you straight’ – if you find yourself leaning to the left, the brain has learned how much to steer to the left to counter the lean. If you can remember back to before you could ride a bike and were trying to learn, speed didn’t help at all, it just made for more exciting crashes!

There are some mechanisms that increase stability in board sports when traveling at speed (planing, smoothing, etc), but they’re not applicable to SUPs at the speeds we’re working at.

What is true though, as discussed above, is that paddling will give you stability. So for sure, get paddling. But if your paddle is out of the water, the board is just as wobbly whether it’s moving or not.

A wider stance is worse

I touched on this briefly earlier, but just to recap and underline this point: It is NOT the case that the wider your feet are, the more stable you will be! If you’re just standing still and not moving your upper body at all, then a wider stance is more stable. But because we’re moving our upper body around as we paddle, and changing sides with our paddle, a wider stance greatly increases the upper body motion required, which ends up with much more weight on one foot than the other, all very destabilising. The optimum stance is feet shoulder width/hip width apart.

In Summary

So as you can see, there is a whole stack of things you can do to increase the odds in your favour. There’s a lot of information here, but if you work through it bit by bit you’ll definitely be able to increase your chances of shaking off those wobbles. And you will! Everyone can learn to balance. Best of luck.

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