Go for a float: A beginner’s guide to stand-up paddling

Go for a float: A beginner's guide to stand-up paddling

The sport was brought from Hawaii to California by the paddle surfer Rick Thomas in the early 2000s and quickly took off. It’s now a competitive sport with races in Spain, Japan, Korea, France and Italy and an official Special Olympics event. And, like so many outdoor activities, SUPs flew off the shelves during the pandemic.

“We’ve had paddlers range in age from five to 82,” said Curt Devoir, director of the Professional Stand Up Paddle Association. “Last August-September, when COVID-19 restrictions started lifting in the States, our requests for instructor training just exploded.” Then he added, “people were all over it because they figured out it was the perfect social distancing activity.”

Still, for those of us with less-than-impeccable balance, the sport can seem intimidating. Here’s what you need to know to get started stand-up paddleboarding.


You might think paddling and expect upper body workout. But SUPing targets muscles all over the body. “If only your arms hurt, then you weren’t doing it right,” Mr Devoir said.

Cedric Bryant, president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise, said SUP “is what I would call a combo workout”. Balance and stability are especially challenged, and your upper body builds strength and endurance, too. It’s also pretty decent cardio.

But it might take a while before you work up a sweat as you master staying on the board and paddling efficiently. On a recent SUP trip, I was surprised how quickly my feet grew sore from balancing (my instructor said wiggling your toes to make sure they’re not over-clenching helps, but mine still ached). And Mr Bryant said beginners work their legs extra hard to stay upright. Experienced paddleboarders, who have the skill to go faster, paddle longer and take on rougher waters, tend get more cardio benefits.


Before you get in the water, size your paddle and board appropriately. Mr Devoir recommended paddleboards that are about 32 inches wide for most novices and perhaps 10 to 12 and a half feet, which will be easy to manoeuvre but still stable.

For the paddle, stretch your arm straight above your shoulder and let your hand flop. Adjust the handle so that the grip rests at your wrist. Tilt the angled paddle blade forward in the water – the opposite of how most beginners intuitively position it.

Next, to stand on the paddleboard, Mr. Devoir said place your feet on either side of the handle, which is the board’s centre. “The wider your stance on the board with your feet, the more stable you’re going to be,” Mr Devoir added. Pro tip: Don’t look down. “Eyes up, stay up,” he said. As soon as you’re standing, start paddling, which helps to stabilise the board.

“Plant the paddle into the water, pulling it back to get it back to about where your feet are,” Mr Devoir said. Keep the paddle vertical in the water and parallel to your board, which will help you move in a straight line. Swap sides when your arms tire. Experiment with other strokes that allow you to reverse, turn, or move sideways. An instructor can help.


Just because stand up is in the name doesn’t mean you’re standing the whole time – or that you have to stand at all. Christopher J Read is the programme director at the Adaptive Sports Center in Crested Butte, Colo., which takes people with disabilities out on the water. Participants in their programme may stand or sit on the board or a seat (or a wheelchair) connected to the board.

A combination of sitting and standing is common for abled people, too. Beginners and pros sit or kneel while they get used to the board, when they get tired or if the water gets rough. But no matter how skilled you are, you’ll still probably go ker-splash at some point. A good dunking can be “part of the learning curve,” Mr Read said.

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