Here’s an article I wrote for SUP International Magazine last year on the ‘head and body’ changes that occur in someone when they take up stand up paddling. I was inspired to write this after watching how my students would go from not being able to stand on the board for more than two seconds to being able to paddle quite nicely in the space of just one session. It’s immensely satisfying for the coach and client, but I wondered, what changes were actually occurring?
I was also curious to why I’d become better at paddling after doing ‘loads of it’. Of course, everyone knows that the more you do something the better you get at it, but with SUP, the changes are so massive and inspiring that I had to find out more. Now, I’m far from a perfect paddler, if you want to see a demonstration of that, search a video of Danny Ching, who surely possesses one of the most graceful and powerful techniques in the sport.
So, I thought long and hard about the timeline of technique milestones I’d seen in my clients, my friends who paddle a lot and myself, plotted them all out and then did a bit of digging to find out some very basic science behind it.
Evolution: the unique journey of the standup paddler
A soon-to-be new paddler stands on the shore, paddle in hand for the very first time, and like everyone who has gone before, wonders ‘how long will it take me till I can do this’? The answer is that just about anyone can move a paddle board across the water in a fashion from day one, but to do it in the most efficient, powerful way requires adaptation in the face of repeated go-outs in different conditions. That might sound daunting, but really what a paddler needs to do is to keep taking regular sessions on the water, gain knowledge of the correct technique, and their body will figure out the rest. Here’s how:
- Zero hour
First time ever paddlers are often tense, trembling, with poor posture and hold the paddle too close with bent T-Rex arms. Balance is off, the gaze is fixed on the board. The central nervous system is unprepared for the new experience and neurons are haphazardly snapping into life. Lactic acid is rapidly accumulating in the tense, isometrically contracting feet and leg muscles and the face is often pulled tight into a grim mask of fright.
2. 30 minutes later
A cognitive change has occurred and the paddler is less confused about how the paddle works. They start to relax and the stance becomes a little more upright. The eyes are now looking more ahead instead of down at the feet, promoting instinctive balance. The stroke is still almost entirely powered by the relatively small muscles in arms and shoulders. Breathing is becoming steadier, lactic acid is being removed from the muscles, the heart rate is slowing and less energy is being burned up.
3. Three sessions in
By now proprioception has improved enough for the paddler to forget about trying to balance and to concentrate more on developing technique, and the neuromuscular pathways that run to the powerful core muscles of the erector spinae, lats, transverse abdominals, six pack abs and external oblique abdominals are becoming entrenched. The ability to summate (fire a lot of impulses in target muscles all at once) is improved and now there is some power behind that paddle!
4. Eight weeks later
The first glimmer of increased muscle fibre size and tone is starting to show in the power houses of the glutes, quads, core and upper back muscles. The timing of contractions becomes more co-ordinated as a result of repeated efforts to meet the force generation required to move the board fast from a standing start. The legs are stronger now to maintain a bit of flex to work like shock absorbers and the righting reflexes are sharpened up giving a smoother experience in choppy water, and reducing the energy sapping over-compensating wobbles.
5. After a whole season
Three months later and the VO2 Max has taken an upward swing; the paddler is now liberated to travel further and paddle harder. Balance becomes even more instinctive, clearing the way for the ‘shoulder stack’ with the leading shoulder dropped and the trailing shoulder high as the paddle is set. This promotes loading the bodyweight onto the paddle during the catch phase (and a bit of shaft flex) for a profound, powerful stroke. Tendons, ligaments and muscles have steadily become adapted to the increased workload, meaning less ache and soreness after longer efforts.
6. One year on
The paddler is physically and mentally well adapted to paddling in a wide range of conditions, with good mobility in the legs and lower back and so it’s time for a learning phase again. The centre of mass is brought closer to the deck of the board by dropping the hips and bringing the hands lower down on the paddle and challenges come in the way of paddling in stronger winds, upwind, downwind, cross wind, in faster tides and bumpier seas. With the increase in efficiency, the tireless slow twitch fibres are becoming increasingly dominant.
7. Further down the line…
After many seasons of paddling, new capillaries and mitochondria are forming in the muscles of the upper and lower limbs. The muscles can rely more on the aerobic energy system and less lactate is produced during tougher paddles. The entire experience becomes more relaxed, shifting the paddler out of the fight or flight / anaerobic state and into a more regenerative, sustainable state.
With the body free to go further, new environments in waves, rivers, and running downwind are revealed and the paddler moves out of the parallel stance and into the surf stance, using the larger forces of planet ocean to move their board. The blade now feels like an extension of the arm in the water, form is economical and graceful under pressure.