How To Improve Your SUP Paddle Stroke

So, you’ve got yourself a paddle board and now you need to learn how to propel it. We’ve all seen newbies that have rented a board but haven’t gotten any proper instruction. They are easily identifiable by their “spaghetti arms” and a paddle blade that is backward. They typically find it challenging to paddle in a straight line and aren’t sure why. Here's how to improve your paddle stroke.

So, you’ve got yourself a stand up paddle board (SUP) and now you need to learn how to propel it. We’ve all seen newbies that have rented a board but haven’t gotten any proper instruction.

They are easily identifiable by their “spaghetti arms” and a paddle blade that is backward. They typically find it challenging to paddle in a straight line and aren’t sure why.

Let’s start with the proper paddle grip. The blade of the paddle is a bit counterintuitive for most first-timers. Rookies tend to assume that the angled part of the blade should face the paddler so that they are better able to “scoop” the water.

In actuality, you want the angled portion (where the logo is) to face towards the front of the board. Because the blade is offset by about 10 degrees, the paddler is able to perform more paddle strokes per side without switching sides. This is important because every time you switch sides, your forward motion slows.

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To grip the paddle, start with your right hand lightly on the t-grip at the top of the shaft. Place your left hand on the shaft so that both arms form an “A” on the paddle shaft.

In other words, your arms should form 90-degree angles on the shaft. This will be your hand position for paddling on the left side of the body and you will switch the hand positions when it’s time to paddle on the right side.

We’re going to break the SUP paddle stroke into five distinct phases.

Phase One

Phase one starts with the “reach”.

You will want to have your knees slightly bent and your upper body in an “athletic posture” as you begin your stroke.

The reach is the extension of the paddle at the start of the stroke in front of the paddler’s feet. Picture “throwing” the blade out in front of your feet as far as you can without losing the grip of your lower hand or throwing your balance off.

To accomplish the reach with maximum efficiency, activate the core and twist the shoulders slightly, hinging at the hips and leaning forward to extend your paddle blade toward the nose of your SUP.

Keep your back straight and bend your stroke-side knee slightly to maximize extension before placing it in the water. You will also want to keep your paddle blade as close to your board as possible.

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Phase Two

The next phase of the SUP stroke is known as “The Catch”.

This is the portion of the stroke where the paddle meets the water. At this point, you will fully submerge the blade in the water so that it is aligned perpendicularly to the rail of your SUP for maximum resistance on the blade.

The key here is a smooth insert. Focus on making little to no splash, as water displaced above the surface means less resistance and drive going into the next phase.


Phase Three

Now you are ready for Phase 3: “The Drive”.

The Drive is also known as “The Power Phase” of the SUP stroke. A common mistake in this phase is “arm paddling”. If you just rely on your arms to propel you, you are going to tire very quickly and not generate much power.

Think of your arms as levers that you are utilizing to activate your trapezoid muscles in your upper back and your abdominal oblique muscles that run on the sides of your abdominal muscles. The trick here is to keep your lower arm straight and the paddle shaft vertical. Focus on pulling your body forward to the blade rather than the alternative of pulling the blade towards your body.

You will want to pull as steadily as possible in this phase so as not to sacrifice power and loading as much bodyweight as possible onto the paddle at this phase is critical. You will end this phase when the blade is at your feet.

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Phase Four

Phase Four is known as “The Release”.

During the release, the blade exits the water. To execute a proper release, you will want to exit the blade from the water slightly behind your feet to avoid deceleration between strokes.

As you come into the release, you will want to think about smoothly unloading your body weight from the paddle. In order for the blade to exit the water efficiently, lift the paddle by dropping your upper hand down and inward as opposed to pulling your lower hand up and back.

You can give yourself a little bit of a push as the blade exits the water. It’s important that the blade not be too far behind your feet or the paddle angle will cause deceleration.

Another common mistake is to stand up and out of your bent knee posture as the blade releases. This will also cause the board to slow slightly as well.

paddle boarding

Phase Five

Now, we’re ready for Phase Five – “The Recovery”.

Time to give your muscles a very brief reprieve. The recovery phase is the transition between one stroke and the next.

Once the blade is released, twist your wrists inward with the thumb of your lower hand rotating back to turn the shaft 90 degrees, and feather the blade for a smoother, faster recovery.

Picture how crew rowers feather their blades upwards between strokes to limit wind resistance. You will find this especially helpful when you take your SUP out in windy conditions. A smooth recovery sets up your next stroke so focus on your technique in this phase.

Once you’ve performed several strokes on one side of the paddle board (usually 10 or so) and notice that the board is not tracking as straight as when you started paddling on that side. Swapping the paddle between hands will become second nature but initially, you will need to take some time to get used to changing sides.

paddle boarding

Tips and Tricks

One technique is to finish the stroke just before changing hands and to attack the next stroke just after. Many paddlers make the mistake of not exerting enough force in the last paddle stroke just before changing because they think that it doesn’t matter and will pick up the lost momentum with the “new” hand. Doing this will make the board slow down, causing the paddler to expend more energy to propel the board again.

Avoid crossing your hands because they tend to become tangled with your paddle. The hand that is highest needs to slip under the lower hand that is still holding the paddle. This will allow the lower hand (which is the future high hand), to slide along the handle without losing contact with it. This becomes impossible if the hands were crossed.

Follow these simple instructions and you will be paddling your SUP like a pro in no time! Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to master all of these nuances right away. Remember, paddle boarding is supposed to be fun!


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