Stand up paddling has been around long enough now that you probably have become familiar with SUP racing. It’s exciting and motivating to watch stand up paddle athletes as they negotiate buoy turns, draft, and sprint to the finish. SUP races include long courses, short courses, and technical courses. The technical courses take athletes in and out of the surf zone and through multiple laps to test the athletes’ beach starts, buoy turns, and surfing skills. Unlike a point to point race course, the technical race course is more easily viewed by spectators on the beach.
So, you’re ready to give racing a go yourself? That’s great! SUP racing is loads of fun, keeps you in peak fitness, and brings you together with fun, like-minded people. Also, since SUP is still a young sport, the fields of competitors are much smaller than in running races. So, grab your 12’6 or 14′ race board and sign up for that race next week! Well, you may want to give consideration to a few things before you do. The following is what I think is super important to engage yourself in before hitting your first race.
FIRST TAKE A PADDLE STROKE LESSON
Even if you have been paddling for a long time, take a stroke lesson or group clinic before starting SUP racing. It will be the best thing you do. If by chance you have any errors in your paddle stroke, the last thing you want to do is to start hammering out the miles training and racing. You will be practicing poor form, and you are very likely to end up with a painful chronic injury of the shoulders, back, or knees. And, you won’t be your fastest with an errant paddle stroke. It’s just physics. I see folks out there putting in mile after mile, day after day. They don’t get any faster, and their form looks very poor.
Before your first race, you should get into a training program. On water training is much like training for a running race. It’s important to start out slow and easy, and work up to longer distances and higher intensity. Everyone has their own recipe for training. Many elite athletes don’t disclose their training programs because they are so effective at getting them to the podium. The important thing is to do some training prior to your first race. To get going, you’ll want to start building base miles, just as you would in running. Think of these base miles as the footing of a pyramid upon which you will add speed and intensity.
Before you can do that, you need to build a good foundation so that your joints and muscles are ready for increased workloads. Start by picking a comfortable distance that you can paddle without stopping. Paddle that same distance at that pace for a couple of weeks. Then, add miles by increasing the mileage by 10% each week. You should be paddling about four days in a week to build base mileage. Base miles are just that- miles. Don’t worry about speed or intensity. Once you build your base, you can add in interval and sprint training to build speed.
TRAIN WITH A PARTNER OR A GROUP
Training should be fun. It’s more fun to train with others. It’s also safer. Find a buddy who is close to your fitness level, or even slightly above your level. It really helps to have someone who is faster than you, because you are more likely to get a great workout than if you go out with someone slower than you. You will be pushed to better your skills and fitness. Training with a group or at least another paddler is safer especially if you are training in exposed water or open ocean. Accidents happen, and people of all ages can have health issues come up suddenly. If you are on the water alone, at least consider using a VHF radio in the event of a medical emergency while training.
When I started race training, I watched countless video clips of beach starts, buoy turns, drafting technique, and surfing. It really helps to visualize what your body is supposed to be doing. When you are on the board, those images come back to you and you can begin to transfer what you visualize into proper technique. If you are having trouble with a particular part of the paddle stroke or with turning skills, watching videos can be extremely helpful.
ENGAGE IN CROSS TRAINING
This is one of the most important things I think anyone can do if interested in SUP racing. Elite female paddler, April Zilg, is a perfect example of how weight training can pay off. The forward paddle stroke in stand up paddling is powered by the large muscles of the back, abdomen, and thighs (no, the biceps aren’t all that important). You want as much muscle behind the paddle as possible. The pulling muscles of upper body and the pushing muscles of the lower body are the critical muscle groups employed during intense paddling. The shoulders need a lot of muscle mass too in order to protect the joints from overworking and becoming injured. So, a good and regular weight training program should be part of your training routine. When I am training early in the season, I spend more time in the gym than I do on the water. It pays off both in performance and in avoiding injury. To me, weight training is critically important to SUP racing. Try to hit the weights at least a couple of times a week.
START WITH REASONABLE GOALS
Don’t make your first race a big one, like Pacific Paddle Games or the Chattajack. In starting SUP racing, it is important to set a reasonable goal for your first couple of races. For me, the first race was all about just finishing! Then, I set the goal of bettering my time by a minute with each race. Find out ahead of time what is a comfortable race pace for you. You do that during one of your training sessions with a partner. Push yourself to a pace that is difficult, but one that you can maintain without slowing. Then, record the time that you complete the distance. Look around the race startlists for paddlers who complete the distance in about the same amount of time.
When you get to the race, try to find that person in the lineup, and hang with them for as long as you can! You’ll be surprised at how much you can push yourself this way. Pretty soon, you’ll be passing that paddler (if you have been training properly) and you can look for your next target. You will notice that you can shave a minute or two off of each race time this way. The key is to set reasonable goals for your race times. Otherwise, you’ll be easily discouraged and feel like quitting.
LEARN TO TURN YOUR BOARD
Most races include some buoy turns. Racing is not fun if you dread the part where you have to turn! You can be in a position to take a placing, but then lose it at the turn! Early in the season’s training, start working on moving up and down your board. Practice on a less stable board if you can. This makes the board you use for racing feel more stable during a race. Practice cross stepping up and back. See how fast you can get in your stance for a pivot turn. Make sure you are using your paddle to brace while moving. Watch videos, and practice, practice, practice. I see many people struggle with turning their board. It’s critical to be able to perform a good pivot turn. If you have not taken a lesson, you will gain a lot by doing so.
So, there you have it. Start training, have fun, and stay safe!