Are you SUP ready?

By Elaine Farquharson
Dorset Sports Physio and Dorset SUP Coach and Guiding
Photos: Zoltan Erdelyi ZeworksIs your body ready for the complexity of SUP?

Words: Elaine Farquharson
Dorset Sports Physio and Dorset SUP Coach and Guiding
Photos: Zoltan Erdelyi Zeworks

SUP is one of the fastest growing paddlesports in the world with a post lockdown boom that has seen celebrities taking up the paddle and making it the new vogue.

It’s a full body work out that combines the power of the legs like a cross country skier, core of a gymnast, balance of a surfer and the agility of a tightrope walker. An average male SUP racer can paddle at speeds of 11km per hour, foil boarders can down wind from Portland to Ringstead Bay in 36 minutes and SUP surfers can reach the heights of Nazaire. Our SUP bodies and minds can achieve amazing feats. So whether you have just bought a board, have come out of post lockdown lethargy, or have decided you fancy standing up rather than sitting down – is your body ready for the complexity of SUP?

Drive and lift

To paddle efficiently we need to control our power in the frontal plane of motion, lifting and propelling the board forward. A weak core loses energy, poor balance causes us to be inefficient and weak, plus a poor posture can create aches and strains. To paddle well we need to keep an
S-shaped spinal curve and knees inline with our feet.

Spinal mobility needs to allow body rotation, whilst controlling side bend and our spinal posture. Shoulders need to stay open and strong with a good awareness of neutral to avoid overload
and impingement.

We need to be able to use the big muscle groups of our legs to help the core with the propulsion and drive phase of the paddling stroke. Therefore we need an efficient squat and strong gluteal and oblique muscles. Every stroke we take at the catch we are off balance, which requires flexible ankles and stability, so that we can propel our centre of gravity forward to improve our reach. This accompanied with trunk rotation and knee bend, allows for a long paddle stroke which is more powerful.

The first thing you should work on is your overall spinal flexibility
(See photos below)

The neck rotates, side bends, flexes and extends. Whilst the thoracic spine flexes, extends and rotates.

It’s important to try to maintain a good breast bone alignment, allowing yourself to round your shoulder when paddling puts strain on the neck and makes the shoulder alignment inefficient.

Try to imagine a piece of string is lifting up the breastbone and keep the back of the neck long as if you are wearing a crown.

Whilst in this position regularly practice twisting the spine as shown in the picture below. Try to control other movements so you isolate rotation only, this will improve your posture better.

The lower back flexes, extends and sidebends. Keeping this area flexible ensures you keep your back healthy. If you find you have discomfort doing these basic ranges of motion, you make need to improve your core stability as structures might be getting overloaded.

Try to improve your everyday posture and keep yourself lightly moving. If that doesn’t improve then seek out some treatment and avoid paddling until you feel more comfortable.

(See photos below)

We already discussed rounding the thoracic spine but we can also be weak in the back of the shoulders causing winging and altered shoulder alignment for healthy movement. Try to think about keeping your shoulders open across the chest during every day activities and try not to slouch if you can.

With strongly aligned shoulder girdles, you should be able to move them pain free through six ranges of motion. As a warm up before you paddle, try these movements to ensure you have prevented stiffness and have happy flexible shoulders.

Place hands behind your back.

Rotate your arms out to the side.

Raise the arms up overhead keeping the ribs and neck still.

(See photos below)

So we have touched on the posture and as I have mentioned, we have a shaped spinal curve. However, let’s explore the core in more detail.
(See photos below) 

The pelvis should sit horizontally when lying down on your back so that the two pelvic bones are level with the pubis making a triangle. When we sit or stand then we try to maintain this alignment vertically at rest but move dynamically through this posture. The ribs should be softened into the ground, so that the muscle length of the obliques are in a strong position.

Our legs actually line up with the centre of the hip so that if we had a plump line the centre of the knee shin and second toe would all line up. The feet make a tripod of three arches between the heel, great toe and little toe. We should try not to collapse the arch and can avoid this if we keep good ankle flexibility and balance.

Try to challenge this core alignment lying on your board or on a pilates matt with these four basic pilates exercises.
(see photos below)

Hip extension with a straight leg keep your back still and core in neutral. Hip abduction.

Slide the leg to the side but do not allow the pelvis to rotate of lift up towards the rib cage. Keep your core.

Drop the knee to the side avoiding the other leg wobbling and pelvis following the leg.

Raise up the knee towards the chest but do not loose the spinal curve imagine you have a small grape in your lower back and you need to dissociate the hip and spinal movements to avoid squashing it.

For folk who need more power during their paddling, for example white water, racing and surf you also need strength in the global stabilisers particularly the gluteals and obliques. Two exercises that are advanced are demonstrated.
(see slides below)

Table top position. Raise up one knee and hold. Drop the ribs very gently to prepare for lifting up the second leg. Don’t allow the tummy muscles to dome or the pelvis to hinge forward as the leg is raised. Hold again and then reverse one leg at a time. Ideally if you can time the movement with an exhalation and hold with an inhalation you will find it will be more of a challenge. An easier version is to just move one leg only.

Shoulder bridge, we discussed already how important our bottom muscles are so roll up through the tail gently raising the bottom try not to over arch the back we want to try to isolate the gluteals. If you want to make this harder try popping your feet on a wobble cushion or foam roller, but beware this is difficult and you want to avoid hamstring cramp so practice on a steady mat first.

Once we have the basics of core we then have to bring it up into a more challenging position that is relevant so SUP. 

Adding in core with balance is hard. Start on a rolled towel or imagine you are on a tightrope. Try some gentle squats or walking forward and backwards maintaining the plumb line to the legs and controlling posture as you go. Use your paddle for balance but try to use good technique and a low brace support stroke.

Another good drill is to try to break the paddle stroke down into isolated movements, whilst trying to keep your spinal control and leg posture. You can practice arm movement, whilst keeping in a squat, or trying to forward bend maintaining the S-shape. You can see what happens to your posture using trunk rotation. See what happens to your shoulder alignment when you reach and rotate forward. Do you collapse and round, or can you maintain the shoulder width? Most importantly play with your movement control and balance but stay sensible and within a gentle level of challenge to avoid injury.

Healthy movement precision

I hope that has given you some ideas about technique, posture, flexibility and health for happy paddling. Have fun with your technique and play with the concepts in a way that your body will be grateful for. Healthy movement precision will help you enjoy your paddling so much more, so make your dry land time useful so your paddling will be super fun.

Elaine Farquharson


Elaine owns and runs Dorset Sports Physio, based in Weymouth community college sports centre. She offers sports physiotherapy, biomechanics and coaching to the Dorset communities. Elaine’s specialist interest is tri sports and SUP, not only as a competitor but also through her work as a coach and physio. Elaine’s specialist work with the lower quadrant has helped her achieve advanced practice recognition in hip and pelvis and works closely alongside Dorset’s expert hip surgeons and lower limb specialists. Elaine’s facilities offer a large private treatment room, three sports halls, a fully equipped gym, sports pitches, and also racquet courts across the two sites. Elaine also has a hydrotherapy pool and Pilates studio off campus.@dorsetsportsphysio

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