Paddleboards provide unique workout experience
CHICAGO – “The learning curve is three minutes.”
That was my dread-locked instructor Michael Westenberger, who goes by “Westy,” as he watched me awkwardly wobble from my knees to my feet on a stand-up paddleboard, the gear used in the fast-growing water sport finding fans in oceans, lakes and rivers across the country.
I happened to be in a lagoon, ideal for its flat water but not for the plastic bottles bobbing by. Bracing myself to topple into the murkiness, my toes clutched the spongy traction pad on top of the board. I dipped barely the tip of my paddle into the water beside me and drew it back, rigid and teetering, apparently forgetting Westy’s warning that the biggest mistake is to be tentative. I’m going to fall, I announced. He said to keep paddling.
“Speed is your friend,” he said. “It’s like a bicycle.”
Stand-up paddling, or SUP, can be like biking, or it can be like surfing, circuit training, white-water rafting, yoga or Pilates. People are doing all of those activities on stand-up paddleboards, which are like slightly longer, wider and thicker surfboards with a slightly longer fin on the bottom, except you stand on them and steer with a long single-blade paddle.
At its most basic level, it’s like taking a stroll across the water, with a view of the fish and coral below if the water is clear enough. But some aficionados race competitively, from 500-meter sprints to a grueling 32-mile trek between Oahu and Molokai islands in Hawaii (the record is 4 hours, 26 minutes, 10 seconds, set last year by a 16-year-old). And manufacturers are making SUP boards for specific activities – longer and leaner for racing, inflatable for white-water rapids, with an extra long traction pad for Pilates and yoga, with a rod holder and fly basket for fishing.
“It’s developing so fast,” said Westenberger, a professional SUP racer who certifies instructors to teach paddle fitness courses and serves as director of the Key West Paddleboard Classic. “We’re scratching the surface.”
Though the concept of stand-up paddling has been around for as long as people have been navigating waterways, as a recreational sport and fitness activity it has been flourishing over the past decade, starting in Hawaii then spreading to California and Florida, and now taking hold in the rest of the country.
Two pro surfers, Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, are widely credited for inciting the current craze. They were doing a photo shoot for a mutual sponsor in Maui in the mid-1990s and got bored by the small waves, so Kalama grabbed a couple of canoe paddles from his truck and they paddled out standing on their longboards, catching waves without ever having to lie down.
“We were laughing at each other and having a blast,” Kalama said. The next day, Hamilton had longer paddles custom made for them so they could stand up straight, and they shared their discovery with their friends, who shared it with their friends.
One of the most popular iterations has been as a fitness tool. PaddleFit, a workout system that intersperses paddle sprints with squats, pushups, situps and other exercises on the floating board, as well on-land drills, has 343 certified instructors in North America, said founder Brody Wellte, who is based in San Diego ( paddlefitpro.com). He’s offering a PaddleFit camp in Hood River, Ore., Aug. 13-16.
The no-impact, full-body workout is accessible to all ages – Wellte’s oldest client was 78 – and is particularly effective for core strengthening because the unstable surface requires muscles to be always engaged.
“It’s basically a floating fitness mat,” said Wellte, who has seen people do it on everything from the open ocean to indoor pools at YMCAs. The risk is paddling with improper technique, which can damage the smaller tendons and ligaments of the shoulders; your whole body should go into each stroke, not your arms, Wellte said
Ben Webb credits stand-up paddling with helping him lose 60 pounds.
At 5 feet 8 inches tall, Webb, formerly a surfer, weighed 270 pounds, in the worst shape of his life, when, after turning 51, he decided to change his diet and commit to a fitness routine.
In the lake near his home in Auburndale, Fla., Webb took to cruising around on a stand-up paddleboard about three times a week, but enjoyed being back in the water so much it soon it turned into one to two hours every day. Once he discovered PaddleFit, the pounds started flying off. He says he lost 41 pounds in the first 90 days.
“I feel it saved my life,” said Webb, now 52, who closed the screen-printing shop he owned and moved to Anna Maria Island, just south of Tampa Bay, where he now takes people on stand-up paddle tours through the backwaters and mangroves of the Gulf of Mexico ( amipaddleboard.com).
Jaime Donnelly, formerly a professional snowboarder, said she got in the best shape of her life when she started doing paddle fitness routines and stand-up paddling yoga.
“It’s the most intense core workout,” said Donnelly, who offers private lessons on both. “You’re using about 80 percent core.”
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