Balance: Paddling’s Essential Element

bosu, paddlexaminer, michael kelley, balance, paddling, standup paddling, venice beach, los angeles, california, indo board, slackline, swiss ball
Slackline. Photo: Kent Moody

Exploring the critical component of balance

I am 52 years old. OK, I’ve said it. My two teenage sons tell me that I’m really old and they could be right. However, I don’t feel like an old man. I chalk that up to relatively clean leaving, staying active and especially doing a lot of standup paddling.

Paddling out in the ocean is great for clearing my mind while getting a workout but an underrated benefit is developing my sense of balance. Of course having balance is important to stay standing on a SUP, but it’s more important for one’s overall health especially as we age. The good news is that no matter your age or paddling experience you can improve your balance.

The state of SUP board design

For better or worse the cutting edge racing boards are getting narrower and the high performance surfing SUPs are getting downright tiny. I read online posts of guys bragging about paddling a 21” wide racing SUP or surfing a sub 7’ SUP. Sure, these boards can be fast but if you are struggling to just stay upright you are not able to paddle at maximum effort therefore they are actually slower than a wider board.

bosu, paddlexaminer, michael kelley, balance, paddling, standup paddling, venice beach, los angeles, california, indo board, slackline, swiss ball
Surfing a 14′ SUP in Malibu, California.

The key for getting the most out of these high performance boards is to be comfortable paddling them and that means having good balance. At the recent Pacific Paddle Games we witnessed amazing acts of balance as the pros whipped their race boards around the famed “hammer buoy” while surfing a wave. What we didn’t see were those same pro racers practicing that maneuver in the days leading up to the race. They were working on their balance.

Physiology of balance

According to Wikipedia, the sense of balance is the result of a number of body systems working together: the eyes (visual system), ears (vestibular system) and the body’s sense of where it is in space (proprioception) ideally need to be intact. The cool thing is that just paddling a SUP engages all these body systems continually. As we paddle our body is making micro adjustments so we can maintain our equilibrium (balance).

With practice our bodies can develop a better sense of balance pretty quickly. I see this all the time when I teach beginners how to SUP. When they first stand up on the board they are unsteady with shaking legs but within 2 hours they are totally comfortable paddling around having a great time. I like to think this progression happens because I’m such an awesome instructor, but more likely it’s because we humans have an innate sense of balance.

Developing your sense of balance

Dry land training

You don’t need to be paddling on the water to improve your balance. There are many great ways to train for balance that you can do in the backyard. My personal favorite is the walking on a slackline. Be warned, it’s pretty challenging to even stand on the slackline and it will take some time to get proficient enough to walk. It’s best to start with the line anchors really close together and the slackline pretty tight. Once you can stand on the line consistently then try moving the anchors further away and try relaxing the tension on the line a bit.

The key is to find the a fixed point to focus your gaze on while you balance. You’ll be surprised how tiring it is making micro adjustments with your body to stay balanced on the line.

A balance board like the Indo Board or Rolo Board are another excellent way to work on your balance. Once you are comfortable standing on the board, you can incorporate squats and other tricks to crank up the challenge.

The Swiss ball is great for doing sit ups and back raises. I also like to use the Swiss ball as a chair while I’m working at the computer. This forces me to engage my core to stay balanced and occasionally I’ll fall off and land on my butt in spectacular fashion.

The Bosu ball is like the Indo Board but it’s easier to do squats and other stability exercises.  

I personally don’t practice Tai Chi or Yoga but it looks really peaceful and it’s supposed to be great for working on your balance. One aspect of SUP fitness that is rarely discussed is foot strength. The feet are the roots of the body and you need strong feet to support your body as you balance. To strengthen your feet you need to use them. I like to take of my shoes after a long run and jog along the grass for a short distance. First of all, you feel like a little kid and secondly your feet get a good workout.  

On the water training

I try to incorporate some balance drills on every paddle. The idea is to continually push myself so I can be comfortable on the board in all conditions. If I’m paddling on flat water I’ll practice buoy turns around two closely spaced buoys before heading out for my workout. This gets my body and sense of balance warmed up and ready for the workout to come. Once I get back I’ll do another five minutes of buoy turns to simulate turning in a race situation.

bosu, paddlexaminer, michael kelley, balance, paddling, standup paddling, venice beach, los angeles, california, indo board, slackline, swiss ball
Practicing a buoy turn in Marina del Rey.

If I’m paddling in the ocean I’ll begin with a beach race start where I run into the water, jump on my board and start paddling. If the conditions are good I’ll do a few of the beach starts before heading out into the ocean. I imagine that I’m Connor Baxter blasting through the surf leading the pack out to the first buoy. Of course, the reality is much less impressive. Once I’m paddling in the ocean I’ll use the lifeguard buoys as opportunities to practice buoy turns. Doing buoy turns in the ocean is much more difficult than on flat water so it’s important to work on that skill.

The most fun balance training in the ocean is surfing my race board. The act of turning a 14 ft race board, catching a wave then paddling back out through the surf is great balance training.

bosu, paddlexaminer, michael kelley, balance, paddling, standup paddling, venice beach, los angeles, california, indo board, slackline, swiss ball
Working on my beach starts.

Obviously the ocean is the best for surfing waves but paddling on flatwater with rough conditions is also great for balance training. I’ve seen crazy videos of paddlers on the Great Lakes in some pretty heavy conditions. The bottom line is to get out there in challenging conditions to work on your balance and just have some fun.

Here are some of my tips for paddling in challenging conditions:

  • Focus: Find a fixed focal point in the distance and keep looking at it.
  • Relax: Bend your knees slightly. Don’t grip the paddle too tightly. Breathe.
  • Don’t fight the board: The board might be initially tippy but just let it catch itself. Keep the board moving forward to increase stability.
  • Don’t fight the swell: Time your strokes to match the swell. Imagine riding a horse where you move in synch with the horse to smooth out the ride. Don’t worry about falling in the water. If you are pushing yourself you will fall in the water a lot. Just laugh and get back on your board. Everyone falls in the water.

Mental training

I’m certainly no expert in the study of mindfulness but for me, if I just believe that I can walk on a slackline or paddle a narrow racing SUP it somehow becomes much easier. I don’t know why this is the case but it really helps if I have positive “I can do this” attitude about staying balanced.

The last mental tip is just not care too much about looking silly or falling off your board. Imagine yourself as an 11 year old just having fun in the water. Part of what makes paddling a SUP so peaceful is being in that calm, focused mental state created by the need to balance.  

Yes, my sons are right about me being really old. But because I have pretty good sense of balance I’m able to have fun with them in the ocean surfing and paddling. Finding balance in life is nice but finding balance on a SUP is fun.  

Links worth exploring:

Michael Kelley
About Michael Kelley 8 Articles
Michael lives in Santa Monica with his beautiful wife and two teenage sons. When Michael is not paddling in the ocean on his SUP, he's creating motion graphics for films, commercials and network promotions. Michael is available for private and small group clinics. Contact: supcoach.net@gmail.com.

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