Not only is SUP surfing some of the best fun you can have on the water but also one of the greatest workouts you can give your body.

SUP (Stand Up Paddle Boarding), they say, is the world’s fastest growing water sport. Initially a skeptic, I am now a convert, happy to preach all the benefits SUP offers.

It took me a while to fully grasp the concept of SUP, but then when I compared it with my current fitness regime of pounding the pavements on foot or bike, I thought why not get the exercise benefit on the water? This is the basis on which I got into stand up paddling – an alternative workout. At the time I was loving my longboard (regular) surfing and thought nothing could top this for fun. When I extended my flatwater SUP fitness paddling to the surf, after getting over my battered ego from constantly falling in and slowly learning how to avoid this, I was totally hooked on SUP surfing.

SUP surfing is just one form of stand up paddling – in my opinion the best – there is also flatwater, downwinders and racing.

The joy of SUP surfing is that you don’t need a background in surfing (but of course this helps!) to have fun. SUP boards are way more stable than regular surfboards and since you’re already standing you dispense with the high risk manoeuvre of getting from your chest to your feet when you finally catch a wave. SUP boards are longer too, which means you can catch waves much earlier (further out the back than regular surfers) and easier.

SUP Surfing: The Basics

Don’t think that you have to be a guru surfer to get out amongst the waves on your stand up paddle board. Start in small waves to get the hang of the basics. The technique you learn in small surf still applies, no matter how big the surf is.

SUP surfing does require a command of basic paddle boarding skills, which you can easily master in flatwater.

The skills specific for SUP surfing can be summarised as; (1) getting out and over waves (2) turning your SUP around in time to catch your choice of wave (3) strong paddle strokes to quickly get your SUP moving in order to catch the wave (4) riding the wave (5) cutting out of the wave (finishing your ride) and turning your board around to paddle out the back (past where the waves are breaking) and do it all over again.

Paddling Out the Back

Getting out and over broken and/or breaking waves is one of the key skills to master in order to enhance your SUP surfing experience. You will know that your normal stand up paddle stance is to have both your feet facing forward, next to each other, about shoulder width apart and straddling the sweet spot (normally where your carry handle is) of your board. You will need to change this stance to get over waves. Some will tell you to get into your surf stance, but I have found a variation on this is preferable, which I describe as a hybrid between your normal paddle stance and surf stance – that is, keep your toes facing forward (not across the board like your surf stance), one foot in front of the other with the width of your normal paddle stance – picture a sprinter in their starting blocks – adopt this foot position when paddling your SUP over the waves. Concurrent with adopting this foot stance as you go over the wave, bend your knees and/or crouch down. This action will help you absorb the often strong motion of the wave and help you maintain your balance when going over it. Your balance will not be as good if you are in your surf stance (feet/toes facing across your board). For those not familiar with the term “surf stance” this is how you place your feet on your board (your stance) when riding a wave, similar to that of a skateboarder. Whether it is your left (natural) or right (goofy) foot forward does not matter, do whatever feels most natural and comfortable to you.

As important as adopting your “hybrid foot stance” for getting over waves is making sure your board is facing straight on (perpendicular) to the incoming wave and not sideways. If you are caught off-centre to the incoming wave you will most likely get knocked off your board. Make sure you use your paddle to line your board up straight in good time to get over the incoming wave.

A final technique to get you over the waves and out the back so you can enjoy your SUP surfing is to plant your paddle over the back of the incoming wave and use it (and your paddle stroke) to steady and propel you over/through the wave.
So, to summarise what you need to do to get through and over incoming waves:

  • Make sure your board is straight-on.
  • Change to your toe-forward “hybrid” stance (feet apart with one forward and the other back).
  • Bend your knees and crouch down.
  • Plant your paddle over the back of the wave to pull yourself through. 

Practice and perfect this technique to get you out the back so you can catch more waves. Once mastered you will be amazed at the large waves, even if they are about to break on you, that you can get your SUP through.

You may be lucky with a local surf break that is perfectly formed and peels in an orderly manner, allowing you to paddle around the critical section, avoiding the need to punch through breaking waves.

SUP Surfing: Catching Waves

The next step in SUP surfing is to select a wave you want to catch and quickly turn your board around so you are in a position to paddle hard in order to get onto it. To turn your board around quickly take a step back from the normal paddling position, so that the tail sinks and the nose comes out of the water, then use wide sweeping strokes in a big semi circle from nose to tail. Often I alternate these strokes with back paddling, placing the paddle on my thigh, which has the effect of making the paddle a lever. The backward motion also has the effect of pivot turning on the fin, which brings the board around quickly. Resume your normal paddle stance so you are ready to take those power stokes to get going quickly to catch the wave.

Depending on your experience, comfort and the state of the wave, you may want to slightly adopt your surfing stance as you paddle to catch a wave. If it is a particularly gnarly wave with a large, steep drop then I recommend that you immediately get into your surf stance and depending on the size of your board move to the tail so you can survive the drop without your board nose diving. As you feel the wave taking over your board and propelling you forward, get into your surfing stance (if you are not there already), move further back on the board and enjoy the thrill of the gliding sensation.

To turn your board on the wave weight your back foot and lean the way you want to turn, weighting the rail (edge of the board) of the way you want to go. The further back you stand on your board the easier it will be to turn your board. As you are starting out I would suggest that you see how you go as to whether or not you feel the need to dig your paddle in to pivot (turn) off it. If you are comfortable riding and turning your SUP just like a long (surf) board then I don’t consider it necessary to use your paddle to turn. Others may tell you to always use your paddle to turn on a wave – my advice is to first see how you go.

Finishing Your Ride

Ending your wave in style may take you some time to master. I still struggle to find the proper technique to pull out of the wave gracefully and in control at the end of my ride. A lifetime of surfing has not equipped me with the necessary skill to cut out of the wave with my SUP pointing out, getting quickly into my paddle stance and making my way back out to catch the next wave. It maybe that my long board (11’2″) is making this more difficult, but often I find myself finishing my waves by falling off as my attempt to pull out of the wave goes awry. But when I get it right and the pull-out gives me a lot of speed to start my paddle out the back I am stoked. If you can master this process quicker than me then I salute you. If not, then lowering your expectations and more practice maybe in order.

SUP Surfing: An Awesome Workout

You will the love the workout your body gets from a SUP surfing session – in my opinion the best way to get fit – not only because of the quality of the workout but just because it is so much fun. The paddling and balance will give your body an all-over workout as well as strengthen your inner core muscles. There is plenty of additional exercise to be gained from clambouring back onto your SUP each time you fall or are knocked off. When this happens make sure you hang onto your paddle – you’re going to need it! Mounting your SUP usually happens at high speed as you’ll want to be up paddling quickly so you are able to better deal with the oncoming waves. You will experience a euphoric feeling of exhaustion after an intense SUP surfing session, but none of the aches and strains often experienced from traditional forms of exercise.

Sports Nutrition Matters for SUP Surfing Too

Ensuring your body is well hydrated and fuelled beforehand will mean you can get the most out of your SUP surfing session. Endurance athletes (triathletes, runners, cyclists and the like) know the importance of sports nutrition to maximising endurance and athletic performance. I recommend you apply such practice to SUP surfing. I drink plenty of water, eat plenty of high carbohydrate foods which ensure my body’s glycogen (energy) supplies are topped up and for an extra boost drink Hornet Juice, an amino acid sports drink – a regime developed from a former life as a triathlete. Anyway, applying warm-up, hydration and nutrition techniques from endurance sports will ensure you obtain maximum workout benefit and enjoyment from your SUP surfing.

SUP Surfing Equipment

If you’re new to SUP then most likely you will be on a long board (11 to 12 feet). These are great for flatwater, playing with the kids and learning to surf. As your SUP surfing skill level increases you may feel the need to progress to a shorter board, which will offer you much more manoeuvrability when riding a wave. The trade-off for a shorter board is that it will be less stable, so it is important that you do not make this progression too early. Don’t get hung up on whether your board is ideally suited for SUP surfing – just use what you have (unless it is a SUP raceboard) and get out in the waves and have fun while trying to master the skills.

For SUP surfing you must use a leg rope (or leash) – for safety and convenience. A leg rope keeps you in contact with your board when you wipeout. I prefer a coiled leash so that there is less drag in the water.

Inserting your thruster fins (the two smaller side fins) will make your board easier to turn on a wave, so I recommend this for SUP surfing. For flatwater paddling these fins can be removed so as to reduce drag.

Respect for Fellow Waveriders

An understanding of surfers’ etiquette will be useful if you are sharing your break with others. Never “drop in” on another surfer’s wave. If someone else is already on the wave, it is their wave and they have all rights to it, so do not try and catch it and attempt to share it with them. Such an action will cause offense in the extreme. If you are guilty of this then I suggest you apologise as quickly as you can, after immediately pulling out of the wave. If both of you are paddling for the same wave then the surfer who is closest to the peak (the breaking part of the wave) has the right to it. Or put another way, if the wave if peeling (breaking) right a surfer competing for the wave on your left has the right to it and you should stop paddling for it and let them take it. Conversely, if the wave is peeling left, a surfer on your right (your inside) has rights to the wave. If you were to ignore this rule and catch the wave you are deemed to have “dropped in” and guilty of one of surfing’s biggest sins.

As a courtesy to other surfers (regular – not stand up) it is a nice gesture to let them take a few of the waves which you could have caught. A huge benefit SUP surfing has over regular surfing is the ability to catch many more waves (due to longer board length and quicker paddling speed), hence the suggestion to concede some waves for the benefit of your fellow waveriders – they will really appreciate it. Just as a regular longboarder catches more waves than a surfer on a short board, you on your SUP will get way more waves than a longboarder. This is the huge appeal of SUP surfing – it is common that your session is non-stop action given the ease of catching waves and getting out the back quickly – making it a full-on workout.

If crowds become a problem your SUP gives you the freedom to paddle away in search of other breaks. Take this opportunity whenever you can as you’ll be amazed at the uncrowded waves that you can discover.

Know When a SUP Surfing Session is On

Learn about your local weather and swell conditions, so you become qualified to predict when a SUP surfing session maybe on. Talk to qualified locals (surfers, fishermen, boaties) and learn to understand marine forecasts (website and radio). If there is a howling onshore wind this is likely to create a windswell, which usually doesn’t hang around too long, so make sure you know when the wind changes and blows offshore to create perfect SUP surfing conditions – clean wave faces and a tail wind to blow you out the back. Regular monitoring will let you know when there is a groundswell, how big it is and whether it is within your ability. If not and it’s too big, go to the beach anyway. You may find if you push yourself that it is within your capability – it doesn’t hurt to get a little scared by big waves – you’ll learn to love the adrenaline rush. If it is obviously too big for you then from the shore watch the good guys closely, observe their technique, understand what they are doing and take some good lessons from their skill and experience.

Sharpen your SUP surfing ability by spending as much time on the water as possible – have fun and get fit in the process.

Our thanks to JW for permission to re-print this article and the gratuitous plug for Hornet Juice