You’ve been recreationally riding a paddle board for a while now. You love it, but you’ve also decided you want more of a challenge. Thus, you’ve entered a paddleboard race. How do you go about preparing your body and mind for this demanding type of SUP riding?

To have a successful paddleboard race, we recommend you follow these tips:

  • Practice makes perfect
  • Join a paddle board training group
  • Know the basics inside and out
  • Strengthen and tone your body
  • Get a great board and paddle you’re comfortable with using 
  • Prepare for all sorts of weather
  • Take breaks
  • Record yourself and watch it back
  • Don’t go riding without hydration packs
  • Eat the morning of the race even if you’re not hungry so your body has fuel
  • Increase your speed gradually
  • Have small, attainable goals to meet and keep setting bigger ones
  • Enjoy yourself!

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about paddleboard racing via our handy list of tips. From body conditioning to advice for reaching and maintaining speed, you’ll be all ready to prep for your first race by the time you’re done reading.

Prepping for Success: 13 Tips for Paddleboard Racing

Paddle board racing can be done for fun, as serious competition or even for prize money. It isn’t something that you’ll want to do right after learning how to paddle board most of the time. But if you just want a reason to hang out with friends that already race, it’s perfectly fine to enter a race for fun and not worry much about your results.

Bit what if you decide after a few races that you’ve caught the bug; you want to get more serious about racing your paddle board. Well, these tips should come in handy then.

Paddle board race with 2 people competing side by side

1. Practice, Practice, Practice

Have you heard of the 10,000-hour rule? Supposedly, by sticking with something for 10,000 hours, such as racing on your paddle board, you could master it inside and out. Luckily, science has all but proven that’s not true, so there’s no need to commit to what amounts to roughly 417 days to be great at paddleboard racing.

That said, there’s no substitute for practice. As we’ll talk about throughout this guide, you need to practice in a variety of weather conditions. You should also gradually increase the duration of your rides and the distances travelled. Speed is something else you’ll have to work on, but we’ll discuss that later.

We’re not saying to spend 24/7 on your board SUP riding. You have a job and a family and people who care about you who would like to see you. That said, if you can carve out an hour or two about every day to practice SUP, that should put you in a great position to do well during your first paddleboard race. Read our tips for going faster to make effective use of your practice time. Learn how to properly hold and use the paddle as well.

2. Train on your paddle board with others

We’ve all been there. You plan to get up early the next morning to hit the gym, then you have a bad night’s sleep. The alarm starts blaring and you hit snooze three or four times. Before you know it, your gym window closes because you slept too late.

Whether it’s because of exhaustion or just not feeling like it, sometimes the same applies to paddle boarding. You love SUP riding, but you need the motivation to get out there and do your best.

Here’s where group riding can be quite useful. If you and a few fellow SUP enthusiasts commit to picking each other up when one is feeling down, that accountability will result in fewer missed practice sessions.

Besides just the sense of accountability you get when riding in a group, there are yet more benefits to enjoying SUP practice with your buddies. You can see what they’re doing and learn new techniques in stroking and paddling that maybe you weren’t aware of. Further, your pals can help you improve your form.

After all, you can’t see yourself the way they can, so if your arms are angled incorrectly or your back bent wrong, your friends will be the first to notice and help you correct it. You’re then better prepared to get ready to enter your first SUP race.

Group of men starting paddle boards on beach

3. Master the paddle board basics first

Listen, it’s okay to have some pals correct your technique or vice-versa from time to time, but you should be very familiar with all the skills needed to be a good paddleboard racer. Otherwise, you won’t excel when it comes to competing with others.

We’re not saying that to shoot down your plans, but you have to know the basics forwards, backwards, and sideways. As you race, you’ll be more focused on your breathing, your hydration, gaining speed, and maintaining it. If you have to take extra time and effort remembering how to stroke with your paddle, it won’t bode well for you winning the race.

Besides the basics like standing on your board, balancing, and holding your paddle (all of which you can learn in more detail on this blog), here are some other techniques to familiarize yourself with:

  • Drafting: When you draft on your paddleboard, you kind of follow the momentum generated by the racer in front of you. This allows you to use less of your own energy, as the force of that momentum can keep you going for a while. When you feel recovered enough, you can then get back into the race. NOTE: Drafting is not always allowed during SUP racing. Don’t do it if it’s discouraged or you could end up disqualified for your efforts!
  • Pivot turns: To move yourself past a buoy or marker, it pays to know how to do a pivot turn. You want to keep your feet towards the back of the paddleboard near its tail. Then put one foot in front of the other and position your paddle so it’s in the middle of your board. Next, turn yourself in a circular motion, which should be done sharply.
  • Strokes: We’ve written about how to do strokes on your board before, but one thing we haven’t talked about is how racers think when doing this. They divide their stroking into various parts, typically four. These are reach, catch, power, and recovery. If you think of stroking like this, you can do it more efficiently during your races.

4. Get Your Body in the Best Shape Possible

While it’s true you can tone and shape your body through SUP riding, as we said before, you can’t spend 24/7 on your board. It’s simply not healthy for you. You also have venture outside of the water, be that at the gym or even at home if you have the equipment to exercise there.

Many SUP boarders advocate for cross-training, which is a variety of exercises that work all parts of your body. Cross-training includes elements of your favourite sports, such as running, yoga, swimming, mountain biking, and more.

Mo Freitas, the Pacific Paddle Games Technical Race Champion in 2015, says that engaging in yoga, stretching, and other forms of water cross-training has helped him prevent getting injured. You may also be able to boost your endurance with cross-training.

If you’re stuck at a fitness plateau, now is the perfect time to begin mixing up what you do in terms of exercise. With cross-training, you’ll find it so much easier to keep your workouts interesting and your body looking and feeling its best. Check out my comparison of paddle boarding and running as forms of exercise.

5. Choose the right board and paddle

These 2018 racing rules from the World Paddle Association (WPA) has classes for SUP boards of various sizes. That’s pretty standard, so it reasons to assume that—unless you have an unreasonably large, ginormous paddleboard—you should be able to enter your everyday favourite board into the race.

You do want to make sure the board you use is your favourite. It doesn’t have to be the same board you use all the time if you think it will slow you down in any way, but you do want to make sure you choose a board that works with you.

Remember, you have a lot of important decisions to make when it comes to selecting your paddle board. You can opt for the convenience of an inflatable board provided one is allowed in the race.

Otherwise, you can choose a solid SUP board made of materials like plastic, carbon fibre, or EPS foam with an epoxy and fibreglass core. Each of these materials has advantages over others. For example, plastic paddleboards are inexpensive, but for their lower cost, they weigh a lot and don’t perform well. Carbon fibre boards are more expensive and stiffer, but they’re lighter than plastic.

Then you have to decide between a displacement or planing hull for your board. The former looks more like a canoe with its angled front. This displaces water, shoving it past the board’s nose to make paddling easier. You can also ride faster over greater distances, something that’s ideal when racing.  

A planing hull bears a closer resemblance to your standard surfboard. It doesn’t move water but rather sits on it. You probably won’t pick this type of board for racing for that reason, but instead more of your everyday SUP riding.

Even once you take the time to find a great SUP board for racing, your work isn’t done yet. You also have to pick your paddle. These come with fixed or adjustable lengths, the latter of which means you can use your paddle for racing and touring. With a fixed paddle, you’ll probably have to buy a separate one just for paddleboard racing and use another for casual riding.

Another big factor is the length of your paddle. It should be at the very least eight inches taller than you, at most 12 inches.

You can use your weight to determine the size of the paddle blade you need. If you’re 150 pounds or less, the blade should be 80 to 90 square inches. Those who are 150 to 200 pounds need a paddle with a blade that’s 90 to 100 square inches. Finally, those weighing more than 200 pounds should always opt for the biggest blade, or one that’s up to 120 square inches.

Like with a paddleboard, the paddles themselves come in a variety of materials, including wood, carbon fibre, fibreglass, aluminium, or plastic.

6. Ride in Many Conditions

While severe weather will almost always lead to the postponement of a paddleboard race, it still helps to prepare for all sorts of conditions. After all, you never know what the weather will be like the day of the race. While you’re hoping for warmth and bright, sunny skies, that may not always be what you get.

Practice riding in darker conditions, like overcast weather. Get in the water on those windier days, but be prepared for your balance to be challenged like no other. Oh, and do some SUP riding in the rain as well. Yes, that’s right, the rain. If you’re already wet from the water, then what’s a little more rain?

You’ll feel like you’re learning to paddleboard all over again when you ride in the rain. The wetness of your board combined with your own wetness from the weather will make your basic SUP balancing, paddle handling, and stroking techniques much more difficult.

Now, a drizzle is different than a downpour. You shouldn’t ride if the rain is so heavy you can’t see two inches in front of you. In thunderstorms with lightning, it’s also a good idea to just stay home if by chance the race isn’t cancelled for the day.

7. Know When to Take a Break

In our first tip for aspiring paddleboard racers, we told you how practice makes perfect. Now we’re saying to take a break? Huh? Why the 180?

Well, because you need to take a break. This isn’t something that’s optional. Like we said in our first tip, you have a life outside of paddle boarding that you need to tend to. Further, there is such thing as overexerting yourself. Spending day in and day out on your board for 10 or 12 hours at a clip is a great way to end up overexerting yourself.

Overexertion can be dangerous in a few ways. For one, it fatigues you mentally and physically. You’re then unable to concentrate as sharply and perform at your best. You might slip off your board or mess up a technique you know like the back of your hand. It’s all because you overdid it on the training before the race.

Sometimes paddleboard races come down to the wire, with one little error on the side of either competitor leading the other to victory. If you’re fatigued yet push yourself to compete in the race, you’ll probably make more than one little error. In fact, you might not rank as highly as you usually do because you’re so spent.

Another risk of overexertion is the increased potential for injuries. Your muscles need time to heal and your body time to recover after physical fitness. Sometimes, because you enjoy SUP riding as a hobby so much, it’s hard to remember that you’re getting exercise from it as well. You are indeed.

By pushing yourself beyond any reasonable, healthy limit, your body will react in protest. You could strain a muscle or end up with a much more serious injury like a torn hamstring or quad. Although it may seem like sitting around doesn’t really fit with your race prep routine, trust us when we say it does. You must rest to give your body a chance to repair itself so it’s ready to go for the race.

8. Use Video of Your Rides to Improve

Remember how before we mentioned that one benefit of riding with others is that they can let you know how to sharpen your technique? Well, you can’t always go boarding with your pals, especially if you’re out on the water nearly every day during your training (with time to rest, of course).

On those days when you don’t have a spotter, you don’t have to ride completely blind. Instead, you can record yourself SUP boarding and then study the footage. Now, we wouldn’t advise you to use a GoPro or similar camera for this purpose because you only get a view of what’s out on the water ahead of or behind you, not you riding your board. It’s much better to set up a camera on land and then hit record.

Once you begin capturing invaluable footage like this, you’d be surprised at what you can learn. Like we said when we discussed riding with buddies, you can’t see your entire body as you board. Small tweaks to your technique could improve your riding even more, but you’d never know to make them without seeing yourself recorded.

When the day finally does come when you compete in a race, try to get someone to record that as well (provided they’re allowed to). While it’s useful to watch the footage back if you won the race, it’s doubly or even triply more so to review the footage if you lost.

This is something that pro athletes do all the time, from wrestlers to basketball and football stars. They see what they did or didn’t do that cost them the victory. They also study their opponents to learn their weaknesses. Now you too can study up to become a better paddle boarder.

9. Keep Yourself Hydrated

If there are two things you can’t skip as you prepare for a paddleboard race, that’s hydration and nutrition. We’ll start with the hydration component in this section and then get into a discussion about nutrition next.

What many SUP racers bring with them to drink on their board is a hydration pack. If you’re not familiar, a hydration pack is worn like a backpack. Some can go around your waist. Hydration packs are lightweight and have a plastic or rubber bladder, aka a reservoir. In the reservoir, you’ll find a mouth with a cap that you can use for pouring in your water.

The hose crisscrosses around the backpack or waist pack and has a bite valve on the other end. As the name implies, you bite on this to open it up and get water from it.

The main benefit of a hydration pack is that you can keep up on your hydration needs without having to use your hands. You also don’t weigh yourself down with a water bottle or jug when you’re trying to be lean and aerodynamic for your SUP race.

You need to stay hydrated days before the race too, not only on race day. Want another tip? Pro paddleboard racers like Anthony Vela advocate for taking your hydration pack on a practice run before the race. This way, if there are any parts you’re not familiar with, you can learn to use them now. Your hydration pack won’t slow you down during the race, which keeps you focused on winning.

10. Don’t Skip Your Morning Meal the Day of the Race

You go to bed early the night before your paddleboard race because you need as much sleep as possible. Your nerves make it hard to fall asleep, but you do eventually. When you wake up on race day, your stomach is full of butterflies. There’s no way you could eat anything. You’ll just wait until after the race and load up on a big, heavy meal then.

That’s the wrong way to go about it. You may not feel much like eating, but you should still do your best to get some food in you. You need that energy to put your best foot forward during your SUP race. As you choose your breakfast, you want to make sure you consume something healthy and natural that’s free of chemicals, preservatives, and artificial flavours. These ingredients can all slow you down.

You may not want to eat much at first, but as soon as you take the time to have a power breakfast, you’ll be glad you did.

11. Don’t Expect an Overnight Speed Boost

Just how fast can the speediest paddle boarders go? Well, SUP rider Connor Baxter raced a 200-meter and went 8.5 miles per hour (MPH). He was able to finish the course in an astonishing 53.12 seconds back in 2016.

Two years prior, Danny Ching did another 200-meter, zipping through it in 46.60 seconds and achieving speeds of 9.34 MPH at his fastest.

Those are two pro paddleboarders who broke speed records. They’re outliers, not the norm. You can’t expect to mimic those speeds right away, and possibly not ever. While tracking your speed is a great way to see how you’re progressing from week to week and month to month, it’s not everything. A paddleboard race is about who can cross the finish line first. Sometimes that’s the fastest racer, but sometimes it’s the one with the most endurance who could maintain a lower but steadier speed.

It pays to increase your own speed, as this will up your chances of winning. However, don’t become obsessed with speed, especially if you’re sacrificing endurance in the process. After all, it’s one thing to go fast and another to keep it up for a whole race. Start-stop speeds may not win you races, but consistency could.

12. Set Small Goals

When you look at the achievements of professional paddleboarders and sometimes even your fellow SUP pals, it’s easy to be discouraged. It feels like these people have accomplished so very much in their SUP careers and you so little.

That doesn’t mean you can’t start doing better at boarding. One way to do so is to keep your goals reasonable. For instance, let’s say you do someday want to beat the speed record for fastest paddleboarder.

Your first goal wouldn’t be to go 5.5 MPH. Instead, you’d set your sights on finishing a two-meter race no matter the speed you go. Doing this just proves you can. Next, you’d want to start working on your speed, increasing by a whole MPH or even a half. Then you’d keep it snowballing from there.

Setting smaller goals is more beneficial for you in a few ways. For one, it breaks down all the parts of a long, overarching goal, making everything more achievable. Also, when you do meet these smaller goals, that will incentivize you to continue setting and breaking more goals.

13. Don’t Forget to Have Fun

Compared to recreational riding, SUP racing is quite stringent. It is a competition, after all, so everyone is going to have their game faces on rather than be relaxed and convivial. That doesn’t mean you have to be stone-cold the entire time.

Whether you win or lose, it’s important to try to have fun. Sure, no one likes the feeling of losing, that’s fair. However, you can’t expect to win your first race or even your first handful of races. It takes time, training, experience, and perseverance to get to that point. If you’re making progress race by race, then that should be a win in your eyes.

Remember that you’re taking one of your favourite hobbies—paddle boarding—and applying it to a competitive setting to see how you match up with others. Don’t let pettiness, bitterness, and other bad feelings get in the way of it. If a races fill you with dread, then it’s better to stick to casual riding only. You’re not deriving any enjoyment out of the experience, so why bother?

Related Questions

Why go paddleboard racing?

There are plenty of reasons to consider participating in a paddleboard race. You get to push yourself and enjoy a new challenge. You can also see if you’re as skilled as you thought. Also, winning racers may earn prize money, sometimes several thousand dollars depending on the race and who’s hosting. When it comes to racing of any kind, the question isn’t really “why do it,” the question is always “why not?”

As you begin training for competitive racing, your speed may top out at around three or four knots, which is 3.45 to 4.60 MPH. When racing, you want to strive for top speeds of around nine knots or 10.36 MPH. Like we talked about in the article, though, it takes a lot of time and training to get anywhere near that fast.

Finishing line

So you’ve learned all the basics, you’ve worked your way up to faster speeds using techniques in our other posts and on YouTube, and you’re feeling maxed out with your paddle boarding. Well get out there and put yourself in a pack of like-minded paddle boarders and get to that finishing line first!

Stay safe, have fun and just win baby!