SUP Technique: How to Go Faster On a Paddleboard

Your top speed on a paddleboard is determined by many factors and going faster can be approached from several different angles. As we covered in our stand-up paddleboard top speed article, speeds of up to 17.7 MPH have been achieved! That is perhaps not a goal for everyone, but it shows that a lot can be done to satisfy a need for speed.

How to paddleboard at higher speeds? To go faster on a paddle board, you need to improve your technique, increase your general fitness and practice (experience matters). You can also invest in a paddleboard that is designed to go faster with a long and narrow fiberglass hull of a displacement type.

There is a lot more, naturally, to all of these steps. In this post, we will go over the different ways to improve your speed and make you a more proficient and effective paddler.

Going faster with your paddleboard

Going faster is an age-old paradigm. Since the dawn of man, we have been chasing speed in one way or another — same today with our paddleboards.

Paddling your paddleboard is a coordinated exercise where many parts of your body have to work together to get it just right. Everywhere there is room for improvement, and there is speed to be found. Your stroke, how you use your body and choice of equipment can all be leveraged for greater acceleration and speed.

What we will not cover in more detail is your general fitness. This has, of course, a significant impact on your speed, but as there is little more to say than “Work out”. We save the words on that today.

These are the steps we will cover

  • Stroke length
  • Stroke power
  • Stroke rate
  • Paddle movement
  • Correct body utilization
  • Choice of paddleboard

Getting all this right will send you cutting through the waters like never before. However, if you are an endurance paddler, all these tips apply to you as well. Going fast or going far have the same challenges and doing one right gives you the other one practically for free.

On to the details!

Technique: The Stroke

We start our overview of how to catch the speed daemon with some fundamental physics.

In physics, energy is expressed as force x distance. This is very fitting for the paddleboard stroke, you pull your paddle a certain length with a specific force, and that is the energy you transfer into moving.

Now, effect, that is how many horsepowers you have is energy divided by time. Or for our paddling, energy (your stroke length and power) divided by your stroke rate. The faster you paddle, the faster you go, sort of.

Dividing this up into smaller portions

Stroke length

  • Catch (Reach forward)
  • Release (Get paddle out before feet)

There you place your stroke and where you apply power is of vital importance for high speeds. As a longer stroke gets more work done, you will want to reach as far forward with your paddle as possible. Stay within a comfortable reach, though; it should not feel wrong or hard when you reach.

You bring your paddle up before it passes your feet. If not, the blade will have an angle, and you will dig yourself down in the water. This will also cause balance problems. Since you need to bring the paddle up at your feet, the length of your stroke will be your reach to your feet. Never longer.

The point where you plunge your paddle can be used to analyze how good your stroke is. When you have completed an entire stroke, you will want your feet to have moved beyond the point where you plunged your paddle. If not, you have work to do!

For your stroke rate, you will want to keep all your muscles working aerobically. You don’t want to work too hard, unless at the end of a race of course. Getting the feel of your stroke is more important than the rate. Good proper strokes will have you going faster and with less energy than many bad ones.

One part of the stroke that is often overlooked is the backstroke. Many talks and guides will talk about where to plunge your paddle and where to take it up, just like this one. But how you move your paddle from after you take it out of the water to before you plunge it back in, is also an essential part of the stroke. What you will want to do is move the paddle blade in a straight line forward. You don’t want to wave it out or in, just the shortest path between the two points. Surprisingly many have this part of the stroke a bit off, and this can lead to balance problems and shoulder pains.

The limits of your power are, apart from your general strength and fitness, a function of how well you use your body. In the next part, we will cover this in detail.

Ben Fisher shows a great racing technique

Technique: Your body

We will go over the different parts of the body now step by step. Starting with the arms that take the force, to the paddle in the water, and to your feet that connect to the board. Your whole body should work as one with each part taking a load it is capable of taking.

We will go over (roughly in this order)

  • Arms
  • Shoulders
  • Hips
  • Knees
  • Feet

Your arms are not what provides to force to drive you forward! 

Your arms are only the connecting rods between your upper body, through the shoulders, and the paddle. They transfer the force from more powerful muscle groups. This is a common mistake in the paddling process. For an optimal stroke, keep your bottom arm straight. This stops you from using your arm power. 

Your top arms should bend so you can reach further in your catch, where you dip your paddle. It might sound very counter-intuitive but try and keep your arms as relaxed as possible. Dead-gripping your paddle will lead to a too mechanical stroke, and we humans are biological, not machines.

For your shoulders, ‘relax’ is the word again. Keep your shoulders down while paddling and try not to lock them. Locking your shoulders leads to overworked arms. Open your chest up and roll your shoulders through the stroke. Top shoulder rolls forward, and bottom shoulder rolls back. 

Your shoulders have now become a lever for the large muscles in your back. It’s them we want to do the hard work! When you get this right, you will feel more “connected” with your stroke. It becomes a far more natural movement than if done wrong.

Your hips are the hinges that keep everything together. They balance the side to side movement with the propelling force of the stroke. We want the hips to be balanced right above the feet, no going out to the side, through the entire stroke. If the hips are correctly kept above your feet, it is far easier to translate all the power of a stroke into forward motion. 

The opposite is, of course, true if you stick the hips out to either side. This will cause balance problems that will tilt your board or cause it to turn. The hips sticking can be a symptom that you rotate your hips too much when reaching with your paddle. Find the sweet spot in your reach where this does not happen.

Knees are the transfer point of the force from the powerful muscles in your upper legs and back. They are also your suspension on rougher waters. Too much rigidity will negatively affect both these functions. You will also want to keep your knees from buckling outwards or bending inwards. Keep the knees slightly bent and positioned right over your feet.

The last part of the mechanical puzzle of paddling is the feet. Your feet are what connects you to your board and, via your board, to the ocean. You want your feet at shoulder width and angled slightly outwards. Some paddleboard instructors say precisely 15 degrees, but of course, this varies from person to person. The slight outward bend lets you give your knees that slight curve and also stabilizes you.

You want your weight evenly distributed between both your feet and also under each foot. That is with equal weight on the front and back of the foot. You do not want your weight to shift from foot to foot or from toes to heals as you go through your stroke. Keep that even weight distribution throughout.

Your feet and knees now create a stable platform over which the big muscles of your legs and back can work. Your shoulders and arms, being as relaxed as you can have them, transfer the power from big muscles into the paddle. And off you go!

Technique: Body don’ts and common mistakes

The first mistake is a very common beginner mistake, paddling with only arms. It looks like the paddler is stretching their arms out and then pulling them back in. As we have gone over, this will lead to strain in the arms and the shoulders and can even lead to injury. You do not want your bottom arm to bend at all!

The second common mistake is bending your back. This looks a little bit like a hunchback paddling, and getting back-problems from doing this is indeed a great risk. You want your back to be flat through the stroke. The parts the bend are your hips and your knees.  

The last common mistake is not to follow the paddle with your shoulders. This leads to your hips pointing straight forward through the stroke instead of twisting into the stroke. This causes the board to sort of stagger forward, like a stop-go motion. What you want is a smooth stroke with a more constant speed of your board.

There are faster paddleboards!

All paddleboards are not the same, especially not when it comes to speed. For the really high speeds, you need the best gear as well.

Things that make paddleboards faster

  • Displacement hull
  • Fiberglass material
  • Long and narrow

For example, Red Paddle Co has an entire line of specialty racing boards. You can view these by using the banner link below. Their other lines are also available at the link. We are working on getting specific Red Paddle Co recommendations once we can get our hands on a couple.

Usually, these characteristics come together in the racing and touring paddleboards. Both boards are made to go faster (or longer) with the same energy. Decathlon considers their ITIWIT R500 14’ narrow iSUP as a competition level board. The Bluefin Carbon Cruiser and Sprint boards are also designed for speed.

A narrow hull causes less drag than a wider one, so, to keep the paddler and board floating, the board has to be longer to compensate for this. The two go together to create a long, sometimes up to 16 feet, and narrow, down to 20 inches, paddleboard.

Most paddleboards are what is called a planing hull. That is a flat surface that is meant to go faster by riding on top of the water, called planing. While surfers do this while riding a wave, most paddling will not cause the board to plane. A non-planing planing hull works, well, just as you would imagine not all that good. The planing hulls cause a lot more resistance when not planing.

The displacement hull, on the other hand, is not meant to plane, so it does not suffer any losses from not planing. Instead, it cuts a hole through the water at minimum resistance, for normal paddling speeds, this is optimal.

Rigid hulls cause a lot less resistance than do inflatable ones. Inflatable paddleboards change shape, and they do all the time even at correct inflation pressures. Each such is a loss and creates drag in the water. For this reason, rigid hull paddleboards are preferable. Fiberglass is the best material as it causes even less drag.

If you are serious about speed, investing in a paddleboard made for this purpose can be a good idea. Keep in mind that maintaining your balance on these narrower boards it quite a bit more complicated than on the big flat ones. Perhaps renting one or borrowing one to practice on would be a good start.

Some higher-level technique

Solid hulled paddleboards can be used as a springboard. That is for the maximum forward motion you can go really deep with the paddle. When you do this, the board sinks a bit, but on your forward stroke, it will spring back into a glide. This technique is used by professional paddle-boarders to get that little bit extra racing for the finish line. 

Watch Connor Baxter explain how he uses the board spring and different muscle groups for racing.

Practising

Have you ever seen Tai-Chi? The Chinese body meditation form where a series of movements are performed very, very slowly. Tai-Chi is, or was, actually a martial art. It was a medieval form of boxing that was practised both in actual fighting and by doing the movements very slow. It was the slow-moving exercise that survived to this day. When it started, the go-slow practice was an integral part of the martial art.

The lesson we can draw from Tai-Chi is that doing a workout and working on your technique need not happen at the same time. You can practice all the things you have read in this article, or find elsewhere, at a slow pace.

Get your technique in!

This will save you a lot of time and lower your risk of injury. When you have the correct technique, you are using the right muscles. If you work out without correct technique you risk straining muscles you will never use, at best, and serious injury, at worst. Putting too much load on too small muscles is one of the major sources of injury. We cannot stress this enough: Technique!

When you have practised for a bit and feel like you have the technique down, have someone else look at you. This can be an experienced paddleboarding friend or a paddleboard instructor. Getting hints on what you are doing right or wrong is very good. It will help you progress faster in the hobby and spend less time on things you do not need or even want.

If you have a GoPro or one of our other recommended cameras, using this to film yourself paddling is also a great tip. You can observe what you are doing good and not. Also, you can go back and look at the older film to see how you have progressed and how you have not. There will be something, I promise!

If you have anchor points for your camera on the back of your board, try this angle of filming too. It might not make the best YouTube video with your butt bobbing up and down. It is, however, another vantage point to observe your paddling technique. If you have really good confidence, in yourself and your paddling, you can put it on YouTube anyway!

Adventures by paddling

Paddleboarding is what you make of it. There are so many different aspects of the hobby to choose from. Developing a solid technique and improving your fitness will pay off, regardless of which direction you take your hobby. Fishermen need to get to the fish, and surfers need to catch the wave, and yoga practitioners have to paddle to that yoga sweet spot.

Stay safe and have fun!

Happy paddling.


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Carlo Raffa

Carlo Raffa is a blogger, stand-up paddleboard enthusiast, water lover and local to Brighton city in the South of England. Paddle boarding is my escape and this is only the starting point. Being a larger guy at 260lbs I am finding it very good exercise as well, especially for building core muscles. This is something that believe it or not cycling 16 miles a day at 6 miles per hour doesn't seem to be doing. Paddle Boarding allows me to just grab my board and walk right through the busy bar filled beachfront between the two piers in Brighton and head straight out of shore. It's not long before the shouting and cheering of our buzzing beach fade into just the lapping waves and the people to just small dots of the Brighton shoreline.

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