SUP Racing: How to get started

So you want to get into SUP racing. This is a burgeoning sport with plenty of room for newcomers so grab your paddle and jump in. You may find you start out racing for fun as an amateur and then catch the bug and go for gold later on. As with triathlon, cycling and the ever popular marathon, paddleboard racing is not just for pros and semi-pros. Anyone can train for a race as a useful benchmark in the long term project of getting fit or staying in shape.

If you are completely new to paddle boarding, the first step is to get some hours in on a board.  Rent, borrow, beg, steal or buy an all around entry level SUP to get started. Develop some familiarity with the water before you start competing at any level.  Shoot for confident 30 minute blocks of non stop paddling. Only then  can you start thinking about your career as the next Connor Baxter.

Choose a race or organize a club

As an amateur SUP racer your first project will be figuring out what to do first. I’ll assume that you’re interested in SUP racing because you’ve got at least some paddle boarding experience.  On this basis I’d recommend you do this couch to 5k style. Pick a low-key local race at least 3 months out and train for it incrementally in the lead up to the event. See how a 1 to 2 miler in flat water goes before registering for a 10 mile open ocean race. Signing up for a race from the get go  is useful on 2 fronts:

1. If you have an event scheduled, you’ll be likely to talk about it, prepare for it and maybe even get other people to join.

2. You’ll have something concrete to get excited about which is a great motivator in anyone’s training program.

Don’t go too big too quickly, you will only end up frustrated or injured.  It’s also a good idea to avoid races full of people far ahead of your ability level. We’d all like to avoid being steam rolled at the starting line. Choose flat water events that are clearly for amateurs rather than a 140 km enduro race.

There is no centralised database for SUP events the world over that includes every single local race.  Use google, local SUP facebook groups and regionally based searches to find events near you that are suitable. If you can’t find one in your area, you might even try partnering with a local community center or waterfront business. There’s no reason you can’t organise a casual race day yourself.

If that sounds crazy just consider that there are more local running clubs than you can shake a stick at and they all manage to organize their own races pretty regularly.  There’s no reason SUP can’t follow suit with a little initiative.

SUP Race Categories

SUP racing is still coming into its own and is growing and changing all the time. If you head over to supracer you’ll find a calendar with loads of big time events. You’ll also see a star and points rating system. Essentially, the more stars and points, the bigger and more competitive the race. Majors are the super bowl style events of the SUP racing world and specialty events are niche races like the Olukai Ho’olaule’a down winder.

Popular types of SUP Racing

1. Casual racing

These are local races and races that are beginner friendly, organized as community events.  This is the place to start and you could even create a local tradition yourself.

2. Competitive racing

The majors, the events that draw big sponsors and big name SUP racers.  These are fun to watch but most people wouldn’t think of starting with them. That said, even the big races often have multiple classes and a range of people will be entering. The Pacific Paddle Games are pretty well the biggest event of the year and they have generously created a 12’ Under Recreational Class. This means that anyone can enter the biggest race of the year in the open class no matter what their ability level.

3. Endurance racing

These are long haul races where people concentrate on covering massive miles rather than short, sharp bursts of speed.  

4. Downwind racing 

Down wind doesn’t mean easy but it does mean fast. This type of paddling requires more skill level in order to read the waves and use wind and swell to help push you forward.  The best season for this in many places in the world comes with cooler weather. Check out the Olukai Ho’olaule’a if you’re interested in this category.

What you need for Paddleboard Racing

Ah yes, the best part of any new sport is the gear. If you are starting casually, you can even SUP race on a surfboards so long as it isn’t short.  Of course this is in no way ideal, and you’ll be eager to buy the best equipment for the job. Casual racing and training can be done on a standard all around SUP.  You can go hard or inflatable, it doesn’t matter. Don’t go crazy with a custom built fibreglass displacement board from the get go. Use what you have or buy a sensible board for casual use.  

If you know in your very bones that you’ll need more and making an investment is going to keep you involved, hey, whatever works. There are quite a few race boards at sensible prices out there. Just be sure to find one that is not so aggressive or needle thin that you can’t maneuver it.  Race boards are longer and skinnier which allows them to cover more distance faster. They don’t turn as easily as shorter, wider boards and require more skill to balance on so keep this in mind.

You also may need a wet suit and a life jacket. Every race will list their requirements so be sure to check before showing up.


How to do it: Training

Start with some form of a plan but if it’s your first race, don’t make it gruelling. Your muscle strength and cardiovascular ability will likely progress quicker than you might think, but be careful of the innards you can’t see.  The bone and soft tissue composing your joints may not be on the same schedule as the rest of you. Give it a little time to adjust.

If you bruise on through without warm ups or train too aggressively too quickly, you may end up with an injury.  Most people are not accustomed to repetitive shoulder rotation and many of us lack good shoulder mobility. Implement thorough warm ups, a realistic training schedule, and adequate recovery time to keep yourself on track and injury free.

To start with, prioritize time on your board over distance or speed. Try to build up your ability to paddle without breaks incrementally and be aware of your posture. Can you paddle for 30 minutes non-stop at a pace that quickens your breath but doesn’t leave you gasping? If so, great. Now try upping the tempo and going faster. Do the same route you were before but push the pace.  You should be able to cover it increasingly quickly as time goes by.

Don’t push your pace so quickly that you can’t complete that distance without a break. You’ll also need to get used to how your sense of balance is affected by the new paddling tempo.

Now that you can handle solid blocks of paddling at speed, you can push things further. Start training for speed and distance combined. As with any training plan you’ll need to avoid boredom and cover multiple different angles. Some days can be devoted to short sharp speed work and some days can be more endurance and distance focused. You don’t need to set up a buoy course, but if you can all the better.  You can work by line of site to landmarks or use a GPS tracker watch to log your time and distance.

Ultimately you need to be able to complete the race so train for that distance if not slightly longer. It’s ok if you can’t complete that whole distance without breaks at the start. Just be sure you give yourself enough time to train up to that point without hurting yourself before race day. Plan to get in 3 sessions a week, 2 minimum. You don’t need to train to win, train to finish and you’ll have more fun and get in better shape with less chance of turning your rotator cuff to hamburger meat.


Technique: How to Paddle in a race

Fine tuning all your hard work with proper, even advanced, SUP paddle technique is essential. Technique allows you to remain injury free and perform at the highest level you are capable of. I’m not advocating that you forget about technique till you’ve already hobbled yourself with 100 miles of improper training. I just think it’s easier to see your paddling mistakes once you have gotten a feel for paddling in the first place. That is why I have placed this section last.  

If you are training with a friend or an audience, have them film you. Seeing yourself in motion will give you a great idea of what needs to change and will make tracking your progress and implementing technique easier. As for what proper race paddle technique actually entails, the video below is comprehensive on all fronts:


Now that you’ve got a few ideas and some inspiration, get out there and start paddling your way to ferocious blisters.

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