Whitewater SUP = Calisthenics


When trying something new very few do it well or efficiently at first. Whether it’s chess or snow skiing or whitewater kayaking; noobs use twice the effort for the same effect as more experienced practitioners. Early in my downriver whitewater canoe racing career I was consistently puzzled by paddlers 20 years my senior almost effortlessly kicking my butt. I’d be paddling a 16′ open canoe as hard as I knew, sweat stinging my eyes, 30 minutes into an hour long course, and wondering why I was punishing myself like this when Ed Sharp (68 at the time) would sail past me in his own 16′ canoe with a smile and encouraging word. Over ten years later I at least have a better understanding of what it takes to paddle efficiently and fast even if the skill is still a bit out of my grasp.


So with potential mastery in sight and nothing but a few more years of practice and study blocking the way I take this detour to Noob-Land with canoe poling and then whitewater SUP. Yes – that’s the kind of ADD that afflicts me. In truth, each of the sub-disciplines of whitewater that I’ve fooled around with have lessons to share with each other. The biggest ‘for instance’ being the lessons SUP has taught me about glide, cadence, and the forward stroke that I’m not sure I could have learned sitting or kneeling in a canoe. I mean … I was getting there … but the SUP boat just made it so obvious! And I’ve been able to bring that new sensation and understanding back to the canoe. At least I imagine I will if I ever take my SUP off the cartop rack.

Preparing Physically for Whitewater SUP

Whitewater SUP demands a lot of large, lower body muscles in addition to all of the core and upper body strength required for paddling. If you come from whitewater canoeing and kayaking and do not have some type of aerobic exercise habit beware of exhaustion. Those big leg muscles burn a lot of energy that you’re not accustomed to burning on a typical 3 or 4 hour whitewater paddle. Pack a couple extra energy bars to stuff in your furnace in the pools between rapids.

Also, your SUP makes a wonderful lounge for resting and recovering between rapids – which is good, because most of the time you’ll be doing squats, lunges, and trunk twists … simultaneously … for extended periods of time. Let’s just say that if you’re not already pretty fit you’re going to have to get that way. Following is my interpretation of training exercises that mimic some of the movements needed for SUPing class II whitewater.

The best daily training for whitewater SUP? Run! Or anything that helps build aerobic capacity.


Controlled Falling

It hurts to fall on the board. It hurts worse to fall on the rocks in the river bed. Despite the protection of my PFD I have a bruised rib that I’m still nursing a month later from a fall on a class III+ creek when I didn’t predict and plan a fall properly. Practice falling on the board whenever you get the chance. Note that this is different from flat water SUPing and surfing where most advise to fall AWAY from the board. In whitewater it’s always better to stay on board if you can!

From a standing position – preferably the ‘tai chi’ stance below Drop forward onto your hands and knees cushioning the impact by doing a little push-up. Scratch around blindly searching for something to grab onto. Bring one knee and foot forward under your chest. Press back up to standing position.

Start with 3 sets of 3 reps.


Tai Chi Stance

Another physical activity where I’m a complete noob – Tai Chi! I will consider rewriting this section at a future date with proper names for the stance. The way I learned it (Golden Flower Tai Chi) the stance is very stable yet flexible. Weight and core alignment can be shifted easily with very deliberate control. A video clip would probably help here. [Corran Addison has a nice video of basically the same stance which he calls Kung Fu – much sexier name.]

From a standing position, feet shoulder width apart, toes pointed straight ahead. Arms up as tho holding a paddle. Knees slightly bent and “bouncy”. Hips tucked forward a little to straighten the spine which should not be leaning forward. Slide your on-side foot back about a step and turn the toes out 45 degrees. Place weight evenly over both feet, knees bent. Now, keeping the shoulders locked in alignment with the hips: 1. Shift weight and align hips on the forward foot. Knees still bent. 2. Shift weight and align hips on the rear foot. Knees still bent.

Repeat at a relaxed pace for 10 minutes. Switch feet and do another 10 minutes. Work to do this with lower and lower bent knees to build strength and stamina.

Lunge to High Knee

When you want a little more stability in a rapid the easiest option is to lower your center of gravity. Unfortunately, as you lower your center of gravity you also lower your control over the board. On top of that, a little control can be lost on your way down from standing. The Lunge exercise mimics the transition from standing to a “high kneel” position which offers (I think) the best compromise between stability and control. It will also wear you out in whitewater.

Use a paddle with this exercise, hands shoulder width apart. The paddle blade is on your “Onside”. Assume the Tai Chi stance with your onside foot back. Extend the paddle out to the onside so your top or grip hand is in front of your onside shoulder. Step forward with the offside foot and slowly lower onside knee to the ground applying very light pressure to the paddle for balance. Press back up slowly to standing and slide offside foot back. Re-establish the Tai Chi stance.

Repeat 10 times. Switch paddle side. Repeat 10 times.

Take it to the river

Whitewater SUP is the first recreational whitewater discipline I’ve tried that really demands a lot of physical fitness to enjoy. You definitely don’t HAVE to begin a workout regime before getting on a board. You can just let the act of whitewater SUP itself be the workout – it’ll just take a little longer. The saving grace is between rapids and in eddies you can always sit down on the board and dangle your feet in the water. Heck – use a little dry bag as a pillow and stretch out if you need.

If you’ve enjoyed or appreciated this blog post please consider sharing it with your friends!

Next week: Fun – The Forgotten Risk Assessment Factor Previous Post: Breaking the Rules

#fitness #wwsup

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