Deconstructing the Sport: Stand Up Paddleboard Racing

Deconstructing the Sport: SUP Race Training

Stand Up Paddleboard racing has exploded onto the scene all over the country in the past several years.  According to, there were 57 races nationwide in the month of June 2017 alone. The sport continues to grow in popularity and is a perfect way to get outside and compete.

With this first installation of ‘Deconstructing the Sport,’ we’re going to analyze the physical attributes of a successful SUP Racer and develop an outline of a training protocol to maximize performance on the board. 

Fortunately, I have a friend who is a high-level athlete in the SUP Racing world. Rob Hess resides in Charleston, SC (my hometown) and is sponsored by BIC Sports. (CLICK HERE to check out his profile

Let’s take a look at the sport.

SUP Racing: Physical Demands

From a physical perspective, SUP racing revolves around the stroke of the paddle (big surprise) and the ability to maintain balance on the board. 

The stroke revolves around three variables:

  • Power per stroke
  • Frequency of stroke
  • Efficiency of stroke

The physical attributes associated with power per stroke and frequency of stroke can be trained in a gym. Efficiency of stroke is highly technical and requires repetition on the board. For now, we’ll focus on power and frequency.

The ability to maintain balance relies on the athletes proprioceptive system. This system is your body’s conscious and unconscious ability to maintain balance in relation to your body as well as the amount of force generation required. 

Let’s break it down further.

Muscular Demand

The muscular demand of the stroke has a high emphasis on the upper body and core. Specifically, the racer’s shoulders, upper-back, and lats are taxed during a race. They are the drivers of the stroke. 

The rotational and flexion demand of the core (abdomen, obliques, low back) is highly involved in the stroke. The racer will crunch the core down and rotate slightly as they proceed through the stroke, repeating this process many times. The core also acts in anti-rotation as it attempts to maintain balance on the board. 

Finally, the generator of the force is the legs. While the demand on the low body is less compared to the upper body and core, the legs will aid in generating the power for the stroke. The low-body will also automatically react to the balance variables of the board. You can feel this when the legs may individually apply some force to maintain balance. The quads are likely a more dominant muscle group for balance, while the hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors provide the power for the stroke. 

Energy System Demand

Rob provided some screen shots of some training data during a recent training paddle.

   He completed an 8.5 mile loop in 1 hour 39 minutes, averaging 11:34 min/miles. His average heart rate (HR) was 149 bpm, and maxed out at 194 bpm. Rob’s approximate max heart rate is 190 (using the 220 minus age formula), so his average HR was at 78% of his max. His peak HR during the training session was at 101% of his max.

Note: The 220 minus age formula for max heart rate is a rough estimate, not exact. Many athletes have proven to be able to work beyond what their max should be.

With this data, we can glean what the energy system demands are.

The primary energy system is the aerobic system. This system keeps him moving at a steady pace in what is commonly referred to as Zone 2 (70-80% of max HR) for the long duration of the paddle. 

We can see the spikes in his heart rate occurred during some of his slowest per mile pace, so it’s safe to assume Rob was either working upwind or against the current. This heart rate spike indicated a demand on his anaerobic systems for several minutes, which further indicates the glycolytic energy system, falling within the anaerobic category. 

Note: Energy systems don’t act independently, but rather in conjunction with one another. While Rob might be primarily using the glycolytic system to fuel his muscles, he’s also using his aerobic system at the same time.

From this, we understand that the majority of Rob’s race will be in the upper aerobic realm, with multiple short duration demands on the glycolytic system. Rob may need to work harder when going upwind, against the current, or when sprinting to pass an opponent. 

The Demands Summed Up

  • High Demand: Upper Body and Core muscular endurance (frequency) and strength (power) pulling during stroke. Aerobic System and Glycolytic system. Lower body and core proprioceptive system for maintaining balance.
  • Moderate Demand: Lower Body for power generation and balance. 
  • Low Demand: Phosphagen system (1-10 seconds of max effort). 

Gym Based Training - SUP Racing

With a solid understanding of the physical demands of the sport, we can figure out how best to train in the gym to maximize performance on the board. Below is a graph of how I would match gym-based training to SUP racing. (Not familiar with the exercises? Check out Mountain Tactical Institute’s Exercise page)


Listed are three example sessions that train the components listed above. This kind of training is best employed during the off-season when the SUP racer won’t have any races in the near future.

Simple, straight forward, and sport-specific. It’s also easily altered so that the strength work follows a percentage based progression. It’s important to note that this would be off-season work. As the racer gets closer to competition, he or she needs to start working on the skills of stand-up paddle board racing. 

This is the model I use for designing sport specific programming. If you’re an athlete in a sport or profession, your training should not be random. It requires an analysis of the sport and a program which will train specifically to the demands of the sport. 

Much thanks to Rob for providing the training data. He and his wife, Cassandra, are putting on a SUP Race called the Chucktown Showdown in Charleston, SC. Check it out!

Hope you enjoyed. Feel free to leave any comments below.