Friday 25 July 2014

Board width, stability and training your balance

There’s been a lot of discussion in the last year or so about board width. Everyone is going to narrower boards and SUPPA has pushed for board width restrictions. In this post I’d like to stay away from the discussion of board specifications and instead focus on the impact board width is going to have on the average SUP racer. While a guy like Kai Lenny can stand on a narrow board and get the most out of it I believe there are real benefits for most of us in choosing stability before a really skinny board.

The last few SUP races I’ve done have been a lot of fun with lots of good sized waves and some pretty challenging and very technical sections. I’ve come to the beach in each race with a smile on my face because of how much fun it’s been trying to make the most out of whatever the water conditions are offering. To me this is the big thing that makes SUP so much fun. If it’s flat it seems to me like it’s just another running race only on the water. I’ve been doing that type of flat water paddling most of my life, and while there are tactics involved like drafting, it’s still really just a grind when you’re doing a longer race. However when conditions get big enough to make drafting difficult and the water texture starts to provide things that you can use to your advantage suddenly SUP racing is a lot more fun. The key is not only being able to recognize what the water is offering, but knowing how to maneuver your board to use it properly. You’ve got to have a certain level of comfort on your board to do that, and that kind of comfort usually comes as a result of stability. It’s hard to have the comfort necessary to make the board do what you want if you find it a challenge to just stay on it.

In the last couple of years the top racers in the world have moved to progressively narrower boards, and as they’ve done that lots of other racers have followed. Board manufacturers are marketing narrower boards to the average SUP racer and the average SUP racers are buying them. The average racer feels like they need a narrower board or they are giving away an advantage to their competition. The irony is that in many instances they actually give their competition the advantage when they switch to the narrower board! Unfortunately it seems to me that many people are buying boards on which they are so unstable they can’t paddle properly or get them to do what they want. As a result of this their performances are suffering and they are missing all the fun of paddling SUP in waves.

If we’re going to talk about board width and stability we’d first better recognize that just because a board is narrow doesn’t mean it’s unstable. It’s possible to build a narrower board that is surprisingly stable. It also doesn’t mean that it is fast. There are lots of slightly wider boards out there that are faster than some of the narrow ones. The take away point here is to choose your board carefully before you buy it, and the best way to do that is to test drive it, preferably with a GPS so you can get some objective feedback. See how fast it is, how stable it is and get a sense of how well you can control it. Don’t expect it to feel as good under you as the board you’ve been using, but you should have a degree of comfort on it from the first time you step on it. Don’t expect to get used to a board that feels incredibly tippy and unstable the first time you try it, especially if you are middle aged. You’ll also need to consider your weight when you are looking at board width as well, as some narrower boards just aren’t going to have the volume a heavier paddler needs.

If possible I’d also suggest that you test drive the board you’re looking at buying in a variety of conditions – flats, upwind, downwind, in ocean swell and side chop. If you do races in the ocean or on the Great Lakes you’ll want a board that feels stable under you in waves representative of those you’ll likely be racing in. Since such extensive testing may not be practical before purchasing, it’s my opinion that if you aren’t a professional racer you are probably better off erring on the side of stability and playing it safe by staying away from the super narrow board, opting instead for a more sensible, slightly wider one.

When I raced at Key West this past May the conditions were pretty tough. There was a strong onshore wind on the ocean side that was kicking up side chop that was 2 to 3 feet high at the start. By the time we’d circled the island and come back out into the ocean the waves had grown to over 3 feet directly from the left side and this was compounded by bounce backs off the seawall near the Key West airport. I was fortunate to have borrowed Mike Metzger’s 29-inch Bark Custom for the race, which is a very stable board and wider than my own. I enjoyed every stroke of the race and had a ton of fun in all of the constantly changing conditions we faced around the island. In large part this was because I had the right equipment. The stable 29-inch board was absolutely the right choice for those types of conditions. When I hit the beach at the finish I was able to watch the other racers come in. It seems to me that most weren’t having as much fun. People, including many very good racers, were struggling, falling off their boards and many were clearly frustrated. I looked at the boards they were using and wasn’t surprised. Most of them had boards that I believe were clearly too unstable for them in those conditions. What’s the point of having a fast, narrow board if you can’t paddle effectively on it or even stand on it for any length of time? Not only does it negatively affect your performance, it takes the fun out of it.

If you are a recreational elite racer (in other words you race the elite but you don’t have either the skills or the training background of the pro elite racers) then I honestly believe you should choose your board carefully and err on the side of stability. Unless you have the budget and storage space for multiple boards, choose one that you’ll be able to stand on and paddle effectively in most typical ocean racing conditions. Remember that lots of races, like the Carolina Cup and Key West, have both flats and ocean sections. Personally I’d much rather lug around an extra couple of inches of board width in the flats in order to be stable and able to paddle really effectively in the ocean.

If you’ve got multiple boards in your quiver then use the less stable one in the flats and train with it in the ocean as well to try to improve your balance and master that board, but don’t leave your stable one in the garage all the time. I’d want to train on it in the ocean at least half the time so I could do some really top quality ocean paddling in training and not just be doing “trying to stay on the board paddling” (which really isn’t paddling at all).

The last consideration is that if you like to sell your older boards whenever you buy a new one, you are going to have a more difficult time selling the narrow, unstable one than one that is more stable and more people could paddle comfortably.

Training your Balance

So if you feel tippy in wavy conditions does that mean that I think you should forever be on a wide, stable board? Of course not!

It’s possible to improve your balance and ability to control your board effectively in challenging conditions. You can graduate to a narrower, less stable board. The process takes time and practice on your board in those conditions but doing some dry-land work that aids in balance can enhance it. If you’re a younger racer your capacity to adapt your balance is going to be pretty good. If you are middle aged you’re going to have to work even harder at it as your balance starts to deteriorate with age. In this case I definitely think you’d benefit from doing some dry-land work.

One of the things that we can do on land to enhance our on water stability is work that enhances the proprioception and neural control in the muscles we engage on our boards, particularly in our feet, legs and core. Proprioceptors are specialized sensory receptors found in muscles, joints and connective tissue that are sensitive to things like stretch, tension and pressure. They rapidly gather and relay information about our body position, forces it’s being subjected to, muscle dynamics and limb movements. Proprioceptors in our feet and lower legs, for example, gather and relay information to our brain about how the board is moving under our feet. Our brain can then process the information, dictate an appropriate response and send it back to our muscles via motor neurons so that we can make the adjustments necessary to maintain balance. This happens extremely quickly to the point where, for everyday activities, it seems almost instantaneous. We don’t have to think about how to catch our balance when we slip on a wet floor in our sandals, we just react. Paddling on a board, however, is a much less familiar activity for most people and the proprioception required to detect changes in balance on a board and react to them is much less developed. That’s why people feel clumsy when they first get on a board, even in flat water. In time we develop heightened proprioception in a paddling specific way and balancing on our board becomes more natural.

Obviously this process of developing proprioception for the specific movements of paddling occurs while we are on the board. But what about those that can’t paddle as often as they’d like to, or people from northern climates like me who can’t paddle for weeks at a time in the winter? Is it possible to do things that enhance sensitivity of the proprioceptors in paddling muscles on land as well?

I believe it is. In fact I have tried to incorporate as much training geared at heightening sensitivity of these proprioceptors and neural control of those muscles as possible in my dry-land work. I’ve found that each year I am more comfortable in the ocean at the Carolina Cup than I was at the end of the previous summer, and this is with very limited big water paddling in between. I believe this is a result of non-specific (i.e. not on my board) work that I do for balance on land in the winter, which quickly converts to the specific movement of paddling when I get back on my board in the spring.

I’ll get into a variety of specific exercises in a future post with video and full explanations, but in general here are the types of things you can do on land which increase your ability to balance and control the board underneath you on the water:

  • Plyometric Training: Plyometric training consists of explosive ballistic leaping, jumping and bounding exercises (for legs) and explosive training with things like medicine balls for the upper body. Not only is this great training for power and power endurance, which are the main types of strength SUP paddlers need, but if you do these exercises properly they present a fantastic opportunity to enhance proprioception and neural control of muscles in your feet and lower legs. When doing these exercises properly it is extremely important to try to land as quietly and softly as possible. The deceleration and cushioning required to land softly and quietly helps build strength by increasing neural recruitment and control of muscles. This has important benefits to balance as well. Not only do you heighten your proprioception by trying to “feel” the floor through your shoes when you land quietly, but the neural control of muscles required to decelerate smoothly means that the muscles of your legs and feet will be more finely tuned to effectively execute any adjustments you need them to make to maintain balance when you get back on the board. You’re not only increasing your body’s ability to detect changes in balance but to respond to them as well.
  • Do some of your standing exercises on one foot: When I’m doing things like upright rowing, lateral raises, biceps curls, etc. I try to do them standing on one foot and maintain perfect balance. I find this enhances core stability to an extent, but the real benefit for balance for a SUP paddler comes from what happens in your foot, ankle and lower leg from the perspective of enhancing proprioception and motor response. If I’m doing 4 sets of an exercise I’ll do 2 sets on each foot.
  • Use stability training equipment:  Things like Indo boards are useful but you don’t need to spend a hundred dollars buying equipment like that when any gym has lots of equipment you can use.  I’ll do standing exercises, squats, split squats, etc. on BOSUs (either upright or inverted), wobble boards, and circular balance pads.  Again, exercises on these require greater proprioception and neural control of muscles in your feet and lower legs than if you did them on the floor, and these heightened demands increase sensitivity to changes in balance that are transferrable to the board.  I even like to stand on medicine balls (one under each foot) or a stability ball (both feet) to do squats.  As a rule I never use additional weight on a stability ball as I’ve seen them burst and that can lead to serious injury.
  • Get creative:  One of my favorite balance training activities (and probably the most useful) is one I borrowed from Chris Hill and then enhanced.  I remember a few years ago he suggested I get an 8 foot 2x4, lay it down on the ground and then cross step up and down it to practice balance and footwork.  I tried it and found it particularly useful, probably more for the agility required to cross step than for balance.  To enhance that I added a circular stability pad under each end of the 2x4 and then tried cross stepping back and forth along the board.  It’s much more difficult and requires me to activate muscles in my upper body and core in addition to my feet and lower legs to maintain balance.  Again, it is a combination of both proprioception and neural control of muscles that you are training when you do this, as well as the coordination of your footwork.  I have found this activity incredibly valuable and usually do 3 sets of 20 to 30 cycles up and down the board starting in both regular and goofy stance (6 sets total) at the end of every gym session.   Over the course of a training cycle you’ll find your ability to do this quickly and still under control increases dramatically.   I’m certain there are other exercises or activities that you can come up with which provide the same training effect.  Use your imagination and have fun!

I cannot emphasize enough how much I think I have gained from training balance on land. I’m 51 years old and my balance should be declining; yet I feel it is better now than it has ever been since I started paddling SUP. Each spring I’ve been amazed to find I have better balance on the board than I did the previous fall. If you are a middle aged SUP paddler struggling with your balance I fully believe you can improve your balance dramatically, but you’ll have to do more work on it than you can do just on the board. Actively train your proprioception and the neural control of muscles, particularly in your feet and lower legs and I think you’ll see a huge improvement in your capacity to balance your board. If you’re from a cold climate like I am and your paddling season is limited you’ll want to incorporate lots of this type of work into your winter training.

Stand up paddling is a ton of fun if you can feel comfortable enough on your board to enjoy it. By combining a sensible choice of board with some easy and fun balance training anybody can find that comfort and have fun in rough water.