On Not In To Become a Stronger Open Water Swimmer

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The groundwork for swimming stronger in the open water may be laid in the pool, but the breakthrough is always going to come when you learn how to read the water and understand how changing waves, wind and currents affect how you move through the water. The challenge for most of us is finding safe and accessible means and venues to log that critical time in open water. Thanks to a few ancient Hawaiians and more recently some big wave surfers and ocean lifeguards, paddleboarding is in the mainstream. Now you don’t have to be charging waves to improve your open water knowledge, feel and performance. Whether you are standing up on a board with a paddle in your hand or lying down with your hands in the water, Stand Up Paddling (SUP) or prone paddleboarding can give you an exciting new way to train while possibly making you faster in your primary sport as a side effect.

Before you decide to grab a paddle and a board let’s talk about the slightly less trendy sport of prone paddleboarding. Lifeguards have been using boards for decades as a fast way to get to victims through a surf break, but as with many activities someone is always going to want to test the limits. Paddleboarding in Southern California like marathon swimming in the same region links its history to the Catalina Channel. For paddlers the Catalina Classic goes back to 1932 when Tom Blake made the first Catalina to the mainland crossing of 29 miles in just under six hours. Ranging in size from 10’6” for lifeguard race boards to over 18’ in the Unlimited class these boards are narrower, thicker and far faster than their surfing counterparts. Of interest to swimmers and triathletes is the fact that the paddleboard stroke when you are lying down matches the power phase of a normal freestyle stroke. Furthermore, because of your body position on the board above the water there is minimal overhead reach and the associated stress on the shoulder in the fully extended position is virtually eliminated. Double arm paddling either kneeling on the board for advance paddlers or lying down can be intense enough to humble even the most committed pool butterflyer. Also of benefit to cross training swimmers is the opportunity a board gives you to spend time with your head up watching the water and the surrounding environment. Since paddleboards are designed more for speed than stability there is a learning curve as you adjust to balancing from the core and a more shoulder driven stroke. The long term benefit is that the balance you get from dealing with everything from ocean waves to wind driven chop will improve your balance and feel for the water when you return to swim. If you need a break from the pool and the local lake bans swimming you may find that paddleboards will take you places your cap and goggles won’t. Because many agencies consider paddleboards to be watercraft, they can be taken into open water that is off limit to swimmers. Finally, paddling lets you enjoy a bit more social time with your mouth out of the water, and that head-up time affords the opportunity to watch how you and the water move together.

Prone paddleboards are not typically something you can pick up at the local surf shop, but that is changing in areas where paddleboard specific shops are opening up even far from the ocean. The ultimate in flexibility for waves to flat water is the lifeguard Spec 10’6” Board available new or even custom for $1,600 – $2,000. The slightly faster Stock 12’ boards are available new from $1,800 to $2,500 and custom Unlimited class boards for greater speed and efficiency can average from $2,700 to $3,500.

If you have not seen prone or stand-up paddling in the last year or so you need to spend a little more time off the bike. Currently SUP and prone board manufacturer, Surftech, is celebrating 25 years in the surf industry, and they continue to be a leading innovator in board design with a desire to share the aquatic “Stoke” with all outdoor focused athletes. Long time triathlon coach Roch Frey is also a strong proponent of prone paddling for the incredible core strengthening and balance benefits as well as the fact that it is just plain fun. Roch’s website and new book, Riding Bumps, (www.ridingbumpts.com) translates his wealth of coaching knowledge to the new and seasoned aquatic athlete. The Ocean City Swim Club in South Jersey runs a program that provides prone paddling sessions for athletes with spinal injuries, and they host summer individual and group sessions for any athletes interested in getting on a board.


Once you make the choice on whether to stand up or lie down the open water world becomes your playground, and you may find it hard to head back to the pool or get back on your bike. There are a growing number of paddleboard races and recreational outings popping in bodies of water all over the world. Key resources to discover what is happening in your world are sites like the World Paddling Association (http://worldpaddleassociation.com) and SUP The Mag (www.SUPthemag.com). Also check out the Facebook sites for large companies like Surftech (Surftech-SUP) or those of your local SUP retailer.

Whether you are racing in a pack or pushing up-wind towards the next bridge you will find that the constant focus on balance and control on a constantly moving surface can add a dimension to your workouts that most other activities can’t even touch. Take your GPS along to measure speed and distance, and if you don’t want to add a new column on your training log a rule of thumb is that a mile on a paddleboard is similar 1,200 yards of swimming. Heading out onto the water with a friend can make working on your swim as social as Sunday’s long ride. If you want to try something even more swim specific with an added safety factor then hit the water with a friend and only one board. Alternate swimming and paddling for the water born version of a brick workout.

Whether you go prone or SUP, whether you are off-shore or on the river, take a break from circle swimming and add some adventure to your training program. Endurance can get mind numbing in the height of the season, so explore a little more of the other 72% of the earth. Imagine the improvements when the waterways are open and you love the wildlife and waves as much as the sun and bumps of your favorite trail or roadway.

For more information check out these resources:

Dolphin Surf Craft – http://www.dolphinsurf.com.au

Dolphin Surf Craf {North America} – http://www.lifeguarddepot.com/en/dolphin-surf-craft

Surftech – http://www.surftech.com

Riding Bumps – www.ridingbumps.com

Bruckner Chase – www.brucknerchase.com

Ocean City Swim Club – www.oceancityswimclub.org

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