Mastering the Water from Above: Prone Paddleboarding for Triathletes & Open Water Swimmers
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. For those who think open water activities end below 60 degrees paddleboarding can take you off-shore as long as there is liquid water, so adding this surf lifesaving craft can give you an exciting new way to train virtually year around while possibly making you faster in your primary sport as a side effect.
Before you believe you have to grab a paddle along with 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 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. Local in Ocean City, NJ 7th Street Surf Shop on Asbury Ave has prone boards ready to hit the water. Stock 12’ long boards are available new from $1,200 to $2,000 and custom unlimited class boards for greater speed and efficiency can average from $2,700 to $3,500. Around the world in surf lifesaving sports the board of choice is the 10’6” spec board. Aside from being shorter and lighter this board has handles that make it easy for anyone to move transport and store. On the fun side this board is designed to cover distances fast but is extremely good in the surf. In the hands of a master this board can let you carve away on any way from ankle biter to overhead. On all prone boards shape determines performance in a variety of conditions. Curved bottoms and pintails make the board extremely fast but less stable while a flatter wider bottom and squared tail will give you control in the surf or more challenging conditions. If you want to compare speeds conditions and the rider make the most difference just like the top of the line tri-bike does not allow everyone to hold 25+ mph. That being said boards seem to have the following speed comparisons: Unlimited boards can be 1-2 mph faster than a 12’ stock which is .5 mph faster than a 10’6 spec. Again, conditions and paddler can put even the best theoretical calculations to shame.
True masters of design and manufacturing of surf craft must be able to tap into a huge knowledge base of hydrodynamics and design with a waterman’s wisdom of the sea and it’s athletes. In California perhaps the best know prone and SUP designer is Joe Bark whose designs can be found manufactured by Surftech. A veteran of over 30 Catalina Classic crossings and a fixture in the Southern Californian ocean community, Bark channels decades of flat water and big wave experience into everything he knows about moving efficiently through the water to constantly improve board design and materials. Joe Bark’s Australian counterpart in surf craft design is legendary Surf Lifesaving Iron Man, Zane Homes, the owner of Dolphin Surf Craft in Queensland, Australia. Zane has won every event in Australia from the Coolangatta Gold to the Nutrigrain Series, and his experience on the water and knowledge of board design make Dolphins the 10’6” board of choice around the world. The beauty of this fast growing sport is new materials and designs that are enabling limitless possibilities. One can charge huge waves or cruise a neighborhood pond. Even running white water is now an option with indestructible plastic and inflatable boards. Rather than a rest day of garbage yards at the pool take a spin around the lake to work on your balance and feel for moving across the water.
Throwing in board types, water conditions and paddling techniques the learning curve for any paddleboard or ocean craft sport moves faster with some instruction. The basics come quick, and within an hour or so you can work on logging miles and not just on staying dry. New riders need to keep in mind that the US Coast Guard has classified stand-up boards as vessels which means riders are required to wear a personal flotation device in many areas. What this classification also means is that anywhere you see a boat launch you now have a new open water workout area. Prone paddlers can also access water virtually anywhere including many lakes or waterways that may be off limits to swimmers. Since the prone boards are propelled by hand the paddler does not have to be wearing a life jacket although having a basic on-water safety kit to include at least a supplemental floatation device, signal whistle and board leash are highly recommended.
For those willing to brave a couple of possible ice-cream headaches there is nothing better than the quite, boat free waters in winter. Everyone has a different cold tolerance, and since hypothermia and open water can create extremely dangerous situations please always choose to be too warm than too cold and always take your first cold water outings in the company of experienced cold water paddlers. While a 5/4 surfing wetsuit, 5mm gloves and 5mm booties will insure you are warm these wetsuits will restrict shoulder movement for the type of paddling a prone athlete is going to do, and the constant movement can make you heat up. As one gains experience in the cold the uniform of choice tends to be separate bottoms and tops with layers that
can be vented or removed whether heading into a headwind or along flat, calm water. Feet and hands will always get cold, so thicker is better while insuring gloves have a good wrist seal to keep them on. Perhaps the most technical cold water paddling clothing is coming from Vaikobi in Australia that utilizes perforated neoprene mixed with polypro fabric. When paddling at a venue where falling in the water is not likely the best advice is to dress as though running in that same temperature with the exception being gloves and booties for extremities that will be in water as cold as 32 degrees. Since a tremendous amount of heat is lost through your head always remember to cover up with a hat or ear band that will insulate even when wet.
Whether you are racing in a pack or pushing upwind 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.
Don’t let a black line or turn buoy define your ocean or open water experience. 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. The demands of endurance training and racing can get mind numbing regardless of the season, so discover explore new creative and challenging open water time to recharge that red mind drive. Imagine the positive impact of a perspective with water as the favorite training venue with wind and waves the favorite thing to see on race day morning.
For more information check out these resources:
- OC Swim Club Prone Paddling – www.oceancityswimclub.org
- OC Swim Club Unified Team for Physically Challenged Athletes – www.oceancityswimclub.org
- World Paddling Associations – www.worldpaddlingassociation.com
- Bark Paddleboards – www.joebark.com
- Dolphin Surf Craft – www.dolphinsurf.com.au
- Paddle Guru – www.paddleguru.com
- Vaikobi – www.vaikobi.com