Why I Paddle Board (and Why You Should Try It)

paddleboarding3If you’ve been keeping up with Mark’s Daily Apple, you know that standup paddling is a longtime favorite pastime of mine. And though I was into it before it was “cool,” I’m certainly not the first. Fishermen have been paddling their water vessels from a standing position for thousands of years and pre-contact Hawaiian surfers employed long paddles to reach the best waves on their 3-5 meter-long boards. In the mid-20th century, Oahu surf instructors would lead classes atop longboards with paddles, but it wasn’t until Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama started standup paddling (and being filmed doing it) that the sport gained broad “sport” status and board makers began producing dedicated SUP boards.

So, a lot of people have asked: why do I love paddle boarding so much?

I love the minimalism of paddling. Consider snowboarding, which I also love. Snowboarding requires a bunch of equipment. You gotta get the lift ticket. You gotta wear the cold weather gear. You need to strap on the boots. You gotta ride the lift and wear the goggles and check the conditions. It’s exhausting. Exhilarating, too, and I look forward to it every season, but you can’t beat the simplicity of slipping into the water and hopping up on your board with just some shorts and a paddle and no plan at all.

I can’t do traditional meditation. I’ve tried. I know the benefits. It just doesn’t work for me. But paddling? Getting the angle of the paddle just right as it enters the water with the least resistance? Engaging every muscle, however minor and seemingly inconsequential, to pull against the water? Paddling is my meditation. To get the angle of the paddle as it enters the water just right with the least resistance. I never even really think of it as a workout, although there’s not a better core program if you have good technique. Since taking up paddling, I’ve really developed my serratus anteriors to go along with the standard abs.

Shoulder problems? Don’t worry. With proper form, the shoulder is stabilized when you paddle. The arms in both top and bottom position are maintained fairly straight throughout the stroke; think of a “V” emanating out from the shoulder, formed by the two straight arm. Most of the actual “work” is done with the lats, the serratus, the abs, the hips, and the legs. Overall, paddling with proper form is a fantastic shoulder external rotation “pulling” movement. Since the majority of people are biased toward interior rotation of the shoulders, tight pecs, and a slumped, inactive thoracic spine, usually from too much computer and smartphone usage, standup paddling is a godsend for shoulder health. Even gym rats, who tend to be bench press addicts, can benefit from adding more restorative pulling or external rotation at the shoulder. Many experts think your pulling (pullups, rows) should outweigh your pushing (pushups, bench, overhead press, dips) by at least 2:1. Paddling is a productive and enjoyable way to do it. When I have shoulder problems from the gym, paddling actually helps iron them out.

Santa Barbara Lifestyle Photographer Doug Ellis

Compared to kayaks and canoes, standup paddle boards give you a unique vantage point. Whereas the seated water vessels direct your focus toward going and moving forward and working hard, standing up directs your gaze downward and outward across the horizon. When I paddle, I can see everything below and around me, and because paddling itself is such a relaxed, meditative process, I’m inclined to take advantage of the increased visibility. If the water’s clear (as it is in Malibu), you’ll see some incredible things swimming below that you’d simply miss if you were trying to catch waves or cut through the water in record time. Standup paddling encourages exploration, and rewards it.

Cool things happen when you paddle. You might meet new people (SUPers are some of the coolest folks around, in my experience), you might catch a wave or two, you often see incredible wildlife (especially in Malibu – seals, dolphins, schools of bat rays and other large fish, etc.), because you can see straight down below.

A few weeks ago, I bought a new “starter” board on which to train first-timers (Costco, delivered free to the house!). The next Saturday I went down to the beach locker where I keep my boards and saw that there was a SUP race taking off just a few hundred feet up the beach. I figured I’d try the new board out in that race, so I registered. Big mistake. 20 paddle strokes in I could see that this board, while extremely stable and easy to ride, was a barge compared to my regular sleek board. This 5-mile ocean race was going to be a hurt dance if I was thinking of maintaining any real speed. And I couldn’t just drop out because, well, I knew too many people watching on the beach, so I settled in for a good workout and vowed to enjoy whatever happened. Rounding the final buoy about a mile and a quarter off shore, lost in the meditative paddling “zone” but aware of my surroundings, I was startled to look up and see not 50 feet away a large mama gray whale and twin calves just lolling in the water. This is a rare, rare sight, the kind of thing whale watching enthusiasts dream about. The people on SUPs around me were equally surprised, and we all just stopped — mostly because we were waiting to see if she and the kids might dive underneath us. It was fantastic and exhilarating to be that far from shore, in fairly choppy water wondering who would make the next move. As it turned out, we racers all agreed to take a 2-minute timeout and just “be” in this once in a lifetime moment. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had. And that’s the kind of thing that can happen when you paddle.

Santa Barbara Lifestyle Photographer Doug Ellis

Interest piqued? I bet it is.

Here’s how to get started:

For beginners, I always recommend larger, wider boards like the Costco board mentioned above. The bigger the board, the better the stability. There’s nothing so demoralizing (and quick to discourage further paddling) to a newbie than repeatedly falling into the water because the board’s too wobbly and your balance is too underdeveloped. People with extensive surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding, or other board-riding experience can probably get away with smaller boards, but the majority of beginners will get the most out of a wider, more stable board. Softer tops (as opposed to harder ones) also tend to favor the beginner.

Another choice to make is between planing hulls and displacement hulls. Boards with a planing hulls are like surfboards, sitting flat atop the water. These are great for all-around use, catching waves, and general fun on the water. Displacement hulls cut through the water, more like a kayak. They’re intended for racing and long-distance touring. I recommend most beginners start with planing hull boards until they get a feel for what they want out of paddling. If you get really into the sport and want to start racing or going long distance, you can always switch to a board with a displacement hull.

Buy at a shop rather than online for your first one. Many shops offer renter programs where you can try before you buy, and they’re full of passionate experts who will guide you toward the best board for your situation. Also, get fitted for a proper non-adjustable paddle; they tend to be higher quality than the adjustable ones.

Other than that? Just go try it. As I said earlier, it’s so simple and requires so little equipment (beside the board and paddle) that you can slip into the water and have fun. Ocean, lake, pond, river — all it takes is some water. If you’re a little unsteady, start on your knees. If you fall off, laugh and get back on. No one’s watching. No one cares.


Oh, and be sure to respect the locals, particularly if you’re trying to surf waves.

That’s about it for today, folks. If you have any questions about standup paddling, leave them down below. If you have any comments, tips, or advice for beginners, do the same.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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60 thoughts on “Why I Paddle Board (and Why You Should Try It)”

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  1. By a random happenstance, I went paddle boarding last week. I had very low expectations of it, but lo and behold, it was great. I can attest to the fact that falling of over and over again can be quite demoralizing, but it is very thrilling to notice getting better at each and every try. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone!

  2. Mark,

    What are your thoughts on inflatable SUPs? They seem to be rather prevalent in my searches….

    1. I learned how to SUP on hard boards. It would be terribly inconvenient for me to have one, and I would likely not get much use from it.
      So, I got an inflatable from Tower Paddleboards. I have an adventurer and an adventurer 2. My wife and I LOVE them. They are very solid (I’m about 245lbs) and they track very well.
      Probably the only knock on either one is that they rise over waves, and are therefore slightly less stable in the chop. Other than that, they are AWESOME.
      My experience has been great with them. And, as they are VERY portable, I tend to take it out much more often.

      1. I also have an inflatable 9′ 10″ Tower board, and I love it. Many of the Amazon reviews mentioned that the last few pumps were difficult to get it fully inflated, but I don’t have that problem (6’2″, 220 lb. woman). I might have bought a slightly larger board in retrospect–may have helped with initial stability, but now I never fall off. I use it most weekends during the summer on lakes. It’s probably not as fast as a slimmer, longer board, but it’s great if you’re more interested in exercise than racing, or if you want to do some yoga as well. My core strength and balance have seen marked improvement.

    2. My favorite inflatable brand is Red Paddle Co.
      Their inflatables are just about as stiff as hard boards. Some even have stays on the sides to promote stiffness.
      Inflatables are way more convenient than stiff boards for storage and transport.

      1. Love my new Red Paddle Co Sport 11′ – takes about five minutes to inflate and off you go. Stable and fast. Was out yesterday here in Noumea, New Caledonia.

  3. Now I wish I’d booked my October vacation in Malibu instead of NYC! Next year!

    1. You can always paddleboard in the East River. Just watch out for the floating bodies.

      1. Don’t worry David, I’ll get plenty of exercise walking around NYC. I might even look for a parkour group.

  4. Paddle boarding is one of the greatest things to happen to me as a result of going Primal. I have one of the big easy boards like Mark mentioned. I hate ab workouts so this is my only ab workout. It opened my eyes to open space around me; I live 10 minutes from a small lake and now explore the lake and surrounding park. I’ve taken my children out on the board, can’t take them to the gym. They love it! It’s a bonding event for us every time. I’ve overheard them telling their friends that they paddleboard 🙂 it is, as I believe Mark was saying, a multifaceted PLUS to a primal life!

  5. I picked up an inflatable paddleboard from Costco this spring. Love it. Mu question is on technique. I understand that it is possible to paddle without switching sides all the time. How is this done?

    1. J stroke. Take a longer stroke on the left side at the end finish with an outward push away from the board. On the right it would be a L stroke. You can also place the blade of your paddle in like a rudder at the nose of the board if you don’t have room to change direction with a stroke like to avoid hitting a dock float.

      1. thanks. I’ll try next time. I just been SUPing for 3 months but enjoying so far. Quite rivers and lakes are my limit so far, being sea waves too much for my stability 😀

  6. Rule number one. Stay out of the line-up. Paddleboard away from everyone else. Like several hundred yards at least. Preferably a good quarter mile. Or go to a lake or slow moving river. I get that people like it, but in the surfing community they are the most dangerous thing ever introduced to the lineup and for the most part unwelcome.

    In Santa Cruz we keep them in check. Unfortunately, in less aggressive communities they’ve been allowed to take over.

    Imagine being on a freeway with a bunch of semi trucks driven by people who can’t steer, can’t brake, don’t use their mirrors, and lack any common courtesy. That’s what it’s like surfing with SUPs.

    1. Exactly what I was gonna say!

      And just in case you don’t know what he means by line-up, it’s those groups of people catching waves the way God intended, haha, on real surfboards!

      I don’t mind an occasional SUP in the lineup, if the barge captain knows what he’s doing and takes care to not be a wave hog. But if you’re new to the sport, just stay away. please.

  7. hehhee, need to try that since we have paddles in the garage.
    live near nazare on the atlantic coast – problem will be the strong waves.
    will give me some lessons in balancing, huh? 😀

  8. I love it, but it is a killer on my feet and legs. Maybe with more experience I will learn to move around some, but the stationary stance puts my lower extremities to sleep.

    1. If your feet want some action, try the land version: I mean a Trikke! I wore out my first one and am on my second one ten years later. It tones up your entire body in one 45 min – 1 hr ride!! Abs, thighs, amazing arm muscle definition – and I am a 63 year old women who bought my first one as my “mid life crisis” vehicle when I was 50. If it can do that much for a girl, and an older one at that, imagine what it can do for a guy. It works your upper body, core, legs and butt. Put your iPod on, maybe some Rolling Stones, and you won’t want to stop the work out. It is the closest thing to free skiing there is for a thrill. Oh, you can dance on it while you are using it. Dancing on it will slow you down a little, but you won’t care! All you paleo people ought to try it – look at the Trikke videos on the web.

  9. Timely post! I have plans to go paddleboarding for the first time today.

  10. Timely post. I skipped the gym yesterday due to a mild ache in my shoulder. Its still uncomfortable so you have motivated me to get some SUP time in today. I like to describe SUP as taking a nature hike on the water. Blue time instead of green time. I second the fixed paddle suggestion. The adjustable paddles are heavier and may sink if you happen to set it aside to take video of the huge pod of Whiteside Porpoise that swims over to check you out. Down here in Laguna, there are groups that paddle out and do yoga on boards. Meditation on a floating yoga mat.

  11. Seeing the whale musta been awesome. Now what would it be like to see that 24 foot great white fin coming straight at you?

  12. Next time someone tells me paleo or primal is a case for obesity and a heart attack, I’m sending them this!

  13. We have a large Lake near Atlanta and we plan on renting one to try it out. I’ve heard great things about it but never had the chance until now.

    1. Matt,
      I took a kayak class yesterday at Lanier Rowing Club, northeast of Atlanta which was so much fun! At the end of class, we were allowed to try out various other equipment and they brought out a SUP, which I was amazed to be able to get on and stand for quite a bit before some choppy waves came in and I took a dunk! The club rents out all sorts of kayaks and canoes relatively cheap, so if you’re over this way, I would highly recommend them. This is also where the 1996 Olympics rowing and water events were held too btw…
      Have fun!

  14. SUPs are so much fun! I’ve been wanting my own for two years. Maybe I’ll get one at the end of this month– when all the tourists and summer folk leave for the season, and us Locals get the ICW back to ourselves.

  15. Friends don’t let friend buy boards at Costco. Find a good shop, communicate your needs, try a few demo boards and get something perfect.

  16. I am soon moving to Hawaii and looked into buying a SUP. It is absolutely mind-boggling that they cost close to $1000 for a decent board. Might have to rethink this…

    1. Rent one first and get yourself hooked and make friends with the rental guy. My board is a used demo in great condition. Paid $400 cash for the board, paddle, bag and soft rack.

  17. In Barbados a few years back I was watching the sunset across the ocean and there in the bay were SUPers, one doing the yoga sun salutation on her board – that image has stayed with me, something very primal.

  18. I live in southern Appalachia and these are becoming really popular here to take down the rivers. Super fun!

  19. Looks like fun Mark with lots of benefits … your passion for this activity comes through in your article, as well as an opportunity to show off that six pack! Quite impressive for ANYONE much less a 61 year old man. 🙂

  20. I live in Alberta Canada and have been paddle boarding for 3 years,usually on mountain lakes around Banff . I discovered it 5 years ago while reading laird Hamilton’s book ,Force of nature which also led me to MDA and have been living primally
    3 years to the date. It’s a very good workout and also extremely relaxing just laying in the in the sun on a hot day! It’s been such a hit ,the whole family is involved including the dog and have purchased 3 boards and we switch off. If you get a chance to try it don’t hesitate.

  21. I’m lucky enough to live on a large lake, and started paddle boarding a little over 2 years ago. I highly recommend it. I love going out first thing in the morning, its usually calm, peaceful and beautiful. Saw a magnificent bald eagle just a couple of days ago, lots of herons, hawks, an occasional beaver, foxes, deer. I kayak occasionally for a change of pace, but greatly prefer the board. I’m considering an inflatable for traveling, but haven’t pulled the trigger on that yet.

  22. Great read Mark. I tried paddle boarding as an alternative to surfing when I worked in the Maldives (flew the seaplanes there) a few years back. Loved every minute of it. Cheers

  23. Hi Mark have been paddling for about a year now in Sydney and still have no definitive answer on correct paddling stroke as there are so many variations. Any ideas on some good articles websites utube links ?? Love your articles. Dean

  24. Incredibly disappointed to not see any mention of safety in this article – PDFs and leashes are such simple and easy safety measures that save lives. Just google paddle-related drownings. It happens more than you think. I’ve been paddling for five years and have found success in local racing, ultra-distance races, etc. I’m also a fanatastic swimmer and was a lifeguard instructor. Despite this experience and skill, I STILL wear a PDF (waist belt) EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I’m on the water. From my lifeguarding years I know it is not a matter of if an incident/emergency will happen – it’s just a question of when. You have a huge audience here and I’m so pleased to see you promote a sport that I dearly love and think everyone should try. But what a missed opportunity to really drive home the need (and often times the law) to stay safe out there. Get a leash and PDF. Put them on. Easy.

  25. Mark, great introduction to the general public about SUP. Both my wife and I SUP race and prone paddleboard race/train/tour and enjoy the physical/mental/environmental benefits of it.

  26. I LOVE SUP. There is a funny picture of me eight miles out in the Sea of Cortez meeting up with a giant fin whale. Look at the expression on my face, hahaha!


    Somewhere on that page also is a good video I got on go pro of SUPing with dolphins all around me.

  27. I took a trip to Miami in January for work and the hotel I stayed at had free paddleboarding. It was my first time both paddleboarding and going out into the ocean like that.

    I seriously couldn’t believe the silence that existed once you out away from where the waves were breaking. I’ll admit, I got a little anxious and thought “I’m too far out here!!!”

    I hustled back into the shore and felt like I was reborn. Incredible experience.

  28. I tried this before and it didn´t work out for me. I had no balance and keep falling down. The paddle seem to big for me and it was very hard to advance in the ocean. I ended up on my knees which was a terrible idea, since they were all read and hurt when I finished. I almost ended up in some rocks.

    Seems so peaceful. Would really like to try again.

  29. I’ve been paddleboarding for three years now, and it is my most favourite pastime ever. Only one issue: after I’ve been out on the board for a while, my feet go numb. Can anyone tell me why this happens and what I can do to prevent it?

    1. HI Lori, this can happen with different deck grips or if you are gripping your toes too hard instead of relying on your core muscles for balance. Don’t worry though it does happen to everyone at some point.

  30. Great article.. I totally get what you’re trying to say.. I have the bug too! Sometimes you can get shoulder problems if your paddle is too long in the shaft and recovery brings your hand higher than your shoulder. Trying to maintain a stirring action in the front of your face helps alleviate this problem (and making your paddle shorter)

  31. I love paddleboarding and actually teach SUP lessons. But all newbies should heed mark’s advice and stay away from surf spots until you really know what you are doing. And if you want to surf an SUP you need to take a lesson, stay away from crowded breaks and be safe- you can really hurt someone in the line up with a big beginner board and paddle! Remember you have 20′ radius danger zone around you (board plus leash) so be careful.

  32. I am so glad you took the time to post this. I have always wanted to try paddle boarding. It is getting pretty big around here but I have been on the fence. This article pushed me to finally give it a shot. Glad it is so enjoyable for you.

  33. I’ve been standing up paddling small boats for over fifty years, and this is the best explanation I’ve heard for why to do it. My dad always told me that the first rule of small boating was Never Stand Up In Small Boats. So of course that’s all I ever did. I also like to stand up on the gunwales of my canoes while I paddle, to get extra height and the sort of sight-line advantages Mark talks about. But be careful with that. Now that I’ve read Mark, I might just get me one of these newfangled long paddles.

  34. I have a friend who keeps inviting me to paddle board. It looks like a lot of fun (and work). Will give it a try before summer ends!

  35. Great article! I would recommend staying clear of the Costco boards. They are fine for playing around but after a few times out there you will want a better board (and a nice paddle!) I recommend signing up with a good instructor for a class to really get the foundation and ensure that you are going out in good weather conditions the first time. If you get the wrong board or the wrong weather, it can really taint your experience. If you are ever in Sarasota, Florida–come out with us!

  36. I have been considering paddle boarding from time to time. I am really glad that you shared the information with shoulder problems. I just had surgery 6 months ago and I’m ready to try this as an exercise!

  37. I am so grateful to you, Mark, for introducing people to paddle boarding! I had never heard of paddle boards until I found and subscribed to your website. After careful consideration of portability, style, shape, and my own physical ability (innate balance and core/shoulder strength developed through workouts and a few months working as a courtesy clerk/cart-pusher), I purchased an inflatable Hydro-Force Wave Edge SUP (https://www.amazon.com/Bestway-Hydro-Force-Stand-Inflatable-Paddleboard/dp/B00F4UMUGS) for my birthday. I’ve only used it once so far, but it is one of the coolest things I have ever done! I did some research beforehand to see how to get into a standing position, paddle, and turn, but I also used my own physics-oriented mindset to stay balanced and move calmly through the water. I didn’t fall once!

    Finally, I like being able to adjust the length of the paddle so if I decide to kneel on the board for a while, I can shorten the paddle and continue moving. This makes getting a closer look at waterlife easier and gives your legs a chance to rest without having to stop exploring.

    Happy paddling!

  38. Do you have to wear a lifejacket? I am worried about going out too far in the ocean and there is nobody to save you! That seems a little dangerous unless you are with a group and they would call the coast guard if you were in trouble! I see people doing it by themselves on the ocean or with one other person.

  39. Great job on the article. I’m with you! Paddle Boarding is the absolute best. I enjoy it immensely and it is sometimes hard to put into words. I am puzzled by people that don’t “get it” . When I am on the board in wide open water, I do feel that I could paddle forever. In love with this sport.