Paddleboarding tests balance and strength

CHICAGO - "The learning curve is three minutes." That was my dread-locked instructor Michael Westenberger, who goes by "Westy," as he watched me awkwardly wobble from my knees to my feet on a stand-up paddleboard, the gear used in the fast-growin...

How to do squats
Michael "Westy" Westenberger demonstrates how to do squats on a stand up paddle board in Chicago. Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - "The learning curve is three minutes."

That was my dread-locked instructor Michael Westenberger, who goes by "Westy," as he watched me awkwardly wobble from my knees to my feet on a stand-up paddleboard, the gear used in the fast-growing water sport finding fans in oceans, lakes and rivers across the country.

I happened to be in a lagoon, ideal for its flat water but not for the plastic bottles bobbing by. Bracing myself to topple into the murkiness, my toes clutched the spongy traction pad on top of the board. I dipped barely the tip of my paddle into the water beside me and drew it back, rigid and teetering, apparently forgetting Westy's warning that the biggest mistake is to be tentative. I'm going to fall, I announced. He said to keep paddling.

"Speed is your friend," he said. "It's like a bicycle."

Stand-up paddling, or SUP, can be like biking, or it can be like surfing, circuit training, white-water rafting, yoga or pilates. People are doing all of those activities on stand-up paddleboards, which are like slightly longer, wider and thicker surfboards with a slightly longer fin on the bottom, except you stand on them and steer with a long single-blade paddle.


"It's developing so fast," said Westenberger, a professional SUP racer who certifies instructors to teach paddle fitness courses and serves as director the Key West Paddleboard Classic. "We're scratching the surface."

Taking hold

Though the concept of stand-up paddling has been around for as long as people have been navigating waterways, as a recreational sport and fitness activity it has been flourishing over the past decade, starting in Hawaii then spreading to California and Florida, and now taking hold in the Northeast and the Midwest.

Two pro surfers, Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, are widely credited for inciting the current craze. They were doing a photo shoot for a mutual sponsor in Maui in the mid-1990s and got bored by the small waves, so Kalama grabbed a couple of canoe paddles from his truck and they paddled out standing on their longboards, catching waves without ever having to lie down.

"We were laughing at each other and having a blast," Kalama said. The next day, Hamilton had longer paddles custom made for them so they could stand up straight, and they shared their discovery with their friends, who shared it with their friends.

A good workout

One of the most popular iterations has been as a fitness tool. PaddleFit, a workout system that intersperses paddle sprints with squats, pushups, situps and other exercises on the floating board, as well on-land drills, has 343 certified instructors in North America, said founder Brody Wellte, who is based in San Diego (

The no-impact, full-body workout is accessible to all ages - Wellte's oldest client was 78 - and is particularly effective for core strengthening because the unstable surface requires muscles to be always engaged.


"It's basically a floating fitness mat," said Wellte, who has seen people do it on everything from the open ocean to indoor pools at YMCAs. The risk is paddling with improper technique, which can damage the smaller tendons and ligaments of the shoulders; your whole body should go into each stroke, not your arms, Wellte said

Ben Webb credits stand-up paddling with helping him lose 60 pounds.

At 5 feet 8 inches tall, Webb, formerly a surfer, weighed 270 pounds, in the worst shape of his life, when, after turning 51, he decided to change his diet and commit to a fitness routine.

In the lake near his home in Auburndale, Fla., Webb took to cruising around on a stand-up paddleboard about three times a week, but enjoyed being back in the water so much it soon it turned into one to two hours every day. Once he discovered PaddleFit, the pounds started flying off. He says he lost 41 pounds in the first 90 days.

"I feel it saved my life," said Webb, now 52, who closed the screen-printing shop he owned and moved to Anna Maria Island, just sound of Tampa Bay, where he now takes people on stand-up paddle tours through the backwaters and mangroves of the Gulf of Mexico (

Jaime Donnelly, formerly a professional snowboarder, said she got in the best shape of her life when she started doing paddle fitness routines and stand-up paddling yoga.

"It's the most intense core workout," said Donnelly, who offers private lessons on both. "You're using about 80 percent core."

Donnelly, who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., had been practicing and teaching yoga for several years because it helped heal the damage to her lower back, knees and hips from her snowboarding days, and then started doing SUP because it was something she could still be competitive in. She started dabbling in downward dog, upward dog and warrior pose on her paddleboard, and found it was more interesting and refreshing than being in the studio. On a lake, she can go through a complete vinyasa class without modification, though some balance poses, like tree or dancer, require use of the paddle for stability. On an ocean the challenge is to adapt to the ripples and boat wakes.


"The ocean is neat because it's never constant," said Donnelly, who is a certified yoga instructor and a certified paddleboard instructor through the World Paddle Association, the main advocate for race rules and water safety. "We incorporate breath with the moving."

Back at the lagoon, three minutes had passed, my knees had softened and I had finally figured out how to plunge the paddle fully into the water, keeping my arms straight while the rest of my body leaned into the stroke. My feet ached, not having budged from the spot on the board where they gripped for dear life.

"That goes away," Westy assured me as he shuffled around his board and stood on one foot. He took me through a brief version of a circuit workout - paddle as fast as you can to that buoy, do five squats, paddle to the next buoy, do five pushups, paddle to the next buoy, do five full sit-ups.

As fast as I could was pathetically slow. But by the end of our session, my feet no longer ached, my body dipped and flowed with the board, my paddle strokes were long and I was enjoying the sun-dappled scenery, eager to do it again.

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