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February 14, 2022 11 min read

SUP Paddle Strokes

Woman paddle boarding on a lake near a rocky mountain

You’ve purchased your paddle board, you’ve prepared all your gear, and now it’s time to hit the water. But how do you paddle and what is the best type of stroke to be using? 

Learning to stand up paddle board can be an easy task for some, but mastering everything can take time and hours of practice until you feel completely comfortable and at one with your board. 

The first thing you should focus on learning is paddle board strokes

It’s incredibly important to learn the different paddle strokes to not only push yourself through the water but also to get yourself out of dangerous situations. You don’t want to be in the way of an oncoming boat and not know how to turn now, do you? 

We’ve covered the different stand up paddle stroke types to help you get out on the water, making the most out of your SUP and your new found freedom.

The Three Main Paddle Types

Before we begin on the different paddle strokes, it’s helpful to know the different types of SUP paddles available and how they differ from one another. 

Aluminum

GILI Aluminum adjustable travel paddle

Aluminum paddles like the GILI Aluminum 3 Piece Adjustable Travel Paddle are the most affordable types of paddles that are great for beginners who are just starting their paddle boarding journey. 

It’s much easier to replace an inexpensive paddle if anything were to happen to it.

Fiberglass

GILI fiberglass adjustable travel sup paddle

Fiberglass paddles come in at the midpoint price range, but the increased price, however, does come with its benefits. Fiberglass paddles are stronger, lighter, and stiffer than aluminum paddles, which in turn provides more power in your strokes and increases the paddles' durability. 

The GILI Fiberglass Adjustable Travel SUP is a great example of this.

Carbon Fiber

GILI carbon fiber sup paddle

The pricier paddles on the list are carbon fiber paddles. They are expensive, but for very good reason. 

Carbon fiber is extremely durable and lightweight, making it the perfect paddle for experienced paddlers who enjoy touring, racing, or who like to get the most out of their paddle stroke. 

Carbon fiber paddles come with either a carbon fiber paddle shaft like the GILI Carbon Fiber SUP Paddle or a full carbon paddle shaft and blade like the GILI Full Carbon Fiber Adjustable Travel SUP Paddle. The latter is the more expensive of the two, but you really do see a difference in the paddle’s performance. 

Adjustable Paddle or Non-Adjustable Paddle? 

Adjustable paddles are a great option if numerous people will use the same board and paddle. Not everyone is the same height, so being able to adjust it will mean it can be suited to everyone. 

Adjustable paddles are recommended for children, who, over time, can grow with their paddle. There is no point buying a paddle to only have to replace it in a year or two when your little one grows out of it.

Different paddling activities also require different paddle lengths, surf paddle boards, for example, require your paddle to be slightly shorter than it would for touring purposes, as a shorter paddle helps make tight turns and gives you a more powerful stroke out on the waves. 

The Five Different Paddle Board Strokes

Once you’ve decided on the perfect paddle for you, it’s time to learn the different paddle strokes.

Man paddle boarding on a forward stroke

Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is the most important stroke to learn, as it is the one you’ll be using most frequently. The forward stroke simply propels you through the water in the direction you want to paddle in. 

To execute the forward stroke, while holding the paddle with one hand on the T-bar grip and the other slightly down the shaft, rotate your hips and shoulders so the paddle is over the water’s surface and the blade is angled forward. 

From here, place the paddle into the water. You should now have a submerged paddle blade which you can then glide back towards you. 

Once the paddle blade is slightly past your feet, pull the paddle out of the water and repeat this process. You should now move forward in a straight line at a moderate speed. To increase your speed, repeat the process at a faster pace, making sure your form isn’t being jeopardized. 

Reverse Stroke

The reverse stroke isn’t all that it seems. Not only will this stroke cause your board to travel backward, but it will also slow you down and turn your board. 

For the reverse stroke, you need to perform the forward stroke, but backward. Place the paddle in the water behind your feet, close to the tail of the board. Once you have a submerged paddle blade, hold your upper and lower arm straight and twist your torso, moving the paddle blade towards the nose of the board. 

After you’ve executed the reverse stroke, your board will turn in the direction that you paddled in. If you paddle on the left side of the board, the nose of your board will slightly turn to the left. If you paddle on the right, you’ve guessed it, your board nose will turn to the right. 

Sweep Stroke 

The next stroke on the list is the sweep stroke. The sweep stroke is used to turn your SUP and is fairly easy to perform.

Bend your knees, lower your arms and place your paddle in the water with the blade facing the side of your board. From here, sweep your paddle in a half-circle motion from the nose end of your board, towards the tail end. If you perform this stroke on the left side of your board, the nose will go right, and vice versa. 

To turn the tail end of your board, you’ll need to perform a reverse sweep stroke. The reverse sweep stroke requires the same motion as the traditional sweep stroke, however, you’ll be starting at the tail end of your board and half-circling towards the nose. 

Draw Stroke 

A draw stroke helps move your board in a sideways direction. If you want to pull up alongside a boat or dock, you can use the draw stroke to move your board towards it. 

Start by rotating your shoulders in your desired direction and place your paddle in the water so the blade is facing the side of your board. To move, you simply need to pull the blade towards the board and repeat the process. 

CrossBow Stroke

A slightly more advanced stroke is the crossbow stroke that can swiftly and efficiently turn your board.

If you want to turn right, you need to paddle on your left side. Twist your body, bringing your paddle over the nose of your board to your right side. 

Rotate your core and place your paddle blade in the water. Bend your knees and pull the blade towards the nose of your board. If your board is turning too much, you can bring your paddle back over to the left side and perform a sweep stroke. 

Perfecting a proper stroke technique will help you paddle more efficiently and use up less energy while out on your SUP. Practice these strokes in shallow waters until you get the hang of them. 

Pay Attention to Your Stance, Eye Placement, And Grip

Man paddle boarding on a lake

Your stance, eye placement, and grip also play a huge part in your stroke technique and can help with your balance while paddling. 

Stance

While paddling on calm water, your feet should face forward and at a shoulders' width apart. This will be your neutral stance and from this position, you can easily paddle on either side of your board. 

When you begin to paddle, bend your knees slightly to help maintain your balance and keep your hips loose so you can bend and reach forward easily. 

As paddle boarding requires movement, it’s best to keep your whole body relaxed and ready to perform your proper stroke technique

Eye Placement

Stand up paddle boarding is all about balance and keeping your eyes on your feet is a sure-fire way to end up in the water. 

Occasionally looking at your feet and stance can be helpful so you can analyze your position and improve or readjust yourself to get the most out of your strokes, but as a rule, you should always look up. 

Looking up and focusing on something on the shore or on the horizon will help you maintain your balance and keep you en route in the direction you actually want to go. 

Grip

The placement of your hands on your paddle shaft is vital to getting the most power in your paddle stroke. The easiest way to ensure you have the correct hand placement is to hold your paddle up over your head, with one hand on the T-grip handle at the top of your paddle, and the other along the shaft so your elbows are both at 90-degree angles. 

Paddle blades have a right way and a wrong way, and this can be identified on most paddles by the finger grips on the top T-grip handle. If your paddle doesn’t have this grip design, check the angle of your blade and ensure it is facing forward in the water. 

How to Get the Most Out of Your SUP Stroke

Man and a woman paddle boarding on a lake

Now you know the basic strokes and you know where to place your hands, feet, and eyes, it’s time to learn how to get the most out of your SUP stroke. 

There are five phases to an efficient paddling technique and we are going to go into detail about each of them. 

Reach 

The first of the five phases is your reach. To paddle forward, your paddle needs to be extended at a comfortable distance in the water ahead of you. 

When paddling, you want to keep your paddle as close to your board as possible, this will give you the most power and efficiency in your stroke. 

Once your paddle is in the water, activate your core and extend your lower arm while keeping your upper arm in line with your body. Bend forward, keeping your back straight and twist your shoulders slightly to set the paddle blade in the water. 

Catch 

When your paddle enters the water, this is when phase two occurs, the catch. 

Once you’ve reached as far forward as comfortably possible, you need to place the blade in the water perpendicular to your board to create the maximum resistance on your paddle blade. Your shoulders and hips should now carry the blade forward into the water. 

If the entry of your blade is smooth, with no splashing or water displacement, it will set you up to pull your blade efficiently through the water with the power phase that we will discuss next. 

Power

The phase that will most influence your speed is the power phase. Perfecting a good stroke technique in the power phase will move your board at a faster pace and glide you through the water with ease. 

To get the most power in your stroke, you need to activate your traps (the muscles that go across your shoulders and the midsection of your back) and your obliques (the muscles that run down your rib cages) as these will be the main force you’ll use to pull your paddle.

Your lower arm needs to be kept straight and the paddle shaft vertical. A proper stroke technique requires you to pull your body towards the blade rather than pulling the paddle blade towards you. 

Once the blade has reached your feet, remove it from the water and repeat the process. Leaving the blade in the water will decrease your acceleration, so it is best to remove it once you reach this point. 

Your grip on the paddle also needs to remain firm throughout, as this will help with the power and thrust in your stroke. 

Release

The release phase is where the blade will exit the water after you’ve completed your stroke. As mentioned before, leaving your blade in the water once it’s reached your feet will cause you to decelerate, so it is important to exit your blade to keep up your speed. 

The cleanest way to remove the paddle from the water is to lift the paddle while returning to your upright position. As your knees come out of the bend and your shoulders square, your upper hand will fall down and inward and the blade will remove from the water efficiently. 

Recovery

The fifth and final stage is the recovery phase. The recovery phase is the transition period between your strokes. 

After releasing your blade from the water and returning your body to an upright position, release the tension in your muscles, and rest before restarting the stroke process. 

A carbon fiber paddle with its lightweight will drastically help in the recovery phase and improve your overall performance. 

If you don’t recover properly, it will set your next stroke up for failure. So it is important to take the time to focus on your technique.

Common Paddle Stroke Mistakes

Man on a pink short paddle boarding on a lake

Perfecting the sport of paddle boarding can take time and practice, and to help you along, here are some common paddling mistakes to nip in the bud before they become a habit.

  • Feet positioning - To help with balance and to get the most out of your strokes, your feet need to be slightly behind the carry handle in the center of your board and roughly a shoulder's width apart. 
  • Not gripping the top of the paddle - It may seem obvious, but not gripping the top of the paddle is a common mistake new paddlers make. Always remember to keep the hand on the opposite side you’re paddling on, on the top T-grip. If you want to paddle on the left side, your right hand should be on top, and vice versa. 
  • Having your arms too close together - Having your arms too close together will make paddling difficult. To find the correct distance, place one hand on the T-grip at the top of the paddle, then place the paddle over your head and position your other hand down the paddle shaft so your elbows are at 90-degree angles. 
  • Not mastering the five paddle strokes - Practice makes perfect, and it’s recommended to practice all the paddle strokes in shallow waters until you get the hang of them. 
  • Your paddle blade facing the wrong way - Paddle blades have a right way and a wrong way and you need to make sure that the angle of the blade is facing away from you. 
  • Looking down at your feet - Balance is key and looking at your feet will cause you to become unsteady. If you don’t want a swim with the fishies, focus on something on the horizon or shoreline. 

FAQ’S

🏆 What Is a good distance per SUP stroke?

The distance between your SUP strokes depends on how fast you want to travel through the water. The more you paddle, the faster and further you will go. 

For recreational paddling, you can expect to paddle typically every 3-4 meters. If you want to increase your speed, however, you will need to paddle more frequently. 


👍 Why are SUP paddles angled?

The paddle blade is angled to help make your paddle strokes more efficient. The angle helps to push the water down and push your board up while also propelling you through the water. 

Having an angled blade provides you with more speed, less drag, and you will use less energy while paddling.

The angle of the blades varies from 5 to 15 degrees and the reason you’re using your board will determine what kind of angle blade you need. 

Surfing requires a 5 to 7 degree angle, recreational use is complemented with a 10 degree angle, and SUP racers should look for a blade with a 12 or higher degree angle. 


🏝️ What Is the best SUP paddle to use?

Carbon fiber paddles are the best paddles to use for stand up paddle boarding because they are not only lightweight, but they are also stiff to help you transfer your power into the paddle itself. 

Carbon fiber paddles are good for experienced paddlers who enjoy paddling over long distances as they require less energy and the lighter weight is more comfortable in the long run. 

With that being said, carbon fiber paddles are the most expensive type of paddle because of the quality materials used in the making process.


❓ How do I paddle efficiently?

Paddling efficiently requires a few important steps, but once mastered, will have you gliding through the water like a pro. Follow these simple steps - 

Step one: Keep your feet a shoulder's width apart, bend your knees slightly, and place your paddle in the water near the nose of your board with the angle of the blade facing forwards. Make sure one hand is on the T-grip and the other is comfortably down the paddle shaft. 

Step two: Using your core, back, legs, and arm muscles, pull your body towards your paddle until the paddle blade is near your feet. 

Step three: Remove the blade out of the water by returning to a standing position.

Step four: Recover, take a breath, and repeat the process. 

The more frequently you paddle, the faster your board will go.

Megan Bryant
Megan Bryant

Based in Bali, her favorite SUP spot is the GILI Islands themselves. Travel is another passion of hers - she dreams to see the entire world one day.


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