The sport (called SUP for short) was invented in Hawaii by surfers looking for a way to keep up their training on days with disappointing waves. Over the past decade, it’s won over a much wider following as word has spread that a wide, stable board and a paddle make it possible to traverse long distances while getting one heck of a core workout. Plus, unlike surfing, practically anybody can do it.
Washington’s lagging a bit behind beach communities, but we’ve gotten on board — on lots of boards. Not only do several area boathouses rent out SUP equipment, but businesses from here to the coast are going further, adding speed and fitness to the equation. At this year’s Paddle for Humanity race — held in Georgetown last weekend — more than 200 people competed, making it one of the largest SUP events on the East Coast.
“Racing is starting to explode. Everybody wants to train for distance,” says Kathy Summers, founder of Stand Up Paddle DC, who got into SUP for a popular reason: injury. After busting her ankle in 2009, the California native realized running wasn’t in the cards. But SUP, which she’d tried in Hermosa Beach, reminded her of the balance exercises she was performing in physical therapy.
Summers found she couldn’t go for a ride without people yelling questions at her from the Key Bridge, and she quickly recognized a business opportunity. Instead of simply renting SUP equipment, Summers offers small-group lessons in technique and fitness classes.
“If you can stand and walk, you can do it,” she says. So the fun comes from challenging yourself and exploring the versatility of the boards. There’s standard paddling for speed and distance, which is a popular cross-training option for runners and cyclists. You can also use the wobbly surface for yoga poses or moves you’d expect to see at a gym — burpees, squats, mountain climbers, etc.
Next season, she’s planning to add a PaddleFit boot camp, based on the rapidly growing exercise system devised by Brody Welte. The fitness instructor’s first SUP ride in Hawaii in 2007 left him exhausted but exhilarated. “And it just clicked,” says Welte, who’s developed programming for the boards in the water, on land and even indoors. You can buy SUP ergometers (imagine a rowing machine you stand on) and paddle attachments for rowing machines to mimic the stroke. “Usually when you’re sore from exercise it’s because you haven’t been to the gym in two months and you don’t want to go back. But you want to go paddling again.”
Since offering the first certification in 2010, PaddleFit has built up a roster of more than 300 instructors in North America and the Caribbean, including Camille Smith of Richmond’s Black Dog Paddle. “I used to love going to the gym, and I don’t anymore. I like to be outside. You’re out on the water, having a blast. There isn’t a better workout studio,” says Smith, who notes there also isn’t a better way to get fit. “Every exercise is more intense, and it increases your coordination and balance.”