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How Surfing can Improve Your Triathlon Training

By Jenn Lee | July 03, 2018, 11:40 a.m. (ET)

I have always been a proponent of making training fun, and there is no other sport that makes training more fun than surfing. It is widely known in coastal areas that surfing is a fantastic activity — especially for an active recovery session. But what about the rest of the inland world? Paddling a surfboard has huge benefits that carry over into the sport of triathlon. As a coach, particularly for athletes who can swim but are afraid of competing in the ocean, taking a surf lesson in small, manageable surf with an attentive instructor can be life altering.
For those of you adventure lovers who don’t surf, much of the triathlon world in coastal regions loves to prone paddle. Prone paddling different from surfboard paddling in that the board is much larger than a normal surfboard — it is made for long distances and paddles quite fast. It is fantastic for lat strength and endurance, as well as for core and glute strength and stability. If cost isn’t a big deal and you have lakes to glide on, I highly recommend trying it. If you are looking to get into prone paddleboard racing as a way to supplement triathlon training, the best way to learn is a google search for paddling a prone paddleboard. Surftech manufactures some of the most popular prone paddleboards in the U.S., so if you are looking to buy one their website is a good place to start.
For those of us without a large toy budget who live near lakes and pools, paddling a shortboard surfboard offers an incredible upper- and lower-body workout without breaking the bank. The upper-body workout is much like swimming, with the exception that the paddle stroke takes place below the shoulder joint. It’s also gentler on the neck and back than paddling a longboard or a prone paddleboard — having less flotation in the back of the board puts your back and neck at a steeper angle so you don’t have to look up as high. For the lower body, paddling a shortboard uses quite a bit of glute, core and hip stability. Paddling a shortboard in flat water is a great recovery activity, with the added benefit of your legs being submerged in water while working your core stability, lat strength endurance and shoulder stability. Athletes also really enjoy the opportunity to enjoy being in water without being fully submerged as they would be during a swim session. Plus, paddling can help relax your mind while working muscles that will improve your swim and ability to stay in the aero position on the bike.
Not only is it physically beneficial, but it’s also convenient. You can go to your local lake and paddle around or you can tether a leash to a railing in your backyard pool or to a dock at the lake and paddle to your heart’s content.

How to get started

Depending on your height and weight, a board in the 5’6” to 8’0” range will do. The board can be new or completely beat up, it doesn’t matter. If the used board has holes in it, PVC tape, packing tape or stickers will patch it up just fine. Well used shortboards can go for $50 in coastal areas, so do a Craigslist search before you go on your next road trip to the coast. You will also want to purchase a surfboard leash that tethers the board to your ankle. If you are paddling on lakes without surf and want to carry a PFD, I recommend an inflatable waist PFD that does not interfere with your paddling. If you are paddling far offshore, I also recommend bringing your phone (in a waterproof case) or other communication device in case of emergency. If the water in your local lake is cold, a good wetsuit and pair of booties is recommended — the air temp can be warm, but if the water is cold, you will get cold.

Proper paddling

Paddling a surfboard is similar to doing an one-armed butterfly. The stroke should be through, out and around. I like to tell kids to pull through and make your arm like an airplane wing on the recovery portion of the stroke. The entry should be like that of a distance freestyle stroke, and the underwater portion can be a straight pull back or can look like the underwater portion of butterfly. I find I’m a little faster with a straight pull but other people feel they are faster with a butterfly-style pull. Don’t forget, you should not feel like you are doing freestyle. Since you are lying flat on a buoyant object there is no side to side rotation — if you attempt a freestyle stroke on a surfboard your shoulders will get fatigued quickly. 

Body positioning 

On a small board, you should be able to just barely touch the nose of the board with your hand. On a longboard, your toes should be six to nine inches from the tail of the surfboard. On both a long and shortboard, you should feel like you are doing a superman with your glutes squeezed together and your upper body slightly arched but feet together and legs on the board. The paddle stroke should take place entirely below the shoulder joint, and there should be no strain on your rotator cuff. If possible, get someone to record video of you to see what looks off.


At first, take frequent breaks to keep the sessions easy for recovery purposes. It’s important to ease into it, especially if it is a board that challenges your core stability and balance in the water. Stay close to shore during this time so if your muscles get too fatigued you can swim the board back to land. It is also important to take breaks by sitting up or getting off the board and standing or treading water — people new to paddling who lay in the prone position too long can cut off blood flow to their spinal cord which can result in paralysis. It is incredibly rare but it does happen, so it is important to stop and take breaks as you get acquainted with the activity. I give my athletes one- to two-minute breaks every few minutes at first, and the first session should be no more than 30 minutes in length. 
Another great core exercise is sitting up on (aka straddling) your surfboard. Sitting on a shortboard requires more core stability than one would think, so even while you are resting you are working your core. If the board you have is too unstable to straddle while you rest, you can treat straddling it like an exercise at the gym and go 40 seconds on and 20 seconds off or one minute on and one min off. If you take it one step at a time and do it regularly, you will find yourself paddling well and improving your swim and core stability in no time. 
After you make it through the beginner phase and are able to comfortably able to go for 30 minutes, you can add in interval prone paddling sessions if it serves your training goals. It’s best to treat it like an open water swim interval session or bike session, and you can get creative — anything from Tabata-style intervals to longer six-, eight-, 10- or even 20-minute intervals will work.
Paddling a surfboard can be another wonderful way to add variety and fun to your triathlon training while helping you get to that next PR without breaking the bank. And who knows, it might just lead to a surf lesson on your next vacation!

Jenn Lee is the managing partner of Hook-Up-Surfing (SUP and Surf school in Honolulu, Hawaii), a USA Triathlon Level II Endurance Certified Coach, PSUPA Instructor Trainer, WSUPA SUP Instructor, elite level SUP athlete, and former ASP longboard surf competitor.