SUP fundamentals: paddles and paddling.

SUP paddles and paddling define what stand up paddle boarding is. Yet the amount of new recruits that miss this is significant. It’s not hard to understand why. Of all stand up paddling’s component parts it’s boards which are biggest and so stand out most. Even after carefully perusing all potential gear conversations invariably to chats about board performance.

And let’s not even get started on inflatable SUP bundles. Yes, you’ll no doubt end up with a complete package that gets you wet from the off. But that ‘free’ paddle, included with your ever so nice wheeled bag and iSUP, will do you no favours (in general). Unless it’s a reputable brand we’re talking about who understand the need for a quality paddle – like us here at McConks.

Cheap alloy shafts that feature flex properties so soft it’s a wonder you’ll propel yourself anywhere are mostly useless to the point of being obsolete. Some manufacturers and SUP emporiums do offer upgrades (take this option if you can). But for the most part, there’re still too many cheap paddles being wrapped in shiny bundles labeled as freebies.

SUP paddles – why should I take note?

When you first jump aboard your new SUP the feeling of stoke from simply sweeping around is tangible. As a watersport it’s one of the easiest to ‘plug’ into and get involved. Yet, the thing missed is the element of technique and having correct paddling equipment to help develop said technique.

Black Friday SUP 2021
SUP paddles make a big difference to your overall SUP experience. Photo: Dan James Photography.

SUP should be thought of as pulling the rider through the water rather than over it. You’re going to be using big muscles in your body (trapezius, lats and glutes for instance – when you know how). To start with paddlers tend to apply their biceps and sometimes brute force it with smaller muscle groups which isn’t the best. The transfer of power goes directly into your paddle. If your paddle isn’t as efficient as possible then it’s impossible to generate decent forward momentum. With too flexible a paddle shaft and blade face that should’ve been left in the bin SUPers will be putting in maximum effort yet losing around 60% through bad equipment design. Bodies will tire quickly and joint/muscles will be on fire – aching and yelling at you to stop (certainly if you’re trying to get anywhere that is). For sure, riders will feel like they’ve completed a thorough workout at the end of their session but also run the risk of injury and losing the enjoyment factor.

A better quality paddle in contrast will help make SUP more fun and allow paddlers to enjoy what SUP. Gone will be the ‘grunt’ element experienced with a poorly conceived paddle design. Instead, a higher quality type will allow riders to choose when they want to put effort in (during racing or SUP surfing for instance) while delivering returns expected in terms of performance.

All types of SUP paddle make a difference – even SUP polo paddles!


If you’ve been bitten by the stand up paddling bug, and want to continue, then you’ll need to find a good paddle that suits your style and fits in with your aspirations. Simply upgrading to a mid-range carbon SUP blade will be a great start. Paddles that sit in this sector will usually be produced to a decent quality and certainly offer more performance than cheap alloy types. There are a few other considerations to be aware of, however.

SUP paddle shafts.

Adjustable paddles have a come a long way in recent years. So much so that they’re usually a good choice for recreational SUPers. This removes the need to accurately identify how long (or short) you need the shaft to be. It’s very easy to get this wrong and there’s WAY too much confusing info available online. Instead, an adjustable system allows riders to experiment and attain a length that feels comfortable. Test different sizing and ensure you’re not uncomfortable when on the water – if you are then change the length again.

SUP paddle blade size.

There are a whole host of different blade shapes and types available. All do very different jobs. In general a wider blade will give more power and allow deeper lower cadence strokes whereas slimmer blades are great for snappy rail to rail changes and a higher stroke rate. Advanced paddlers usually favour narrower types but this doesn’t have to be the case.

Dihedral refers to the ‘spine’ that runs through the blade’s face. This helps deflect water in various ways (depending on other factors). Most importantly, from a newbie or intermediate’s point of view, pronounced dihedral reduces ‘flutter’. Blade flutter is when a SUPer’s stroke isn’t quite as refined and the blade wobbles as it’s pulled through the water. Too much flutter results in an inefficient stroke and loss of power.

There a pretty much two types of handle available with slight variances on the theme. Palm grip and T handles deliver slightly different feels. Which you ultimately choose is down to personal preference.

If you fancy a stab at SUP surfing then you’ll need a fairly decent grasp of basic SUP paddle strokes.

The overriding advice when choosing a new SUP is to try as many as possible. We appreciate this can be tricky though. But trust us when we say you’ll feel the benefits no end if you get it right.

Paddling – grasping technique is key.

Some perceive stand up paddle boarding to be a technique free discipline – which isn’t true. As with the wrong paddle if you’re paddling with incorrect technique then you’ll be less than efficient on the water and may cause injury to yourself in the long run. One such gripe can be problems surrounding the rotator cuff. This can also affect seasoned paddlers. Understanding basic SUP paddling technique will help prevent this from the off. Bad habits, learned during those initial phases, will ultimately cause issues down the line.

Once you’ve completed your first SUP forays it’d be wise to get further coaching. A qualified and experienced SUP coach will be able to identify areas with your paddle stroke that need work. Through analysis and breaking down each part intermediate stand ups will be in a good position for developing and honing an efficient stroke.

There does seem to be some reluctance on the part of stand up paddlers (at least in those early stages) to get coaching. And yet, time and again we see paddlers taking to the water not even knowing which way round the paddle blade be. While it’s commendable seeing new recruits favouring the ‘go it alone’ approach there’s nothing wrong with utilising the services of a SUP school and qualified instructors. Progression will be rapid and once armed with essential knowledge you’ll be in a position to head along whichever SUP path you choose.


As an addition to the above – especially when discussing SUP paddle technique – there is a variety of follow on tools at your disposal. Online videos can be a great source of info with luminaries of the sport like Dave Kalama uploading technique tips regularly. If you’re looking for further pointers then make sure you understand who is reputable.

Magazines and other associated SUP media also publish technique related articles. As a SUP enthusiast, these can also aid your learning process – even if some articles are pitched at higher levels. There’s nothing wrong with aspiration after all.

And finally more experienced stand up paddlers at your local put in, or even further afield, will only be too happy to help guide and serve up advice. Cross referencing is never a bad thing and if you need clarification then refer back to an experienced coach/instructor. All of these things can be seen as tools in your toolbox and you should use them when possible.

For more SUP knowledge articles check out the McConks Knowledge Hub page here.

And if you have any questions about SUP paddles or paddling get in touch.

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