Win Your Race Before It Starts With A Solid SUP Race Strategy

Do you know the fastest way to paddle into this inlet?

If your answer is no, you don’t know the fastest way, then this could cost you the race. If your answer is yes, then there are still some important elements to take into consideration.


We have covered some of the foundations of a SUP race training program with our technique and goal setting posts. Now it’s time to get to one of the most overlooked aspects of SUP racing, race strategy.

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The day of your big race is approaching fast. You have put in the hard work with your training, nutrition and mental preparation.  At this point you should ask yourself, ‘Do I have a race strategy?’.


Race strategy involves training smart while forming a clear plan to execute during your race. Race strategy is all about racing smarter, not harder. A complete race strategy includes understanding the race course conditions, drafting, pacing, tactical skills and nutrition.


We strongly believe that race strategy is an area of SUP competition that is often overlooked but can make the difference between reaching your goals or falling short. The following information is a small selection of tips from the Race Course section of the Race Strategy chapter in our upcoming eBook, SUP Training The Smart Way.  Use these tips as a checklist to ensure you are prepared for your next SUP race with a comprehensive, well thought out approach.


Before The Race


Understanding the details of a race course before the race can make a huge difference in your race result. Have you heard of home field advantage? There is a reason paddlers and other athletes feel more comfortable and successful when competing in familiar surroundings.


Take the time to research outside factors that will be present on the race course. These factors can include tides, wind, waves, current, sandbars, weeds and other obstacles.




It is important to know the timing of the tides on race day. Tides will affect your race most noticeably when paddling through, or in proximity to, an inlet or mouth of a bay. By definition, inlets generally connect intracoastal waterways or bays with larger areas of the ocean. They can range in width from a few feet to miles wide, and they are regularly bounded on either side by rock jetties.


Inlets usually have strong tidal currents, shifting bottoms and considerable water turbulence because of their relatively narrow openings. Tides and tidal currents are very complex forces of nature that are influenced by many things. Tide height and tidal current charts can be read to help get an understanding of what to expect during the race. However, each inlet has its own unique geography and bottom contours that will determine exactly where the best places to paddle through it will be. Without getting into hydrodynamic modeling and taking a class on coastal engineering, below are some basic guidelines for paddling through an inlet or mouth of a bay.


Inlet and Bay Paddling


If the tide is incoming (low to high tide change), the fastest way to paddle into the inlet or bay from the ocean will be toward the middle.


If the tide is outgoing (high to low tide change), the fastest way to paddle out of the inlet or bay and into the ocean will be along the far edges.


There can be a significant difference in tidal velocity in each section of an inlet. It will not always be as simple as either paddling in the middle or along the sides of an inlet. Using a board mounted GPS to determine the differences in your speed as you paddle either toward the middle or edges of an inlet can help you find the best spot to be. Remember that sometimes a difference of only a few feet can significantly change your speed.




No, this is not your friend Eddie from the bar. An eddy is the swirling of water and the reverse current created when it flows past an obstacle. It is important to understand eddy’s and learn to recognize them on the water so you can be best prepared when they are encountered.


Eddy’s are most prominent in river paddling but can often be found in inlets and the mouth of bays. Eddy’s are most visible behind large exposed rocks and other objects located in swift currents.


Look for eddy’s on the water by their characteristic swirling appearance. Eddy’s should be avoided as they can cause you to lose balance and fall.


Pro Tip


You can study all of the charts you want but the best thing to do is to paddle the course and speak with the locals.


Paddle the course under similar tides and conditions that you might encounter on race day if possible. Natural inlets, like the one in the top picture, are constantly changing with new sandbars, waves and currents. After a strong storm, a natural inlet can completely change from it’s previous features. Look for ripples of waves moving through the tidal openings. If it is a strong current you will notice small waves that resemble a river flowing. This area is where the water is flowing the fastest and should either be avoided if going against it, or used if paddling with it. Changes in the color of the water to a lighter hue often indicates shallow sand banks. Don’t end up like a beached whale in the middle of your big race. These shallow areas should be avoided with at least a 5-10 foot cushion to prevent slowing down or a complete grounding.


At the end of the day, speaking with the local paddlers and paddling the course yourself are the best ways to gain quality information to add to your race strategy.


Wind and Waves


Wind and waves are factors in stand up paddling that can be our greatest friend or our worst enemy. If you have ever done a grueling paddle in side wind and choppy conditions, you know how difficult these things can make life on the water.


Prepare for your race by understanding what the predominate wind and wave conditions will likely be on the course.


A great way to prepare for paddling in wind and chop is to do your interval workouts while paddling straight upwind or side-wind and then back downwind. This variety of conditions will prepare you for the feeling of paddling when the elements are less than perfect.



Paddling in Wind and Chop


We wish we did not have to write this section, but unfortunately upwind, choppy paddling is a part of becoming a complete paddler. Below are a few adaptations to your stroke that will help in these conditions.


Increase your cadence


The first part of the stroke to think about changing is going to be your cadence, or repetitions. Each time you bring your paddle out of the water you are decelerating your board. With the exception of downwind paddling, deceleration will occur no matter what conditions you are paddling in.


When there is headwind and chop present, deceleration in between strokes increases due to the increased wind and water resistance on the body and board. We can limit deceleration in these situations by decreasing the amount of time our paddle is out of the water. This can be achieved by increasing the speed of our cadence through shorter, faster strokes and a quicker recovery.


Lower your center of gravity


You should never stand with completely straight legs while paddling or doing any athletic movement. This is especially true in windy and choppy conditions. Bend your knees and widen your stance when paddling in rough water. A lower stance will put you in a more powerful and stable position, create less wind resistance and help you to increase your cadence.


Paddling Side-wind


In side-wind conditions you will want to use the same tips as above. Additionally, using a J-stroke technique will help you paddle more times on the windward side of your body.


Any chance you get to rest the leeward side of your body will be valuable in preventing cramping and fatigue.


Paddling through the surf


Paddling a SUP race board in breaking waves can be a fun and challenging. Use these tips to help navigate the surf on your race board.




The more time you spend in the surf, the more comfortable you will become going in and out of the waves. Lay down surfing or surfing on a SUP are great ways to gain confidence in your abilities, while learning the power of the ocean.


Once you have mastered smaller boards in the waves, you can take your race board into the ocean to practice surfing on it.


Get to the tail


When paddling out through the surf you need to move back-and-forth on your board. When approaching a wave that has already broken, the whitewater will be coming at you and can easily knock you off of your board.


The best way to avoid falling off is to step back to the tail of your board so that the nose is lifted and can go up and over the whitewater. This movement is the same skill as a pivot turn that we will discuss in another post. Practice the pivot turn in flat water before trying it in the waves.


Point into the waves


A common mistake in the surf is letting a wave hit your board on its side. Even the most skilled paddlers will get taken out if a wave hits on the side of their board. Whenever whitewater is approaching, alter your course so that you are lifting the nose and pointing straight into the oncoming waves. Once the wave has passed you can adjust back to your original path.


Surfing into the beach


Once you make it out through the waves you will eventually need to come in. Surfing a wave into the beach requires good timing and skill. There is no exact science to catching waves. The more time you are able to spend in the surf, the more comfortable you will become with your timing and skills.


The biggest mistake when surfing race boards is burying the nose of the board in the water, also known as pearling. You are most likely to pearl your board during the takeoff as you catch the wave.


Make sure you get to the back of your board and in a surfing stance as soon as you feel your board accelerate onto the wave. Once on the wave, you should assume a low and wide stance with your knees bent and paddle in the water. Always keep your paddle in the water as it can be used as a balancing stick to help you stabilize while surfing the wave.



Another time that paddlers often fall off while surfing is when the wave breaks. Once on a wave, the wave may not actually break until you surf closer to the beach. As the wave begins to break, be sure to exaggerate your surfing stance so that you are even lower and wider than before as shown by the far left paddler above. Some advanced paddlers get so low that their back knee is actually touching the board. This exaggerated stance will give you the best chance to stay on your board as the wave breaks and releases all of it’s power.




A majority of paddlers will paddle most efficiently in completely flat water with zero wind. Unfortunately, rarely will you find a race with these perfect conditions. Prepare yourself for the worst conditions possible and you will thrive on race day. Training in wind and chop will help you feel more comfortable (faster!) when conditions are less than ideal. Experience in adverse conditions will often make a big difference in improving your race results.


These SUP race strategy tips are important but they can all go to waste if you have poor nutrition. Find out the secrets to proper fueling and recovery to help ensure your best race possible in our next post.


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