Mastering the Water from Above: Prone Paddleboarding for Triathletes & Open Water Swimmers

By Bruckner Chase, Swimming & Ocean Sports Editor

Stand Up Paddling

The groundwork for swimming stronger in the open water may be laid in the pool, but the breakthrough is always going to come when you learn how to read the water and understand how changing waves, wind and currents affect how you move through the water. The challenge for most of us is finding safe and accessible means and venues to log that critical time in open water. Thanks to a few ancient Hawaiians and more recently some big wave surfers and ocean lifeguards, paddleboarding is in the mainstream. Now you don’t have to be charging waves to improve your open water knowledge, feel and performance. Whether you are standing up on a board with a paddle in your hand or lying down with your hands in the water, Stand Up Paddling (SUP) or prone paddleboarding can give you an exciting new way to train while possibly making you faster in your primary sport as a side effect.

Stand Up PaddlingBefore you decide to grab a paddle and a board, let’s talk about the slightly less trendy sport of prone paddleboarding. Lifeguards have been using boards for decades as a fast way to get to victims through a surf break, but as with many activities someone is always going to want to test the limits. Paddleboarding in Southern California, like marathon swimming in the same region, links its history to the Catalina Channel. For paddlers the Catalina Classic goes back to 1932 when Tom Blake made the first Catalina to the mainland crossing of 29 miles in just under six hours. Ranging in size from 10’6” for lifeguard race boards to over 18’ in the Unlimited class these boards are narrower, thicker and far faster than their surfing counterparts. Of interest to swimmers and triathletes is the fact that the paddleboard stroke, when you are lying down, matches the power phase of a normal freestyle stroke. Furthermore, because of your body position on the board above the water, there is minimal overhead reach and the associated stress on the shoulder in the fully extended position is virtually eliminated. Double arm paddling, either kneeling on the board for advance paddlers or lying down, can be intense enough to humble even the most committed pool butterflyer. Also of benefit to cross training swimmers is the opportunity a board gives you to spend time with your head up watching the water and the surrounding environment. Since paddleboards are designed more for speed than stability there is a learning curve as you adjust to balancing from the core and a more shoulder driven stroke. The long term benefit is that the balance you get from dealing with everything from ocean waves to wind driven chop will improve your balance and feel for the water when you return to swim. If you need a break from the pool, and the local lake bans swimming, you may find that paddleboards will take you places your cap and goggles won’t. Because many agencies consider paddleboards to be watercraft, they can be taken into open water that is off limit to swimmers. Since they aren’t propelled with a paddle, the requirements for lifejackets vary by location. Finally, paddling lets you enjoy a bit more social time with your mouth out of the water, and that head-up time affords the opportunity to watch how you and the water move together.Stand Up Paddleboards

Prone paddleboards are not typically something you can pick up at the local surf shop, but that is changing in areas where paddleboard specific shops are opening up even far from the ocean. In recent years there has been a resurgence of prone paddleboarding with the discipline even being part of a recent Crossfit Championships in California. There is also a growing number of new multi-discipline surf craft events inspired by the Surf Lifesaving Sports world with it’s own version of an Iron Man. Each discipline or distance may lean towards a specific prone board type, but the ultimate for the cross training swimmer or triathlete is also the most recognized board time around the world for ocean lifeguards, the 10’6” spec board. This short, extremely light and durable board is versatile enough for waves and flat water, and is available new or even custom for $1,650 – $2,000. The slightly faster “Stock” 12’ boards perform better over longer distances beginning at five miles but give up some maneuverability in the surf. Stock boards are becoming easier to find in the US at local surf shops, and they can run from $1,800 to $2,500. The ultimate channel crossing, open water boards are the Unlimited class that can be 18’ – 20’ in length and are controlled with a rudder system. These boards can be extremely fast out in the open ocean on swells or in back bay flat conditions but they can be dangerous and fragile in the surf zone. Unlimited boards are almost exclusively custom made or purchased used with a new board costing $2,700 to $3,500.

If you have not seen prone or stand-up paddling in the last year or so you need to spend a little more time off the bike and by the water. Long time triathlon coach Roch Frey is also a strong proponent of prone paddling for the incredible core strengthening and balance benefits as well as the fact that it is just plain fun. Roch’s website and new book, Riding Bumps, ( translates his wealth of coaching knowledge to the new and seasoned aquatic athlete. The Ocean City Swim Club in South Jersey runs a program that provides prone paddling sessions for athletes with spinal injuries, and they host summer individual and group sessions for any athletes interested in getting on a board. One of the leading online sources for information is Distressed Mullet that covers everything from boards to gear to racing for both the SUP and prone world ( For races and results the leader in the ocean sports world is Paddle GURU (

Stand Up PaddlingWhether you are racing in a pack, or pushing up-wind towards the next bridge, you will find that the constant focus on balance and control on a constantly moving surface can add a dimension to your workouts that most other activities can’t even touch. Take your GPS along to measure speed and distance, and if you don’t want to add a new column on your training log, a rule of thumb is that a mile on a paddleboard is similar to 1,200 yards of swimming. Heading out onto the water with a friend can make working on your swim as social as Sunday’s long ride. If you want to try something even more swim specific with an added safety factor, then hit the water with a friend and only one board. Alternate swimming and paddling for the water born version of a brick workout.

Whether you go prone or SUP, whether you are off-shore or on the river, take a break from circle swimming and add some adventure to your training program. Endurance can get mind numbing in the height of the season, so explore a little more of the other 72% of the earth. Imagine the improvements when the waterways are open and you love the wildlife and waves as much as the sun and bumps of your favorite trail or roadway.

For more information check out these resources:

Dolphin Surf Craft –

Dolphin Surf Craf {North America} – Barrier Waterman, LLC –

Surftech –

Riding Bumps –


Bruckner ChaseBruckner Chase is a triathlon and swim coach, ocean lifeguard trainer, endurance waterman and ocean advocate whose marine and community endeavors have taken him to waters around the world is places such as Australia, American Samoa, Denmark, Greece and Poland. He is a global ambassador for the Lifesaving World Championship 2018 organizing committee, and he is the Technical Director and Media Ambassador for the Red Bull Surf + Rescue Championships. Closer to his home in New Jersey he is a member of the Sea Girt Beach Patrol and the founder of the Ocean City Swim Club. He is a professional member of the US Lifeguard Association, the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Swim Coaches Association.

Bruckner’s athletic career spans the most challenging events on water and land. He competed as a professional triathlete, and he continues to be an elite level competitor in every endurance sport he takes on. On the water Bruckner has completed multiple ultra-distance swims and paddles in some of the harshest conditions imaginable: a record setting no wetsuit swim in Alaska, a 22-mile swim of Lake Tahoe and historic swims between the islands of American Samoa. Bruckner competes in professional surf lifesaving sports across multiple aquatic disciplines. He is the fifth American in history to compete in the iconic Coolangatta Gold Surf Iron Man in Australia, and in 2016 he became the only American to finish the event three times and the first to earn a spot on the winner’s podium.

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