This article was originally published on Larry Cain's website.
I remember when I did my first SUP race at the Cold Stroke Classic in January 2011 I felt pretty good paddling on the right but felt uncomfortable on the left and really unconfident moving around on my board. The best racer I met that day was Chris Hill, from nearby Topsail Beach, who took a lot of time to talk to me about SUP and some of the tricks that he’d learned. Not only was this my first experience with the cool stoke of SUP where people help each other out and share their experience, it was also an opportunity for me to learn some useful things I still use today.
Chris told me that a good way to work on my balance and ability to move around on my board was to lay a 2x4 on the ground and then cross step back and forth on it, just like you do on your board when you are moving forward or back surfing, downwinding or doing turns. I got home and starting doing it and sure enough it helped.
If you cross step up and down a 2x4 you’re training your balance a little, but what you are really training is your agility and coordination so that your feet know what they are doing when you try to cross step on an actual board. People unfamiliar with that motion generally have the balance to do it, but what they don’t have is the coordination. Their feet get tangled and that’s what causes the problems with balance. If you lay a 2x4 on the ground and start cross stepping back and forth you’ll find your coordination improves really quickly and it will definitely carry over to your board.
If you want to train your balance effectively you’ll have to take this simple drill to another level. What I did was place my six-foot 2x4 on top of two balance training cushions. These cushions are about 14 inches in diameter and about 2 ½ inches thick. They’re partially inflated so that they are a little squishy, which makes them unstable if you stand on them. One side is smooth and the other is covered with little knobs. I place my cushions knobby side down and lay the 2x4 on top between the two cushions. Then I cross step back and forth on the 2x4.
On these balance cushions the 2x4 is pretty unstable, tilting from side to side very easily. You’ll find balancing on the 2x4 quite difficult and cross stepping back and forth very hard. As you can see in the video, now you are truly working on your balance as well as your agility and coordination.
I’ve made this a daily part of my gym routine each winter and it’s had a big impact on my balance and ability to move with precision and confidence on my board. Each spring when I return to the water I have better balance on my board then I had the previous fall, and that is without paddling regularly for at least 3 months in the winter. Additionally I’ve found the muscles in my lower leg (calves and tibialis anterior) have much better endurance despite doing little to target those muscles specifically.
While the best way to develop the balance and footwork you need on your board is by doing balance and footwork drills on your board, I’ve found walking on the wobbly 2x4 incredibly effective because it trains the proprioceptors in your feet and lower legs. Proprioceptors are sensory receptors in skeletal muscle, tendons and joints that detect changes in body position and forces exerted on the body by integrating information they collect about joint angles, muscle tension, muscle length etc. As you’re moving on the 2x4 and it wobbles, the proprioceptors detect that wobble by the minute changes in muscle tension it creates. Sensory neurons take this information to the brain which determines an appropriate response, which is then carried to your muscles via motor neurons. When the muscles receive the message from the brain they make the adjustments required to maintain balance. The more finely tuned this system is the better balance you have and the more naturally and effortlessly you make the necessary adjustments required.
I find walking on the wobbly 2x4 much harder than moving around on my board. Because it really challenges my balance, if done repeatedly it really fine tunes the proprioception required to maintain that balance. Though balancing on my board is an entirely different skill, the neuromuscular pathway required to maintain balance is the same and the work I’ve done on the wobbly 2x4 to train it bears almost immediate benefits when I get on my board.
Once you’ve become proficient at walking up and down the 2x4 on the cushions, carefully and at slow speed, try to speed it up. You can add difficulty by keeping your hands on your hips. Lately I’ve actually started to hold a ten-pound medicine ball with my arms stretched out in front of me. I generally do cycles (back and forth) of 10 to 20 reps in both regular and goofy stance, and usually do three to four sets. It usually takes between five and ten minutes at the end of my gym workout.
This simple exercise has made a big difference in my balance and confidence in moving around on my board. Try it; especially if like me you are frozen off the water for part of the year. I bet it will make a big difference for you as well.