SUP Footwork for Running Rivers

SUP Footwork for Running Rivers

Let’s face it…river SUP is a new sport and we are all figuring this out together. Zack and I both come from a background of teaching whitewater kayaking and as we have been designing boards together and running rivers testing the boards out, we are constantly talking technique. What is working for us…what isn’t…trying to break down what we did when we had success and what we did wrong when we swam.

We are also lucky to have some really talented paddlers on our team so we watch them as well and break down their technique. One of our grom team riders Miles watches a ton of You Tube Videos of his favorite paddlers and incorporates their technique into his riding. There are lot of ways to get better, but what I have learned over the past few years is that nothing is more critical for successful river running on a paddleboard than footwork.

*I am only going to focus on foot position and footwork for this post. For more basic river running technique check out this video.


Let’s start by getting on the same page with regards to terminology for the various ways to stand on a board.

Surf Stance. Surf Stance is standing sideways on the board, (like when you are surfing), feet even along the longitudinal center line of the board or stringer, with either your right foot forward (goofy) or your left foot forward (regular).

Team Rider Miles in surf stance about to run a big hole.

Modified Surf Stance. I have heard other ways to refer to this stance, but a modified surf stance is when you are standing with one foot forward and one back, but in this case your feet are offest to the rails.

Here Miles is dropping into a rapid on the Colorado River in modified surf stance

Neutral or "Paddler's" Stance. Neutral is the way you would paddle in flatwater, feet in the middle of the board, toes forward in an even, neutral stance.

Brittany Parker in neutral stance in between buoy turns during a SUP cross.

Navigating river currents requires you to shift your weight and change the edging of the board. You also have to remain balanced through these weight shifts. For stand up paddlers that means moving your feet around to allow you to put pressure on different areas on your board.

I am going to go through some of the various scenarios and footwork that I use in these scenarios to give you some concepts to play with the next time you go paddling, but understand this is just meant just to get you thinking about your feet the next time you go paddling. There are a lot of variations on each of these three stances; obviously I have lumped them all into three categories for simplicity.

One other general note. I am a Goofy Footer. Always have been since I started pushing a skateboard around Cleveland Heights, Ohio in 1982. When I first started stand up paddling I was only comfortable in either neutral stance or goofy foot surf stance. I have learned that I have to practice paddling in regular foot surf stance and modified surf stance in order to make all the moves I want to on the river. Here is a technique article I wrote for CKS that talks about this concept as it relates to river surfing.

Neutral Stance Situations. For most people standing neutral is their default. It’s instantly comfortable and you can switch sides with your paddle easily. There are a lot of situations where I paddle in neutral on the river, but not usually in any critical situation. The reason is pretty simple, neutral stance is the least athletic position when some force slows your forward momentum. If someone tries to push you over are you more stable standing straight up and down or with one foot in front and one back? By and large I paddle in a neutral position when things are neutral, in other words when I am not trying to come in and out of an eddy or ferry across the river or make a harder move in a rapid. That said sometimes in the middle of the rapid neutral allows you to get your board pointed the right way or reset for the next move.

Surf Stance Situations. Standing in the surf stance allows you maximum aggressiveness when you are making one critical move, for example punching a hole or boofing a drop. With your foot planted on the tail you can keep your nose up when punching through a hole or running over a small drop. I most often use surf stance for that one move and then quickly hop my feet back to neutral or modified surf stance to get ready for what’s next. If I don’t have some move to make immediately after the hole or drop, like catching an eddy right after the drop, then I’ll almost always default to my natural goofy foot stance. I will talk about when I might use a regular foot stance in a minute. The reason we don’t paddle in surf stance all the time is it makes paddling a little more awkward. For the one or two hard strokes you need to boof a drop or punch a hole surf stance allows you to really crank, but as soon as you want to switch sides things get confusing if you are stuck in surf stance.

Team Rider Miles in surf stance boofing a hole

The author punching a hole in surf stance.

Modified Surf Stance Situations. I find that I paddle in a modified surf stance most often on the river. The reason is that for me it gives me the best of neutral and surf stance for many situations. I most often use modified surf stance when coming in and out of eddys. When I am coming into or out of a river right (right side when looking downstream) eddy I use a regular foot modified surf stance. When I am coming into or out of a river left eddy I am using a goofy foot modified surf stance. The reason is that each foot position puts your paddle and the eddy on your frontside depending on which side of the river you are on. Now this is where it can get complicated. There are scenarios where I might change it up, like when I might want to make a powerful pivot turn around a buoy in a race, but for the purposes of this article we don't need to go down that rabbit hole. I also use modified surf stance quite often when running through a longer rapid. Modified surf stance allows me to remain in a stable, athletic position while having maximum flexibility with my paddle.

Mike Tavares in modified surf stance coming into the last buoy turn in the Gopro Games. He is approaching a river right eddy in regular foot stance.
Haley "Hells Bells" Mills coming into the last turn at the GoPro games in modified surf stance.
As I said at the beginning of the post I am not claiming that this is the end all. Maybe you have a technique that is working great for you. The next time you go paddling play around with your foot positioning and if you figure out something good send us an email! The one thing that is for sure is a Frankenstien legged, upright paddler whose feet are glued to the deck of the board is going to spend a lot of time swimming. So get your feet moving around on the board and see what works for you. Thanks and happy paddling! -Mike Harvey, Salida, CO
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