5 Ways to Master Stand-up Paddleboarding, According to Legendary Waterman Kai Lenny

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Man paddleboards across mountain lake, standing up  Ascent/PKS Media Inc. / Getty Images

In 2016, Kai Lenny won Molokai 2 Oahu, a 32-mile, open-water, stand-up paddleboard race that’s billed as the world’s most challenging.

The 25-year-old repeated the course the following year and dropped 41 minutes from his record time—albeit on a board that’s not sanctioned for the official competition—proving he’s in an elite class of paddleboarders.

Though Lenny also competes as a professional surfer, windsurfer, and kiteboarder, he recommends stand-up paddling to everyone. “It’s the best introduction to the water sports world,” he tells Men’s Journal. “The first time you get on, you can do it.”

To make that learning curve even smoother, here are his five tips for becoming a legendary stand-up paddleboarder. You can also see Lenny compete in the City Paddle Fest in New York City and the NY SUP Open on September 15.

1. Get a Big Enough Board

“The best thing you can do when you start stand-up paddleboarding is make sure you get on a big enough board,” says Lenny. Unsurprisingly, bigger people require bigger boards (you can get one up to 14-feet). But in general, Lenny recommends a 10-foot board that’s 32 inches wide, which can usually double as a surfboard as well. And as you progress, you can go narrower for more speed or even consider tandem and team boards.

2. Check Your Balance

Lenny is confident anyone can paddleboard, from a toddler to a grandpa: “It’s the bike of the ocean,” he says, “if a bike were easy to ride your first time getting on it.”

The biggest barrier to entry is balance, so if you’re nervous about your first ride, consider a little dry-land training. Lenny also suggests you start somewhere calm and flat, like a bay, lake, or pond. Once you build up some confidence, then you can hit the killer swells.

3. Make Sure You Can Float

If you’re going out alone or on open-water, consider a wet suit—especially if you don’t have the luxury of paddling in warm Hawaiian seas. A flotation device is also a good idea; it’s what Lenny does when he’s surfing mega-waves. Being a strong swimmer is also a plus, so try a few of these pool exercises before you grab your paddle.

4. Prepare to Get HIIT

Though Lenny goes to the gym three times a week, mostly to prehab his shoulders, hips, and knees, his favorite training regimen is paddleboarding. “It mirrors what a big wave wipeout feels like,” he says. “Your max heart rate is like 215bpm; but when you’re in a competition, your heart’s at 190bpm the whole time, so you’re like redlining this entire race. It’s a 32-mile sprint.” Because you’re standing, paddling, and using your core for balance, the sport is a full-body workout that also lights up your lungs.

5. Head for the Open Water

The ultimate test for a paddleboarder is the open ocean. Not only does it take strength and stamina, but also a good eye and a cool head. “You’re riding these open ocean swells, and you’re sprinting your heart out to attack them,” says Lenny. “And then, after you ride them for a couple seconds, you have to pop onto the next one.”

As if having to plot a course while you’re heart’s beating out of your chest and your shoulders are blazing, the Molokai 2 Oahu race also ends with an all-out sprint.

“So you ride these open-ocean swells into this large bay called Portlock Hawaii Kay, and the last mile is straight upwind. And typically everybody is right next to you or catching you. You’re surrounded by the Pacific, but you’re fifty feet away from your closest rival. And it’s just an all-out sprint. You’re just grinding.”