Paddling on Air: SUP Breathing Techniques

What is the one thing you need this exact moment?

Air. Thats right, breath is the one thing that we need most of all. Something we don’t really think about in our hierarchy of importance, but there it is, without question on the top of the list. I decided to put my thoughts to blog on this subject since it has come up over the years and I have often wondered about what value breathing can have on athletic performance and if breathing style or technique affect ability to reach athletic potential. Stepping back and taking a look at the basic physiology of stand up paddling and how we our asking our body’s to behave we can see that breathing plays a pivotal role with more then the obvious. Stand Up Paddling is unique in that it stresses both lower body which demands tons of oxygen and the upper body that houses the lungs and respiratory system, the stroke movement & rotation also adds to the the complexity making it even more of an intriguing issue to study. To start, lets take a closer look at what happens in the breathing process.


The breathing process explained

(an excerpt from a lecture by Professor A.C Brown)
Ventilation of the lungs is the process by which air is inhaled into and exhaled out of the lungs. This process is the first stage in respiration. lungs

When we inhale, air containing 21% oxygen enters the respiratory system through the mouth and the nose. The air passes through the larynx and the trachea into the two bronchi, which divide into many bronchioles. The air gets into the bronchioles, which connect to tiny sacs called alveoli. The air then goes into the alveoli, where gaseous exchange takes place. When we exhale, air containing less oxygen but much more carbon dioxide goes back from the alveoli to the bronchioles and then to the bronchi. From the bronchi, air goes up the trachea and the larynx and then goesout of the respiratory system through the mouth and the nose.

When the intercostal muscles contract, the ribs move upwards and outwards and the diaphragm becomes flattened. This causes the volume of the chest to increase and the pressure inside the chest therefore decreases. Air is therefore drawn in. When the intercostal muscles relax, the ribs move downwards and inwards and the diaphragm becomes dome shaped. This causes the volume of the chest to decrease and pressure inside the chest therefore increases. Air is therefore pushed out.
Source; Professor A.C. Brown/ RESPIRATION PHYSIOLOGY


Breathing is starting to take metaphoric shape in my mind now, like a powerful engine pumping in full throttle. It almost seems mechanical in that there are many moving parts in a coordinated effort all working together silently in a process that is repeated 21,600 times a day seemingly without effort or requiring command, driven by our unconscious. If it operates so well on its own, what happens if we take hold of the wheel. Can it be improved on if we involve the conscious mind, to run more efficiently and adapted to bolster a specific activity, in this case paddling. So how do we improve our breathing ‘skills’? Is there a correct way to breath?


Deep breathing

kiI spent a few years studying Aikido with Maui Ki Aikido, which put a strong emphasis on breathing. At a typical class no mater what the subject was, we would start with 20 minutes of ki breathing. Ki breathing is slow, you sit in seiza, Japanese kneeling position, arms relaxed on your lap, mouth open, breathing out for 15 seconds, compressing the diaphragm and lungs as you reach the end of your breath, then slowly with mouth closed breathing in through the nose again for 15 seconds, trying to absorb as much oxygen along the way. For the oxygen.. its about the journey not the destination. Or at least that was my take on it, as I tried to control the impulse to breath quickly. I found value in this and it had an affect on me. I learned about deep breathing and I tried to apply it to my life and to sports. I discovered that I had to make a conscious decision to change my breathing habit and it would take time and effort.

“To breathe fully is to live fully, to manifest the full range of power of our inborn potential for vitality in everything that we sense, feel, think, and do.” -Tao

To answer my question, yes I can improve my breathing through conscious mind. Deep breathing showed many values and benefits to me from meditation, focus, pain management and simple awareness.


Rhythmic breathing and sequencing

Moving on, I think we have established that improved breathing is a good idea. So that logic must carry on to athletic performance, after all aerobic power is determined by the ability to delivery oxygen to your body. But now lets ask at what cadence and ventilation sequence can we coordinate our breathing with paddling? Can we measure and sequence breath in collaboration with stroke rate, power exertion or lactic state?

When running I noticed a rhythmic breathing pattern and began to experiment starting with two short breaths in, two out, using the elastic recoil of the lungs in the stride, the breathing feels effortless with each step. In a sprint take advantage of slow breathing, trying to control heart rate and stay below lactic threshold so you can increase power without increasing oxygen demand. If you hit a sudden increase in heart rate and need to catch up, take 5 or so short fast breaths to reset the pattern and then find a cadence that matches the oxygen demand more efficiently. I also tried synchronized breaths with my stride, which I read about in a running magazine, breath in 3 steps, out 2 steps. This was useful to balance load from one side of the body to the other, breathing in when right foot strikes every time will cause unbalance in work load. Maximizing oxygen intake and planning a strategy for running making sense and there is a lot of material on the subject, now how do we apply this to paddling, was the question. Since stroke rate and technique play a part in deciding when to breath in and out, I figured setting up a testing environment where we could experiment would be a good start. So now to the fun stuff.


Stand Up Paddling – Breathing drills

In our last Team 206 practice we decided to start testing breath sequences to see if we could learn anything. Here’s what we did:

  • Setup a 500 meter sprint course
  • 1st lap: Breath in quickly on short, strong and upfront drive / Breath out slowly on a slow relaxed recovery
  • 2nd lap: Breath in slowly on a bigger more powerful yet slower drive  / Breath out quickly on a fast and deliberate recovery
  • 3rd lap: Breath out quickly on short, strong and upfront drive / Breath in slowly on a slow relaxed recovery
  • 4th lap: Breath out slowly on bigger more powerful driveBreath in quickly on a fast and deliberate recovery
  • 4 laps at 80% effort
  • 4 laps at 100% effort
  • Track your times for each lap


Among our group we had 2 combinations that showed benefits, while the other two combos did not have an obvious value, yet I think still good for the drill. We also took note of fatigue. Some breathing techniques put you in anaerobic zone very quickly, while others assisted in recovery and below the lactic threshold. For example combo #2, a big breath in on a long drive with short breath out during quick recovery stroke took you into top speed quickly, every stroke felt very powerful and in control, but at the end of the sprint feeling Lactic Threshold with high heart rate. Combo #3 allowed us to take in full deep breaths during a slow and long recovery, giving us additional stroke technique benefits and maximizing glide while slowing our heart rate, at the end of the sprint feeling strong and ready to go again.

Taking that information, we setup a 1 mile course. We would go for 1 minute at 100% using breathing combo #2, then 1 minute at 80% using combo #3. We then repeated the same distance at race pace, go as fast as you can with no breathing technique. We then compared the differences in time and perceived effort. We finished the first part without much perceived effort and in a close group, we finished the 2nd part at threshold and with a scattered group, faster paddlers finishing 20 seconds in front of the others. We did not have a timer on land to log the exact times for each paddler, however the time difference was 5-15 seconds faster then the first lap, the faster paddlers improving their time more significantly then the back of the pack whose time was not improved. It was clear to us that there was value in using a breathing technique, even if its not all the time that it is used.

In Summary

The breath of life is powerful, to be mindful of it puts us in a state of awareness, that awareness could lead to discoveries. I will continue to experiment with this as I hope you might and return to the subject when I discover something new. If you’re ever in trouble, just do what your mom told you…take a deep breath.
Thanks for reading! Go paddle because its awesome!

Add a comment

You must be logged in to comment.