If you have weak, stiff, or sore knees, stand-up paddle boarding (SUPing) on flat water can be great for gaining and maintaining knee strength. It can even be beneficial for those with ongoing knee injuries as well as those recovering from surgery.
This is because it’s a relatively low impact activity when compared with sports like running or skiing. and can be performed in a variety of conditions (flat water, waves, or long-distance) depending on your physical condition and stamina.
Many minor knee injuries or conditions can benefit from a low-impact paddle boarding session, riding a larger floaty paddle board (over 9’6”) on calm water. SUPing is great for strengthening the muscles that surround the knees and can sometimes help rehabilitate problematic knees.
Let’s take a closer look at paddle boarding with a knee injury such as MCL strains or a torn meniscus, or post-surgery from knee reconstruction, microfracture, or knee replacement.
See also: is paddleboarding good for your back?
Is paddle boarding good for your knees?
Assuming your healthcare professional has cleared you for exercise, paddle boarding is one of the best low-impact sports to strengthen your knees and core.
For people recovering from a surgical procedure or a muscular tear, or those with sore, stiff, or weak knees due to age, paddle boarding can be a good proprioception rehabilitation sport to strengthen the muscles surrounding your knee caps.
Proprioception exercises generally involve joint range and balancing movements, to improve your muscle reaction time by strengthening them gradually. SUPing offers an endless combination of movements for the lower legs and core.
While helpful for minor knee injuries and pains, paddle boarding is not recommended for severe osteoarthritis. Also known as bone-on-bone knee issues, osteoarthritis refers to knees with inflamed joints due to lack of cartilage.
With such condition, the knee bones have nothing to rub against but themselves. Constantly flexing your knees to balance on the board, with the occasional sudden movements, can cause pain.
Main challenges of paddle boarding with a bad knee
1. Going from kneeling to standing up
For people recovering from a knee operation or injury, the biggest challenge they face while paddle boarding is transitioning from kneeling to standing up.
For flatwater cruising, however, this pop-up action is usually only required once (unless you fall). That’s usually the most impact you will experience all session.
To reduce the pressure on your knees, pop up slowly and use your upper body core strength to lift your body. This movement takes practice but is entirely doable with a sore knee.
2. Keeping your knees bent all the time
During knee injury recovery, you’ll likely experience reduced knee flexibility and strength. SUPing requires the rider to keep a constant slight bend in the knees, further pressured by body weight.
Many times, however, this is a temporary issue and often improves as knee stamina builds with every session.
3. Kneeling down for extended periods
When paddle boarding, there are situations when you will need to paddle on your knees e.g. to get over breaking waves.
Pushing through white water can be unstable while standing up, and often requires paddle boarders to lower their center of gravity and kneel on their boards. While this offers stability, it puts additional pressure on the knees.
One way to alleviate this pressure is to flatten the tops of your feet against the board. This redistributes the pressure from your knees across your lower legs and into your feet.
Another tip is to purchase a soft grip-pad to cover the center of the board, which will cushion your knees.
Which SUP styles are best-suited for bad knees?
Flatwater cruising is by far the safest and most pleasant riding style for SUPing with a bad knee. It involves paddling over calm water at a consistent speed on a large and voluminous board.
Flatwater conditions are typically predictable and consistent and give a rider more time to fully concentrate on their stability without having to worry about waves and other riders.
You’re able to put in as much effort as your knees can manage, without fear of being knocked over by waves.
If you’re in a knee recovery period, flatwater cruising, which is best done with a wider, more supportive stance, eliminates the stress of maneuvering around set waves, while still offering a great knee (and core) workout.
Wave SUP surfing
While SUPing in surf conditions can be fun and challenging, the inconsistent and unstable water can cause further harm to your injuries. Unless you are extremely fit and an advanced rider, surfing in waves can make you feel stiff and sore.
Paddle boarding in waves typically requires a a shorter, 8-9′ board, which will naturally be less stable and rockier to paddle and demand more effort from your knees.
When paddling to catch a wave, you’ll also need to put in a lot more effort with strong stokes from a dead stop to catch a wave, then loading the back foot to turn.
Catching and riding down the face of a wave and through chop involves a lot of twisting and torquing, which isn’t ideal for problem-prone knees.
Because you naturally surf with a dominant foot to drive through your turns and carves, you may also feel more strain and possibly pain in your back knee.
When SUPing in the surf, you’ll need to paddle over oncoming waves and chop. Unless you’re an advanced surf SUP rider, especially on a shorter and less floaty board, this means spending time on your knees, lowering your center of gravity for balance.
Surfing a wave also increases your chances of unexpected wipe-outs and falls, which can sometimes have dire consequences on a vulnerable knee.
After your wave, you’ll need to yank the board back to you while in whitewater and climb back onto the board, using your knees.
Overall, SUP surfing can be quite a challenge for riders with bad knees.
Long-distance paddle racing involves either paddling at full speed over a short distance or maintaining a consistent speed to overcome great distances.
Paddle racing is usually done behind wave break-lines and in open water, so you generally don’t have to worry about getting through breaking waves. However, racers sometimes have to deal with a lot of wind and chop.
As wind typically comes from one dominant direction, with oncoming or side-on wind, you’ll constantly be directing the nose of your board towards the wind.
This takes a lot of effort and causes extra torque into your back knee, which is constantly in a bent position to help with balance.
Tips for SUPing with bad knees
- Practice kneeling. Start on soft pillows and progress to a padded yoga mat before attempting to kneel on a hard fiberglass board.
- Add a padded grip-pad to the surface of your stand up paddleboard to help reduce the pressure when kneeling.
- Practice keeping your knees at a constant bend while paddling. This helps to release some pressure on the knees while giving you more stability and power out of each paddle stroke.
- If you have weak legs and are struggling to stand up on your board, try using your paddle as a crutch to help you balance.
- If you’re SUPing in the surf, avoid paddling on your knees, standing up or lying down instead whenever feasible for your skills.
- When riding, use the blade of the paddle as a crutch in the water. Learn to use the paddle against the water to balance yourself while taking the pressure off your legs and redirecting it to your hips and core.
- If you’re in recovery mode, consider getting a DonJoy knee brace to give your knee joint additional support and protect it from any unexpected tweaks.
Which paddle board to choose for bad knees?
The bigger the paddle board and the more volume it has, the better for your knees.
Obviously, the size and volume of the SUP you want depends on the type of riding you do and the environment. Cruising can be done comfortably on 10-12′ paddle boards, while small wave riding might require to go down to 9-10′.
Racing SUPs are often 12’+ but with a narrow shape. SUP width is also important as a wider SUP gives you more stability and hence less effort on your knees for stabilization. A shorter wider board will often be easier on your knees than a longer narrower SUP.
If you’re going to be kneeling a lot, also look into a nice and thick board-top rubber grip pad.