Chapel Hill: Sports

Paddleboard exercise is making waves at the Sportsplex

Left to right: Maria Finnegan leads a paddleboard exercise class with Jen Cox and Shannon Hales at the Triangle Sportsplex pool.
Left to right: Maria Finnegan leads a paddleboard exercise class with Jen Cox and Shannon Hales at the Triangle Sportsplex pool. RANDY YOUNG

Science fiction writer Frank Herbert said, “There’s no secret to balance. You just have to feel the waves.”

Sure, it sounds simple enough. But lose that precious balance of your life, and the results can be stress, strife, ultimately, even poor health.

However, lose your balance in one of the stand-up paddle board classes at the Orange County SportsPlex and you simply get a little wet, then climb back on the board.

In the process, participants can gain a bit of fun, fellowship, fitness and a bit more, well … balance in their lives.

More and more people are climbing “on board.”

“I want participants to have fun; I want them to learn balance,” Sportsplex fitness instructor Maria Finnegan said.

Finnegan incorporates yoga and resistance training into the Sportsplex sessions for paddle boards — or SUP.

The Sportsplex’s SUP fusion class features elastic straps attached to the boards, SportsPlex wellness director Susan Clayton said.

“There’s SUP yoga, and then there’s SUP Fusion, which is where there are elastic straps attached to the boards,” Clayton explained. “While you’re standing on the board, you’re pulling against these resistance straps, so you’re really getting a strength workout while you’re balancing on the board.”

“On land, if you’re pressing onto your right foot more than your left, you don’t know it,” Finnegan said. “But on the board, it’s evident, so you can hone more yoga skills. You learn balance, stability strength — especially with resistance training.”

“There’s a little bit (of unsteadiness), but they find their balance pretty quickly once they get some trust in there,” Finnegan’s assistant Jen Cox said. “Falling off is a part of it we embrace. We always say we’d rather fall off trying a yoga pose than not try the pose at all.”

Classes run Wednesdays from 6:15 to 7 p.m. and 7-7:45 p.m., and Saturday classes run from 10:15 to 11 a.m. and 11-11:45 a.m.

Prices are $15 for SportsPlex members and $20 for non-members. Boards and equipment are supplied by Finnegan through the SportsPlex.

The 90,000 square foot Orange County SportsPlex in Hillsborough is one of the state’s largest recreational facilities and one of only a few in the US offering an ice arena, an expansive aquatics center a fitness center under one roof.

SUP has been seen a steady rise for almost a decade, now reflecting the fastest-growing segment of the surf business in an industry valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

“The stand-up paddling trend comes on the heels of the kayak craze, but offers potentially greater health benefits,” Kevin Helliker wrote for the Wall Street Journal online ( “Like yoga, standing on a board requires basic balancing abilities, which in turn strengthen and tone any and all muscles used to stay in position.”

While predecessors to SUP using paddles or poles have been seen in the Pacific islands and among Italy’s Venetians for centuries, Helliker wrote, Clayton said it’s truly making inroads in the Triangle recently.

“Stand-up paddle board is really taking off,” she said. “My husband and I are really involved in it and have been for a couple years. We do it on Lake Orange, on Jordan Lake, on the Neuse River, down in Wilmington — all over. It’s great for the knees, for balance when you’re out on the water paddling, it’s great for a cardiovascular workout. Plus, it’s just a great way to get out and enjoy nature.”

Once hooked on the activity, Clayton worked to bring classes to the SportsPlex.

“I wanted to bring it here, so I did some research, Jordan Lake had a place you could rent boards ... and they put me in contact with Maria Finnegan, who had her own. She was actually looking for a place (to teach) she couldn’t do that out on Lake Jordan during the winter, so we thought, ‘Let’s do it in the pool.’”

Finnegan and her assistant / apprentice Cox now bring 12 of their own boards to the O.C. SportsPlex for classes.

“I can take them anywhere,” Finnegan said, “but I also rent from Jordan Lake when I have really large classes.”

“These boards can cost over a thousand dollars,” Clayton pointed out, “so unless you’re really into this, buying your own board can be prohibitive. If people are just looking to try it out, this is the perfect environment. You’re not spending $1,000 on a board; you’re not using a paddle; you’re in a pool with lifeguards.”

While there are hopes to open more of the SportsPlex pool area to SUP participants in order to learn paddling, boards remain tethered, steady stationary for the yoga and fitness classes.

“If there’s a weekend where we get the whole pool, we may work on paddling technique,” Finnegan said.

Clayton agreed. “We may offer a paddling clinic at some point, but for right now, they’re just getting used to being on the board,” she said.

Finnegan said SUP yoga can work more core elements than traditional yoga.

“You’re getting the core work like you would with any other unstable surface,” she said. “Just a lunge on the unstable surface of a paddle board is so different than a lunge on land. You’re using small muscles and larger muscles: all the muscles are being recruited in areas like your core, back, legs, all just to steady you so you won’t fall over.”

“I was already very interested in SUP yoga,” Cox said. “(Maria and I) took a class on SUP paddleboard we played around with yoga on it we were hooked. We said, ‘We’re doing this.’”

A participant at last Wednesday’s class, Shannon Hales said she’d tried a few yoga poses on a SUP and was open to anything.

“I’m up for whatever,” she said. “I’m here for the yoga, but I’m just up for trying something new. I went to a demo class here, but hadn’t taken an official class. I’ve sort of just played on them on a lake.”

Hales said yoga on or off water provided a sense of positivity.

“I loved that, when I found something hard to do, my yoga instructors wouldn’t say, ‘You can’t do that,’” Hales said. “They’d say, ‘You can’t do that yet.’”

Hales admitted that an active pool area at the SportsPlex wasn’t as calming as a yoga studio, but she also asserted that yoga wasn’t just about peace and tranquility.

“It’s not just finding bliss,” she said. “It’s about finding that balance and challenging yourself. Then once it’s nice out, there will be the classes out on Jordan Lake. I’ve heard they may try it out on the pond in front of the SportsPlex.”

Finnegan, who teaches SUP at Duke, is also in talks with the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont in Chapel Hill about using their pool for SUP lessons as well.

“Aside from that, nobody else in this area is doing this that I know of,” Clayton said.