Some people are of the notion that the only exercise surfers need is surfing. Granted, surfing is a great workout, and your favorite wave riders have the physiques to show it. But there’s no denying that certain kinds of physical training, whether in or out of the water, will improve your surfing. And when prizes and titles are up for grabs, the stakes get much higher – anything that can boost a pro surfer’s game is worth doing. The fact that surfers are doing much more for their fitness than just surfing shows in the feats they’re able to accomplish when comp time rolls round.
So when you’re a pro surfer prepping for the next face-off against your talented peers, what might your training look like? There are several aspects of physical ability that surfing calls upon and that pro surfers train for: strength, endurance, balance, agility, flexibility and breathing.
Note, when surfers hit the gym, the goal is not to bulk up (this can actually hinder performance by reducing flexibility) but to strengthen the body so that movements have more power and efficiency.The stronger a surfer is, the easier their movements become, the more efficiently they use energy, and the greater lasting time they have in the water. They feel more confident, catch more waves, and recover faster between exertions.
Surfers need strength in several areas – in their lower body to get up, balance and control their board, in their core for stability and torque, in their upper body for paddling. That’s why trainers advocate overall strength training for surfers.
Squats, lunges and similar exercises are designed to strengthen the lower body. They can be done on unstable surfaces such as a Bosu ball or Indo board to improve balance as well. You’ll notice the squat is an essential movement in surfing, whether you’re crouching, landing or holding through a turn.
Core strength is especially important for pro surfers, who need it to stay balanced and achieve the spectacular maneuvers they’re known for. Lifts can develop this, as can planks, side planks and weighted sit-ups.
In an interview with Surfer, JD Irons described his workouts with Kai Borg as including sets of 30 situps in a 40-minute routine.
Upper body strength is essential for paddling out and chasing waves. Courtney Conlogue‘s workout routines include such upper body exercises as sledgehammer swings, rope pulls, deadlifts, pull-ups and battle ropes. Pushups are recommended for any surfer, pro or amateur. Stephanie Gilmore, Mark Visser and JD Irons have pushups as a mainstay in their workout routines. Mark suggests adding dumbell lifts to pushups or shoving off the ground and clapping between reps.
Endurance will come partly with strength. Strong muscles that work efficiently will require less effort to perform movements and can work longer.
Besides strength training, pro surfers also increase their endurance with cardiovascular exercise. Travis Mellem cross trains by running, biking, paddling or swimming one to two hours, six days a week. Sally Fitzgibbons‘ go-to is running, but she also bikes, swims, paddles and skates. An added benefit of mixing up activities is that it stimulates the muscles in different ways to prevent injury.
Courtney Conlogue builds her endurance with Tabata rounds, a high-intensity interval training that increases the heart rate for short periods. They involve 20 seconds of a high intensity activity followed by 10 seconds of rest, for a total of four minutes. Her moves might include using battle ropes while balancing on a Bosu, wide-open circles with battle ropes, and alternating waves with battle ropes.
Not surprisingly, great balance is a must-have for pro surfers, and they train this ability in a number of ways.
Mick Fanning swears by yoga, saying that “…classics, such as the tree and the boat, are good exercises for improving your balance.” Good balance needs proprioception, an awareness of where your body is in space without looking, and yoga poses are a great way of developing this sense.Surf trainers have developed a number of exercise devices as well that mimic the instability of water while on dry land. One of these is the Bosu ball, an inflated rubber hemisphere attached to a rigid platform that can be used either side up to challenge surfers’ balance during a workout. An unusual part of Stephanie Gilmore’s training is dodging tennis balls while standing on a Bosu.
Another, more surf-specific invention is the Indo Board, which consists basically of a wooden board, a foam roller-like tube and two inflatable air cushions. Courtney Conlogue is just one of the pros who favors it as a cross-training tool. It lends the element of instability to standard exercises like squats or yoga, forcing you to develop your balance as you work out.
Popping up on a surfboard and responding to the behavior of a wave need agile reflexes, something pro surfers definitely train for.
According to personal trainer Jonathan Brown, owner of Extreme Athletics in California, agility in surfing is not like that required for land-based sports. One sample circuit they use to train surfers involves popping up, rotating, bouncing a medicine ball off a wall, catching it, and jumping onto and off a Bosu ball.
Good surfing integrates chains of muscles in fluid, full body movements, so flexibility is key. Flexibility translates into grace and mobility on the water, as well as prevents many surfing injuries.
Parts of the body that are commonly injured in surfing because of lack of flexibility are the neck, shoulder, back, groin, and knee. Michelle Drielsma, trainer and author of “Fluid Surfer” has worked with surfers such as Freya Prumm and 2-time World Champ Tom Caroll to stretch and mobilize these parts with surf-specific exercises.Many professional surfers have turned as well to the practice of yoga to improve both flexibility and strength. Among them are big wave surfers Greg Long and Alex Martins, 11-time World Champion Kelly Slater, women’s pro surfers Malia Manuel and Coco Ho, and king of Pipeline Gerry Lopez.
In the Pro Surf Training App that 2012 World Champ Joel Parkinson developed with his trainer, workouts incorporate many cross-pattern exercises, where arms and/or legs cross from one side of the body to the other, aiming to maintain the kind of flexibility, motion range and coordination that surfers need to perform.
Breathing (or not breathing)
Proper breathing is crucial in surfing. It helps you paddle better, increases your stamina, and helps you take in enough air to survive a hold-down. For this reason, pro surfers aim for quality breathing using the diaphragm rather than the chest.
You can easily test for correct breathing by lying on your back with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. If your belly hand rises first when you breathe, you’re using your diaphragm.
Nam Baldwin, a breathing coach to surfers, says that developing a strong diaphragm will give a surfer two things: one, far better inhalation and two, greater core stability in a wipeout.
Every surfer experiences wipe outs and the bigger the wave, the longer you can expect to be under water. This is when the amount of oxygen you can take in before going under is crucial.
Big wave surfer Jamie Sterling says he practices a type of yoga called Pranayama, which “concentrates on exercises to hold your breath, positive breath holds and strengthening of the diaphragm.” Dave Wassel believes in training the body for better breathing with cardio like trail running, jump rope or biking. Courtney Conlogue has enlisted the help of four-time freediving world champion Stig Severinson, practicing breath holds and increasing her breathing capacity. And some pro surfers engage in rock running, running underwater while carrying rocks or weights, a challenging but considered by some a rather dangerous workout.
To the non-pros
Clearly, pro surfers go above and beyond to perform spectacularly on the water, and their efforts are not limited to surfing alone. Those for whom surfing is a pastime and not a career can take a cue from them, especially the weekend warriors who want to make their relatively infrequent wave-chasing worth it. While you needn’t go to the lengths pros do, you do know that working out, staying in shape and conditioning the right areas will help you surf better, on the occasions that you do actually get to surf.
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