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Training for Surfing: what actually helps the average surfer improve?

Training for Surfing, a guide for the average surfer.

I’ve noticed there are two times of the year when intermediate and experienced surfers start to think about doing something to improve their surfing.

When Summer is approaching with more daylight hours and more surf time and during Autumn when people have an upcoming tropical surf trip that they want to be sharp for.

Now that the days are getting longer, I thought I’d share some thoughts to help you get clear on how to get surf fit and progress your surfing this summer.

Surf Training Confusion

From conversations I’ve had with customers at this level, it’s obvious we are all still a litle unclear on whether training for surfing is actually worthwhile, and if it is, what the best options are.

This confusion is pretty understandable, we see Mick Fanning and Adriano De Souza ‘working hard’ on their surfing, jumping on swiss balls and so on. But, then you’ve got guys like John John, the new champ, and he’s always stated that he just surfs.

So we wonder if maybe it’s all a waste of time.

And if it isn’t fun, and it doesn’t get results why do it?

If you’ve ever looked into improving your surf fitness, you’ve probably seen a lot of options online. Here’s a Google image search I did for ‘surf fitness’:

Training for Surfing

Do these surf training methods work?

Personally, I can think of a lot of things I’d rather be doing than this stuff! Some of the bottom row options could be worthwhile, but from what I’ve seen, most recreational surfers are wasting their time on anything involving swiss balls, weights, indo boards, bosu balls, cardio and even yoga.

To go a step further, they are actually decreasing their mobility, eroding their posture and putting themselves at risk of injury with commonly used surf training methods. I think many of those ‘surf training secrets’ type online programs actually lead to less performance in the water and perhaps more pain while paddling.

So, let’s say you haven’t surfed much over the winter and you want to get surf ready for summer, or maybe you’re off on holiday soon, an indo boat trip. You’ve dropped 5k and you want to get your money’s worth.

What should you be doing to get surf sharp with the most efficiency and effectiveness?

Figure out what you want to achieve before you start training

Let’s look at some common goals you might have, the most common methods people use to achieve that type of goal, and based on my observations and experiences, what the best surf training methods are for each goal.

1. Be able to paddle for long periods of time and maximise wave count

Older surfers often have this goal near the top of the list and rightly so. But, many younger surfers in their early 20s also struggle away with low wave counts and poor stamina.

Common methods I hear of to increase paddle fitness include weight training, complicated cable exercises in the gym, and running long distances.

Now I’m not saying weight training is outright bad, but most people shouldn’t be doing it. So many of us these days have postural and movement issues that will not like being loaded with heavy weights.

It feels good once the blood starts pumping and you will add some muscle mass, yet your paddling and surfing will suffer because you still haven’t done anything to improve your mobility.

Running fitness and other forms of cardio also have little carryover for surfing in my experience. Before my very first surf trip I ran long distances and hills to prepare myself. I had a sense of feeling fit, but once I got in the water I would get caught inside and be out of breath in no time.

I’ve seen this happen with incredibly fit runners during beginner lessons too. After 20 minutes in the whitewater they are wrecked.

Best methods for paddle fitness:

  • Improve your posture – if you sit a lot for work, there is a high chance that when you lie on a board, your shoulders aren’t in the best position. Actually, there’s a good chance your shoulders don’t move very well in general. Paddling itself is not good for your posture because most surfers lift their head up high, the ribcage comes up too much, strain is placed on the lower back, neck, and shoulders. More paddling = more wear and tear. You need corrective exercise to help here. Pilates is very effective for this type of thing, here are a couple of links to get you started. If you have shoulder movement issues, finding that rare trainer or physio that can really help is like Gold. A good one online is b-reddy. A good methodology is gymnastic bodies which I’ll discuss soon.
  • Just surf a lot – just as oxygen is only something you worry about when you’re not getting any, paddle fitness is only something you worry about when you’re not surfing regularly. If you can get out there 2 times a week and are on top of your posture, that will be enough to keep you reasonably fit.
  • If you can’t surf, swim – it’s not an exact replica of the surfing paddle position but it’s close and the breathing rhythm is helpful. Just don’t go crazy on the distance as any repititive movement in the same direction does harm. Do short bursts that mimic your surf sessions, then rest, then go again. Even out with backstroke.

2. Have the strength and mobility required to surf well i.e. to get in the body positions required for good surfing and style without strain

It’s a no brainer that good surfing requires the athletic ability to get into some rather demanding body positions.

Think about a layback snap or a small tube ride. These moves aren’t at the top of the difficulty ladder but the body positions required often put them out of reach of the average surfer.

Training for surfing - layback

Just pick up a surf magazine, flick to a few pictures, then try and hold exactly that same body position as the pros. No cheating, look at the small details. Can you do it easily?

If not, you won’t be able to do it in the water either.

When I used the words ‘athletic ability’ above, I’m not trying to discourage you, like it’s some talent we’re either born with or not. What I mean is can you move well?

Can you drop your butt to the ground by flexing at your hips and knees, maintain a straight back, with most of your weight on the front foot….and yet feel relaxed like you can stay there all day?

Children can, pro (or good) surfers can, yet many late starters or average surfers can’t get in these kind of positions with ease.

A common approach people use to improve their on wave surfing performance is to hit the gym again.

They approach it from a very muscular perspective. “I’ll lift heavy weights to get my surfing muscles stronger, I’ll stretch the x#!@ out of them so that they’re flexible, then I’ll jump around on a wobble board, or a swiss ball like Mick and that will improve my balance and timing.”

The problem is, we aren’t Mick and we don’t have a lifestyle built around movement like his. We work, we sit, we have issues in our postural foundation….basically we don’t move well. We have no real business in the gym.

That might sound harsh but for most of us it’s the truth.

The other go to for surfers looking to perform well, is Yoga. Now I’m not about to rip into a practice that is thousands of years old, and does have a place in surf training. But, there is a problem with the typical western Yoga class, or maybe it’s the Western attitude to life itself.

People strain and strive too much in their attempt to get flexible. Forcing your body through advanced poses for long holds will have limited impact on your movement proficiency. If you are tight and try to stretch one limb beyond your means, other parts of your body will end up in compromised positions, the net effect will be limited flexibility gains and increased risk of injury.

Plus, if you are doing long static holds, it won’t translate into the dynamic movements required for surfing anyway.

If you can find a great teacher that will lead you at a sensible pace, the benefits of Yoga for your surfing will be in restoration. Do it at night after a hard days surfing, release tension from tired muscles, take it easy and re-centre, ready for the next dawny. That’s where it works.

Now, back to the positive. We can re-train ourselves to move well again, but we have to start at a realistic place. People think corrective exercise is for the elderly after a fall, but, really we all need to correct our movements if we want to surf better and move like the athletes we were as kids.

So, unless you know for sure that your posture and mobility are sound, forget about weight training, forget about that complicated ‘Surf training Pro hot tip secret program’ that you’ve found online. Start a workout program that is based around movements not muscles.

No brain no gain.

Now, if you’re used to lifting weights and feeling the burn, “it’s not a workout unless I feel sore afterwards or am shaking as I bang out my reps”. This approach will require a shift in your mindset.

We are trying to train new movement patterns, essentially rewiring our Central Nervous Systems. Sometimes muscles will get fatigued and you’ll feel it, especially in your weak areas. BUT, many times it will be more demanding on your mind at first. You will be concentrating on moving in new ways.

Technique is vital. With time this approach begins to switch off overactive muscles that have been doing too much work in certain movements. Whereas other muscles that all that sitting has deactivated, well, they begin to fire up again.

The result is you start to feel better, move better, paddle better…..surf better.

You’ll know progress is happening when you can squat all the way down into your hips like people do in Japan, and it’s actually comfortable. Or when you notice your flexibility has increased and you haven’t even been stretching in the typical way.

So let’s get specific, what training methods am I actually talking about here?

Best methods for surfing performance on the wave:

  • Gymnastic strength training – this is a website with online training programs that you follow along to. No equipment needed. They will identify your mobility weak links and fix them. I’d recommend the Fundamentals program first.
  • B-reddy – this website can be hard to read as it is very technical, but, if you have any particular movement problems, such as hip tightness, It band pain, shoulder issues etc, this guy has some cheap downloads that you can follow.

3. Overcome pain and injuries that limit your surfing

Knee injuries, bulging discs in the back and neck, shoulder reconstructions, hip problems. These all seem to be getting more and more common.

I think the key to lessening the negative impact they have on your surfing life is to be open to solutions and avoid ‘owning the injury’ or putting too much focus on the problem. A good example of this is a spinal disc injury.

They sound scary and they sound permanent. Especially when you see an x-ray that shows the wear and tear. You might then feel like your surfing days are numbered.

But, these kind of injuries aren’t always the end of the world, they can actually be a good wake up call that you need to sort out your posture or lifestyle. Which can then lead to better surfing.

The right training will get you out of those habitual body positions that place stress on the discs in the first place. Once you get strong enough to improve your posture, you may notice the pain goes away completely, allowing you to surf freely (and better) once again.

Sure, some injuries are more gnarly and complicated, but don’t give up.

Best methods for overcoming injury limitations:

  • Get diagnosed by a trusted, passionate physio up front
  • Realise that in many cases, fixing issues will involve corrective training on your part. So many injuries are degenerative, even when they seem to be caused by impact or a specific event. A magic cure that can be done to you, isn’t very likely.
  • Research exercise based solutions for the injury, here are some I’ve found effective:
    – Get a movement assessment from an expert
    – Back injuries and conditions like sciatica: Foundation Training
    – Neck injuries and shoulder issues: Gymnastic Strength Training Fundamentals, Pilates
    – Knee and hip issues: Once tendon healed, check how movement is at the hip and check out the B-reddy Manuals
  • Stick to the exercises and be obsessive with technique – again, aim is to retrain movement patterns, you don’t need to feel the burn and get all fatigued, it’s not bodybuilding.

4. Feel sharp and ready when the waves are firing

You probably know the feeling. You pull up to amazing conditions, but you haven’t been in the water for a while and you just don’t feel primed to make the most of the good waves.

You paddle out anyway, drift around watching everyone else enjoying themselves, but when you get on a wave you’re a bit disconnected. Your feet get stuck in the wrong place, you get caught behind sections. Your board doesn’t seem to respond to your instructions.

What else can we really expect if we haven’t surfed for a few weeks or months? What if we haven’t even thought about surfing for a while?

Don’t worry, it’s normal to have a shocker when you’re rusty. Here are some ways to stay sharp and keep those neural pathways switched on, ready for your best possible surfing.

Best methods for staying sharp:

  • Smoothstar Surfing Skateboards + Visualisation: This method is so beneficial it’s not even funny. Plus, it’s fun so you’ll actually do it. You don’t need a skating background because the movement is much more like surfing. Do bottom turns, cutbacks, snaps, carves and learn to pump for speed. Just make sure you visualise that you are actually on a wave as you do it and place your turns accordingly. Choose a slope that mimics a wave. Just thrashing around aimlessly won’t be of much benefit.
  • Old surfboard on carpet: This is simple, just stand on the board and do some surfing movements. A good way to work on your stance and turning technique and keep the right movements in your muscle memory.
  • Pop ups on Land: If you’re pop up isn’t cat-like in all wave types, then practice on land so that it is solid when you need it to be. If it isn’t 2nd nature you won’t be getting barreled much. Again, use an old board and make it realistic. Forget burpees etc, pop ups are more about finesse and timing than strength. I’ll write more detail on this in another post as it’s a whole topic on it’s own.
  • Watch Surf Clips: Simple, but if you actually visualise it’s you surfing, and get the feel of it, you’ll help your surfing mind stay on point, and you might even learn some new moves.

5. Feel confident enough to charge heavier waves or get your share of waves on crowded days

Confidence is vital but there is no magic pill to get it. It will come if you apply a bit of discipline and actually do any of the training methods listed above on a regular basis. Once you see a little progress, momentum builds and confidence comes with it.

Best methods for building confidence in the surf:

  • Think before you paddle out: If the conditions look very challenging for you, consider flagging it. Biting off too much too soon will leave you feeling bad about your skills, and you run the risk of getting in the way of good surfers. If it looks challenging yet only just outside your comfort zone, get out there but without any unrealistic expectations that will only add pressure. Accept it’s a challenge, do your best and see where things fall. Maybe you’ll get your best ride ever, maybe you’ll get humbled but learn something new in the process and be ready next time the waves are like that.
  • Get paddle fit: See the first section above and just do the work. Many unconfident surfers just need to get fit and they find their confidence in a crowd lifts significantly. They know they can get out of the way of a set, they back themselves to duck-dive, they can spin and go much faster and enjoy more waves. They just feel more worthy to be out there.
  • Do something, anything: Whether it’s smoothstar practice, pop-up practice or just watching surf clips, a bit of positive action cannot help but improve your confidence.

Conclusion

So back to what I said up top about John John not training. If he doesn’t do it, does that mean it’s a waste of time for us too?

No.

The ability to easily get in and hold the body positions required for good surfing is not completely beyond us, but we need to work to reclaim our movement potential. John John started so young, he never lost his. Just surfing was all he needed to do.

Obviously, I’m not saying you’ll easily turn things around and surf like him. But, whether you want to improve your paddling, surfing technique, confidence or just feel sharp, a little bit of work is necessary and it will pay off.

Especially if surfing all day everyday just isn’t possible for you.

That is when training is necessary. But it doesn’t have to be torture, do something fun, uncomplicated and just remember the goal is moving well, not gaining muscle mass!

So get going before summer and you will start moving better and surfing better + easier.

So that’s a bit of an overview for you. If you found it useful and want me to get more specific on any of the mentioned training methods for a future article, leave a comment below.

If you’d like to learn more about effective land based training whilst surfing good waves and having video coaching, check out these upcoming intermediate surf camps around New Zealand

 

Main photo by Powder Photography

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