What’s the biggest obstacle in learning to surf? Popping up? Reading the waves? Balance? Turning?
None of the above.
I would say the biggest obstacle to overcome is fitness, or the lack of, when it comes to surf specific fitness. It really doesn’t matter how capable someone is in sports or athletics, surf specific fitness is always the main impediment to progression from novice to intermediate level. Granted, if you are a national level open water swimmer or rower then you’re going to be in a much better position than a person who is looking to bring surfing into their life to combat the debilitating effects of hypo-mobility lifestyle diseases, but it will be the development of your surf specific fitness that dictates the rate of progression over other factors.
How do I know this? Purely from my own empirical research of teaching people to surf, observing others and remembering what it was like when I was learning from scratch myself. You can take a skater, snowboarder, or kitesurfer and have them trimming left and right along coupla-foot green waves within a few days. Some people can figure out how to control the board really early on; they already have an idea of the sensations transmitting up through the board that they should be feeling for. As a coach you can accelerate their progress and they can learn the timing, wave anatomy, techniques and develop a rudimentary understanding of surfing in a short space of time, but as soon as the surf starts creeping up past the shoulder-high mark and the quest for ‘proper waves’* begins, the easy rides end and progress stops in its tracks. Why? Trimming along a six foot wave is technically the same as trimming along a 2ft wave, sure, it’s a lot faster and a lot more thrilling but you don’t really have to ‘do’ anything differently to ride along it, so what’s changed?
*This is in no way meant as a snobbish remark about smaller waves; smaller waves are pure fun and in many cases often more technically demanding to surf than large open faced rollers. But sooner or later people will start looking towards larger waves (a relative term) such as they might see in a magazine or advert, and I’ve noticed people tend to refer to such waves as ‘proper waves
The Ocean Environment.
Everything has changed. Here’s a scenario: picture a regular sized football pitch with regular sized goal posts and footballs to go with it. Now picture the two teams trotting out onto the pitch and playing a match. Think about the players’ work rate, frequency of the attempts at goal, things like that and how fairly evenly matched they would be. Now, imagine that football pitch at double length and width, the ball becoming twice as big, the goal posts doubling in size, and the players on one team growing twice as big, twice as strong, and twice as fast . Suddenly the ‘normal’ sized team is facing a very formidable opponent and no amount of skill is going to save the day. And that’s how it is with surfing. As soon as the waves increase in size, the entire area that you need to operate in increases as well. Double the dimensions of a football pitch and you quadruple the area you have to run around. Double the surf from two feet to four feet and it doesn’t just get twice as difficult, it becomes exponentially more difficult. And why is that? Because as the surf increases, everything blows up in relation to it. The waves break further out, they carry more energy, they move faster, the currents are stronger and the wipeouts are deeper and longer. Suddenly, like team ‘normal’, we find ourselves to be too small, too weak and too slow when faced with such an opposition.
But this isn’t bad news. In fact this is good news. This is what makes surfing such an all-consuming challenge. There are tens of thousands of people in the UK alone that have devoted their lives to a mastery of the ocean environment which just as much focus and determination as a mountaineer would to climbing 8,000 meter high peaks around the word. This is a magnificent thing, an uplifting testament to the indomitable human spirit and the fact that it’s happening right now in towns that are only four hours drive from the centre of London is marvellous.
Great, so how does one get surf fit?
Well it’s pretty simple really, you just have to go through a baptism of fire. Are you happy to force a slow, grinding, uncomfortable, profound physiological metamorphosis upon your own body? Great! Let’s get started. Tomorrow, 7am, before work, regardless of the conditions, we’re going surfing. We’re going to paddle till our arms feel like noodles and our lungs are burning in our chests, and if we get spat back up the beach we’re going to sit there on the sand, staring out to see, undaunted even though we are now quite broken, and then we’ll get out there again. But this time, we’re going to paddle out further, and harder, and face bigger waves. We’re going to do this every day for the next three months. Before work. Regardless of the conditions. By the end, we’ll really be on our way to learning to surf.
Quite quickly, reasons why this won’t be possible start to foment: ‘I’ll have to get up really early / I’ve got yoga in the morning / my job won’t allow it / I don’t live near the sea / I haven’t got a car…’ So in sequence, this is how a surfer deals with this reasons: ‘I’ll set my alarm for 5am / I’ll ditch morning yoga / I’ll work nights at Sainsbury’s instead / I’ll move to the sea / I’ll run or cycle’. Which brings us to a word which seems to have slipped out of the surfing lexicon in the last decade or so. A word that athletes, musicians, scholars, parents, anyone who wants to do something exceptional in this world, all know the meaning of…
Sacrifice is easier when you’re in your late teens / early twenties, with no dependants and very little outgoings. You can just move to a coast where the waves break consistently, get a job in a hotel or pub and surf every day for a whole summer, job done. In fact, if you are really serious about developing as a surfer and are able to move to the coast, I would say this would be the simplest and most straightforward route available to you. Just about everything will be taken care of by the act of going surfing on a very regular basis. No sophisticated training programs are required; the most ground-breaking surfers throughout history didn’t have coaches; they got to where they were by going surfing instead of doing anything else. But when there are kids involved, people to look after, and the invisible prisons of careers and mortgages, we have to be more realistic about how we can work around restrictions on our access to the surf. We’re still going to have to sacrifice time, energy and some money, nothing comes for free, but maybe there’s a lot more we can do on our doorstep with a few simple changes.
Surfing is an endurance sport.
First of all, we need to think about what surf fitness really is, and how we can replicate the stresses that surfing places upon the body and mind. Breaking it down into various components, if 1/10 equals not important to surfing, 5/10 equals fairly important, and 10/10 equals vital here’s my take on it:
Fitness Component: Importance: Notes:
Muscular Strength 6/10 A good, solid surfer wouldn’t need to be much stronger than the average, active adult
Muscular Power 6/10 Surfers are probably used to making slightly better use of the muscles they have than the average person
Local Muscular Endurance 9/10 Regional-class levels of endurance in the shoulders and upper back muscles have to be developed
Flexibility 6/10 Exceptional suppleness is not required – thoracic spine mobility and normal range of movement through joints is adequate
Speed 7/10 Surfers do need to be able to paddle very quickly, and ‘pop’ instantly
Anaerobic Power 7/10 Surfing definitely requires you to work hard for short periods when you can barely breathe
Cardio-respiratory Endurance 10/10 Surfers need to maintain a constant, steady output over a two hour session, with reserves built in
Balance 9/10 You don’t need to be a slack-line champion, but balance training for surfing is never wasted time
Reaction Time 8/10 Various movements in the process of surfing need to be practised so that they become reflex actions
Mental Toughness 10/10 Much of a surf session is made up of paddling. Paddling is uncomfortable and unpleasant.
So looking at the above, our surf-fit person will display dog-like levels of endurance and tenacity, with quick bursts of reflex action and balance thrown in. Big muscles, the ability to move heavy objects, hugely explosive power and freak-like flexibility are not required. Considering that in surfing we rely on our shoulders and upper back muscles for locomotion, it follows that we should concentrate on exercise that replicate that effort. We should also think about the timing and effort of the average surf session to guide our workouts.
Most of my sessions are something like this:
90-120 minutes duration for the average surf session
60% of the time paddling out through surf, between peaks, back to the take off point at 60-70% effort
15% sitting or lying around on the board
10% of the time paddling hard and fast for waves, bursts of effort between 5 and 15 seconds
10% actually surfing, typically after a bout of fast paddling
5% working without oxygen, duck-diving, wiping out, climbing back on the board
Based on that, if I wanted to train for surfing without being able to get to the surf I would try to recreate my average surf session using preferably water-based resources close by: a river or lake, or a swimming pool. And if we go back to the start of this article for a moment, remember that I would be training so that I could learn to surf better when I eventually found my way back to the sea, and not trying to train to perform flashy surf moves that I would still be too unfit to do in the sea anyway.
Here’s what my surf training week would look like:
Monday: long slow pool swim or paddle on the lake
Tuesday: balancing work and pop up practise
Wednesday: long slow pool swim or paddle on the lake with 10-15 second bursts of speed thrown in every ten minutes
Thursday: balancing work and pop up practise
Friday: you guessed it, long slow pool swim or paddle on the lake
I’d hope to keep this up for two or three months, preferably timing it so that the end of training coincides with an upcoming surf trip. It doesn’t look very exciting or dynamic, but neither is the majority of the average surf session – the paddling part – but this is the part that people are unprepared for. You just have to learn to love it. Pool work is what it is; I personally hate it and prefer to do just about anything else as I can’t stand the chlorine and fluorescent lights but it does provide a way of training through the dark months.
Exercises that replicate surfing and the ocean affinity benefit.
I’m a fan of keeping things simple as it reduces confusion and promotes action, so here are three exercises that I think quite handily replicate the efforts involved in surfing.
Cardio vascular benefit ‘Pull’ m.e.* benefit Balance benefit Ocean affinity benefit
Pool swimming Good Good Poor Average
Rowing machine Good Good Poor Poor
Stand up paddling Good Good Good Good
Hopefully the CV and muscular endurance benefits are obvious enough. The balance benefit is how much this exercise will aid your balance, and stand up paddling is a clear winner here as it is a highly proprioceptive sport and the other two don’t involve dynamic stability on foot. The ocean affinity benefit is a slightly mercurial concept that considers how much the exercise will help you deal with the ocean environment. A swimming pool has the clear advantage over the rowing machine in the gym as swimming allows you to feel the water with your hands every stroke, which you must do when you paddle, and there is easy opportunity to simulate wipeouts by swimming underwater. Standup paddle boarding blows both of these away for ocean affinity though because it takes you outside and into the forces of nature.
A river that you paddle upon will have a tidal flow that you can paddle with or against. A stillwater will have wind blowing across it that you have to take into account to hold your course. Being out in the sun and getting used to its strength, even in England, is important. If I spend a day outside in the sun without gradually getting used to it, it zaps my energy for the next couple of days. Being out in the middle of a wide river or big lake is a lot more daunting than being in the middle of a swimming pool; it teaches you a lot about your own responsibility to keep yourself safe, the fundamental tenet of playing in the sea.
Standup paddle boarding works every muscle from your fingers down to your toes as you have to transit the force you generate via the paddle through your body and down to your feet on the board. What it hits most though are your mid back muscles, shoulders, arms, and abs – the same muscles used when you paddle your surfboard. You might wonder why if you have easy access to a lake, you don’t just take your surfboard out there and practise paddling up and down. My answer would be that paddling a surfboard on flat water with no waves in sight is a pretty uncomfortable experience and not one that you’re likely to want to repeat more than once, never mind three times a week for three months. It’s a bit like going for a bike ride on a BMX, you can do it, but you wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. Much better to go on a standup paddle board and make these sessions genuinely enjoyable. When you paddle standing up, it feels comfortable, you can see everything, and I think you deliver far greater benefits to yourself (both physically and mentally) than paddling lying down on equipment that is designed more for wave riding and less for actually paddling.
Standup paddling is also a sport that allows us to add a bit of mental stress and frisson to our sessions, vital for good performance in the surf and something hamster-wheel type indoor training can never hope to achieve.
Stress inoculation is a term that I discovered in a book called On Combat although the concept is one that many surfers are familiar with. In brief, it deals with putting yourself into – and safely removing yourself from – increasingly difficult situations so that when the sticky stuff hits the fan for real, you don’t go to pieces and freeze. Freezing, or being paralysed by fear, is a natural, evolutionary response that might just work when you’re facing a large predator as it’s harder for them to see stationary forms than moving objects, but it has no place when you’re facing a big wave that’s about to munch you up. In surf, movement is key.
Do not underestimate the potential for great psychological stress in even seemingly benign ocean environments. The sheer panic, or fear that can be felt when you suddenly realise that you are no longer in control in the sea and it is doing things that if they continue, means you will die, I think are right up there with facing the worst human and animal aggression. Fear causes a massive adrenaline dump which if you are not conditioned to it will cause your heart rate to spike, blood to leave your limbs, shortness of breath and energy, loss of coordination and an overall far worse chance of dealing with the situation than if you able to reign the panic in a bit.
How can you work towards stress inoculation in a swimming pool or in a gym? In a pool you would have to be practising dangerous feats of apnoea which would rightly get you banned and even though you can practise MMA and sparring in a gym, both of which are no doubt highly stressful, in my experience keeping cool while facing a formidable human opponent does not transfer to keeping cool in the ocean.
What you can do though is take your standup paddle board, go to the lake on a moderately windy day (wear a leash!), and set off from the offshore bank. When you get to the middle, turn around and try to paddle back against the wind…and feel the anxiety rise. Even the chop on the water will transform the normally tranquil paddling experience into something more urgent, then add in the wind that wants to push you where you don’t want to go, the fact that you can’t just stop the activity when you want to, and you have a pretty fair approximation of what it’s like being caught out by a sneaker set or dealing with a rip current.
I must add here that the point of stress inoculation is to steadily increase the stress so that you can manage the situation without harming yourself or putting yourself at unnecessary risk. You wouldn’t train for a 200kg deadlift by trying to lift 200kg on day one; think of it like that. Start with light wind and small chop and build up from there. Record the conditions in a training diary to keep a track of your level.
Fear and exhaustion feed each other in an ever decreasing cycle.
In stressful conditions, if you panic, you’ll tire quicker. If you’re tired, you’ll start to panic. The cycle speeds up and it doesn’t end well. Sooner or later everyone who surfs will experience this. Protect yourself from this vicious cycle by building your stamina and inoculating yourself against stress.
That’s enough about fear, I thought surfing was supposed to be fun. Can we talk about balance and pop up for a bit now please?
Of course. I’ll leave that now but will just add that the ocean doesn’t have any concept of the historical notion of fair play or the modern notions of safe spaces and political correctness. It is beyond primal and does not recognise our puny human rules.
So, balance. Balance training is quick, easy and free. There’s no reason not to add it to your daily routine. I won’t try to go into the science of how balance training works, but will just give you a couple of ways to practise.
1. Brush your teeth standing on one leg. Raise your other leg up so that your hip is flexed at 90 degrees, don’t let your pelvis sway either way. Try and keep upright, swap legs when your foot starts to ache.
2. Walk the plank. Practise walking cross-step up and down a length of 4×2 wood. This is good fun and directly translates to foot skills on the surfboard.
Do this every day. You’ll soon discover which leg you are better at balancing on. You may wonder what the relevance of standing still on one leg is to surfing, well, when you can stand stable on one leg for a minute, your dynamic balance on two feet will be fantastic. You won’t meet an accomplished surfer with bad balance.
With your pop up, practise in front of a full length mirror or have the other half video you in slow motion (most phones have the ability to record in slow motion now) so you can see where you are going right and wrong. Practise your pop ups in a slow and controlled fashion so that you get the technique right. Use lines in floorboards or put some tape on the carpet to represent the central stringer line of your surfboard; your feet want to be positioned on this line when you get to your feet.
Once you have popped up into your surf stance, practise turning by looking over either shoulder and rotating your upper body. Lead with the head and hands and the body and board will follow. Do three sets of ten repetitions of your pop up.
Surf fitness, the short version.
Congratulations if you have scrolled down to the bottom and skipped all of the above. Here are the salient points:
1. Surfing is an incredibly difficult endurance sport. Surf specific fitness is the foundation of your success. There are no short cuts or magic bullets, it will take sacrifice and effort, you cannot bypass this.
2. Think about the tempo of a surf session and plan your training sessions around that. 90 minutes of steady 60% effort with 10-15 second bursts of speed every five or ten minutes or so.
3. Choose exercises which work on the same muscles. Rowing machines are good, swimming is better, standup paddling is best.
4. You must also train your mind as well as your body to deal with the natural forces in the ocean. Standup paddling in wind on lakes and rivers helps with this. Be safe, wear a leash, don’t paddle alone, carry a mobile phone on your person in a waterproof pouch.
5. You can easily practise balance and technique on a daily basis, it will only take a few minutes.
If I had to recommend one way to get surf fit, it would be to buy a standup paddle board and start regularly paddling on the waterways near you. Everyone in the UK lives close to a river, lake or the sea; often bodies of water will be closer to your house than the local swimming pool.
Start paddling and develop and affinity with that sport and let it take you where it will. You can just do it, or get a bit more tech with heart rate monitors and Strava type apps to track your progress, it doesn’t matter. Just remember that the most influential surfers in history didn’t get to their level of brilliance with complex training regimes, they just went out and did it. Michael Peterson, shortboard revolutionary and the best surfer on the planet in the late 70’s, was probably the fittest bloke in Australia during his years of dominance at Kirra. His training regime consisted of surfing all. the. time. His diet was a washing up bowl of cereal in the morning. He just loved his sport and did it and his body and mind were allowed to adapt naturally.
How do I know that standup paddling is the best sport for surfing? I don’t, no one’s doing any studies about this, but I can’t honestly think of anything better. Do I practise what I preach? I hope so; right now I have a grade 2 hamstring tear that’s keeping me away from vigorous surfing sessions. I’m paddling 5 times a week on my sup, up and down Fistral Beach, in the wind, chop, whatever, right now and for the next two months. As I approach 39, and can no longer rely on the benefit of youth to stay trim or fit, I do believe that these will be the most important surfing sessions of the year for me.