Everyone knows that surfing is one of the best exercises out there for all-over strength, conditioning, and overall physical fitness. It’s challenging, exhilarating, relaxing, and simply just fun. However, not all of us live within a reasonable daily drive to the ocean. Many of us live in places where the ocean is a frosty prospect for much of the year, or where the waves aren’t quite up to standard. For us, the mere mortals of the surfing world who do not own a beach house in the tropics, surfing as a sole means of exercise doesn’t work—not because we don’t want it to, but because of the constraints of normal life.
Like many all-encompassing passions, surfing enters every aspect of your life, sometimes whether you mean it to or not. Sometimes it manifests in habitual checking of weather and wave forecasts, sometimes by pouring over surfing magazines and catalogs. When you are out there, it's all you can think of. When you’re not, all that you can think of is how to get back. Not bad for a pursuit that hones your core, strengthens your heart, and lends great mental balance to everyday living.
Facing the Challenge
The hitch is how to get the most out of the days you DO get out there, and how to fling yourself tirelessly (okay—almost tirelessly) into one wave after another all day long? If you’re landlocked, what do you do to prime your body for the best surfing?
Like most great athletic challenges, the answer comes in the form of cross training. Not only does cross training up your overall performance, it also lessens your likelihood of sustaining an injury that would keep you from performing at peak efficiency. Professional athletes have been incorporating aspects of other branches of fitness for years; what works for them can also work for the everyday Joe who wants to make the most of his weekend or vacation. Like any great discipline, attention to the small details makes all the difference.
The Basic Theory
When people do repetitive actions over and over again, whether through sports, employment, hobbies, or habits, the great danger lies in overuse issues. Tendinitis, bursitis, sprains, and strains can all stem from overusing some muscle groups while allowing others to stay weak or underutilized.
By incorporating different patterns of use and movement, any given muscle group can be toned and strengthened in ways that both prevent injury and optimize performance. This has been apparent in the NFL for decades, as ballet core exercises have been assimilated into training programs. Greater balance and flexibility allows for the body to undergo great strain and demand, while still being able to bounce back unharmed. In this light, cross training falls into three categories: cardiovascular activity, strength training, and flexibility.
Training on the Run
Cardio, in a nutshell, is the branch of exercise that focuses on training your heart and circulatory system. It may manifest in activities that make us pant and sweat; but the true target is to strengthen your heart so it can beat with greater efficiency and distribute blood and oxygen to all parts of your body. A strong heart manifests most obviously in great endurance—something that is essential, to make the most of a day of surfing.
Paddling and swimming both take a great deal of cardiovascular training; and, while riding a wave is the fun part, it's only about 5% of your time in the water. Supplementing your aquatic cardio with land-based pursuits like cycling, dancing, running, and martial arts will pay of dividends.
Pick Things Up and Put Them Down
Resistance or weight training seems to evoke a love/hate reaction from people. Fear of “bulking up” or “not bulking up enough” haunts this otherwise very reasonable activity. It is also very time intensive and physically challenging—but it works. By including weight training in your surf body preparation and maintenance program, you achieve several different benefits.
First, stronger muscles in general lend to better performance and balance. Squats are a prime example of a perfect land-based training exercise that translates well onto a board. By strengthening those muscles that most come into play, abrupt shifts through fatigue and loss of balance are less likely to occur. Push-ups, crunches, and plyometrics can all be assimilated into your land routine with spectacular results. Additionally, strength training has the long-term benefit of increasing bone density, making your skeletal structure less susceptible to the fractures and breaks that occasionally accompany rough surf or bad luck.
Don’t Be So Uptight
Like any physically demanding activity, warm up and cool down time are absolutely essential. Even if you have superb cardio capacity and rock-hard abs, you can still fall afoul of strains, sprains, and overuse issues. These are perhaps the most insidious kinds of injuries, accumulating slowly over time and taking even longer to properly recover from. Without properly supple muscles, abrupt shifts of balance can net you a painful tear that keeps you landlocked for weeks on end.
To this end, attending a regular yoga or barre class can be an enjoyably social way to ward off injury while simultaneously improving your overall balance. No one has ever claimed that yoga or ballet is easy; that being said, this discipline of regular stretching may be the single most essential aspect to staying healthy and strong in between surf sessions. If you’re lucky, you can even attend classes that blend stand up paddleboarding and yoga, combining two challenges at once, with a guaranteed soft landing if you lose your balance.
Just Do It
The Ancient Greeks said “All things in moderation,” and to some degree that applies even to such a fantastic sport as surfing. Hampered by time, geography, and responsibility, not everyone gets to surf as often as they like—and that is perhaps not such a bad thing. Time away from the ocean allows for different but complementary training that enhances the time we do get to surf, and it wets our appetites and our enthusiasm.