We all would like to surf better. It's impossible to watch guys like Kelly, Jordy, Sam Hammer, or even the guy that's ripping at your local break and not envy their expertise. And while there's certainly some God-given ability behind good, quality surfing, there are ways which you can strengthen your body and thus improve your surfing.
As a strength and conditioning coach, my job is to analyze movements in a particular sport, then prescribe a training regimen that will translate into improved performance. As contradictory as it may seem, hitting the gym could very well help push your surfing to the next level. At the very least, strength training and certain aerobic (cardio) conditioning will help you surf longer and decrease your risk of injury.
So why should you be contemplating exercise if all you want to do is surf better? Because we all have those days - the end of February, perfect head high waves, when a few hours in the 6/5 has caught up to us. The arms feel like noodles, your heart's pounding, and you're breathing heavier than a ... well never mind. Cardiovascular training (aerobic conditioning) is essential if you want to paddle for wave after wave for hours at a time. And while the standard 60 minutes of moderate jogging, cruising the elliptical, or climbing the stairs are effective (and necessary) in establishing a baseline for aerobic fitness, they do not necessarily meet the demands of surfing. Unlike most other activities, the bulk of the fatiguing aspect of surfing (paddling) is done with the upper part of your body. Because of this, cardio exercises that demand an interaction of both your arms and legs will result in better surf stamina.
Without a doubt, the closest exercise to surfing without actually getting on a board is swimming. With proper technique you'll increase lung capacity and muscular endurance in the arms and legs, all while building core strength and improving stamina. Problem is, not everyone has the ability to get in a daily swim for exercise. If this describes you, pay attention as I lay out some efficient, water-free modes of cardio training for surfers.
Remember, the goal is to use cardio equipment that utilizes both the upper and lower body. The rowing machine (Ergometer) mimics the movement of a row boat and is great for surfers because it trains your back, arms, legs, low back, and core, while also providing an excellent cardio workout. Jumping rope is another effective means of cardio training that will not only improve your aerobic conditioning but also delay paddling fatigue by strengthening your shoulders. Last but certainly not least are the battling or heavy ropes. These ropes provide the opportunity to perform various total body exercises that have been shown to elicit a greater maximum heart rate than running sprints. More importantly, many of the exercises require short, rapid movements of the arms. This quickly fatigues the shoulders, biceps, and forearms, in addition to promptly raising your heart rate. The parallels to paddling for a wave are undeniable, and therefore in my opinion make the heavy ropes one of the most effective land exercises available to improve your endurance for surfing.
Just as the cardio exercises you perform should work the muscle groups that dominate surfing, your training intensity should mimic the short, high-intense demands required while surfing. Last time I surfed, at no point was I ever paddling for more than 8 seconds. Except for the occasional paddle-out from hell, most surfing consists of a quick 2 - 6 second burst of intense paddling, a 5 second ride (come on, think an average day in Jersey), and a short 10 - 20 second paddle back to the lineup. Now these intervals are not scientific by any means, but they do highlight the lack of continuous activity involved in a typical surf session.
So what does this mean for your cardio training? Try incorporating very quick bursts (10 - 30 seconds) of high intense activity, followed by a longer period of low intense work (1 - 3 minutes). For example, if the row machine is your favorite means of cardio, first warm up properly, then perform a 10 - 15 second sprint at about 85-90% effort followed by 90 seconds of moderate rowing. Repeat this cycle for 15 - 20 minutes and you'll have better prepared your body for a quick surf session. While an hour long jog will help you build up endurance, mirroring the varying intensities consistent with surfing in your cardio training will translate to a more comfortable 4 hour session.
In a perfect world, we'd be able to surf shoulder high A-frames for 90 minutes a day, making the idea of aerobic conditioning for surfing an afterthought. But thanks to things like work, the Atlantic Ocean, and our significant others, we can't get in the water every day to surf. Luckily, by swimming laps in the pool, rowing on an ergometer, slamming the heavy ropes, and other modes of cardio, we can help maximize our surf time when we actually can make it into the water. So take the time now when there are no waves to ride to establish a cardio base through moderate exercise and build your way up to the bursts of high intense, short duration cardio workouts that mimic a surf session. Trust me, your arms, lungs and heart will be happy you did.
Adam Papendick, CSCS
*Keep your eyes peeled over the next few weeks for strength training exercises aimed at helping you surf stronger.