“Don’t put training ahead of surfing. There’s no training for surfing like surfing itself. Training is mainly a way to prevent injuries while you’re surfing, by building strength in your body. Swimmers can go up and down the pool all day long, but eventually they have to go into the gym to balance out their body or strengthen up their shoulders, otherwise they are just going to blow something out. Same with surfing. You develop overuse patterns and you start blowing things out left, right and centre.” – Mick Fanning, Surf For Your Life.
I came to surfing fairly late in life. I had toyed around with the idea of learning to surf in my early teens, yet it wasn’t until around 10 years later I decided that in order to improve, I needed to get out there everyday. So, without the advantage of being a grom early in life, I then became a 26 year old frother – stoked on a new passion and outlet for my natural tendency to exercise and train more than the average female. The surf became my loyal physical, mental and emotional dumping ground. It also became my physical, mental and emotional energy tap. I think there’s something pretty healing about the ocean and it just feels good to be in it.
The first time I found myself going across the wave face, I was hooked like anyone else who’s done the same. Being older, my body was less pliable and forgiving than would be of the typical young grom, so I experienced a fairly strong change in the way my joints and muscles felt once I began to practice every day. Being an exercise physiologist and trained in dance since the age of three, I’ve grown to be aware of optimal spine and joint postures and have developed a high sense for proprioception (the position of my body in space). Surfing seemed to be challenging everything I had learnt in the past about keeping the body symmetrically conditioned and aligned. Some of the dysfunctions I see in my surfing clients, as well as what I was seeing within my own body include:
Upper back hunching over
Head poking forward
Pelvis rotating away from the front leg in standing and the torso rotating toward the front leg
Pop-ups are one-sided –twisting the body to the same side in each powerful pop-up, creating imbalances. Power = more force traveling through the body.
Back knee dropping in which creates and inward stress on the knee joint
Back ankle dropping in (pronating) which creates an inward stress on the ankle and transfers that stress up to the knee, hip and beyond.
Shoulders and neck gnarling up from heaps of paddling, and shoulder internal rotators stressing out.
A shrinking ass and an aching lower back.
These were the challenges I was facing as a rehabilitation and strength specialist, and yet my own muscle and joint issues surfacing were not enough to detract me from my passion to become a better surfer and keep surfing for the rest of my life. This is why I am passionate about teaching surfers how to look after their bodies and perform to the best of their ability so that they can squeeze out more years and expertise in what they love to do most, just as I wish for myself.
Surfers often jog or run, do sit-ups, push-ups, ride bikes, may even pump iron or do yoga. But rarely do they actually practice movements they’ll need on the board or work specific muscle groups that they’ll use in surfing.
An average ride lasts less than sixty seconds, and on a good day you’re doing well to catch ten waves per hour. That adds up to less than ten minutes of practice time for each hour you spend in the water. Compare this to skiing or snowboarding – runs are usually limited only by conditioning. On a good hill, a single run might equal an entire day of surfing, in terms of time spent building muscle memory by actually doing the activity. Especially at the beginner to intermediate stages of surfing, the ratio of paddling to standing up is even greater than it is for advanced surfers. Surfers also need to wait for decent swell in conjunction with surf-able wind conditions, and in a spot that is not trying to accommodate 50+ surfers at once, which never happens?! So as a surfer, and especially if you were a late starter, you’re facing a very steep learning curve. A solution is to practice key moves in a controlled environment, just like athletes in other sports. Surf-specific training comes into play here. Flexibility, agility, strength, conditioning, power and practice doing the things you would actually do to catch and ride a wave.
That’s the performance side of surfing, and then there’s the injury side of surfing which can slowly happen (or quickly happen with impact situations) as your body morphs into what is required in surfing as a unilateral (one-sided) sport. What this means, is that the act of paddling is fairly symmetrical yet once you get ready for the wave and from the moment you push up and bring one leg further forward than the other, you are now asymmetrical for the rest of your ride. Your hips are rotated, your back ankle and knee drops in, your torso is rotated, your neck is rotated to see where you’re going, and if you’re like most people you favor rights or lefts. If you are genius enough to surf switch-foot, you could potentially save yourself a lot of chronic overuse injuries, but this is rarely mastered.
Here’s a photo of what I see..
BREAKING IT DOWN
The neck gets pulled into hyperextension with paddling and surfacing from duck-dives (more so with females throwing their heads back so their hair isn’t covering their face when they surface, I believe!). Older surfers with immobile thoracic spines will compensate by hyperextending their neck more than a surfer with the ability to lift the top of their chest off the board, and also will overextend at their shoulders. The result is a sore, stiff neck.
If you already have a forward-neck-hunched-shoulders desk posture before you begin surfing, you’re off to a bad start. Your shoulder is probably already off balance by sitting forward in the shoulder socket. The action of paddling (and swimming) strengthens the larger muscles around the shoulder such as the pecs, front of the shoulders, lats, upper trapezius and shoulder internal rotators. These muscles when strong relative to their opposite acting muscles (like the back of the shoulder, lower trapezius and shoulder external rotators) and can actually pull your arm bone forward in your shoulder socket so that it doesn’t sit in its normal (anatomical) position. This leads to shoulder pain, neck pain, shoulder impingements and hopefully you’ll sort it out before developing rotator cuff tears.
THORACIC SPINE (MID TO UPPER BACK)
Restricted movement in the thoracic spine means other areas have to compensate – usually your shoulders start wearing away and your lower back can develop some serious strain.
Wipeouts and the associated twists and turns forced upon the torso can strain the back. In addition to this, any sudden movements have the potential to damage a poorly conditioned back as well as the strain that can develop from prolonged paddling if the glutes and lower back muscles are not well conditioned. When the glutes and lower back are not well conditioned, prolonged paddling can create a shear force around the sacro-iliac joint (SIJ) and lumbo-sacral region (lower back – hip / pelvis junctions).
Inflexible adductors (inner thigh muscles), chronic scar tissue in adductors, poor squat technique and inadequate warm-up can all be contributors to groin strains.
Restricted hip mobility means areas above and below have to compensate, such as your lower back and knees. Both lower back and knees usually need to rotate and bend more than usual to get you into a deeper squat.
Surfing also creates tight hip flexors from all the popping up and perching up on your board waiting for a set.
When standing up on the wave, your hips are rotated. The hip rotates toward the back foot (torso rotates toward the front foot) and this over time creates imbalanced loading through the spine, hips, knees and ankles.
Tension created by imbalances in the hip cause core instability.
The back knee drops inward, a technique required for good surfing and not something we want to change, but it does create stress on the inside of the knee and can lead to knee pain. Strengthening for knee stability and good squat technique when in the gym will buffer around the chance of needing a knee reconstruction later down the track.
Apart from sometimes getting an impact bashing (like any other joint in the body), the back ankle drops in (pronates) to bring the back knee in, which causes stress on the inside part of the ankle. Over time this can “lock” up the ankle joint and prevent it from moving smoothly through full range. Tight calves are another issue, preventing a deep crouch in your squat. If your ankles are not moving well, your knees and hips compensate.
You can find surf related posts on this site to work areas of weakness, gain more mobility, troubleshoot injury prone areas and more.
Find a good coach to teach you the good stuff, and find a good physical therapist for body tuning which can be tricky to do on your own. Your body is a highly sensitive and connected system. Pain in one area may require troubleshooting in another area. Your best bet to avoid overuse injuries is to start fine tuning your body with stretching, mobility drills, strengthening of weak areas and conditioning to allow you to surf for the rest of your life.