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Surf Fitness by Izzy Abbott

Posted on: October 14th, 2015 by thekensingtonstudio

I have been surfing for nine years, albeit for most of this time, badly. There was a time when my boyfriend would call me ‘Paddlepuss’, someone who catches waves only in the white water, but after my purchase of a custom made board, I had a surfing revelation and have since left this name behind. At the start, surfing was just a bit of fun, a day out enjoying the fresh air and being in the ocean, but now I crave the challenge of pushing myself that little bit harder each time I get in the water and concentrating on the movements my body is making and the muscles I am using. I have always been a keen sportswoman but my fascination with using specific training techniques to enhance my sporting performance is more of a recent phenomenon for me. Between surf trips, I train so I can paddle harder, faster and for longer, catch more waves, pop up quicker and enjoy a longer ride.  There are often times the paddle out to get beyond the breaking waves is relentless and I’m exhausted before I’ve even attempted catching a wave. By the time I come to popping up my energy levels are so depleted, the only movement that is explosive is the wave breaking and the white water crashing down, usually on top of my head.

For surfing, as with many other sports, being successful fundamentally boils down to possessing a good level of skill and the best exercise to improve this is, of course, surfing itself. These days however, I live and work in the city and surf trips are few and far between. Training plays an important role in maintaining and even enhancing fitness so I can avoid feeling like I’m starting from the beginning every time I step foot into the ocean.

Every surfer has a unique technique, therefore some aspects of fitness are more important than others and the specifics of a training programme will vary from person to person. For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on the foremost fitness components that every surfer will need to possess to some extent; cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, power, agility and reaction time, a good level of flexibility, balance and a strong core. Let’s take the basic elements of surfing in turn and look at where these components of fitness come in.

Staying afloat and paddling

The first two fundamentals of surfing: keeping yourself afloat and moving the board by paddling with your arms. If you haven’t got these down then you probably won’t have gotten very far. Both activities require a good level of cardiovascular endurance. Surfing uses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems; working aerobically to keep afloat and generally moving around in the water, to anaerobically through short bursts of intense paddling interspersed with one of two activities; popping up and riding the wave or duck diving underneath an oncoming set.

Swimming is a great example of aerobic training which uses the similar motions to surfing. I have often been known to take a float into the swimming pool and complete lengths using only my arms to mimic the activity further. Aim for three 30 minute sessions a week and you’ll soon be moving with ease in the water. Interval training can be used as a powerful tool for training anaerobically. Try balancing on a Swiss ball and paddling as if you were on a surfboard, holding onto the ends of a resistance band in each hand to imitate the force of the water. Compliment your aerobic training with 12 sets of 30 seconds of this activity, working at 80-90% of you maximum heart rate, followed by 20 seconds of recovery.

In surfing, it pays off to have a lean and athletic composition. We are not wishing to build muscle and run the risk of sinking your new Channel Islands stick on a day with the cleanest A-frames you’ve ever seen. It is still important to have good muscular strength to create powerful movements, and muscular endurance, particularly in the arms, legs, back and core, to paddle for longer and sustain a squat position when riding a wave. Exercises that target the main surfing muscles and/or mimic the movements made in surfing include; close/wide grip pull ups, bench press/chest flies, bicep curls/tricep dips, lateral/front deltoid raises. Develop muscular strength and endurance by executing sets in both high and low rep ranges.

Incorporating 4 sets of 12 stability ball push ups into your workout, will not only develop arm, chest, and core strength but will help you maintain balance when it comes to staying afloat, paddling and then that all important ‘pop up’.

Popping up

The ‘pop up’ is a quick and powerful all in one movement which takes you from lying flat on your stomach to standing position and riding a wave. It can be a tough art to perfect and I got into the nasty habit of first climbing onto my knees and by the time I was on my feet I’d lost momentum and was on my way off the back of the wave. Plyometric training can help here. Use squat trusts to develop power as you drive your legs towards your chest. 3 sets of 60 seconds each training session and you’ll soon notice a difference. Once you’ve mastered the squat thrusts, it’s time to get up onto your feet. Preform tuck jumps but incorporate a 180⁰ turn and land in the surfer’s squat, alternating legs each time.

 Riding the wave

Balance is key to good surfing and core strength is key to good balance. If you haven’t got it, your ride won’t last long and you’ll soon find yourself falling off, so it’s worth working on. Test your core strength and endurance by holding your body in the plank position for as long as you can manage; keeping your body straight and your core engaged. Increase the duration each time and try 3 sets. Surfers stay balanced by squatting down to keep a low centre of gravity. Therefore, along with good core strength, good muscular endurance in the legs doesn’t go a miss either. With your back to a wall, drop down into a sitting position, your knees should be at right angles, and see how long you can hold yourself up for. Aim to increase the duration each time. For a real challenge, give it a go after completing a superset of 4 sets of 8 barbell squats with 4 sets of bodyweight one legged squats, twenty each side. If this isn’t hard enough, try pre-exhausting the quads beforehand with 3 sets of 15 leg extensions. One legged squats not only improve the muscular strength and endurance of your glutes, quads and hamstrings but also sets your centre of gravity over the weight bearing leg, imitating how you will balance and manoeuvre your board whilst out on the water.

Keeping the core strong and engaged throughout all these exercises will be a good workout in itself but give it a run for its money with some cable push and pulls, also great for developing rotational strength, another good trait to have for when you start carving.


When it comes to carving (making turns) on a wave, it is not only balance that is important but agility and reaction time play a part too. Ladder agility drills can help with this. Step from one side of the ladder to the other as quickly as you can, ensuring to put both feet in each rung as you go. Keeping a low centre of gravity and mimicking the surfing stance, this lateral movement can also help to improve knee and ankle stability. Skipping is also a great way to improve reaction time, agility and increase cardiovascular fitness.

It may not be as obvious as the other fitness components but it is important for a surfer to maintain good levels of flexibility to stay nimble and prevent injury. Two yoga poses I can recommend for enhanced surfing are the Downward Dog (figure 1 and 2), to lengthen hamstrings and calves and stretch shoulders and foot arches, and the One Legged King Pigeon (figure 3) which will help to open the hip and stretch the thigh and groin area.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

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