A team of scientists out of Auckland University in New Zealand recently conducted studies of the actual physiological demands of competitive surfing, and have proven that overall fitness is important to surfing success.
The studies, which were published last month in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, recruited 12 professional New Zealand surfers, outfitted the surfers with tiny, sophisticated, waterproof heart rate monitors and GPS units and then simply let them ride. The surfers wore the various monitors during three heats at two separate competitions in the surf off the New Zealand coast.
The discovery: to be a fit and functioning competitive surfer, you’ll need a “high endurance for paddling with bursts of high-intensity activity and short recovery times.”
The study breaks down the standard activity of a heat into four parts. The surfers spent 54 percent of the heat paddling, 28 percent of the time stationary on their boards, and only 8 percent of the heat spent actually riding waves.
Forget the perception that surfing is calm and meditative. According to the GPS data collected, over the course of a 20-minute heat, the surfers traveled an average distance of about one mile (two thirds of that covered while paddling). The average paddle speed for the surfers was 2.3 mph and the average high speed while riding waves was 20.75 mph, with the top recorded speed of the event clocking in at 27.96 mph. Throughout the heat, heart rates stayed in the moderate- to high-intensity range for two-thirds of the time, with surfers’ heart rates soaring to 190-plus beats per minute during the competitions and rarely dropping below 120 beats per minute. Thus, surfing is a quite a workout requiring high-level aerobic endurance, given that the heart rate stays above 120 beats per minute at least 80 percent of the time, and given the amount of time spent paddling.
Surfing also requires muscular power, particularly in the upper body. In the second of the new surfing studies, elite surfers visited the group’s lab, turning paddles rapidly with their arms to simulate ocean paddling. Those who could generate the most wattage while paddling were also the highest-ranked surfers of the group.
So what should you do to optimize a surf-specific workout? Do exercises emphasizing aerobic conditioning, fast recovery times, and high-intensity heart rate workloads. This could include press-ups, bench presses, squats, abdominal crunches, pull-ups, and general arm exercises, and power training exercises such as jumping onto and off boxes or stair steps. Surf-specific training could include paddling with resistance in a pool or on a rowing machine in a gym.
Finally, you’ll need to put in hours of running, bicycling or swimming to build the endurance required to reach the good waves.