You Can Surf Forever: How to Ensure Surfing Longevity
Table of Contents
The Bear’s Harrowing Comments
John Milius’ 1978 masterpiece Big Wednesday has an abundance of poignant monologues. Many of them involve the movie’s more senior figure, the famous surfboard shaper Bear. In the early stages The Bear appears to be the epitome of surfing longevity.
Who can forget:
“That’s the lemon next to the pie. It’s going to get bigger.”
Despite Bear not riding a wave on screen and clearly suffering from the pitfalls of life, he was a guiding light to the three friends, the patriarchal figure. Not least for the main protagonist Matt Johnson, played by Jan-Michael Vincent.
There are myriad emotional quotes from Sam Melville’s alpha character. However, I found two scenes particularly harrowing when I first saw Big Wednesday. That feeling continues to this day.
The first is when the young surf fans hang out at Bear’s shaping shack, waxing lyrical about their idol Matt Johnson. The Bear tells the groms that Matt, and fellow rippers Jack and Leroy, could use a little more experience. He states that they would get the experience if they kept surfing.
“Those guys are so stoked, they’ll surf forever!” squeaks Danny, shocked by wise old Bear’s proclamation.
That’s where the Bear drops the coldest line of the whole movie.
“Nobody surfs forever.”
Fast forward to the movie’s closing scenes, Matt, Jack, and Leroy have overcome their respective ups and downs to reunite on those famous steps, big wave guns under their arms. There are a few more sun-induced wrinkles, a few more grey hairs. In previous scenes, we’ve already seen that Matt now must wear glasses, clearly for his declining eyesight, as opposed to the fashionable Wayfarers he sports throughout the movie.
As the swell pumps into the mythical point break and world-famous surfers get pounded, Matt goes on to ride the most iconic wave of the entire movie, of his whole surfing life. While Matt gives away his beautiful surfboard afterwards, I don’t for a minute believe he is giving away surfing. I believe that moment, if anything, made him realise how strong his connection to riding waves truly is.
Bear is stood on the bluff, overwhelmed with pride. He was clearly down on his luck, post-divorce, losing his business, and dressed in filthy overalls. The decline in Bear is pronounced. The solid and robust father figure is a shadow of his former self.
he is asked
“Hey man, do you surf? Are you a surfer?”
“Oh no… Not Me… I’m… I’m just a garbage man.”
For me, there’s an abundance of important life messages in Big Wednesday. The one that relates to this article the best is the plight of poor old Bear. Bear stopped surfing. He even stopped referring to himself as a surfer. His life was poorer as a result. Yet the highlight of witnessing the giant swell and his protégé Matt riding that wave caused him to stand tall, chest out, with a smile on his face and a tear in his eye.
Matt on the other hand had rediscovered surfing, opening new gateways of sobriety and family life.
I hope that moment inspired Bear to call himself a surfer again!
You can surf forever… Surfing forever will be the best thing you ever do… You just need to approach it the right way…
The Keys to Surfing Longevity
We live in a time where we are surrounded by surfers who have made lifelong commitments to the sport. It is far more common to see older surfers enjoying the waves. It is also impressive to see how well the older guys and girls are surfing!
Our local point break has a crowd of around forty surfers on a busy day. I would take a guess that the average age in the water is ten to fifteen years older than it was a couple of decades ago. There are plenty of surfers in their 60’s out there, even one or two septuagenarians. This is a real testament to surfing longevity.
It’s interesting that the average age of WCT surfers has risen to 28 years of age. Twenty years ago it was 24.
It is clearly possible to continue surfing at an older age, however for every surfer I know who is still out there charging, I know of several who have given up the sport.
When Does a Surfer Stop Being a Surfer?
In my opinion as someone who has been a sports performance specialist for the past fifteen years, there are generally two categories of event that mark the demise of a surfer.
Social, Economic, and Time Based issues
The archetypal surfer is a young, free individual with time on their hands and a reluctance to “settle down.” However, most people tend to reach a point in their lives where that freedom to roam is restricted somewhat.
Work promotions, buying a house, getting married, and having children are all fantastic waypoints in life. But all the above can have a huge effect on the amount of time a surfer spends in the water.
Priorities change over time and opportunities to surf can become extremely limited. The more mouths to feed and outgoings to cover, the less time we have available. The less time available, the harder it is to achieve surfing longevity.
The lack of time in the water can also be a stepping stone towards physical decline, creating a bit of a catch 22 situation.
There is no doubt that human beings experience physical decline as they age. There are several biological processes that reduce in efficiency as we get older, resulting in reduced strength, flexibility, and endurance (all fundamentals of surfing).
The longer we have been around, the more likely we are to have suffered injury. These injuries take a physical toll and will often have a cumulative effect, making the act of surfing longevity more and more difficult.
Surfing is a very physical sport. However, the wonderful thing about wave riding is the intensity can be graduated according to experience, confidence, and fitness.
Surfing a death defying slab, or a session at Jaws is the epitome of physical excellence, yet paddling out and surfing a gentle 2 foot wave at a sand bottom point is eminently achievable for the majority of surfers.
Equally, riding a pro surfers signature model surfboard requires a unique combination of athletic attributes. These demands can be mitigated by choosing a mid-length or a longboard.
The point I am trying to make is that there are always options for a surfer, regardless of where they are on their journey.
There are however issues that can ruin a session, regardless of conditions. These can mount up over time and cause a surfer to hang up the wetsuit and stash the board in the rafters of the shed, putting an end to surfing longevity.
Paddling is a very unique blend of strength and endurance. It is also by far the most critical element of surfing. If you cannot paddle, you simply can’t enjoy surfing longevity.
There are a few factors that influence a surfers ability to paddle effectively.
George hasn’t surfed for the past six months because of a house move, and the birth of his second child. In fact the last time George surfed was mid summer in board shorts. George has a free afternoon and notices there are a few waves. He grabs his surf gear and heads to the beach. George puts on his 5mm winter wetsuit, booties, gloves and hood. He notices the suit is a little tighter than it used to be, possibly because of the extra 10lbs he has put on through lack of exercise.
George grabs his trusty 6’0″, the same board he rode last summer, and jumps in the cold water.
George has an absolute nightmare.
The truth is his fitness has declined significantly, to the point where his strength and endurance are limited. The added 10 lbs of bodyweight, plus the added 12lbs of winter wetsuit gear mean that his 28 litre surfboard is inappropriate. Georges right shoulder is in agony, just from paddling.
Getting to your feet
Poor old George… Not only is he having a nightmare paddling, on the rare occasions he manages to position himself to catch a wave, he is struggling to get to his feet…
His body just doesn’t seem to respond in the way it used to and his “pop up” has become, at best, a crawl up.
George is lacking the strength and flexibility he needs in order to effectively pop up on his surfboard.
The pop up is a wonderfully athletic movement. While it isn’t necessarily a power based move, it requires a fluidity of movement, good proprioception, and a decent level of fitness. While George’s brain is perfectly capable of remembering how to pop up, his muscles and joints have all but forgotten.
George did not enjoy his surf. In fact he had such a bad time that he is embarrassed to return. He drives home thinking it might be time to dust off the golf clubs!
George is one type of surfer who may be on the brink of quitting surfing, hands down the worst thing he could do. Let’s explore another example of a surfer who is in a different position to George, yet is facing the exact same ultimatum.
The vast majority of surfers I have worked with over the years do not complain of not being able to ride the waves anymore. They complain about not being able to CATCH the waves anymore.
Pain and Discomfort
Selena has been a surfer since she was ten years old. At sixty one she, until recently, still got to the beach almost every day to surf the small swells that break at her local surf spot. Selena always rode shortboards, however, in her early fifties she noticed a stiffness in her lower back and hips that made it difficult for her to assume the positions needed to take off and turn the small boards.
Having ridden an 8 foot board for the past decade, the slim and healthy lady is now finding that sessions on consecutive days are becoming more and more difficult due to soreness and discomfort. In fact if the waves are slightly bigger, or she surfs for longer than an hour, she can be out of the water for two to three days. Selena has dramatically cut down on her weekly sessions, and as a result is spending less time at the beach.
Selena has resigned herself to the fact that her body must be starting to fall apart and that it’s just Mother Nature announcing her surfing time is up.
This type of chronic pain can be a genuine factor for older surfers and often results in giving up the sport.
What can we do?
I believe that a fundamental of sports performance is directly transferable here.
Identify Current Weaknesses – When I say weakness, I don’t just mean muscular weakness. It’s time to identify the elements that are holding you back from enjoying surfing as much as possible. For George and Selena, their weaknesses are pretty evident, however yours may be a little more subtle, depending on where you are on your surfing journey. The earlier you can acknowledge a weakness the better.
Work on Those Weaknesses – Without sounding too much like a Jock Coach, the key to improvement is to train your weaknesses until they become strengths. If you spend time working on weakness, your strengths will become even stronger. Not only will you keep surfing, you will potentially enjoy surfing more than you ever have!
How to Identify Weaknesses
Quite simply ask yourself a few questions:
Am I strong enough to surf how I want to?
Do I have a level of endurance that allows me to surf how I want?
Am I flexible enough to surf how I want to?
Do I experience pain or discomfort that prevents me surfing how I want to?
Does my current mindset allow me to surf how I want to?
Do I have the time to surf how I want to?
Am I doing everything I can from a nutritional, sleep and/or mindfulness standpoint to allow me to surf how I want to?
In an ideal world non of the questions above would create red flags. Unfortunately there is usually at least one factor that is inhibiting a surfer.
Surfing makes you strong and surfing keeps you strong. That’s because surfing requires a unique range of strength in the upper and lower body.
Unfortunately surfing strength can decline quite quickly, especially in older surfers. Usually a couple of weeks out of the water is enough to lose a bit of the hard earned strength, that is a key to surfing longevity.
Surfing 2-3 times a week is a brilliant way to maintain strength, but there are plenty of things you can do to ensure you are strong enough to surf during time out of the water.
Its worth considering what Brad Gerlach said during our recent interview:
The bigger and stronger I am – the better I surf, no-way, NO-WAY. You’ve got to be soft. You’ve gotta be soft to get close to the surfboard.
Basic weight training machines will certainly play a role in keeping you strong, however I would prefer exercises that involve multiple joints moving through full range.
These old school Russian training devices are fantastic for surfing strength. The traditional lifting method is known as kettlebell sport and is generally referred to as “endurance weight lifting”.
Strength endurance is hands down the best training strategy to crossover to the demands of paddling a surfboard Kettlebells are the ultimate strength endurance tools. The movement patterns of many of the exercises are also very similar to the movements we perform in turns.
It’s all very well to do exercises on a leg press machine and expect it to cross over to surfing, or push ups and expect your paddling to improve. It is essential to train the muscles and joints through the range of movement that you require for the sport.
The Turkish Get Up
One of the best exercises you can do for surfing is The Turkish Get Up. It develops fantastic upper and lower body strength through a full range of movement.
The Long Cycle
The long cycle, or kettlebell clean and jerk is a tremendous exercise for upper and lower body strength. It involves full body movement and is probably the ultimate strength endurance exercise.
The key to good surfing is rotation. The way to stop surfing well is by allowing rotation to decline. Kettlebells enable you to train really specific movements that keep you strong through rotation.
The Skierg is a brilliant piece of training equipment. Originally designed for cross country skiers, the benefits for surfers are second to none.
This machine builds strength endurance of the upper body in a movement that somewhat mimics the paddling motion.
Check out Nathan Florence breaking down why he trains on the Concept 2 Skierg.
Again, the best way to train endurance for surfing – is surfing. It is such a brilliant sport for keeping the heart, lungs, and muscles in great shape.
However, if you are not surfing at least 2-3 times a week, 52 weeks a year, you do require some extra training, especially when your goal is maintaining longevity.
One thing I will say, that may fly in the face of some surf fitness coaches, is that you don’t need to hammer yourself with high intensity exercise to maintain surfing endurance.
Having worked with plenty of professional surfers over the years, we have used heart rate monitor technology to track the intensity of their sessions. There is a genuine gulf between the cardiovascular intensity of a pro surfer in a competitive heat, compared to a surfer enjoying a recreational 1-2 hour session.
Most surfers spend the majority of a surf session in what we call Zone 2 Heart Rate, or basic endurance. A smaller portion of the session is spent at what is sometimes referred to as the “Aerobic Zone”, or Zone 3, and occasionally a very small part is spent in Zone 4 or maximum performance. The short Zone 4 efforts usually when a surfer sprint paddles to catch a wave, or attempts to paddle out through close outs following a long ride.
Ok, let’s get controversial.
How beneficial are the Cross Fit style, high intensity training sessions that your favourite pro surfer / influencer is promoting for your longevity as a surfer?
I’m going to be the guy who says… Not very!
Now, I’m not saying that Cross Fit style training doesn’t have it’s benefits, I’m just saying there is very little crossover to the endurance requirements of surfing, especially when longevity is the goal.
Let’s take a quick look at a case study that backs up my point.
These two graphs shows the heart rate of a surfer I have recently started working with.
Graph one is the heart rate from a Cross Fit style training session they participated in prior to us working together.
Graph two is the heart rate from a surf they recently had at a fun little reef with perfect 3 – 4 foot waves.
Please use the arrows to compare the results.
The heart rate demands from the surfing session are a whole two zones below what the Cross Fit style session required.
Let’s introduce another training principle at this point.
The principle of specificity says:
Training should be relevant and appropriate to the goal we are training for.
If you want to get good at something, you need to train in ways that are specific to whatever it is you want to get good at.
For example, if a footballer wanted to sprint faster, doing loads of bench press and bicep curls is not going to help. Running fast and performing heavy squats would be considered specific to their goal.
Clearly, in the case of surfing, we need to be good at sustaining a low to moderate level of heart rate (Zone 2 -3) for extended periods of time.
In other words, to maintain a level of endurance required to promote longevity as a surfer, you should train at a similar heart rate, for a similar duration, to the requirements of your surfing session.
Get yourself a heart rate monitor, or learn how your smart watch or fitness tracker can display heart rate. Hop on an exercise machine, jump on your mountain bike, or strap on your rucksack and head for the park.
Spend an hour in Zone 2 and occasionally spike the intensity a bit for 30-60 seconds at a time. Your body will love you for it.
Remember, we are training for surfing longevity! Low intensity exercise like we have discussed places your body systems into a mode where they are regenerating and recovering. Training at high intensity can cause the body to break down.
The higher the intensity, the greater the risk of injury! One of the major keys to longevity is avoiding Injury!
Remember George? How the extra 10lbs of bodyweight was a catalyst for a ruined surfing experience. George isn’t alone, increased bodyweight is a factor for many ageing surfers. The good news is, regular lower heart rate exercise is fantastic for burning fat. Alongside a good nutritional plan, those stubborn excess lbs will fall off in no time.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines flexibility in the following two ways:
“The ability to bend easily without breaking”
“The ability to change or be changed, to adapt to different circumstances”.
If we think about it, those two definitions kind of sum up the attributes of a good surfer.
We can be guilty of thinking that flexibility is all about stretching muscles. It is to a degree, but think about flexibility as the ability to move your joints through full range of motion and you’re far closer to realising the importance of flexibility training.
In my experience there are generally two camps that surfers fall into with flexibility. They either do some form of athletic stretching, or they do Yoga. Both are fantastic modalities for surfing longevity, it really comes down to which you prefer.
Without going two deep on the subject, there are basically four types of flexibility:
Static Passive – A stretch that is held in place (usually with assistance) with no muscle contraction.
Static Active – A stretch that is held in place with active muscle contraction.
Dynamic Passive – A stretch that is moved through range (usually with assistance) with no muscle contraction
Dynamic Active – A stretch that is moved through range with active muscle contraction
A good stretching routine should be targeted towards your weaknesses, using whichever of the above methods is required. A coach will usually test your range of motion and tailor the stretching programme to improving the areas of restriction.
For many surfers a “one size fits all” stretching session will have some benefit, however the key to true surfing longevity is a personalised programme.
There are plenty of inspirational characters when it comes to surfing longevity. The truth is most of them practise yoga.
Pain and Discomfort
There are myriad aches and pains that a surfer experiences.
Let’s simplify things straight away. Although an injury can take many forms (bruising, laceration, strains, sprains etc) there are two categories that we need to consider.
These are injuries that have recently occurred, usually through a trauma such as your board striking you, or falling off awkwardly.
Surfers suffer from acute injuries fairly often.
My best advice is to following the simple RICER protocol for the vast majority of soft tissue injuries (the exception being cuts which require immediate medical attention.)
R – Rest – Stop the activity that caused the injury, and any activity that aggravates the injury.
I – Ice – Apply a cold compress to the injury site for 20 minutes every 2 hours to reduce swelling.
C – Compression – Apply a compression bandage (not too tight) to reduce bleeding and swelling.
E – Elevation – Elevate the injury, ideally above the heart.
R – Referral – Refer to a qualified doctor or physical therapist for further advice and treatment.
Most minor injuries will clear up in anywhere between a couple of weeks to 6-8 weeks.
Remember George’s injured shoulder? A few weeks away from the water, RICER protocol, and a visit to a medical professional will have him fighting fit in no time. My advice to George would be to spend the time working on some low heart rate endurance training to make sure he is fitter and lighter when he next dons the wetsuit.
These are injuries that usually develop slowly due to repetitive movements. They tend to last a long time and can be difficult to fix, often putting an end to surfing longevity.
Chronic injuries are a significant factor in reducing a surfing longevity! Do you have a part of your body that aches during or after a surf? That is a sign of a chronic injury.
The movements involved in surfing tend to put high levels of pressure on the upper back/shoulders, the hips, and the knees.
My advice for any surfer experiencing a chronic injury is to try and get it sorted as soon as possible! Remember Selena’s hip issue that now compromises her surfing? She should have sought professional advice as soon as it became a problem!
Chronic injuries will usually respond very well to treatment and rehabilitation. In the rare instance that the issue requires surgery, a crossroads can be reached. It is usually advisable to explore all options to avoid going under the knife and I know plenty of people who successfully manage long term issues with treatment and exercise. That being said, I also know of three surfers in their 60s who surf really well following hip replacements. In fact one chap has endured a double replacement and is surfing all the time.
The key is to get to a point where you are pain free and unrestricted. Use surfing as your motivation to achieve this. Seek professional opinions and maybe introduce some dry land endurance training, strength, and flexibility training to put your body into a state of recovery and repair.
Don’t be like Selena and get into the mindset that chronic injury is the beginning of the end of your surfing longevity!
The mindset of a surfer is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to surfing longevity.
I have a saying that I have repeated to hundreds of athletes over the years:
Focus on what you CAN DO… Don’t worry about what you CAN’T DO!
It’s too easy to fall into the trap of “I just can’t ride the surfboards I used to”, “I can’t surf the waves I used to”, or “I can’t paddle like the young kids.”
Earlier we mentioned that the intensity of surfing can be graduated. Let’s flip those negative statements.
“There are heaps of very cool surfboards that I CAN ride.”
“There are plenty of waves I CAN surf, its so exciting to be able to experiment with designs”
“A bit of extra foam in my surfboards mean I CAN paddle with the kids.”
Look forward with positivity, and if you are going to look back scope out the positives. Remember the feeling of a great ride, or the vibes of a memorable surf trip, and use them to plan the next one.
There is no stronger position to be in than Focussing on what you CAN DO, whilst spending time training and developing your weaknesses!
Lack of time for a surfer can be a killer.
Brad Gerlach put it perfectly during our recent chat.
Life has been speeding up and speeding up and speeding up. You’ve got to get to there and you got to get this, and then you got this thing, and you got an email and then you got a text and then you gotta get on a zoom meeting and then you got this and then you got that.
Is it really lack of time? Or is it a case of prioritising your time and implementing some time management?
One thing I will say straight away is never allow your hectic schedule to infiltrate your time in the ocean.
I can remember an instance during my time at school. It has stuck with me for years.
We had just finished a pretty high octane lunchtime rugby session and were debriefing in a circle.
The coach singled out my performance as particularly good, but he also wanted to make a point about sports psychology.
“Nathan, I hear you haven’t done your biology homework” he exclaimed. Oh no, not only did I get a tongue lashing from Mrs Armitage before lunch, I’m about to get another one from my coach… “No I didn’t” was my sheepish response.
“Did you even think about it when you were running around that rugby pitch?” he asked.
“Does not doing your homework seem quite as bad now as it did an hour ago?”
“Not even close.”
My coach went on to address the group with a speech that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Friday Night Lights” or “Field of Dreams”.
If I can give you guys one piece of advice it’s this… Reserve a place where you can do the thing that you love doing, because that thing will be the place where you can escape all the stress that life wants to throw at you… It will be the place where nobody and nothing can get to you, piss you off, or upset you… When you visit that place, all the bullshit you had to deal with earlier will be so much less important… Always have that place that puts a smile on your face…
Surfing is that place!
Always make time for that place!
Nutrition, Sleep, and Mindfulness
Nutrition seems to have become as much an ideology as it is a way to fuel your body.
There are more styles of eating now than there ever has been. Fortunately there are also far more intelligent people dedicating their lives to researching the optimum foods to consume.
I am not going to tell you what, how, or when you should eat. I am not going to tell you which macronutrients to prefer over others, nor am I going to tell you that a plant based or meat based diet is optimal.
I am not here to do any of those things.
What I am going to advise is the following:
Eat as much natural, unprocessed food as possible.
Drink plenty of water.
Try to obtain your vitamins and minerals from your food as much as you can.
Eat well but not to excess.
Try to avoid using food as an emotional crutch.
Prepare meals from scratch as often as you can.
Experiment with different food types. See how your body responds.
Remember most “diets” are successful not because of WHAT you are eating, but because of WHAT YOU AREN’T eating!
Eliminating high-sugar and processed food from your diet is a great stepping stone towards improved nutrition.
Sleep is so important to human beings, even more so for surfers.
It is too easy to make the old statements of make sure you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, and 8 hours is optimal. But sleep has become far more measurable and recordable than ever before.
I highly recommend the Oura Ring as a way to really get on top of your sleep patterns.
Using their state-of-the-art sleep staging algorithm, Oura accurately tracks the quality of sleep based on the time spent in each sleep stage (Light, Deep, REM Sleep) and other key vitals.
Oura learns about your sleep and based on nights when you’ve had your best sleep, Oura shares personalised guidance on when to start winding down to improve your sleep quality.
There is a strong argument that surfing is the ultimate form of mindfulness. There are not many other sports that can calm your soul and relieve stress in the way that surfing does.
We as surfers tend to rely heavily on surfing as our escape from the stresses of life. Just like my rugby coach said, surfing is “our place.”
The fact that surfing is now a recognised therapy for treating addiction and PTSD is testament to this.
So what do we do to preserve our mindfulness when we are forced into time out of the ocean?
Yoga is one of the best mindfulness practices. As we have already explored, the physical benefits of yoga are eminently transferable to surfing, however the state of mind that yoga promotes is also highly beneficial.
Breathing exercises can also be hugely beneficial. I would recommend you explore the Wim Hof method for some fantastic methods.
Breathing routines are a brilliant way to get you mind / body alignment in check. The added bonus is that it may improve lung capacity, perfect for those nasty wipeouts when you do manage to get back in the ocean.
Although The Bear was a guru in many ways, don’t listen to The Bear when he says nobody surfs forever.
With a little preparation, a lot of positivity, and hopefully a few tips from this article, there are no reasons why you cannot enjoy the gift of surfing for a long, long time! Work hard on your surfing longevity, and enjoy the rewards.