10 Steps To Surfing Better

Looking to take your surfing to the next level? Here are easy steps you can take toward being the surfer you want to be.

by Justin Cote and Joel Patterson

The idea is pretty basic-get better at something you love to do because it will make it that much more enjoyable. Surfing is way more fun when you’re really good at it, so we picked ten activities that we guarantee will make you a better surfer. So the next time there’s a heaving section coming at you, you won’t go around it, or worse yet, straighten out in pants-shitting fear (You don’t want to be that guy!). Launch that slab, or brazenly stall and get pitted out of your gourd. A little work can equal a lot of reward.

Step 1:

Go Swimming

Prepare for the worst.

Duh!

Of course swimming is going to help your surfing. Swimming builds muscles in a way that’s almost identical to paddling a surfboard, plus the cardiovascular component of swimming comes in handy in places where heavy current keeps you continually moving.

Surfer Ryan Kimmel didn’t even have to think about his answer when asked how swimming benefits his surfing the most: “When you lose your board at Sunset.”

Kimmel says he does most of his swimming on flat days in the wintertime in Hawai’i. He does sprints, and he likes to do them in the open ocean, where the elements resemble surfing better than in the controlled environment of a lap pool.

“It totally gives you arm power,” says Kimmel of his swim workouts. “After five minutes of sprinting, you feel yourself getting stronger, and you can feel the cardio, too. And I like swimming in the ocean because you can’t just swim to the side of the pool if you need a rest. You’re forced to deal with being tired. That way heavier situations don’t seem as rough.”

Good swim workouts have two components: sprints and distance. Start your workout with a distance swim at about half your top speed for ten minutes (this time should increase as you become stronger), and follow it with ten short sprints (one or two laps max) with 30 seconds’ rest in between each sprint. Next time your leash snaps at Sunset, Black’s, or Baja Malibu you’ll thank yourself.

Step 2:

Start Running

Feel the burn.

True, running is boring and kinda sucks, but there’s a reason millions of people do it-the cardio. Running is one of the fastest, most-effective ways to increase cardiovascular stamina, and if you can find some nice, deep sand to do it in, you’ve got a workout that strengthens the parts of your body closest to your board and turns your lungs into those of a sherpa.

“I like to do two long beach runs per week,” says North Shore standout Pancho Sullivan. “I’ll run two or three miles-which is pretty hard work in the soft sand. I like running in the sand as opposed to asphalt, because it’s easier on your joints and it strengthens the muscles in your feet and calves, and you’re not pounding the pavement with all of your body weight. Running in the sand improves your balance and helps you recover from maneuvers, too. Also, strengthening those muscles helps avoid injuries, and it’s really good cardio for those long swims. You gotta be prepared-you can’t always count on your leash.”

Start with one-mile runs, and add a half mile every two weeks. You’ll be shocked how quickly you’re running five. The hardest thing about running is sticking with it, so make it part of your weekly routine, and if you find yourself opting for TV and the couch instead of three miles in the deep stuff, just keep in mind that those leash-snapping winter swells are on their way.

Step 3:

Get A Paddleboard

Find yourself in the big blue.

Do you hate those guys who paddle way faster than you and consequently get more waves? Well, you know what they say: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. That means get off your lazy ass and paddle-something surfers do more of than actually ride waves.

“I’ll paddle from my house, down to Ventura Harbor-which is nine miles-two or the times a week,” say Central Cal pro Keith Malloy. “For me, it’s all about staying in really good shape, because when the waves are small and shitty, I’ll only surf for like half-an-hour, and I don’t feel like I’m staying in shape. It’s cool to get away from all the people fighting for a little wave, too. If you’re doing a bunch of long-distance paddling, you’re going to be in the best shape of your life, without a doubt.”

Keith recently completed the Moloka’i to O’ahu paddle race and placed a respectable second in the co-ed division-but he was a bit let down: “I thought the girl’s butt would be in my face the whole time, but we ended up taking turns on the board.” Get as big a board as you can, and go find yourself in the deep blue. Bring a chick to rest your head on, too, if you like.

Step 4:

Eat Smarter

Don’t bonk.

Can eating right really make you a better surfer? You bet your fat ass it can. Energy to surf longer is a direct result of what you put in your mouth, so if you want to get full benefits from the next big south swell that comes through, you need to start thinking about what you eat.

“If you’re surfing more than two hours, you’re going to run out of energy,” says Dr. Bill Lerner, a sports doctor from San Diego, California who works frequently with surfers. To avoid bonking, Lerner suggests eating slow-burning foods that provide energy over an extended period. “Protein bars low in sugar are good. When you eat a lot of sugar, you get a bunch of energy real fast, but then twenty minutes later you experience something called reactive hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Your energy is suddenly gone.”

If you know you’re going to be surfing all day, Lerner suggests eating protein (lean meat or fish) and slow-burning carbohydrates (grains are best: brown rice or millet is great) the night before. This will store energy in your body. You can also bring some fruit to the beach with you-apples, pears, peaches, and bananas are good sources of fructose, which the body absorbes much slower than processed sugar. All of this leads to sustained energy for longer surfs, and more time in the water equals better surfing.

Step 5:

Get Stronger

Spandex is out, pull-up bars are in.

Gyms are for the unmotivated. Why pay up to a hundred dollars per month to stand around with a bunch of spandex-clad wannabe bodybuilders when all you need to achieve real strength is your own body weight, a pull-up bar, and the desire to be a more powerful surfer?

Plyometrics is a term that refers to strength-building exercises that use only your body weight for resistance (examples: push-ups, sit-ups, and the dreaded pull-up). In gyms, these exercises are often overlooked simply because they aren’t easy. Your body isn’t exactly as light as a feather, and moving it in explosive ways requires entire muscle groups, not the isolated vanity muscles that gym equipment so often focuses on.

“There are lots of variations of plyometric exercises,” says Costa Mesa, California-based chiropractor/sports healer Rey “Dr. G” Gubbernick. Dr. G’s worked on just about every pro skater, surfer, and motocross rider in action sports. “You can work just about every muscle in the body with plyometrics, you just have to remember to use the proper technique and you can achieve any strength goal you set. When Herschell Walker (former Dallas Cowboy running back/winner of the 1982 Heisman Trophy) was in his best shape and had only seven-percent body fat, the only strength training he did was pull-ups, push-ups, and bar dips.”

Plyometric workouts can be as complicated as you want them to be, but start slow. Install a pull-up bar somewhere in your house and do three sets of as many as you can each day. Dr. G says that if at first you can only do half pull-ups, they count, too. You’ll see improvement so fast, you’ll start using your 24 Hour Fitness membership card to scrape wax off your board.

Step 6:

Take Up Bodysurfing

Back to the basics.

Not all of the activities on this list can be construed as fun, but bodysurfing is an exception. There’s nothing like getting twisted into the shape of a pretzel before being pile-driven into hard-packed sand-it’s a total blast and the purest form of surfing around. Some of the best surfers in the world, like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, and Mike Stewart, are also excellent bodysurfers. North Shore pro surfer Dave Wassel, who likes to bodysurf naked under a full moon, is no slouch, either.

“Bodysurfing makes you a better surfer because there’s nothing but you and the wave,” says Wassel, “and it gets you all in tune with the ocean. Because you eat it so much, it teaches you how to hit the sand and the reef without hurting yourself. Bodysurfing also teaches you how to catch a wave-you have to know exactly where to be, and because you’re not actually riding a board, it teaches you how to flow with the wave. So when you do get a surfboard under your feet, it totally complements the wave-riding experience. It’s fantastic cardio exercise, too.”

Cosmic, dude. While we’re not guaranteeing you’ll begin to surf with Wassel’s reckless abandon, bodysurfing can only help you become a better all-around surfer-and it’s great fun. Throw on some Speedos (or not), get out there, and become one with the ocean-you won’t regret it.

Step 7:

Take Up Underwater Rock Running

Deprive yourself.

Yeah, you see it in every cheesy Hollywood movie about surfing, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just an invention of Tinsel Town-underwater rock running is the real deal. If you don’t believe us, ask anybody who regularly surfs waves over twenty feet. The combination of oxygen depravity and physical exertion that this activity provides you with readies you for a long hold-down better than anything.

For North Shore surfers like Kahea Hart-guys who love the big stuff-underwater rock running is a regular part of the winter training routine: “It definitely makes you stronger because you have to control your mind, hold your breath, and run that rock as far as you can-which puts you in the same frame of mind as being held down by a big wave. It really helps in a big-wave situation because it’s anaerobic (no oxygen involved), not aerobic.”

If you’re unable to find the right elements in nature to run a rock underwater, try going to a pool with a backpack weighed down with bricks. Put enough in to where it’s heavy enough to keep you under the surface, but not too heavy to lift. Remember, objects weigh less underwater. Start off by running about 30 feet underwater and in seven feet of water. Gradually increase the distance, time, and depth-you’ll be surprised at how fast your lungs become stronger.

Step 8:

Try Yoga

Torture is good.

Yoga is torture, but the upside of the twisting, bending, and breathing completely outweighs the sweaty hell known as Bikram yoga. You’ll surf better than ever after just a few sessions, and the ratio of guys to girls at yoga classes is unbelievable. And these are hot, healthy chicks, too, not drunken bar hags who make you want to kill yourself after waking up with ’em. Taylor Knox is a big fan, and thanks to yoga, he throws big fans.

“I do Bikram yoga two or three times a week,” says Knox. “A lot of people don’t understand it-it’s really good for your internal organs. It detoxifies you and gets your muscles incredibly flexible. People who do yoga usually don’t get injured-it’s very preventive. It’s 105 degrees in the studio, so you sweat like crazy-there’re studios in New York that are like 115 degrees. I’ve been doing it for ten years. How does it translate into surfing? You don’t want to get really bulky for surfing-you don’t want to be huge and all tight. Surfing is about flow, speed, and being flexible so you can put yourself in weird, radical positions. Yoga combines all three of those elements, so, physically, I think it’s the best thing you can do for surfing.”

Get to a yogics.

Not all of the activities on this list can be construed as fun, but bodysurfing is an exception. There’s nothing like getting twisted into the shape of a pretzel before being pile-driven into hard-packed sand-it’s a total blast and the purest form of surfing around. Some of the best surfers in the world, like Kelly Slater, Rob Machado, and Mike Stewart, are also excellent bodysurfers. North Shore pro surfer Dave Wassel, who likes to bodysurf naked under a full moon, is no slouch, either.

“Bodysurfing makes you a better surfer because there’s nothing but you and the wave,” says Wassel, “and it gets you all in tune with the ocean. Because you eat it so much, it teaches you how to hit the sand and the reef without hurting yourself. Bodysurfing also teaches you how to catch a wave-you have to know exactly where to be, and because you’re not actually riding a board, it teaches you how to flow with the wave. So when you do get a surfboard under your feet, it totally complements the wave-riding experience. It’s fantastic cardio exercise, too.”

Cosmic, dude. While we’re not guaranteeing you’ll begin to surf with Wassel’s reckless abandon, bodysurfing can only help you become a better all-around surfer-and it’s great fun. Throw on some Speedos (or not), get out there, and become one with the ocean-you won’t regret it.

Step 7:

Take Up Underwater Rock Running

Deprive yourself.

Yeah, you see it in every cheesy Hollywood movie about surfing, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just an invention of Tinsel Town-underwater rock running is the real deal. If you don’t believe us, ask anybody who regularly surfs waves over twenty feet. The combination of oxygen depravity and physical exertion that this activity provides you with readies you for a long hold-down better than anything.

For North Shore surfers like Kahea Hart-guys who love the big stuff-underwater rock running is a regular part of the winter training routine: “It definitely makes you stronger because you have to control your mind, hold your breath, and run that rock as far as you can-which puts you in the same frame of mind as being held down by a big wave. It really helps in a big-wave situation because it’s anaerobic (no oxygen involved), not aerobic.”

If you’re unable to find the right elements in nature to run a rock underwater, try going to a pool with a backpack weighed down with bricks. Put enough in to where it’s heavy enough to keep you under the surface, but not too heavy to lift. Remember, objects weigh less underwater. Start off by running about 30 feet underwater and in seven feet of water. Gradually increase the distance, time, and depth-you’ll be surprised at how fast your lungs become stronger.

Step 8:

Try Yoga

Torture is good.

Yoga is torture, but the upside of the twisting, bending, and breathing completely outweighs the sweaty hell known as Bikram yoga. You’ll surf better than ever after just a few sessions, and the ratio of guys to girls at yoga classes is unbelievable. And these are hot, healthy chicks, too, not drunken bar hags who make you want to kill yourself after waking up with ’em. Taylor Knox is a big fan, and thanks to yoga, he throws big fans.

“I do Bikram yoga two or three times a week,” says Knox. “A lot of people don’t understand it-it’s really good for your internal organs. It detoxifies you and gets your muscles incredibly flexible. People who do yoga usually don’t get injured-it’s very preventive. It’s 105 degrees in the studio, so you sweat like crazy-there’re studios in New York that are like 115 degrees. I’ve been doing it for ten years. How does it translate into surfing? You don’t want to get really bulky for surfing-you don’t want to be huge and all tight. Surfing is about flow, speed, and being flexible so you can put yourself in weird, radical positions. Yoga combines all three of those elements, so, physically, I think it’s the best thing you can do for surfing.”

Get to a yoga class as soon as you want to surf better-and meet some nice ladies. Classes generally cost about ten dollars per session and last a little over an hour. While there are many types of yoga, Bikram yoga features a heated room that allows for maximum flexibility and makes you profusely sweat out all that crap you put into your body.

Step 9:

Improve Your Balance

The new school of exercise.

In surfing, like in life, balance is key. In fact, the act of balancing on a surfboard (the combination of foot placement, hip positioning, body posture, and hand movement) is the foundation of style. In the past, balance was thought of as something you either had or didn’t, but as the science of exercise evolves, professionals have come to understand that balance, like strength or endurance, is something that can be trained into an athlete.

“Like any sport, the act of surfing creates imbalance,” says Laguna Niguel, California-based trainer Billy Diederich. He’s referring to pain that occurs due to repetitive movement that has no counter balance. For example, paddling all day is a great shoulder and back workout, but if you neglect working on strengthening your chest, you’ve created an imbalance. “So the idea is to balance the musculoskeletal system by lengthening what is short and strengthening what has been lengthened.”

Diederich, who became a trainer after a back injury forced him to retire from working as a firefighter, employs what is essentially the new school of gym equipment when he trains L.A.-area surfers like Micah Pitts and Nick Rosa. He uses foam rollers to help correct left-right balances, Thera-bands to strengthen and stretch muscle groups, and the gymnastic ball to build posture and core strength.

To get started, buy a gymnastic ball and practice sitting on it with good posture, slowly lift your feet off the floor, and without touching the ball with your hands, see how long you can balance for. It might not turn you into Machado, but everyone could use a bit more balance in their lives.

Step 10:

Take A Surf Trip

Escape your routine.

It’s a common misconception that going on a surf trip is something only good surfers do. Quite the contrary is true-surf travel benefits surfers of all levels by plucking them out of their daily routines: school deadlines, drama-oriented personal relationships, the stress of work, and all those things that limit morning surfs to 45 minutes or less.

With little or no responsibility, on a surf trip it’s not uncommon to be in the water six hours per day-more than most hardcore surfers can afford in a week. Any time you get to spend that much time focusing on an activity, you’re going to improve-whether you’re a novice or a pro, time in the water equates to better surfing.

Santa Barbara professional surfer Joe Curren, who just spent the entire month of July surfing breaks around the Indian Ocean with his girlfriend Teasha, sites another benefit of surf travel: “Experiencing other breaks just adds another dimension to your surfing. Like let’s say you grew up surfing beachbreaks in trunks, and then you go surf J-Bay, it’s gonna be a challenge. You’re gonna have to learn to surf a point break in a wetsuit. And the more you travel, the more dimensions you add to your surfing. Just surfing your local break every day, you’re gonna end up being really one-dimensional.”

It’s best to choose a destination based on the types of waves you want. Playful, rippable rights-the Gold Coast. Hollow, perfect reef breaks-Indonesia. Thumping, powerful beachbreaks-Puerto Escondido or Southern France. Do some research, talk to your friends who’ve taken some trips, and pull the trigger. Life’s too short to be routine.

yoga class as soon as you want to surf better-and meet some nice ladies. Classes generally cost about ten dollars per session and last a little over an hour. While there are many types of yoga, Bikram yoga features a heated room that allows for maximum flexibilityy and makes you profusely sweat out all that crap you put into your body.

Step 9:

Improve Your Balance

The new school of exercise.

In surfing, like in life, balance is key. In fact, the act of balancing on a surfboard (the combination of foot placement, hip positioning, body posture, and hand movement) is the foundation of style. In the past, balance was thought of as something you either had or didn’t, but as the science of exercise evolves, professionals have come to understand that balance, like strength or endurance, is something that can be trained into an athlete.

“Like any sport, the act of surfing creates imbalance,” says Laguna Niguel, California-based trainer Billy Diederich. He’s referring to pain that occurs due to repetitive movement that has no counter balance. For example, paddling all day is a great shoulder and back workout, but if you neglect working on strengthening your chest, you’ve created an imbalance. “So the idea is to balance the musculoskeletal system by lengthening what is short and strengthening what has been lengthened.”

Diederich, who became a trainer after a back injury forced him to retire from working as a firefighter, employs what is essentially the new school of gym equipment when he trains L.A.-area surfers like Micah Pitts and Nick Rosa. He uses foam rollers to help correct left-right balances, Thera-bands to strengthen and stretch muscle groups, and the gymnastic ball to build posture and core strength.

To get started, buy a gymnastic ball and practice sitting on it with good posture, slowly lift your feet off the floor, and without touching the ball with your hands, see how long you can balance for. It might not turn you into Machado, but everyone could use a bit more balance in their lives.

Step 10:

Take A Surf Trip

Escape your routine.

It’s a common misconception that going on a surf trip is something only good surfers do. Quite the contrary is true-surf travel benefits surfers of all levels by plucking them out of their daily routines: school deadlines, drama-oriented personal relationships, the stress of work, and all those things that limit morning surfs to 45 minutes or less.

With little or no responsibility, on a surf trip it’s not uncommon to be in the water six hours per day-more than most hardcore surfers can afford in a week. Any time you get to spend that much time focusing on an activity, you’re going to improve-whether you’re a novice or a pro, time in the water equates to better surfing.

Santa Barbara professional surfer Joe Curren, who just spent the entire month of July surfing breaks around the Indian Ocean with his girlfriend Teasha, sites another benefit of surf travel: “Experiencing other breaks just adds another dimension to your surfing. Like let’s say you grew up surfing beachbreaks in trunks, and then you go surf J-Bay, it’s gonna be a challenge. You’re gonna have to learn to surf a point break in a wetsuit. And the more you travel, the more dimensions you add to your surfing. Just surfing your local break every day, you’re gonna end up being really one-dimensional.”

It’s best to choose a destination based on the types of waves you want. Playful, rippable rights-the Gold Coast. Hollow, perfect reef breaks-Indonesia. Thumping, powerful beachbreaks-Puerto Escondido or Southern France. Do some research, talk to your friends who’ve taken some trips, and pull the trigger. Life’s too short to be routine.