Surfing Fitness

Photo: Jeff Wallis

It used to be easy.

I could surf twice a day on my shortboard and never tire.

My lower back didn’t hurt, and I was skinny.

I started surfing at the age of 13. In my hometown of Imperial Beach, the surfers I hung out with either played baseball and/or football, ran cross-country, and competed on the swim team. I swam and ran cross-country.

During the 13-years I worked as an ocean lifeguard in San Diego County, I stayed in shape working with the UCSD master’s swim team (the legendary noon mid-80’s noon workout) and trained for and competed in triathlons with my lifeguard/surfer colleagues.

My fitness role models were San Diego surfer-lifeguards turned Ironmen, Mark Allen and Scott Tinley.

After 34 years of surfing, things have changed.

My boards are thicker and wider.

After a long and strenuous surf session, my lower back hurts.

At 6’4” and 210 pounds, it is just harder for me to surf my 6’6” than it was when I was 18, weighed 170 pounds, and rode a 6’0”.

The key to surfing well into middle age and senior citizen status isn’t just an innate talent for surfing and catching waves that only most gifted surfers have (although of course that helps).

Over the past few years due to the examples of Mick Fanning, Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater, Gerry Lopez, Joel Parkinson, and the incredible staying power of Taylor Knox, fitness for surfers is now in vogue.

The key to surfing as long as you can is staying fit.

And not half-hearted fitness, but active exercise that works your core, builds your strength, and prolongs your endurance, so that surfing is fun and you can get the most out of your sessions.

The more you can cross-train and combine strength, core and aerobic activities, the better you’ll be prepared for the epic swells the Pacific Ocean throws our way.

Here is a list of the best activities to keep you fit and in top-shape for surfing. I recommend combining a good aerobic activity (e.g. swimming and SUP) and a core/flexibility activity such as free weights and or yoga. Obviously in San Diego we have many more options including running, kayaking, kitesurfing, and bicycling.

Swimming: It seems so basic, but few surfers, with the exception of ocean lifeguards seem to understand how helpful swimming is for surfing. You work your entire body and the same muscle groups as those used in paddling. I swim with a master’s group 3-4 times a week and it an essential part of my training. Join a local Master’s program if you can.

Yoga: My good friend and veteran surfer big-wave surfer Richard Abrams, told me once after a yoga class, “I wish I had started yoga when I was 15.” There is probably nothing better for maintaining and improving flexibility than yoga. My WiLDCOAST team does an hour-long surf-yoga twice a week during our lunch break. Our class is filled with surfers who’ve figured out that yoga is the key to longevity in the water.

Free diving in Bahia de los Angeles, Baja.

Stand-up-Paddle: There is a reason why so many surfers are now active on SUPs. It is a great workout, lots of fun, and arguably one of the best activities for building core strength and aerobic capacity. My buddy Mark “Kiwi” Fields, races SUPs and besides surfing, can be found in spin and weight classes at our local gym when he is not paddlling around in the ocean.

Bodysurfing. This is about one of the best workouts possible. With a good pair of fins you’ll be pushing yourself to the max, in addition to getting some of the best barrels of your life.

Weight-training: As we age our muscles atrophy and require weight training to maintain our strength, balance and build a defense against injury and stress. Squats are arguably the single best exercise for surfing that you can do. After reading surf scribe Daniel Duane’s manifesto about free weights last year, I joined the local gym and started lifting. Over a year later, my surfing has improved, and more importantly, my back is hurting less after multiple sessions during a swell.

According to Duane, “Muscle withers away if you’re not constantly building it, and muscle withers faster as a man ages. Fading muscle mass gives way to fat gain, stiff joints, stumbling-old-man balance, and a serious drop-off in weekend fun, not to mention self-esteem. But if you fight back right, it can all go the other way. And this means getting strong. The bottom line is that not only can lifting weights do as much for your heart health as cardio workouts, but it also provides you with a lean-muscle coat of armor against life’s inevitable blows.”

So join the gym, jump in the pool, find a yoga class, or like Laird just attach a rope to a giant log and pull it down the beach. Whatever you do, the only way to continue surfing, is to stay as active outside and in the water as much as possible.


  1. dspangler says:

    Hello Sergededina,
    Thanks for the info, Surfing is an absolutely wonderful water sport, one of the most enjoyable anyone could ever do. No matter what shape you are in, no matter how old you are, or no matter how inexperienced you may be, you can hop on a board and ride the waves to your heart’s content. However, it’s also important to note that if you’re in better physical condition and you have a good level of surfing fitness, you’re going to have a much more enjoyable time surfing.
    Catch you again soon!

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