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.

Waves, Storms, Scientists and Surfers

Cover of "The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rog...

Cover via Amazon

My Southwest Surf column for November 24, 2010, published via

I got the inspiration for the Dempsey from the good times at the JR Longboard Surf Classic. It is a charitable event that supports youth athletics and education. The level of surfing is generally very high and in the past luminaries such as Nat Young and John Peck have also stopped by for a surf.

Laird Hamilton

Image via Wikipedia

With the unstable weather and lackluster surf, it is a good time to get in shape for future swells and read Susan Casey’s riveting new book, The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean. In the book, Casey documents her time following Laird Hamilton, Dave Kalama and the rest of the Jaws crew on Maui.

Not only does Casey track storms and surfers around the world from Mavericks, Tahiti, Cortes Banks to Todos, but she also investigates the research on the increasing number of giant storms that produce ship-killing waves.

This is a book I could not put down and was as fascinated by the stories of surfing as well as the description of the research. The Wave is the perfect gift for any surfer.

Speaking of big waves, surfing legend Flippy Hoffman rode the Sloughs back in the 1950s and passed away recently. Local surf scribe John Elwell said, “Flippy was just an all around water man who tried everything. Had plenty of guts like Dempsey. A great character.”

Someone who also has plenty of character is world-renowned oceanographer Dr. Walter Munk of the Scripps Institute. A La Jolla resident, and the father of surf forecasting, Dr. Munk is a great friend of surfers.

Chuck Quisenberry and Professor Walter Munk. Photo: Chuck Quisenberry

Dr. Munk helped invent surf forecasting when he had to advise Allied Forces on the weather and surf conditions favorable for the D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II. In 1963 Munk and John Tukey tracked a southern swell from New Zealand to Alaska. They were the first scientists ever to track a storm swell across an entire ocean.

I was at reception last week at the Faculty Club at UCSD and ran into Dr. Munk, along with longtime IB resident (and my parents’ neighbor) and UCSD Transportation Services Training Coordinator Chuck Quisenberry. Chuck was lucky enough to be Dr. Munk’s driver for the evening.

“I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Munk,” Chuck said. “I was really in awe of him. He is amazing man. Some days at work are better than others.”

Since I am a surfer of average ability trying to ride shorter boards (6’6″ Novak quad), I have to workout to keep up with my surfing. And when the surf and weather are bad I head to the pool. So here’s a shout out to the morning swim crew at the Coronado Pool who keep me in shape.

As a former ocean lifeguard who worked in Imperial Beach and at Silver Strand State Beach, I enjoy swimming laps with Imperial Beach lifeguards Don Davis and Benny Holt, as well as my former Silver Strand colleagues Karlyn Pipes (visiting from Hawaii on her way back from Paris recently) and Randy Coutts.

I am also lucky to occasionally join current Silver Strand Lifeguard Captain Mike Martino, when he leads his crew through a rigorous workout. Mike is also the author of the very interesting Lifeguards of San Diego County, another great stocking stuffer.

By the way, after it rains you need to check in on the Tijuana River plume tracker or follow for updated water quality reports.

Have a great Thanksgiving and see you at the JR.

%d bloggers like this: