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Do You Need a Surf-Specific Fitness Routine?

Surfers and swimmers are similar, but not the same. That’s why surfers need specific training tailored to their needs and goals.

Swimming and surfing may have a lot in common, but they’re far from the same sport.

Physiologically speaking, swimmers and surfers use essentially the same muscles for propulsion, for different purposes and in slightly different ways. Freestyle swimming involves pulling the body through the water, keeping the bodyline long & straight while rotating the torso and kicking with the legs for more propulsion.

Paddling a surfboard is similar to Freestyle swimming with regard to the “pulling” part of the stroke.  Like swimming, the powerful muscles of the lats, back, arms and core are constantly engaged to paddle while keeping the body on the board and the head up.

While swimming laps can help surfers gain some paddling fitness, for most it’s challenging getting to a pool or the open water with consistency.  This is especially true for time-crunched, land-locked, working surfers.  Plus, quality surf-specific training on land will prepare you to surf stronger and longer when you can get to the ocean.

Surf specific training

Paddling Is What Fatigues Surfers

Anyone who surfs knows that doing it well requires paddling endurance, overall strength, and flexibility.

According to recent studies conducted at Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, surfing requires a higher level of aerobic endurance as well as muscular power on average.

One goal of gaining powerful surf paddling fitness is to keep you on the board and moving forward so you don’t sink into the waves.  That just creates more drag that fatigues your paddling power.  This is especially true if you use a short surfboard, which have less buoyancy than longboards.

Sam George, the legendary surfer and former editor of SURFER Magazine made a great point in his Surf Tip article:   “Very few surfers exhaust themselves while actually riding a wave; there aren’t enough point breaks for that.  Paddling is what fatigues us.”

Surfer racing paddleboard

Studies back this up.  When researchers followed 12 competitive surfers, they learned that the majority of their water time was spent engaged in four ways:

  • Low-intensity paddling (54%)
  • High-intensity bouts of paddling
  • Riding the wave
  • Post-ride recovery

The remainder of their time was spent maintaining position in the water and waiting for the right conditions to catch the next wave.

While swimming requires plenty of stamina — especially for triathletes who compete in open water over longer distances — surfers require stamina plus short burst paddling power to catch the waves they want to ride.

Because of this, surfers may find that their training needs differ from the traditional swimmer if they want to have the stamina to paddle out over and over to catch more waves, which is when the real thrills of surfing happen.

The types of swells surfers encounter can also impact the intensity of their surfing.

Groundswells, for example, have wave energy that can reach as deep as 1,000 feet and travel for thousands of miles. For surfers that want to successfully ride a wave like this, they need incredible stamina, core stability, and lots of paddling power.

The Benefits of Surf-Specific Training

Much like any sport, surfing is a highly specific skill that requires plenty of practice.

The key to long-term success for surfers is mastering the proper movement patterns required both in and out of the water in ways that are consistent, effective, and safe.

The ideal way to improve surfing skill is to surf more often, of course, but surfers still struggle with the same thing that all swimmers do: it’s challenging just to get to the open water to train.

One of the best ways to maintain surf-specific paddling power, core strength, and overall fitness is to use a consistent dryland training routine.   The dryland workouts must include the right exercises that will translate into greater surfing fitness once the surfer gets in the water.

That’s why the right dryland training exercises for surfers are so important. Surf-specific dryland training is also a necessity because the inherent requirements are different than a traditional swimmer’s.

Surf-specific fitness programs are becoming more popular, such as Peter Estabrooks Surf Fit program.  It’s essential that surfers find exercises and programs that focus on the muscle strength, endurance and paddling power that they need in order to enjoy stronger, longer surf sessions.

How Surfers Can Use Dryland Training for Better Performance

When conditions make getting to the water difficult or impossible, surfers can maintain their strength, stamina and power with the use of surf-specific dryland training, including paddling-specific exercises.

Maintaining paddling power and stamina allows you to enjoy longer, stronger surf sessions.  It also could make the difference between life and death when you need to get out of strong rips or sudden weather changes, for example.

This might include using paddling-focused training that gives you upper body strength, particularly in the back and core, so that paddling doesn’t fatigue you over long distances or difficult swells.

Vasa Trainer Pro In Home

This Vasa Trainer workout helps surfers with their paddling technique, as it mimics the movements that a surfer would perform in the water with added resistance for increased strength training.

The Vasa SpaceSaver SwimErg is great for time-saving, high-quality specific swimming, surfing, & SUP paddling power and stamina.  It can also be used for resistance to injury (injuries that might become life-threatening when you’re in the water).

Surfers can benefit from other forms of dryland swim training, like yoga, which improve flexibility and core stability when riding the board or transitioning from flat to standing positions.

Other bodyweight movements can also improve muscle performance, like:

  • Breathing Squats
  • Single-Leg Upper Body Rotations
  • T-Rotation Pushups
  • Warrior Lunges
  • Butt Drops
  • Bent Shoulder Circles
  • Standing Knee Hugs

If possible, learn good form and training methods from a qualified conditioning trainer, surf coach or swim coach with surf experience (remote or in-person).

Of course, the goal of any dryland training should be to improve surfing form in a way that can easily translate to better, safer performance when you’re actually on the water.

When training for better surfing, it’s important that surfers understand their goals and how to use exercises to create more explosive power and better recovery.

Surfers should focus on things like single leg strength and balance, a solid and supportive core, and full-body endurance, so adding in exercises like uphill sprints or even lap swimming in a pool can help provide this when you can’t get to the open water.

If your training doesn’t improve your surf skill when you get to the ocean, it’s important to re-evaluate and create a surf-specific training strategy that will maintain high performance and, most importantly, safety.

Final Thoughts

Surfers and swimmers have a lot of the same requirements to get stronger and more durable to enjoy their sport.

Surfers do have some different challenges than swimmers do.  But like swimmers,  it’s important for surfers to prepare on land using specific exercises designed to improve paddling stamina and total-body strength.   That fitness built on land will help surfers be ready for the demands of paddling out, catching and riding more waves.  The less you can get to the water to surf, the more important it is to maintain surf-specific fitness at home or the gym so you can be fit and ready to safely enjoy your next surf session or surfing vacation.