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Q & A with Surfing coach Rob Case

  1. In your experience as an athlete and a coach, what have you learned about proper preparation for enjoyment and safety with surfing?

One of the most frustrating aspects of surfing is fatigue, mainly from paddling. Surfing needs to be named appropriately. It should be called “Paddling,” with a little bit of surfing since, on average, surfers paddle 75-90% of their active time in the water—the remaining amount of time accounts for only about one to two minutes of actually riding the wave.

When a surfer paddles more and fatigues faster, frustration sets in as a by-product of making poor decisions (due to the fatigue) and missing/wiping out on waves. Increasing efficiency through better paddling technique delays the point at which fatigue (and therefore that frustration) sets in. If a surfer layers technique with fitness/endurance on top of it, fatigue is almost eliminated completely, and the surfer’s experience becomes safer and more enjoyable.

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  1. Surfing can evoke many fears and anxiety, especially for inexperienced surfers. What would you recommend doing to overcome those fears?

Fear is a tricky thing. All surfers have fear, even the big wave surfers I work with. It’s how they manage the fear that makes the difference. It’s not so much about overcoming fear because it will always be there. Instead, it’s about not letting the fear take hold of you and prevent you from acting positively – in other words, controlling the fight/flight/freeze mechanism – not getting rid of it – using it to your advantage.

Understanding where the fear and anxiety stem from is the first step. Identify the fear, then work towards knowledge and exposure in small increments. For example, many new surfers’ fear stems from a feeling of not being in control when in the ocean. By providing knowledge on how water moves and how the ocean acts, the surfer can understand why the water moves a certain way. Then they realize they have many options to remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation or go towards a situation that will end with a positive result (surfing-wise). Then, begin exposing the surfer to various scenarios in small increments – going out on slightly bigger days or even going out without a surfboard at all. However, the method used needs to align with identifying the fear itself.

  1. A common question is, “How will I get surfing-specific fitness results if I cannot get to the ocean?” Describe your “go-to” surf-specific workouts that surfers can do outside of the water, which directly translates to paddling out and catching waves stronger and better.

I have plenty of clients who don’t live even remotely close to the ocean – locations where they are flying to get to surf spots, and this is a very real concern for not only them but even for the surfer who lives five minutes from the ocean and doesn’t go much because their life is filled with other more important things to attend to. I will always profess that the best thing to stay in surf shape is to get in the ocean and surf. Close behind that would be swimming and playing water polo, which will provide the surfer with an increased water competency and sensitivity to the pressures the hands feel in the water.

But when it comes to dryland fitness, simulating paddling (like the Vasa Trainer) is by far the best thing to do since that is what a surfer mostly does. Paddle simulators will not only increase a surfer’s general fitness, but one will also be able to work on technique.

dryland fitness

After paddling simulators , several scientific studies have concluded that pull-up strength is closely correlated to paddling speed – therefore :

pull-ups, push-ups, and dips;
core exercises (including the low back);
rotator cuff maintenance exercises;
lunges and squats (for the surfing part).

Finish workouts with a stretching routine during warm down, which has been shown in scientific studies to improve recovery times for the next day’s activities.

  1. If you could go back, what would you tell your younger self to be a stronger, better, more prepared surfer?
Younger surfer walking to the beach

That is a great question; I’ve never been asked this. I started bodysurfing and boogie boarding when I was eight and board surfing when I was 13. I was lucky enough to have started my fitness and ocean knowledge the right way – swimming, water polo, and bobbing around without a board – ocean knowledge and comfort. So I wouldn’t go back and change that (however, I would urge anyone thinking about this question to go back and start there).

My biggest mistake was starting on a board that didn’t suit a beginner. That was when surfboard shapers were spitting out paper-thin, high-performance shortboards, and Kelly Slater was making them look like magic under his feet. I drank the Kool-Aid and set my surfing progression back ages. After the bodysurfing and boogie boarding, instead of starting on a paper-thin shortboard, I would start on a longboard and work my way down. Not because I couldn’t handle the paddling of a shortboard. The problem was that I was too good a paddler and ended up in waves that were too big for me – I didn’t know how to surf the wave! Instead, starting on a longboard would have taught me fundamental surf techniques and provided me with many more repetitions on my feet.

  1. Of the six pain points below, which are the top 3 and why?
  • Most significant pain points for surfers:
  • Fatigue when paddling
  • Missing waves
  • Shoulder issues, elbow issues
  • Being out-paddled by others
  • Feeling like they aren’t moving anywhere
  • Reverting to bigger boards because of poor paddling but wanting to surf smaller boards

Fatigue, missing waves, and shoulder/elbow issues are the top three. Fatigue leads to frustration, regressing a surfer rather than progressing to the next level. Missing waves adds to the frustration and leads a surfer to ask why they are even out there if they are never actually “surfing” on a wave. Finally, shoulder/elbow issues occur frequently in surfers because of the poor mechanics many use and the number of poor repetitions they conduct. One way to think about it is that a surfer will take thousands of paddle strokes in a session but only catch a handful of waves. That is a high arm repetition-to-wave-riding ratio, which can lead to overuse or misuse of particular body parts – most typically the shoulders/elbows.

  1. In addition to those “pain points,” how do you address the “life gets in the way” pain points, such as how to:
  • save considerable time (travel to and from, changing, etc.)
  • save money & hassles (less fuel, no club membership costs, etc.)
  • reduce mental stress:
  • do quality training at home,
  • avoid crowded pools and no pool chemicals,
  • Gain confidence as they improve skill and fitness,
  • Motivation from seeing improvements over time,
  • Fun & fitness for the whole family at home

When life gets in the way, I advise my clients not to stress about not getting to the waves. The waves will always be there, and stressing about not being there when it’s good or FOMOing every moment of every day will lead to an unhealthy life and unhealthy relationships. Life is more than wave riding. Wave riding should enhance one’s life. But if life does get in the way, there are many other ways to benefit from surfing elsewhere through other movement activities. Find what calls to you and then do it consistently. It’s inconsistency that is the killer.

If you like cycling, do that. If you like rowing, do that. But do those things consistently. By consistently working on some fitness activity, you’ll be better off when you get back in the ocean, even if you’re only putting in 10-15 minutes a day. Just keep moving. That’s why I think Vasa has excellent tools for that. If you don’t have time to drive to the pool, change into your suit, do a swim workout, shower, change back into clothes, and drive home or to work, then jump on the Vasa for 10-15 minutes at home (barefoot and in your PJ’s!). And do that consistently each day.

  1. If a surfer wants an effective 15 to 20-minute strength circuit to do two or three times per week, in addition to using a Vasa Trainer for paddling strength & endurance, what are two dryland exercises you recommend for each of the four body parts listed below that will provide surfers the most “bang for their buck”?
    a. Paddling propulsion
    b. Shoulder injury prehab
    c. Core / long taut bodyline
    d. Legs

Paddling Propulsion: pull-ups and push-ups. Depending on your tolerance for these, here are some options.

1 and 1’s = do one pull-up, crawl out to a push-up position, and do one push-up. Then, crawl back and repeat that sequence for 20 minutes. No rest. Find a rhythm and lean into it.

Ladder = 1 pull-up, 1 push-up, 2 pull-ups, 2 push-ups, 3 pull-ups, 3 push-ups; continue until you can’t do any more pull-ups, then go back down the ladder. Time is dependent on how many pull-ups you get to. If you still have time before 20 minutes are up, repeat up to a number that will fill in the rest of the time. No rest.

Nickels and Dimes = 5 pull-ups followed by 10 push-ups on the 2-minute interval. Do this for 20 minutes (or longer).

You can also do any variation above with dips instead of push-ups.

Shoulder injury prehab

Rotator cuff series. I have a series in my online course for this, and it’s a little too lengthy to explain here. Any physical therapist can provide rotator cuff exercises. I recommend surfers do those when not surfing much.

Shoulder injury exercise

(Here’s another article about shoulder injury prevention.)

Core / long taut bodyline

Core exercise series: Do crunches, planks, obliques, scissors, flutter kicks, prone back exercises, and leg lifts. I share my daily core routine in my online course. Find different core exercises and consistently work them (about 8-12 minutes).
(Here’s an article about how swimmers strengthen their core.)

  1. How can our readers learn more about your coaching and how to contact you?

To learn more about what I do and to sign up for a free email series on improving paddling technique, readers can visit If they join the mailing list, I send a monthly newsletter with mini-lessons and announcements on training events, partners, recommendations, and more. Finally, readers can also watch/listen to the Dropping In Surf Show podcast and show on the website.

(Note to readers: Recently, Rob Case interviewed Rob Sleamaker, Vasa’s founder & CEO, on the Dropping In Surf Show podcast)

swim coach helping student

Rob Case is the creator of The Surfing Paddling Academy and XSWIM. He is an avid surfer, swimmer, water polo player, freediver, and father of two very energetic kids.
In addition to teaching thousands of recreational surfers how to catch more waves with less effort, Rob has worked with the World Surf League (WSL), Kelly Slater Wave Company, top professionals on the Big Wave World Tour, and professionals on the World Qualifying Series.
His science-based techniques have been featured on Surfline, the Surf Simply Podcast, the Surf Mastery Podcast, the Inertia, and The Surfer’s Journal.

Located just north of San Francisco, Rob enjoys playing in the ocean and surfing Ocean Beach and the surrounding area. He is the top instructor in the world for surf paddling technique.