How to Build an Effective Surf Specific Training Programme
Written on April 7th 2021, By Ben Jenkins
Written on April 7th 2021, By Ben Jenkins
When it comes to building a training programme around improving surfing performance, there isn’t one ‘right’ way to go about it. Many roads may lead to Rome, but some of those roads will be quicker and get you there injury free. Some won’t. In this post I will build a picture of what I believe should be included in a surf specific training programme, some training considerations and finally, how you can implement them into your training week.
The first thing to understand is the need for individualisation. A programme for a 16 year old who has aspirations of competing on the international stage will look completely different to a guy in his mid 30s who works at a desk for 40 hours a week.
Whether they perform to a similar standard in the water or not, there are many factors that will determine what a ‘performance’ based programme will look like for each of them. For the guy in his 30s, simply improving mobility ranges and introducing him to resistance based training may provide the biggest transfer and longevity in the water; whereas the 16 year old might already have sufficient ranges of motion, therefore, spending excessive time improving mobility will provide no additional value to their surfing performance.
So it’s important to understand that everyones ’surf specific’ training will look different.
Saying that, the two programmes will look more similar to each other than a rugby players programme may look like. Both sports require completely different demands so it would seem inappropriate to train a surfer like a rugby player, right?
Although, a successful programme in both sports will have similar underlying principles:
These principles will ensure we are completing the right amount of work, at the right time, for the right physical response. All programmes will be guided by these principles and you could even say everything else in the training world is up for contention!
So how do we make our training more related to the demands of surfing?
Let’s start by understanding what the judges are looking for in a competitive setting (this is taken from the WSL website):
“Judges analyse the following elements when scoring waves (not for Longboard or BWT Events):
I would argue that a lot of what the judges are looking for can be influenced by the work we complete outside of the water. Research suggests that lower body force generating capabilities underpins a surfers potential to perform higher scoring turning manoeuvres. Do we know how to improve lower body force generating capabilities? Yes, it is very well researched and something that is developed across a wide range of sports.
We also know that faster entry speed to bigger waves is favourable as it allows the surfer to enter the wave at a lower point, reducing the chances of falling. Paddling sprint speed is underpinned by high levels of upper body relative strength. Do we know how to improve upper body relative strength? Again, yes, it is very well researched and an area that is developed across sports worldwide.
On top of this, we can also reverse engineer manoeuvres. When we look at a lot of manoeuvres, whether they are as simple as the pop-up and bottom turn, or more advanced aerials, they all require varying levels of mobility and force absorption. Being able to effectively absorb force will contribute to performance as it will decrease the amount of time spent transitioning to the next manoeuvre and will also increase longevity. What I mean by this is hundreds and hundreds of inefficient landings will take its toll on the hips, knees, ankle and spine. Research suggests that continual loading of faulty movement will lead to injury at some point.
That one dodgy landing probably wasn’t the reason you ended up being injured, the hundreds previous all played a part. This also goes for actions such as paddling. With a locked up thoracic and shoulder mobility, thousands of paddling actions will lead to an injury at some stage… it is inevitable. Can we influence ranges of motion and force absorption qualities? Yes, it is very well researched. You can see where I’m going with this…
The ‘surf specific’ training programme may have a set of qualities that is specific to surfing. However, the individual qualities themselves are not specific to surfing. Lower body force generating and absorbing capabilities, upper body relative strength, thoracic/hip/ankle mobility are all well understood areas of performance training and can be influenced with the appropriate exercise selection and loading parameters.
For a long time and still to this day, surfing is perceived as a highly aerobic activity and any form of resistance based training is demonised as it makes surfers too heavy and immobile. This isn’t the case. Strength training can lead to increased muscle mass but only if the individual is not completing a sufficient amount of aerobic work (most surfers surf.. a lot) and consuming too much food! What we generally find is that introducing strength based training will, in fact, lead to individuals losing weight.
This introduction of strength training ticks a number of the injury prevention and performance enhancement boxes so it seems silly to leave out now, doesn’t it?
So when we break down what a surfer needs to be successful, I believe we need to be able to:
One thing we haven’t touched on is aerobic fitness. How important is it? Sure, it’s important. The fact that surfing sessions can easily last 2+ hours and involve a number of intermittent bouts of exercise, shows us that we need well developed cardio-respiratory fitness to deal with these demands. But how much does this need to be emphasised in a training week? If I can only commit 4.5 hours per week (that’s 3 x 1.5 hour sessions) outside of a surfing schedule, am I going to emphasise aerobic development, when I am getting a decent stimulus from surfing itself? Probably not. I’m going to focus my time into developing some of my weaker areas.
One thing we will all do when left to our own devices is train what we are good at. If you are super mobile, you will be all over the the mobility side of training, doing yoga 5 times a week. If you are an explosive athlete, the jumping and landing work is going to be right up your street. This is why, and I bring you back to my first point.. individualisation is crucial. There is a point in all aspects of training where you will start to get diminishing returns. This is where you no longer receive the same progress or growth from the type of training you have been doing. Your return of investment is far less than at the start of your journey. Every aspect of training will encounter this at some stage, so by continuing to train your strengths all the time, you are missing out on easy gains elsewhere that will also contribute to increasing performance.
How mobile is mobile enough?
How strong is strong enough?
How fit is fit enough?
This concept goes beyond the scope of this blog but an important one to consider.
When a lot of people hear ‘surf specific training’ or if you type #surffitness into Instagram you will see a lot of stuff that is trying to mimic the positions we see in surfing or some crazy circus tricks. This is not something I would advocate. Graeme Morris (@graeme_morris) put this very well – “an exercise does not need to necessarily look specific if the adaptions it produces will be positive for the athletes’ needs.”
Instead, training needs to be specific to the qualities that underpin surfing performance and split up in the training week based on what you would benefit from the most (the lowest hanging fruit). Good quality movement always comes before loading and learn to effectively absorb force before progressing onto advanced force producing movements.
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