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Elite Fitness for Lifelong Surfing
In the previous post I discussed the role of psychology in regard to big-wave surfing. At both the beginning and end of the day, proper nutrition and the right mind-set are essential preconditions of any elite athlete’s life and passion. Yet even the best diet and psychology aren’t enough to excel; one must also be fit.
My fitness goals are strength, sustained energy, power, flexibility, and aerobic endurance — in a word: vitality. A truly effective and otherwise elite training program must therefore be balanced and varied precisely in order to keep the body strong and nimble and (perhaps most importantly) injury free.
On this perspective, one recognizes the necessity of cross-training in ways that complement or supplement the main primary athletic endeavor, which, in my case, is riding (or attempting to ride) some of Hawaii’s most powerful waves when they roll in from the far reaches of the North Pacific every winter season.
My workout plan over the course of the past 30 years has evolved and refined considerably. As a young surfer, I believed that all I really needed to do was surf and do a few push-ups, run the beach, swim, and lift some weights when there weren’t any waves. This rather crude strategy served me pretty well for the most part. For over 20 years, every day I woke up and immediately powered out 200 pushups (4 sets of 50) before I even got to the bathroom. While this unrelenting Spartan routine cultivated discipline and focus, it also probably did more damage to my shoulders (in the long run) than anything else.
Further, years of surfing — season after season, decade after decade — breaks the body down as much as it strengthens it. Constant paddling stresses the rotator cuffs and tends to hyper-extend the neck and back; and, due to the asymmetry of the stance, surfing leads to all kinds of weird imbalances in the core, hips, and knees. Indeed, while both core and leg strength are essential to surfing well, surfing itself does little to actually strengthen these parts of the body — not to mention the damage of high-impact wipeouts, two-wave hold-downs, and getting impaled on the reef.
Often the best thing for surfing is not surfing precisely in order to cross-train so that when I do hit the water I am as lithe, loose, and otherwise willowy (a favorite term that Roger Erickson, one of my big-wave mentors taught me) as I can be. A willow tree is as strong as it is flexible. When the forces of nature unleash their greatest fury, the willow bends and adjusts in ways the even the strongest oak cannot. So, too, the resilient athlete who is capable of adapting kinesthetically to any given challenge. In any case, the first component of my cross-training entails rather simple body-weight exercises, things that can be done just about anywhere, anytime, in a relatively short amount of time.
The base for this cog in the training wheel is the standard push-up. Whereas I used to power-out 4 sets of 50, these days I cut the count down to 10 or 30 and focus more on form, nasal breathing, and the negative (or eccentric) portion of the exercise. In between 3 sets of push-ups, I do lunges (sets of 20); weighted planks (3 mins. each); pull ups (sets of 10-15) followed with body curls (sets of 10); and crunch variations (e.g., hip-ups, running man, figure 8s, 3-points, etc.). Perhaps the greatest secret I have learned in the past several years (as the result of PT for a dislocated shoulder accident) is Crossover Symmetry band work-out program — the absolute supreme physical therapy for the rotator cuff. I’ll do this routine at least once a week.
Given that big-wave riding also entails preparation for wipe-outs and prolonged, under-water hold-downs, I incorporate a hypoxic or anaerobic element, whereby I’ll hold my breath for counts of 30-40 seconds during each and all of these body-weight exercises. It’s amazing how quickly one can develop anaerobic endurance under stress in ways that immediately enhance both aerobic capacity (VO2 Max) and endurance, as well as confidence under water. Nasal breathing at all times is essential — not only will one’s athletic performance improve, one will think, feel, and sleep better, a lot better.
When it comes to weight training, I’m an avid devotee of the kettle-bell (KB). One cannot overstate the myriad benefits of this Russian talisman. A Navy SEAL guy I knew turned me on to these magic charms about 12 years ago and they have totally revolutionized my approach to weight training. The foundation of the KB workout is the swing. Done right, the KB swing is a full-body thrust from the core that engages everything from the toes to the nose and serves to focus and stimulate both mind and body in powerful harmony. Sets of 10-15, with a 60 lb. KB, are ideal (start with a lighter one until form is optimized). These are supplemented by wind-mills (one of the best things other than Crossover Symmetry I’ve found to strengthen the shoulder and otherwise prevent and/or recover from rotator-cuff injuries), Turkish get-ups, Russian twists (both with a 35 lb. KB); as well as cleans, bent-over rows, shoulder presses; lunges, squats and deadlifts – to name but several of a multiplicity of KB exercises. I try to swing my KB at least once a week.
Additionally, the KB lends itself to the redeeming virtues of the mighty Tabata sequence workouts; yet another awesome way to enhance aerobic power (VO2 Max) and endurance. When pressed for time, I can get a good burn in and otherwise pummel myself in 20 minutes or less by employing any combination of KB and body-weight exercises in a high-intensity training (HIT) regime where one drills hard for 20 seconds, rests for 10, and repeats the cycle for a minimum of 8 sets.
Tabata workouts can be scaffolded into pyramids or “ladders,” whereby one stacks or increases the reps up to a count of 10 or 12, for example, and then “climbs” back down the “ladder.” If a Tabata sequence doesn’t leave you on the floor totally winded, then you haven’t done it properly. I try to do at least one Tabata sequence a week (or every other week when the surf is pumping).
My cross-training training program is rounded off with several other activities that I enjoy as much as riding the big-blue wave. They are mountain biking, hiking/scrambling, the beach run-swim, and downwind stand-up paddling. Grateful and fortunate to live where I do on Oahu’s North Shore, I am within close, striking distance to some of the world’s most pristine beaches, clean, clear water, and tropical mountains and forests. So, when there’s no surf or the winds are unfavorable, I’ll either go for swim and beach run; hop on my enduro mountain bike and go for “spin”; ascend one of the many volcanic mountain peaks in the Koolau and Waianae Mountain Ranges towering over Oahu; or do the stand-up downwind glide from Paumalu (Sunset Beach) to Waimea Bay. These activities are (done properly) relatively low-impact as well as high-intensity workouts. And the benefits are profoundly rewarding.
A veritable labyrinth of single-track trails wind throughout the Pupukea-Paumalu forest preserve in the mountains above Sunset Beach and serve as the perfect training ground for my legs, knees, heart and lungs — not to mention my mind (it’s perfect therapy listening to edifying podcasts like The Partially Examined Life, Sam Harris’ Mind Matters, & Sean Carroll’s Mindscape) as I climb and descend Wao Akua (wilderness). Plus (rather unlike some of the other workouts described herein) I’m genuinely enjoying myself gliding through the trees and mountains on my Santa Cruz Bronson – it’s a fun, engaging, absolutely sublime experience. Blissfully, I often ride 4-5 times a week for 2 to 3 hours at a time (last year I rode over 2500 miles and had a total elevation gain of 300,000 + feet). Because the mountains here are so steep and rugged, there’s only so much and so far one can go on bike, at which point I ditch the Bronson and simply climb.
Admittedly, what I’m doing is more than “hiking.” I’ll pack 4-5 liters of water, some food, foul weather gear, and wear a good pair of boots (Merrell’s or Hoka One One are best in my view). The pure simplicity of the act is combined with the never-ending complexity of the routes. These mountains are big (2500’-4500’ straight up from sea-level) and as dramatic in terms of graphic relief as one can imagine — 5 million years of weathering and erosion create some of the most spectacular peaks, ridgelines, and valleys on Honua (Earth) — perhaps the best open secret of the Hawaiian Archipelago. Scrambling (there’s no other word for the often 4th Class four limb crawling) up, across, down, and around the rocky topography of this wonderous island over the course of 6-12 miles and as many hours is as challenging and thrilling as catching a set at Sunset or the Bay, sometimes more so because I’m usually all by myself. Solo free climbing is something I will write about more later . . .
In the summer time, when the waves are small or nonexistent, and I need a respite from the mountains, I return to the water and the tried-and-true swim- beach run at least 2-3 times a week. After a leisurely swim about a mile or so down the beach from Sunset Point to Rocky Point (which I’ve been doing religiously since 1990), I then jog home back up the soft, deep sand with the trade-winds providing gentle resistance (somewhat like running through jello). This is a pretty mellow activity for me, as much meditation as it is exercise. To mix things up on the swim portion of the workout, I often dive down, grab a 50lb. stone and run along the sand 10 to 20 feet beneath the surface of the ocean for 20 or so paces – another great (rather surreal) hypoxic way to enhance aerobic capacity (VO2 Max) and strengthen the core and legs.
Like mountain-bike riding and “hiking,” the swim-run is an invigorating joy, outside in the wonders of nature. The full-body (and mind) benefits of these activities cannot be overstated. And the bliss of standing tall, trade-winds at my back, stroking way outside the fringing outer reefs of the North Shore, sun and spray in my face, spinner dolphins and sea-birds tracking me all the way, is hard to beat. It’s a three-mile glide from Paumalu to Waimea Bay; takes me about 45 minutes or so; and is the perfect all-body workout. In truth, after swimming, running, biking, hiking, and paddling all summer, I am probably as strong and lithe as I am all year long, totally prepared for the first swells of the approaching surf season.
Just as important as exercise are rest and recovery. This basic insight into both increasing and sustaining strength and fitness (while remaining injury free) is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned as I move through so-called “middle age” (I’m 52 as I write this) and keep performing at a pretty elite athletic level. The resilient athlete thus knows when (and how) to rest and thereby allow the body to recover and get strong. Observation and experience teach that too much of anything breaks the body down and conduces to stress and exhaustion; one must take it easy, sleep (naps are essential), meditate, and allow both body and mind to recover, repair, and otherwise restore. Proper nutrition (vegetable-based, alkaline, high protein, low-calorie) is obviously integral to this part of the program.
Moreover, rest and relaxation afford valuable opportunities to spend time with family and friends; stretch, meditate, and practice yoga; get some chores done; nap; reduce stress; and read (or write) all those books you’ve been meaning to get to. This might sound easy and appealing; but all too often, elite athletes tend to neglect the absolute necessity of rest and the recovery it provides. All in all, the best advice one can share with any aspiring elite athlete, young or old, is simply to keep moving (in a variety of different ways), get outside, breathe deep, don’t forget to restand eat well. Endeavor and enjoy. Hana Hou!
Huelo Hale, Paumalu 2021
 SEE: my old mentor’s excellent book on the geophysical and oceanographic history of the Hawaiian Islands: “Archipelago: In the Beginning — The Origin and Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands,” Richard Grigg, 2018.