We meander along a sixteen-kilometer stretch of unspoiled beach looking for ‘the’ bank. Not a house in sight, sun out in full force, and the beach’s natural sand dune succession is majestically intact. Low-lying spinifex provide stability for leafy coastal banksias to flourish, creating the correct soil conditions for the more towering tea tree, with a little pinch of Lantana weed added to remind me its not a perfect world. After ten minutes of driving we do what most of us do at some point in a surf check and u-turn back to the first bank that was scouted. A set appears and immediately captures our attention, dog included. Four feet of wave rearing, forming and peeling fifty plus meters in each direction. I begin gesticulating animated Neanderthal hand signals in excitement whilst attempting to simultaneously park.
I had resisted my pre dawn ritual of Yoga & Pilates this morning. The necessity for sleep had gotten the better of me. I am now reminded of why I advise my clients to complete their surf fitness practice at home, particularly when they know the surf is on. To stay present, aware and patient in ones body is a near impossibility when confronted with oceanic perfection. The sun is still beaming so I decide to salute it time and time again until I feel my body warm, my hips open and my heart space widen. I feel prepared now.
I tie the dog lead to the bulbar (dog attached), and proceed to paddle, and paddle, and paddle against a surprisingly strong nor-easterly sweep. The physical reality of the past four months in India sets in. Four months of two-three feet at eighteen seconds, allowing plenty of time to enjoy the wave and idly meander oneself back into the take-off zone with barely a hair out of place. Four feet at nine seconds is my present reality, complete with unrelenting duck diving and paddling. To be honest I relish the challenge of earning the beautiful moments, whilst rationally reasoning that in a couple more swells time this paddle will seem easier.
This morning posed an interesting question that many surfers face. How do you remain paddle fit during the flat spells so you can enjoy your surfing when the ocean turns on? Lets explore the myths and realities of surf paddle training!
Specificity is everything: The cornerstone of modern sports science is to recreate the exact motor pattern you are trying to improve and find a way to overload it, often referred to as sports specific training. This evidence-based system is founded on our understanding of an area of the brain known as the Cerebellum. The Cerebellum is located at the back of the brain and is responsible for the co-ordination of our movement. It receives sensory input from nerves telling us about the environment we are moving in, integrates this information with our desired actions, and tells the body, more specifically the muscles of the body how to activate in a correct sequence to complete a motor skill. A practical example of a motor skill could be nailing a top turn, or in today’s case paddling on a surfboard.
When we paddle the Cerebellum actually tells our muscles to switch on and work in a very specific order. It actually stores this sequence of muscle contractions, what we call a ‘motor pattern’. The more you paddle, the more this motor pattern is reinforced. Over time your nerves descending from the brain actually get faster and highly efficient in telling your muscles to activate in the correct sequence. This improves paddle efficiency, power and speed. It also helps dispel the myth that you need big powerful muscles to paddle efficiently. Ever wondered why that grommet weighing 45 kg who looks like a toothpick out-paddles you? Its not that he or she is physically stronger, they have just surfed three times per day for the past five years and developed a highly efficient neuromuscular system. Of course being strong and powerful in your muscles will also help with surf paddling, but it’s often an overvalued determinant.
This brings me to my next point. Lifting big heavy weights may assist your take off power but it will not necessarily be an efficient way to improve your paddling. The motor pattern stored in your cerebellum to complete a chest or shoulder press is completely different to the one required to paddle a surfboard. Becoming strong at bench press is great if you want to be good at doing bench press, not if you want the strength and endurance to paddle a surfboard. In saying this weight training is still better than no training at all to improve surf paddling, just not the most efficient.
As far as specificity goes swimming is a better option than pumping iron. But although the action of swimming more closely resembles surf paddling, it is still stored in the brain as a separate motor pattern. Therefore the muscle required to swim effectively are activated in a different sequence to paddling your board. It is however much more closely related than lifting weights and therefore will give you more benefit to stay paddle fit. It also has some meditative and therapeutic benefits as you breathe and follow the black line.
So what is the best way to stay paddle fit when the swell goes flat, you are away for work, or a weekend warrior. The answer is simple: Paddle on a surfboard! If the surf is flat grab an ocean paddle board, a long board or even a wide fish and paddle up and down the coast. If you are living inland you can either find a lake, river or take the complete weirdo option at your local pool. This may seem ridiculous but when I was at university living two hours from the coast I had a pool in the backyard of my temporary residence. I found weight training and swimming were okay to keep me paddle fit, but when a big swell turned on I could not maintain the level of fitness I was previously accustomed to when living at the beach. My flat mate was a serious cyclist and had numerous punctured cycling tubes lying around. I had the crazed notion to join eight meters of cycle tubes, hook it around a poolside garden tap, and tie a loop on each end to wrap around each of my ankles. I then jumped in the pool on an old surfboard and paddled until the recoil of the bike tubes provided resistance. I would then paddle against this resistance to maintain my position in the pool. I then took it one step further by modifying the type of paddling to replicate surfing various breaks. For example long, slow, strong paddles with the occasional duck dive were to replicate a point break. I then completed high intensity, powerful paddles with more frequent duck dives to replicate a beach break. After 4 weeks of this madness I chased a substantial swell down the coast and noticed a considerable improvement in my surf paddling power and endurance.
So there you have it. Get out amongst Mother Nature and relish the fact that surfing regularly is the best thing you can do to improve surf paddling. Its funny how science can occasionally lead us back to simplicity!
Ryan Huxley is the co-founder and program creator at Surfbodysoul, a website that provides safe, effective, holistic, scientific e-book exercise programs catering for surfers of all age, level and experience. Ryan is a qualified Physiotherapist, Exercise Physiologist, Advanced Yoga and Pilates instructor. His list of pro surfing clients includes Fergal Smith, Chippa Wilson, Anthony Walsh, Paige Hareb, Emi Cataldi & Rusty Miller.