For all the talk and focus on surfing being about riding waves, the reality is that a surf session is mostly paddling.
Reviewing the GPS data of competitive surfers, it was found that the majority (60%) of the total heat time is spent paddling. It’s a mix of longer bouts of moderate (return to backline) paddling, and short (~1-3 second) bouts of intense (catch a wave) paddling. Depending on your level, that can add up to a distance paddled of more than 3000 metres per hour!
Is your body fit enough for that paddle demand?
If you aren’t getting out for very regular surf sessions, you will likely notice that your arms can feel heavy and you can be huffing and puffing to get to backline or your arms just don’t have what it takes to sprint paddle to catch the wave you were eyeing up.
In a study of competitive male surfers, a link between paddle power and ranking was identified. Those with higher paddle power (W/kg) had a better ranking. It was suggested that greater paddling power may improve surf performance by allowing more and faster paddling per session resulting in more waves being caught.
Compared to our male counterparts, women tend to have lower relative upper body to lower body strength ratio so adding in some upper body strengthening is extra important for us because it isn’t only women we need to match for paddle speed in the water.
Since paddling is the greatest percentage of what you will do in a surf session, because stronger paddling has links to being a better surfer and because women often have relatively lower upper body strength compared to males, then focusing on improving your paddle strength and conditioning is a good “bang for your buck” way to improve your surfing.
So how can you make improvements with your paddling? Getting out for more sessions could help but there is lots you can do on land to make improvements too.
Taking the approach of dry-land training would have you in good company. Competitive surfers are not only out surfing, they are doing strength and conditioning (S&C) sessions to improve their surf performance.
Here are some land-based exercises to get you started with pumping up your paddling. As a general guide to strengthening, aim for 2-4 sets of 6-12 repetitions with enough load that finishing that last rep is a real challenge.
1) Increase your pulling strength
One study found that surfers with higher relative pulling strength were faster paddlers. The stronger pullers had higher peak paddle speed over 5, 10 and 15 metre sprints. Increasing your pulling strength should result in faster paddle speed during your sprints to catch a wave meaning you’re the one on the wave and not the person who out paddled you.
2) Boost your pushing strength
By upping your pushing strength, you will be ready for the challenge of the endless duck diving, the demand of repeatedly reaching your arms overhead when paddling and being more able to generate thrust at the end of each paddle stroke. Bonus is this will also give your pop-up more *POP!* especially if you choose an easier load and push it more quickly (but built up to faster movements).
3) Prolong your back extensor endurance
In order to paddle strong, you need to be able to keep your chest up off the board. This chest up position allows muscles around your trunk to help out with the paddling and it also makes it easier to move your arms through the recovery swing of your paddle stroke. Even if you are only starting out at surfing, having the ability to maintain a chest up position is going to differentiate you in the water from other beginners and getting you more rides sooner. It even sends a message to other surfers in the water that you are strong and that you are there to catch waves.
With many of us in sedentary, sitting jobs, it is easy to lose strength in our back extensor muscles (the muscles that arch our backs) strength making these exercises all the more important.
4) Cardiovascular fitness training
Paddling puts demand on your cardiovascular system too. No surprise there. You’ve felt yourself breathing hard and heart beating fast as you paddled through the water. Be sure to include some cardiovascular cross-training sessions too.
Happy strong paddling!
A FEW NOTES:
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Bernard et al. Prescribing an annual plan for the competitive surf athlete: Optional methods and barriers to implementation. Strength Cond J, 39: 36-45, 2017.
Anthony CC and Brown LE. Resistance training considerations for female surfers. Strength Cond J, 38:64-69, 2016. Sheppard et al. Association between anthropometry and upper-body strength qualities with sprint paddling performance in competitive wave surfers. J Strength Cond Res, 26:3345-3348, 2012.