Best Foot Forward

Switching your stance could make you a better surfer, and prevent injuries

Growing up in Santa Cruz, Nat Young may have lamented his goofy-ness as a kid, but he turned out fine in the end. Photo: Ellis

This article is from our April issue, themed “The Science of Surf.” Click here for more on our oceanic field studies, which include, but are not limited to, bathymetry, genealogy, hydrodynamics, wave pools, and stoke.

Unless you were born ambidextrous—like, say, Jeff Clark, who learned to surf switch-foot to avoid Maverick’s beasts at his back—you probably think more about new boards than adjusting your stance. But scientific studies suggest that the way you stand on a board is worth thinking about, and even switching up.

More than right-left dominance, stance is our foundation for balance and the core of our performance—and it can be tweaked. According to David Anderson, a professor at the SFSU Department of Kinesiology, the best ways to determine stance is to “March in place blindfolded. If you turn clockwise, your left leg tends to dominate during stance and locomotion; counter clockwise your right leg dominates.”

Most surfers adopt the stance that simply feels right. The first time you strap on a leash, you take a stance, which, like an arranged marriage, becomes a lifelong commitment.

Our bodies communicate what feels preferable, because fresh from the oven, one side of our body feels more comfortable doing certain tasks, and relegates the other side to an everlasting supporting role. From then on, physiological tracks get laid; each side feeling more comfortable over time, until maintaining balance is automatic. Like digesting a roach-coach taco, we don’t think about balance unless it’s off. That’s because our sense of balance operates in stealth, and is therefore overlooked, underappreciated, and excluded from The 5 Senses Club.

Stance is actually an uber-sophisticated, tri-sensory, feedback-looped, multi-leveled labyrinth of neuromuscular communication. In coordinated concert, three sensory systems got humans off all fours, and to this day inconsistent signals make us seasick.

The three systems that guide balance are vision, vestibular (our inner-ear gyroscope), and somatosensory (cells in muscles, joints, and on the bottoms of our feet that signal body position in space). These systems employ feedback mechanisms for micro counter adjustments in movement and smooth transitions between them. Smooth, non-robotic adjustments prevent wipeouts. Lacking this feedback mechanism, robots can’t surf.

The human body, however, coordinates this sophisticated stuff without thinking. Toddlers aren’t taught how to sit up, walk, or not toddle. The body figures it out by trial, error, adjusting, and falling, not by thinking, “Engage erector spinae!”

"The more one-sided we are, the more imbalanced we become, decreasing performance," says Dr. Tim Brown. Brett Simpson, putting his dominant side to work in San Francisco. Photo: Ellis

Unfortunately, acquiring the muscle memory necessary to meet the physical challenges at hand, and at foot, often includes the cementing of bad habits as well. Scientist/surfer Michaela Bruton, who researches balance at the University of Sydney, says that because stance facilitates balance and allows us to put pressure on the rails, it manipulates our position on the wave. A dysfunctional stance, even if it is correctly oriented, hinders your ability to surf well. “If your feet are too far apart,” Bruton explains, “you can’t rotate your trunk, open your shoulders to turn, or powerfully flex and extend your legs. If you’re not crouching low enough in bottom-turns, you limit efficient transfer of momentum from body to board to wave.”

Eventually, the multitudes of repeated bad habits over time push our asymmetry to the point where, if some of us lost a right hand, certain bodily functions would be virtually impossible. Dr. Tim Brown is Co-Medical Director of the Northern Hemisphere for the ASP and a 50-year surfer. He says, “The more one-sided we are over time, the more imbalanced our bodies become, decreasing performance. Imbalance is the leading cause of sports injury.”

Strangely enough, counteracting imbalance requires throwing our bodies off balance. In this way, surfing switch-foot can enhance performance in your native stance. Brown says, “Switch-stance stimulates under-toned muscles to better support joints, body alignment, and the function of overused, under-stretched dominant muscles. Training both sides improves coordination and body alignment/posture, balancing the muscles that control your core.”

Anderson adds, “Awareness begins destabilizing a pattern, interrupting what’s become automatic. As a pattern destabilizes, performance initially regresses, making you worse before you get better. Inhibiting old patterns, allows new patterns to emerge, but it takes hundreds if not thousands of hours.”

The truth is we rarely change what’s already working for us. It’s easier for us to accept our stance and focus on the technical aspects of our surfing, or simply upgrading to the newest surfboard. It’s a lot more palatable than a lengthy detour back to Kooksville.

—MG Raven