Surf Lab

University researchers are turning surfers into test subjects

The author of this piece, taking part in a university-backed paddling experiment. Photo: Burgess
The author of this piece, taking part in a university-backed paddling experiment. Photo: Burgess

It was a hot summer afternoon and I was paddling frantically. The water was warm and the conditions were glassy, but I was having a particularly frustrating time. My arm muscles were cramping and I felt like I wasn’t going anywhere—probably because I wasn’t.

I was on a surfboard paddling my ass off inside something called a flume, which is essentially a 16-by-9-foot aquatic version of a treadmill with a controllable current of water flowing from one end of the flume to the other.
I had heart-rate monitors fastened around my wrist and sternum that were tracking my pulse, and a VO2 mask strapped tightly to my face to measure how well I was utilizing oxygen.

I had volunteered to become the latest lab rat in a series of surf studies being conducted at Cal State San Marcos in San Diego County. And with all the devices attached to my body and scientists standing around me, it felt like I had been abducted from a Southern California lineup by surf-obsessed aliens.

The brains behind this operation, kinesiology professors Jeff Nessler and Sean Newcomer, may not be extraterrestrial, but they are surf obsessed. Both in their early 40s, the professors are using their combined academic backgrounds in biomechanics, engineering, and physiology to dissect the activity they’ve loved doing their entire lives. Using their scholastic resources, they’re testing how surfing and the products we use while surfing affect the human body.

After I was freed from mask and monitors, the two researchers escorted me out of the flume and into the indoor kinesiology lab to explain their projects in detail. The lab was filled with bizarre-looking exercise machines. In the middle of the room there was something called a swim-bench ergometer for paddling experiments and an isokinetic dynamometer that measures leg strength. Toward the back of the lab was an area set up for tracking and recording three-dimensional movements. Along the side wall was a row of computers where students sit, inputting and sorting a messy amount of data.

You don't need a background in biomechanics to do stylish snaps like Marlon Gerber. But knowing how surfing affects the body could prevent injury. Photo: Childs
You don’t need a background in biomechanics to do stylish snaps like Marlon Gerber. But knowing how surfing affects the body could prevent injury. Photo: Childs

The good thing about being a university professor is that whenever you have a question, you can order an army of undergrads to start collecting data. Which is more or less what Nessler and Newcomer did when they tackled their first question: how does surfing affect the body? To find out, they sent students to the beach with cameras, monitors, and liability waivers and told them to ask random surfers of all ages if they’d like to participate in their study. Lucky for them, few surfers would ever pass up
an offer to film their sessions.

After amassing enough data from the beach and within the lab, the kinesiology crew found that surfing offers varying health benefits depending on how you surf. If you’re an active surfer, busily chasing scraps on the inside between set waves, you’re likely getting the recommended amount of daily cardiovascular exercise when you paddle out. But if you’re in the lineup to idle on your board and chat about the weather, you’re not getting nearly the same benefits.

Eventually Nessler and Newcomer decided to double-down on the surf lab and start looking at surf equipment as well, even collaborating with Firewire and Hurley to help with product testing. Newcomer recently completed an investigation analyzing the relationship between board volume and how hard a surfer has to work while paddling. They compared each subject’s heart rate, oxygen consumption, board angle, and stroke rate while paddling boards of varying liters. Newcomer found that using a board with more volume resulted in less oxygen consumption.
Nessler, the slightly younger and quieter of the duo, has a mechanical-engineering background and is primarily interested in paddling mechanics. He’s testing things like how wetsuits affect stroke trajectory and how surfers can learn to paddle more efficiently and reduce the risk of overuse injury.

“We can start comparing different paddling strokes to see if different techniques put different types of stress on various joints,” says Nessler. “We can compare someone who has shoulder problems to someone who doesn’t and look at their technique and understand what part of their stroke is contributing to their pain. Maybe we can retrain them.”

To run his experiments, Nessler uses an array of complex technology, like muscle-activation sensors to gather electrical activity from specific muscle groups and 3D motion-tracking systems—you know the little plastic bulbs they put on skateboarders to determine what a kickflip should look like in a video game? Yeah, those things—to record shoulder, elbow, and wrist movements.

Tracking data with student researchers after a full day of testing. Photo: Burgess
Tracking data with student researchers after a full day of testing. Photo: Burgess

After they gave me a tour of the lab and a breakdown of all their theories (my head started hurting at that point), I couldn’t help but wonder, why go to such great lengths to study surfers?
Anyone who has ever paddled out knows that surfing is good for you, and the majority of us nine-to-five, workaday surfers don’t go surfing to meet some cardiovascular requirement; we ride waves because it’s mindless fun. Why analyze a bunch of people who chase waves for shits and giggles?

Nessler and Newcomer admit that what they’re proving in the lab may seem obvious to most surfers. But for the first time in the history of surfing, they’re offering hard numbers to back it up.

“Surfing is very anecdotally driven,” says Newcomer. “I was with my shaper yesterday and he pulled out a board and started talking about rail line and how all these elements are going to work in the water. But as a scientist, I’m like, ‘Do you have any data to support your assumptions?’ There’s just so little scientific data on surfing that the sky is the limit. There are still so many questions for us to answer.”

It may seem silly at a glance, but the study of surfing can provide a deeper understanding of this thing we’re all so obsessed with. As we learn more about the physiology of riding waves, we just might become better and healthier surfers. And the only way to get to that point is to keep asking questions.