Applied Surf Fitness

An interview with Olly Farley, surf researcher and Master

Locker rooms, warm-up routines, strength coaches, all standard form in professional surfing these days. Photo: Joli

At some point, probably around Mick's first World Title, there was a paradigm shift toward this growing concept of "surf fitness." Yoga, medicine balls, jump ropes, diets, sweating Gatorade, all that stuff reserved for the athletes you see on the TV has become as much a part of surfing as burritos and beer. There's been an increased emphasis on it recently, particularly in competitive surfing, what with its inherent benefits like winning, preventing injury, and allegedly increasing average life spans. Wherever credit–or blame–is due, surfing "athletes" are now the norm, hashtagging their strength programs and using terms like "Bosu ball" and "resistance bands" in their everyday vernacular.

In a recent online feature, we looked at a published scientific journal of Olly Farley, a Kiwi surfer/scientist out of Auckland, who studied surf fitness for his Master's program. He reached a few interesting conclusions about the relevance of strength in surfing, all backed with extensive data and research. He studied New Zealand pro surfers in competitive environments and in the lab, outfitting them with heart-rate monitors and GPS devices, observing and hypothesizing about their every move. The aggregate results were whittled down to his final thesis, Competitive Surfing: A Physiological Profile of Athletes and Determinants of Performance. And now he's a Master.

"Science," Albert Einstein said, “is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” Farley took care of the hard part, and now we reap the benefits.

SURFER: Are you a surfer or scientist first?
OLLY: Surfer, hands down. Been surfing far longer than studying.

What’s your purpose for this research?
We found that on a whole, surfing research is limited, so we needed to go back and do some fundamental research on surfing performance. Before we can prescribe training routines we need to find out what fitness aspects are required during competitive surfing. So I investigated the physiological demands of competition (GPS, heart rate monitoring, time-motion analysis) and the upper-body anaerobic power and aerobic fitness of New Zealand's competitive surfers.

What findings have surprised you the most?
From the first study the high heart rates (190 beats per min+), the speeds they traveled while on the wave (27.96 mph), the distance covered paddling (0.62 miles per heat), and of course the amount of time surfing (actually riding waves) were all surprising results. As a surfer you kind of know this information, but to actually see the time and percentage actually spent riding, paddling, etc. was definitely surprising. Also to see how quickly the guys' heart rates dropped (170+bpm down to 150bpm in 10 seconds) during the comp, which is testament to their fitness levels.

One of Farley's subjects, plugged into a simulated paddle in the lab.

How can a surfer benefit from this information?
Those who are fitter, stronger, and more powerful will dominate the lineup when surfing. So if surfers want to improve their fitness, catch more waves, or last longer in the water, we can prescribe recommendations for training. Those wanting to develop upper-body aerobic endurance should include repeated measures of low intensity activity, short rest periods, followed by intermittent high intensity bouts (180-200 b.min-1) of all-out activity and intermittent breath holds (in other words surf as much as you can for as hard as you can). Those wanting to enhance maximal power force production for greater propulsion in water should look into power-related exercises such as push-up claps, pop ups, and medicine ball work.

Is it just for competitive surfers, or does it apply to weekend warriors as well?
The study was done on competitive surfers, so there is a bit of a difference in fitness levels; however it can apply to both competitive and recreational surfers, it just depends on whether you think fitness and power is an important aspect of your surfing to work on.

What's a first step for surfers reacting to this info?
Most surfers would say, 'Yeah, that's nothing new, I could have told you that myself,' but did you really know that your heart rate was cranking away at 190 beats per minute and that wave you claimed "went forever" was in fact 8-10 seconds long, and we found that for every foot in surf for size you can approximately generate 6.2 mph in speed? It's this information we want to use to help design training programs for elite surfers and make recommendations about what they can do to make enhancements to theirs fitness and keep them winning. Essentially, we want to be able to give elite and pro surfers an edge they need in competitions. Every surfer is different; this line of study is about developing ways to help at the top end of surfing. It can also apply to those weekend warriors who may be keen to develop that fitness to simply last longer or paddle harder.

What types of training do you recommend?
First of all surf as much as you can, nothing comes as close to the real thing. Surfing fitness is far different from that of land-based fitness. For further enhancement of upper body strength/power you would want to start off doing fundamental movement exercises, because these are important to build up muscular strength and endurance before going into more specific training. These exercises are your push-ups, bench press, squats, abdominal crunches, pull ups, arm workouts, etc. Then one would want to move into power training--push up claps, medicine ball work, plyometric training such as jumping lunges with a medicine ball and balance/coordination type exercises that require more skill and strength. From there, surf specific training such as paddling with resistance (gym- and pool-based,) water-based training, and harder balance/coordination work with weights.

Read Olly's full journal articles here and here, and review his surfing thesis here.

Farley monitored heart rates, breathing patterns, GPS coordinates and more, both in the lab and in the water.