There is plenty of speculation surrounding surf-specific fitness programs and the debatable need to balance on exercise balls while jumping rope and downing an energy drink to warm up for heats. Thankfully, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research recently published a scientific study about surfing fitness, and it's backed with actual citations. A team out of Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand conducted the research, one of the first detailed analyses of the physical demands of competitive surfing.
Over the course of two pro events in New Zealand, 12 surfers were outfitted with GPS units and heart rate monitors and filmed during their heats to comprise most of the research. The "scientists," if I may, were watching to observe the time spent in various types of activities, the physical demands of each, the speed of the surfers, and the distances they traveled. More or less a standard day at the beach for these lab coats.
Here's what they found: to be a fit and functioning competitive surfer, you'll need a "high endurance for paddling with bursts of high-intensity activity and short recovery times." That is a complex way to describe standard surfing procedure, but still it's a constructive foundation to the study. But you can take these findings with a grain of salt, as they naturally were all subject to the wave height, conditions, and break type.
The study breaks down the standard activity of a heat into four parts. The surfers spent 54 percent of the heat paddling, 28 percent of the time stationary on their boards, and only 8 percent of the heat spent actually riding waves. The rest was attributed to "miscellaneous," whatever that means in surf-pseudoscience-speak. The study emphasized how often the conditions change, and how more than 60 percent of the time the periods of rest or activity lasted less than 10 seconds.
According to the GPS data collected, over the course of a 20-minute heat the surfers traveled an average distance of about one mile, with around two thirds of that covered while paddling. The average paddle speed for the surfers was 2.3 mph and the average high speed while riding waves was 20.75 mph, with the top recorded speed of the event clocking in at 27.96 mph. Throughout the heat, heart rates stayed in the moderate- to high-intensity range for two-thirds of the time, with the average competitor's heart rate at 139 beats per minute with a peak rate of 190 bpm.
Of the findings, the most interesting was when the competitor's heart rates were highest. The researchers expected they'd be highest when the surfers were paddling for a wave, but they found that peak heart rates actually occurred right after they finished riding a wave. "One reason for such a result could be the physical demands of riding the wave, coupled with the adrenaline release ensuing from the wave ride and fall," they hypothesized. Most surfers can relate.
So what are the keys to a surf-specific workout? Exercises emphasizing aerobic conditioning, fast recovery times, and high-intensity heart rate workloads. To be in enough shape to balance bursts of paddling and occasional breath holding with long lulls of waiting. Nothing groundbreaking, but useful information for us wave-riding "athletes" nonetheless.
Source: "Physiological Demands of Competitive Surfing"
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research