Preventing Injuries: What Surfers May Not Know

Therapydia Treat Surf Injuries

Feeling sore after getting out of the water? It may not be entirely obvious that you may be developing an injury somewhere in your body. Feeling any type of tightness or nagging aches in your shoulders or knees may mean that you’re not moving correctly when you’re on the water. Most surfing-related injuries could be prevented by knowing how to better engage certain parts of your body. Surf injuries lead to a progressive downgrade of a surfer’s performance since those aches and pains get in the way of how well you surf.

If you do feel some aches after getting out of the water, you may need some help with how you move. You may not have known how to use certain muscles to allow you to get the most out of your surf routine.

Don’t Cheat By Rotating Through The Knees

Surfing requires significant range of motion and stability across many major joints. Many surfers start developing injuries when they get stuck in a specific movement pattern. To start with, knees can take a beating when surfing. If your knees are feeling sore, you’re not going to produce as powerful of turns. As a surfer, it’s critical to have a healthy knee joint and quality strength throughout the muscles of the legs and hips. When surfing, your knee can get into some awkward or unnatural positions that put too much strain on your knee joints. Relying on just your knees to produce the force you need to make those turns can cause pain in your knee joint. These issues could range from damage to the cartilage, ligaments, and tendons around your knee joint to having your knee joint start to misalign.

Activate Above Your Knees

Consider moving throughout your entire body as you cut and turn through the waves. One solution to help your knees out would be to rotate through your shoulders and trunk (i.e. chest and ribcage). Flowing from turn to turn involves leading with your shoulder and hips. When leading into a really tight turn, it’s especially helpful to utilize your hips. Getting low and staying balanced while tube riding also requires a lot of hip, knee, and ankle flexibility and strength. Surfing creates tight hip flexors (i.e. muscles surrounding your hips) because straddling the board keeps those muscles contracted for long periods of time. Having tight hips can restrict how well you rotate during a turn. When this happens, it goes back to that knee pain. You’ll compensate for the force needed to turn by using your knees, which will strain them. Better hip flexibility and strength can also help with the fundamental squat position, you’ll see better stability and more lower body control while you’re out there surfing.

Those Achy, Creaking Shoulders

Surfer’s also have a high risk for overusing and putting too much strain on their shoulders. When surfing, you’re constantly pulling your shoulders forward in the water. Over time, this becomes a habit and you begin stretching and irritating the muscles around your shoulder. Paddling also strengthens certain muscles in the shoulder while weakening the rotator cuff muscles (i.e. muscles around upper arm and top of shoulder). This leads to a type of injury called shoulder impingement, which occurs when you constantly compress the rotator cuff tendons of your shoulder with a lot of overhead movement (i.e. paddling). Strengthening the muscles that surround the back of your shoulder will take the stress off of those overused muscles in the front. Working on balancing the pressure across your shoulder muscles will prevent any inflammation or pain that may come from having your shoulder impinged. Paddling also takes a lot of power and flexibility coming from your back and core. If you consider how your entire body moves when you paddle, you’ll put less stress on certain parts of your body and begin to utilize major muscle groups.

Surf With Your Whole Body

While some moves may require the use of certain muscles more than others, it’s important to have strength and flexibility across your body. Surfing is as dynamic of a sport as it gets—moving on open water is anything but simple. Your body has to punch back against the force of the waves while also moving well. Each wave will have an effect on your board and ultimately on your body. Working through your movements and figuring out the cause of your pain will help you move your best—and surf your best.

Why a Former Pro Contest Surfer Is Taking a Surfing Lesson

I started surfing frequently when I was 12 and I spent all of my teenage years either surfing or skateboarding. During my 20s I was fortunate enough to obtain surfing sponsors that brought me to wonderful surfing destinations all over the world and supplied me with the best equipment. I surfed many times in professional and invite-only events for both shortboarding and longboarding and even performed well in novelty events such as tandem surfing and stand up bodyboarding. When I wasn’t surfing, I taught surf lessons to newcomers and up and coming surfers with high aspirations.

When I turned 24, I stopped surfing in contests, voluntarily dropped most sponsors and committed myself to the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Old Dominion University. I imagined that after graduating, I would work full time as a physical therapist but still continue to compete in a few B-list professional contests in Hawaii and do this until I was in my early 40s. But then I had a change of heart…

For the Love Of Surfing

Now at age 32, I am in the best physical shape of my life. Being in the health and wellness field has changed my view of what it means to be at my highest personal athletic performance. Rather than trying to prove myself in professional events, I am surfing for it’s own sake and learning new novel forms of the craft.

Today, I spend my time body surfing large waves and stand up paddling smaller surf in addition to riding a short modern board. I have realized that in order to keep outperforming my 20 year old self, I have to surf smarter and I need to seek out new ways of learning about my technique flaws. There are many learning curves in surfing and getting feedback from friends and other surfers or watching replays captured by Solo Shot / GoPro can help you identify performance gaps that are holding you from the next level.

Physically speaking – surfing in not a difficult sport. Cognitively speaking – surfing may be the single hardest physical activity out there. I believe that most surfers would most greatly improve their performance not through better equipment or finding better waves, but simply spending more time in “deep practice”. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle speaks volumes about the concept of “deep practice” or in other words increasing your cognitive awareness of what makes someone a better performer. The idea of being process orientated rather than goal orientated. For me, I made the switch of being goal oriented (wanting to win contests) to being process oriented (deeply analysis of technique).

Now instead of worrying about contest results, I focus on timing, exact positioning of my back arm during turns on the wave, breath control when flying down a big wave, etc. As author Daniel Coyle pointed out, learning exact techniques and then spending time repeating and deeply analyzing techniques allows for your body to create more myelin. Myelin insulates nerve fibers, increasing the speed at which impulses are conducted. The more myelin – the faster you can fire nerve impulses / correct mistakes and perfect techniques.

In speaking of technique corrections, many of us saw the video capturing John Florence fracturing his ankle. John Florence is highly regarded as one the best surfers in the world with excellent technique in any conditions. Back in 2013, he was surfing in Australia and performing a routine maneuver when he broke his right ankle. While most of the surf media chalked this injury as a “freak accident”, it is noticeable within the video as to exactly what happened.

Watch his back leg, notice how his hip-knee-foot are not in alignment. If he had pushed his back knee outwards during the aerial rotation it would have most likely avoided the excessive ankle torque that caused the fracture. Basically, instead of his hip pushing outwards to bring the knee and ankle in alignment, his body instead used his knee and shin as a fulcum to destabilize and fracture his back ankle.

Even hearing John’s own explanation of the injury – it doesn’t sound like he had yet figured out that these injuries don’t have to happen. My advice to John would be to practice keeping hip-knee-ankle stability on land as to make proper positioning of his back leg flawless – then slowly translate that positioning into actually riding waves. Because there is so much to think about when riding a wave, proper ergonomic alignment in surfing should be practiced deeply on land and then added into actual surfing.

Movement science can be multi disciplinary. Often I have worked in conjunction with surfing coaches to better a surfer’s performance. A surfing coach can teach the athlete how to add speed, power and flow (contest judging criteria) into their surfing. A physical therapist is better suited though to help an athlete understand how to better command their body and avoid injury while trying seemingly dangerous maneuvers.

From Instructor To Student

Next summer I am finally taking my first surfing lesson. Twenty five years after my first surf session in Cocoa Beach beach I am going to Northern Costa Rica to work with a performance coach. I look forward to finding new ways to accelerate my learning curve. The best athletes are the best because they never stop learning (and figuring out how to avoid injury).

I will be attending the Surf Simply resort in Costa Rica. After listening to many of their podcasts it is apparent that the coaches are truly surf scientists. If there was such a thing as a PhD is surfing, these folks would deserve the title of “Dr.”.

Whether you are a surfer, an athlete or just someone who wants to achieve better balance – never stop learning and know that most injuries are truly avoidable if you have adequate command and understanding over your body.