The Coast News Group
Paul Hiniker, a fitness trainer to extreme sports athletes helps athletes extend their careers further through exercises that are especially developed to build and strengthen the body’s core. Photo by Bill Reilly

Surfers riding the waves of fitness

COAST CITIES — Become a better surfer and avoid injury by training on land? It was a foreign, even out-there idea a decade ago. 

But more and more, surfers are using shore-based balancing exercises, injury prevention techniques and nutrition information to better their wave-riding skills. The attention on surfing fitness is being fueled by a crop of new studies, books and instructional DVDs aimed at everyman surfers.

In the past, surfers believed there was a simple way to elevate their skills: surf more.

That attitude started changing about 10 years ago, beginning with sponsors injecting more money into professional surfing, said Clayton Everline, a strength and conditioning specialist for pro surfers and co-author of “Surf Survival: The Surfer’s Health Handbook.” The stakes for pro surfers were higher than ever.

“Obviously, getting out in the water is the biggest and most important part of improving your surfing,” said Everline, who is also a practicing sports physician. “But especially around 2007, you had a lot of pros looking for a competitive edge, and they really started taking training and nutrition seriously, whereas before that stuff was on the backburner.”

“There was a tipping point; those who started taking fitness and training seriously starting winning — it couldn’t be denied,” he added.

Pro surfers were hungry for health information tailored to surfers, and doctors and sports physicians responded by developing fitness regimes and safety tips with pros in mind. That knowledge eventually found its way to everyman surfers, with Everline’s co-authored book, “Surf Survival,” being one example.

“Surf Survival” includes everything from a checklist of items when surfing remote regions, what to eat to extend sessions and how to warm up as well as cool-down after surfing to stay limber and avoid injuries.

The book’s other author, Andrew Nathanson, is one of the pioneers of surfing injury analysis.

Compared to other sports like baseball and football, nowhere near as much time has been devoted to studying surfing, Nathanson said. Nathanson explained that conducting research in an environment as unpredictable as the ocean is difficult, and unlike some sports, surfing injury data traditionally hasn’t been collected, whether from contests or self-reports.

But more sports therapists and doctors like Nathanson are spearheading studies to investigate the frequency, mechanisms and risk factors of injuries.

One of his studies, the first of its kind, examined injuries at 32 professional and amateur surfing contests.

Findings revealed that most injuries were due to sprains and strains to the lower extremities, especially the knees.

To combat these injuries, Nathanson recommends flexibility training in these areas of the body. Outside of contests, one of his other studies found that lacerations and contusions caused by direct contact from a surfboard were the most common.

“Due to sharpness, a surfboard’s fins are the biggest threat to the average surfer,” said Nathanson, who is also an emergency physician at the Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island. “They can be sanded to reduce sharpness at virtually no expense to performance.”

One reason for the newfound interest in injury prevention and workouts is the surfing population is aging, Nathanson said.

For the first time in the sports’ history, there are a significant number of surfers in their 50s, 60s and even 70s in the water.

Pro surfers in their late 30s were a rarity two decades ago. But Carlsbad resident Taylor Knox, 41, still duels with those half his age on surfing’s professional tour.

He attributes his longevity to exercises he developed, along with his trainer, with surfers in mind. The regimen was released as a DVD that’s titled “Surf Exercises with Taylor Knox.”

“Over about eight years, we went through and identified what parts of the body respond and are key for surfing, and it’s made the difference,” Knox said.

His trainer, Paul Hiniker, said surfing, a sport requiring catlike balance, is all about building core strength and correctional stretches.

“Alignment is the most important part of being a surfer,” Hiniker said.

“Paddling can take a toll on and over rely on certain muscles. The muscles contract, pulling joints out of alignment, leading to being unbalanced and maybe injury.”

Hiniker, who specializes in training extreme sports athletes and holds a bachelor’s of science in sports medicine, compared unbalanced body alignment with steering a car that pulls to the left or right.

“The body tries to compensate, only causing problems with posture,” said Hiniker, a Carlsbad native.

The cornerstone of “Surf Exercises with Taylor Knox” is an exercise ball, a piece of equipment Hiniker said is ideal for aligning the body.

And an exercise ball replicates the dynamic and unpredictable surface of the ocean.

An exercise ball is especially great for hip flexor strengthening, which surfers need to generate power on turns.

Although a new or counterintuitive idea to some, he said surfers are coming around to the idea of supplemental workouts on the shore.

“You build strength and counteract what you’re doing in the water on the land,” Hiniker said.