Few sports carry the same “wow” factor as surfing. It’s bona fide ticket to coolness — a sport and lifestyle wrapped into one. There’s a reason that it’s a global, multi-billion dollar industry. But to those on the outside, this other world is a bit daunting — no matter how much you’re itching to give it a try. That’s why we’re breaking down the basics of everything you need to know so that you can catch your first wave with confidence.
Surfing is a somewhat complex sport. It requires an understanding of specific skills and techniques. If you take time to prepare on land before heading to the water, you can look forward to a more successful first session.
Surfing is — first and foremost — a sport — and a physically demanding one at that. That means that one of the best ways to prepare for the water is to get into the proper shape on land. And that doesn’t mean just spending a day at your local swimming pool. Surfing requires a combination of balance, strength, and cardiovascular endurance. Here are just a few ways you can get into surfing shape.
1. Cardiovascular endurance
Swimming is an excellent, low impact, full-body workout that will help get your heart in peak condition. This aerobic endurance will pay off when you have to quickly paddle to catch an incoming wave.
However, if you really want to have an edge when it comes to surfing, you’ll need to tailor your regular swimming routine. Next time you’re in the pool practicing your front stroke, try limiting the use of your legs. This more accurately mimics the swimming motion of paddling. It’s also a good idea to incorporate some high-interval training. That’s because surfing consists of periods of relaxed paddling and periods of furious paddling when you have minimal time to make it to an incoming wave.
2. Strength training
Surfing is a full-body workout that engages nearly all of your muscles. Your upper body muscles will work the hardest — chest, triceps, back, and shoulders. Fortunately, there are plenty of bodyweight-only exercises you can do at home to strengthen these muscles.
One of the best bodyweight exercises is the standard push-up — an exercise that works the chest and arms. Push-ups are also great because they mimic the “pop-up” motion you’ll be making in the water when you transition from lying on your surfboard to standing up.
When you’re ready for an extra challenge, move from a standard push-up to a clap push-up: give yourself an explosive push on the way up and clap before returning to your starting position.
Other exercises are lunges, squats, and pull-ups.
Last but not least, don’t forget about your core. A strong core is essential for maintaining your stability on the board against the strong pull of the wave. There are countless exercises for your core, but one of the best is the plank. You can start with a standard forearm plank before moving on to more difficult variations.
3. Balance training
Standing upright while riding a wave requires an incredibly strong sense of balance. The easiest way to practice your balance is by purchasing some type of balance and taking a few minutes to practice each day. Many surfers like using an Indo board, which also can be used for squats and push-ups.
If you don’t have a board, though, don’t fret! Many different bodyweight exercises contain a balance component. And, of course, you can always do a little yoga.
Do you know the saying that good writers are good readers? The same goes for surfing. Before stepping onto the board, take time studying other surfers in the water. All you need is a spot on the beach. Try to examine the surfers’ stance, how they stand up, how they’re turning.
It’s an easy way to pick up some tips and tricks before ever stepping foot on the board. For example, if you see that those successfully riding waves have their knees bent, you know you’ll need to bend your knees too.
No matter how experienced a surfer you are, you will wipeout out. And when you do, you may find yourself in hostile waters, struggling to stay afloat. That’s why knowing how to swim is a necessity when surfing.
You can’t always rely on your surfboard to keep you afloat; a surfboard can easily get washed away by a wave, even with a leash, which you might also have to ditch if it gets caught on rocks or other underwater obstructions.
If you don’t know how to swim, it is going to be much harder to make your way back to shore, particularly if you’ve been pulled out by a riptide. And, paddling — a key surfing technique — is a natural extension of the basic movements used in swimming. Trying to learn to paddle without knowing how to swim first is guaranteed to test your patience.
So, long story short? For your safety and peace of mind, conquer the pool before you conquer the ocean.
Are you finally ready to head into the ocean? Then it’s time to book a lesson.
Taking at least one lesson is the easiest way to learn the basics of surfing quickly and accurately.
Theoretically, you could attempt to learn by reading articles, watching videos, and/or talking to friends. But that puts you at risk of picking up bad habits — habits that will have to be broken once you start to progress.
Instructors are also great because they will help you find the right waves to practice on and guide you through the process. Plus, purchasing a lesson is less expensive than you think — lessons lasting from one to two hours typically range from $25-$100.
How many lessons are needed depends entirely on the person. Once you have the basics down, the most effective way to get better is by practicing, which you can do on your own. As you progress and encounter skills you want to refine, like turning, or want to make a switch to a shorter board, you might find it’s time to book another lesson.
How fast you’ll progress and how long it will take for you to successfully ride that first wave also varies from person to person. Some might be able to stand up and ride a small wave for a few seconds by the end of their first two-hour lesson. For others, it might take several weeks or even a month. Stick with it. Like any sport, the more you practice, the faster you’ll improve and the better you’ll be.
It’s also important to keep in mind that no two waves are the same, meaning that while one day you might feel like you’re on your way to becoming a pro, the next day you might have wipeout after wipeout. Waves and weather are always changing, and even the professionals have good and bad days. You should be prepared to fall…and fall some more. But don’t let that discourage you! Keep practicing—both on and off the water.
Here are the basic skills you’ll need to master before you catch that first wave:
1 Paddling: It is rotating your arms in and out of the water to propel yourself forward. Think front stroke minus your legs. Paddling does take practice; you’ll need to find the best position for lying on your board. The goal is to minimize drag (resistance). Your back should be arched, with your head and nose out of the water. It’s important not to sit too far forward or too far back on the board. At your first surf lesson, your instructor will most likely have you practice paddling on land.
2. Standing on the board/The pop-up: Before you ride your first wave, you’ll need to know how to properly stand on the board. Your arms will be extended and your knees bent, with either your right or left foot in front, depending on your preference. The “pop-up” is the actual transition from lying on your board to standing up right before you begin to ride the wave. For beginners, the process is usually arch upwards, drag the back foot forward, drag the front foot into position, and stand up.
Just as important as learning the right technique is ensuring you have the right gear. Surfing on the wrong type of board is a guaranteed way to ensure more wipeouts, and not having the right accompanying gear will make for a rather uncomfortable day at the beach. Here’s what you’ll need:
While a shortboard (between 6 and 7 ft.) might look cooler, beginners should really be using a longboard. Longboards range from 8 to 12 feet, and the extra volume makes it easier to balance and paddle. As you progress, you can surf on shorter and shorter boards.
For some extra help at the beginning of your surfing career, look for a soft-top longboard. Soft top (foam) longboards are more forgiving, easier to paddle, and easier to ride. They’re also more durable and safer for beginners.
Surfboards can be expensive, but most popular surfing spots offer rentals right on the beach, so you don’t have to make a huge investment your first time out. An added bonus is that the people at the surf shop can help you pick out the best board for your experience level. If you’re not surfing on a beach with rentals, your other option is to pick up a used surfboard.
You’ll notice that the vast majority of surfers wear a wetsuit. The wetsuit keeps you warm and protects you against hypothermia in chilly conditions. It can also be more comfortable to surf in than a swimsuit. While they can be expensive, you should be able to rent one at the surf shop.
A runaway board is dangerous not just for you, but also for everyone else surfing in the surrounding water. A surfboard leash ties you to your board, so that when you do wipeout, your surfboard stays right next to you. If you purchase a surfboard independently, you’ll have to pick up a leash, but if you’re renting, the rental will typically include the leash.
How do you get the traction necessary to successfully stand on your board? How do you avoid slipping? Surfboard wax. Plus, you’ll look oh so cool applying it.
Earplugs are not essential but a good investment, particularly if you plan on surfing in cold water. Surfing in cold water puts you at risk of surfer’s ear—when you grow extra bone across your ear canal. Wearing earplugs will help you avoid this unfortunate condition.
Surfboards are delicate, sensitive pieces of equipment. If you decide to invest in one and plan on traveling with it, you’ll want to also invest in a good travel bag to prevent the surfboard from being damaged. However, before you put down a couple of hundred dollars for a new bag, search for a used one at a fraction of the cost.
A lot of surfing takes place in the water, but as any swimmer knows, that doesn’t protect you from the harsh rays of the sun. Neither does just wearing a wetsuit. That’s why you should get in the habit of applying and reapplying sunscreen any time you plan on catching some waves. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes beginner surfers make is not wearing sunscreen—a decision they very much regret when that sunburn sets in the next day.
Rash guards provide much-needed protection against skin irritation. Even if you’re wearing a wetsuit, you can still experience irritation from where the wetsuit rubs against your skin. As the weather gets warmer, you may wish to surf sans wetsuit. However, this puts you at risk of chafing as you slide on and off the board. That’s because surf wax, while it adds traction, also attracts sand particles. A rash guard protects these particles from irritating your skin.
When you’re just starting out, finding the correct wave is crucial. Remember to have realistic expectations: you’re not going to be catching a six-foot wave after a lesson or two. A good rule of thumb is not attempting to surf in any wave that you wouldn’t swim through. As a beginner, look for rolling waves that break slowly into semi-shallow waters—waves that are about 1-2 feet in height.
One of the most common beginner mistakes is attempting to surf in waves that are just too big, which will not only be frustrating but also potentially dangerous. Don’t hesitate to ask the people at your local surf shop or local instructors for advice on where the best place is to catch your beginner waves. You can also look for the places where instructors conduct their beginner surf lesson.
Once you find a potential spot for surfing, be sure to take some time to get comfortable in the water. Go for a swim or just practice paddling. You never want to be in a situation where you wipeout and aren’t comfortable swimming back to shore.
As a beginner, an ideal day will be about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, with a water temperature of 73 degrees. Sunny, no clouds, and a little offshore wind.
Of course, there are a lot of factors that determine the surfing condition, things like power, swell size, speed, direction, and tide. While you don’t need to know what all of these terms mean right away, you’ll want to get practice learning how to read a surf forecast. Talk with more experienced surfers in your area to learn about the conditions optimal for surfing and check the Windy. app for a look at real-time surf forecasts.
Surfing, like any sport, is not without its risks. The most common safety risk is a blow to the head — either from your own surfboard when you wipe out or from hitting rocks or other protruding objects in the water. Being knocked unconscious puts you at risk of drowning. Another of the most common dangers is your surf leash becoming caught on underwater rocks or reefs, pulling you under.
Riptides are another drowning risk. These strong and narrow currents will pull you directly away from the shore. Most surfers who get caught in riptides tend to panic and quickly swim against the current, leaving them exhausted and unable to stay afloat.
For anyone who has ever watched Jaws, the fear of sharks is a big one. That being said, shark attacks against surfers are relatively rare and fatal attacks even more. Shark attacks usually occur because the shark has mistaken the surfer for its natural prey. These attacks are typically “hit-and-run” attacks: the shark makes a single small bite before swimming away and never returning.
While you may feel the urge to compete with more experienced surfers, focus on your personal comfort level. Choose medium-sized, gentle waves rather than powerful, tall waves.
You want to avoid areas heavily populated by rocks. Choose beach breaks (waves that break over a sandy bottom) rather than reef breaks (waves that break at coral reefs). A wipeout at the former is much more forgiving than wipeouts at the latter. You also want to avoid areas obstructed by above ground objects, such as piers and pillars.
As a beginner, don’t surf anywhere where there isn’t a lifeguard. Lifeguards are vital resources should something bad happen while you’re out in the water. They’re also an invaluable source of advice about where it’s best to surf and what hazards you should avoid.
Always be aware of your surroundings, and check for signs indicating potential dangers. Lifeguards will place different colored flags in the beach to warn beachgoers of any potential swimming or surfing hazards that may arise.
This is where being able to read a surf forecast comes in handy. Besides altering you to normal weather hazards — lightening, heavy winds, etc. — a surf forecast will give you more information about the tides. Tide changes are a good indicator of when you’ll be at the greatest risk of becoming tangled in a riptide.
Especially as a beginner, always have a buddy watching your back. If you’re knocked unconscious or pulled under, it’s important to have someone who can help bring you to safety. In addition, sharks are more likely to attack individuals rather than groups of people.
One of the other biggest dangers facing surfers is actually…other surfers. Popular surf spots get crowded, particularly when the surfing conditions are good. This puts you at risk of collisions, conflicts with other surfers, and painful run-ins with the fins of another surfer’s board. That’s why it’s so important to observe surf etiquette at all times.
When the waves are good, competition for waves can be steep. Typically only one surfer will ride a particular wave. That’s why it’s important to learn proper “right of way”. If more than one person is paddling up to a wave, the one closest to the peak—or furthest inside—gets wave priority. If two people are approaching the same wave but from different sides, each surfer has the right to ride the wave in his/her respective direction.
Popular beginner surf spots typically have less strict rules and more than one surfer is allowed to ride a particular wave. So, if you’re looking for more practice, your best bet is spot designated for beginners.
Arguably the most important rule to observe is not cutting in on another person’s wave. If another surfer has wave priority, it is unacceptable to try to steal the wave by paddling ahead and then taking off and riding the wave in front of him/her. Wait your turn.
Snaking is when you paddle around another surfer, effectively creating an “S” shape, in an attempt to get into a position that gives you the right of way. In other words, it’s just another way of trying to cut the lineup.
While you may find yourself with the right of way time and time again, you should take a step back and allow other surfers on the beach a chance to ride.
Avoid trying to paddle up to the wave through the middle of the lineup. Paddle up on the outside, avoiding the wave breaks and those currently riding a wave. It’s also important not to let your paddling interfere with a surfer’s ride. Paddle behind, not in front, of other surfers.
Just like the ocean, the beach was meant to be shared. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that it’s clean and surf friendly. So don’t litter and always pick up after yourself.
Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how experienced they are. That’s ok. Just make sure to say you’re sorry if you do accidentally drop in or interfere with another surfer’s ride. A good surfing community is a respectful surfing community.
Grabbing a surfboard is like purchasing a ticket to another world. While there’s a lot to learn and numerous pitfalls and mistakes to avoid, most longtime surfers would agree: there’s no experience like it. So, if there’s one rule to remember, it’s to have fun. If you’re not having fun, then you should probably be doing something else.
Will you make mistakes? Of course. That’s just a fact of life whenever learn a new skill. Just don’t let mistakes discourage you — use them as a learning experience. Here are 5 of the most common beginner surfer mistakes to watch out for from the get-go.
It can never be said enough: be sure to choose the right wave. That means knowing your limits. If you constantly chase waves above your level, not only will you be frustrated, but you will put your safety at risk. Don’t ever be shy about talking to instructors or surf shop employees for advice on what the best waves are for your level.
Whether you decided to surf sans rash guards or forgot to reapply sunscreen, chances are, you’ll come to regret those decisions, if not right away, then the next day. Do yourself a favor and always be prepared with the right equipment and gear any time you hit the water. A nasty sunburn or a painful rash is the fastest way to kill a post-surf high.
Always check for potential safety hazards before you paddle out, even if you have surfed at a location before. Remember, wave and weather conditions are constantly changing. Check for flags, signs, protruding objects, poles, rocky spots, etc. Take a few minutes to just get comfortable swimming in the water before grabbing your board. The more prepared you are, the safer and more enjoyable your experience will be.
Most beginner surfers want to stand up on the board as soon as they feel the wave begin to lift up their board. In actuality, that initial “lift” is your cue to begin paddling fast and hard for a few seconds. Only once your surfboard actually begins to slide down the wave should you stand up.
A lot of beginners place their feet incorrectly on the board when they stand up, flail their arms, lean too far back, or forget to bend their knees. Any of these mistakes will make you much more likely to wipeout. That’s why it’s important to practice the proper stance on dry land and take time to ask instructors or more experienced surfers for their feedback. Also a good idea? Practicing your pop-up on the beach, making sure you can effectively move from lying down on your board to standing upright in the correct stance.
So, what are you waiting for? The waves are calling.
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