September 11, 2017 5 min read

Unless you live on the shores of some fantasy island that provides an abundance of perfect waves all day, every day, and on this dreamlike atoll you have no need to work or pursue any other daily task than to surf your brains out, there are going to be times when immersing in the ocean will be about as much of a fantasy as that fictitious scenario.

Whether it’s through work, obligations, travel, illness, or a simple lack of waves, we’re all inflicted with landlocked periods that drive us a little stir crazy and rapidly drain our surfing fitness levels. And even when we do get out into the wide blue yonder quite frequently, we could all use a little boost in our physical fortitude.

If you’re feeling a little flabby round the midriff and puffing and panting your way through your paddle-out, we’re here to help with a bit of advice on staying surf-ready and fighting fit.

Garage ambassador and former world champ Tom Marr has paddled more k’s than most of us have jogged over the last decade. Born to a clubbie family and growing up as a competitive swimmer, his fitness has been intrinsic to his lifestyle, but even he has had dry spells. Currently at university in Brisbane, his oceanic sojourns are far less frequent than he would like, so he turns back to the pool to keep his game up.

“I reckon obviously just doing it a lot [bodysurfing] would be my key tip,” says Tom, “but I think, for me, because I don’t live at the beach and only get to surf once a week, I try to go for a swim in the local pool as often as possible. It helps board surfing and bodysurfing so much. You’re not pooped after two or three waves – you can go all day, and that’s a real game-changer for sure.”

As Mark Cunningham once said, “it’s not hard, it’s only swimming,” and that’s something that often gets overlooked and undervalued when bodysurfing. Sure, you need to drag yourself into the lineup, but once there, there can be a tendency to slip into a complacent malaise, thinking that a few short kicks are all the effort you need to put in. But establishing a fundamental level of swimming fitness – and yes, that can mean Speedos, goggles and those cranial condoms they call swimming caps – will pay dividends to your overall bodysurfing.

“If I lived at the beach, I’d probably just go for a surf every day,” Tom reflects, “but I don’t have that luxury unfortunately – at this stage at least!

“I work at a pool and come from a competitive swimming and surf lifesaving background, so jumping in the pool and doing a few laps comes to me fairly naturally.

“Getting out bodysurfing and staying out there, even when it’s crappy, even just floating around in the ocean or going for a bit of a swim – maybe do a kay or two. Simply swimming is 100 percent my top recommendation.”

It’s not just the paddle-out or battling currents and sweeps that will see benefit in your swimming fitness. Sliding the wave isn’t always about simply succumbing to the forces of nature and letting the wave carry you, especially where bigger surf and competition are concerned, as Tom explains:

“Everyone puts a lot of emphasis on underwater take-offs in competition now, so practicing dolphin kicks is good. It’s really, really handy to be able to maintain that pure swimming fitness to be able to work with that, but also for linking sections and stuff, keeping your head down and kicking and making it all flow smoothly.

“I was speaking to Russel Pollard recently at Whomp Camp in regards to a bunch of his freediving training and it just sounds mental. Personally, I’ve never done any specific breath training outside of swimming training, and I think the lung capacity comes with the swimming. [But] I think it would be really handy to do some proper freediving training – I’d love to give it a try.

“I think that sort of stuff really comes into play when you’re in a contest setting, when you’re really working hard, or when you’re in big surf. Some of the boys in Sydney have really got that down pat, particularly Russel.”

Russel Pollard charging Cape Solander. Photo: Keeland Tracy / @keelandtracy

There are periods, however, when time in the water, whether chlorinated or salinated, are a luxury we can’t indulge, so what of other forms of exercise? Can we sweat our way to surf fitness or pump iron to get ocean-ready? Well, yes and no. Of course, any exercise is going to get us fitter, and cardio work – running, cycling and so on – are going to benefit our overall endurance in the water. But in terms of core bodysurfing fitness, Tom regards them as a distant second, even verging on a hindrance in certain circumstances:

“Swimming requires a really specific strength; the only way to get swimming fit is to swim. But I do think general fitness is good.

Before I went to California last year, I wasn’t swimming too much, but I was doing lots of boxing and body-weight fitness training. You feel strong, you feel fit, but you’re not compromising your body’s natural flow and structure. Whereas, if you go to the gym and pump weights and what not, you put on mass and it’s not functional fitness. That’s one thing I’ve always been very hesitant about: going to a gym. I’ve had mates who’ve done it a lot and got really big, but they can’t run or swim as well, and I think it would throw your bodysurfing off really quickly. You look at most of the guys in bodysurfing who are killing it, people like Mark Cunningham or Dave Rastovich, and for the most part they’re tall, lanky dudes.”

Yoga and stand-up surfing are becoming closely intertwined. The breathwork, the balance, and the flexibility, as well as the Zen-like calm experienced ‘on the mat’ are directly translatable to our upright brethren. While we don’t have to spring to our feet, rotate through turns or fold ourselves into barrels, Tom – who is also a regular, and talented, stand-up surfer – sees a lot to be gained in bodysurfing from spending time folding yourself in knots.

“Again, I’ve never done yoga or anything, but I can’t see how it couldn’t be a massive benefit. It keeps you fit and flexible, and that’s a huge thing in the surf. You can get jolted around in the surf pretty quickly, especially in bigger waves, and if you look at those boys surfing Cape Fear and what not, it’s going to take a toll on the shoulders, so it would definitely pay to be flexible.

“Being calm as well, I think, or having that sense of control, it’s definitely something that intrigues me and I’d really like to learn a lot more about it.”

Like surfing, the best way to get bodysurfing-fit is just by doing it, but if waves or proximity are standing in your way, as one famous little fishy said, “just keep swimming.”

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