PT/DPT/CMT/SFMA-/Founder, Surfer’s Edge Physical Therapy
Photo courtesy of Shane Carpenter

The waves won’t be the only things pumping. Photo courtesy of Shane Carpenter


The Inertia

One of my favorite aspects of surfing is that it is one of the best avenues of cardiovascular exercise. And it leaves out the impact on your knees, hips, and back as something like running does. What other low-impact sport allows you to keep your heart rate up in the 65%-85% (or higher) target HR zone for hours on end with a huge grin on your face? For me personally, there is no way that I could run, bike, or swim for long periods of time and with the same stoke factor. Of course, that is debatable for many people.

Interestingly enough, there is a current paucity of research that examines what happens physiologically to our bodies when surfing. Some researchers such as Oliver Farley, who is working on his PhD in the science of surfing in Australia, have examined physiological profiles of competitive surfers. Recently, however, Water’s Edge Physical Therapy and Wellness connected with Sean Newcomer, PhD and Jeff Nessler PhD, to discuss what surf studies they are working on at Cal State San Marcos. Last summer, the two professors implemented several surf-related studies looking at physiological and biomechanics of surfing. One of the largest surf studies (600 people) currently being conducted examines at heart rate response during surfing in recreational surfers between the ages of 20-70. Other studies look at balance, leg dominance and VO2 max in recreational surfers.

Water’s Edge Physical Therapy and Wellness decided to take a look at heart rate response as well last summer while surfing a longboard in 70-degree water on a two-foot day. While no scientific studies were completed, the general data showed that when paddling or surfing, heart rates ranged from 65-85% of the maximum predicted heart rate (using the Karvonen formula) on a small and warm day. What are the implications for surfing in colder conditions and larger waves when your adrenaline has kicked in? Generally, you could expect that your heart rate stays higher for longer periods of time.

The American Heart Association recommends that adults get 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days per week or 25 minutes of vigorous exercise three days per week, and two days of strengthening. That said, I am sure surfing would qualify (and then some) for the first two of these guidelines.  Additionally, you could argue that if you are exercising at maximum heart rate and intensity for longer periods of time, that it would be well balanced to get lighter exercise on alternate days to prevent over-use of your left ventricle.

So what’s the take-home message? Surfing is great cardiovascular exercise. Period. If you have a day where you aren’t feeling motivated and find it hard to put on your wetsuit, consider the exercise benefits alone of simply paddling out, even if the wind is onshore, or the waves are small, or _______ (insert favorite excuse here). If you are injured or having trouble getting back in the water, or even would like to learn more about the surf studies going on, email info@watersedgetherapy.com or call 888.479.8777 and let us help you get back out there.



  • Rob Sleamaker

    When you are land-locked and want to keep paddling fitness, 15 minutes surf paddling on a Vasa Trainer or Vasa Swim Erg will do the trick. With the Swim Erg, you can also so SUP paddling. Check it out: http://vasatrainer.com/find-your-sport/surfing.html

  • I totally agree, there is nothing better than a good cardio workout when paddling out with deep breaths and steady rythm, and of course when paddling for a wave the burst in heart rate, it’s perfect !!

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