common surfing injuries

You’d rather surf than snap, right? Photo: Kurt Anderson//Unsplash

The Inertia

Surfing wants to break you. It’s a sport that puts acute pressure on a multiple range of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. You could be fooled into thinking that surfing regularly is all that’s needed to keep the cogs greased up and the engine running smoothly — until, that is, something goes wrong. If you plan on surfing well into your fourth, fifth, sixth, and even seventh decade like most of us hope to, then just like a cherished motorbike, you’re going to have to perform regular maintenance and servicing to strengthen up key stress points before they snap.

For the third time in a year, I was flat on my back in bed unable to move without excruciating pain. But this time, I wasn’t in my own bed. I was in Indo, wasting precious wave time cooped up in a moldy hotel room barely bigger than a dog kennel while the surf outside was firing. As luck would have it, I was thrown a bone in the form of Alister Cran, a Physiotherapist based in Uluwatu, Bali, who specializes in surf injury rehab.

Alister knows his stuff. A certified barrel hound with a double bachelors in Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, Cran has previously worked as a Physio with Nitro Circus, Red Bull, X Games, and at events such as the mind-bending Cape Fear event. He puts together high-attendance workshops online and on the ground in Uluwatu all based around strength, fitness and injury prevention.

Alister not only got me back in the water but, armed with a locker full of strengthening exercises, he subsequently had me surfing stronger and fitter than I thought was possible, catching more waves and extending the length of my sessions in the process.

During my treatment, we discussed the most common injuries surfers come limping to him with and how to fortify those areas of the body to avoid future injury and keep them surfing well past their so-called prime years.

Alister: “So many surfers have knee problems.”

The most common stress points are the knees. Alister runs dedicated knee workshops which are by far the most popular of the workshops he offers in Uluwatu and online. Compressing while twisting your knees as you bottom turn, then releasing out into a snap or cut-back can be a major cause of injury in the knees. If your legs are not strong enough to support these all-important shock absorbers, you could find yourself in deep trouble. Damage to the medial meniscus, the cushion inside your knee joint, is common. It can be incredibly painful but if you’re really unlucky, as John John Florence found, you could end up blowing out your ACL, the crucial ligament keeping your shin bone and thigh bone together, resulting in months out of the water.
To build rock-solid knees, you need to build rock-solid legs. Let the muscles in your legs take the brunt of the work rather than relying too heavily on the knees.

Here are a few easy exercises to start with. Once comfortable with these, you can progress, adding more resistance and variation.

“Shoulders are complicated. There are so many structures close to each other.”

Coming in hot at number two on the injury leaderboard are the shoulders. An incredibly complex group of moving parts that, when injured, can also negatively affect the neck and upper back. Often a problem in the shoulder can cause pain in the neck and vice versa, making it hard to pinpoint the origin of the injury. Surfing is one of the few sports where 75 percent of the time you’re not actually surfing. You’re paddling around for hours, duck-diving and then popping up which all relies heavily on the shoulders.

Pain and injury around the rotator cuff, back of the neck, and front of the shoulder are common in surfers, usually as a result of working your shoulders harder in the surf than what they’re capable of. The takeaway from this is that you need to make your body stronger than what you intend to put it through.

Here are a few exercises to get you going and again, once comfortable with these you can start to increase load and variation.

“There’s no such thing as a bad movement if you’ve built that area up to tolerate it.”

Another area that Alister is often called upon to address is the lower back. Lower back injury is synonymous with the modern-day human and one which even surfers are not immune to. When you sit down for long periods like so many of us do, you relax your core muscles, transferring the supportive load that those muscles usually handle to your lower spine. This can compress your vertebrae. Over time, this causes problems, usually with your discs. On top of this, and for surfers specifically, fatigue-related injuries from arching up in paddle mode for extended periods are often a leading cause of pain and wear and tear. If you haven’t built up the muscles around your core, you may find yourself flat on your back for days in agony just like I did.

Big movements like squats and deadlifts engage your core and back muscles better than isolated core exercises like sit-ups or planks. So if you can, start with them or you could try modified versions like the ones below.

“If you want to keep surfing without injury, you need to be doing stuff outside the water.”

For the vast majority of surfers like myself, it is simply not possible to surf three or four times a week. Work and family obligations mean that often the once-a-week or even twice-a-month surf has to suffice. If you fit into this category, then regular non-surf-based workouts are vital in ensuring that the next time you happen to get that rare Saturday morning free and the swell is in town, your body is conditioned and fit enough to enjoy your surf and that your session is not cut short by injury.

To do this, you should be combining a gym-based strengthening routine starting with the exercises Alister recommends above along with a regular cardiovascular workout. And for cardio, there’s nothing better than good old swimming. It’s an exercise that closely resembles paddling and is low-impact. If you can’t get to the surf, get to the pool and bust out those lengths. You can split your pool sessions between endurance and speed by incorporating sprints.

However many times a week you manage to surf, it is crucial that you start to incorporate a strengthening routine into your weekly schedule. This doesn’t mean hours in a sweaty gym doing crazy and complicated exercises. If you are one of the lucky few who can surf regularly, then your cardio should already be covered. A simple 45-minute workout, three times a week with the above exercises will be a good starting point to help strengthen your body before it has a chance to snap.

You can find links to Alister Cran’s workshops, further exercises, and contact info here.


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