Pilates is a great alternative training for surfers, especially seasoned ones who have years of wear and tear on their body. It can be used for injury prevention, but most importantly, pilates educates you about the way the body should move in a healthy, balanced way.
My own journey to pilates started when I suffered my first major dance injury as a 16-year old ballet dancer. Other injuries soon followed and I had to start thinking that career might be behind me. I became a Pilates instructor after my second knee injury at the age of 30 and my love for movement was rekindled. Then, 24 years after I retired from dancing and 10 years after I became an instructor, I found surfing. I felt like I was dancing again, only this time it was on waves. I was the ballerina, my surfboard was my dance partner, and the waves were my music. Each wave and every surf session was a different dance and I was hooked.
One of the benefits of pilates is it makes your body move more efficiently and the awareness it builds is so beneficial in any sport. I practice it to keep my body in tune and in shape. I call it the “glue” that keeps my old injuries in check.
So, what is pilates and why should the technique be so great for surfing?
Pilates is a core-based technique that involves the whole body. It has 36 traditional mat exercises and about 10 times more on the spring based apparatus. The equipment is made up of the Cadillac or the Trapeze Table, the Reformer, the Wunda Chair, the Ladder Barrel, the Mini Barrel, and the less frequently used Ped-o-Pull. A basic session is the combination of mat exercises, Cadillac and Reformer. The Wunda chair is added in when the student advances or understands the technique fairly well.
Now let’s take a look at the biomechanics of paddling: Surfers often suffer from lower back and shoulder injuries thanks to constant paddling and lying in the prone position. For example, being in a prolonged back extension can pinch the lower back area and if you let the abs relax when you’re tired, the tension increases. If you pull your navel toward your spine, press the pubic bone into your board, and lift your belly off the board, the lats and lower medial traps will work more efficiently and take the stress away from the lower back. The Gluteus Medius (pie shaped muscles on the lateral part of the hip under the Gluteus Maximus) is a key to stabilizing the pelvis on the board along with the pelvic floor and adductors. This combination of muscles grounds the body to the board but you do not want to execute this in a rigid way. Of course, you would have to practice this pilates technique and let the muscles get used to working that way so it becomes second nature, especially when you are tired.
Shoulder and back muscles should be working together so the body is more efficient. If the muscles are working together you can harness your energy and use it to propel yourself and the board through the water more efficiently. You won’t waste good energy that you would need to catch waves. When you try to work with a disjointed body, injuries occur because the body will compensate for the weaknesses. The muscles that need to be strong are the rhomboids and your rotator cuff tendons. Yes, the lats and deltoids are crucial too. If you are overdeveloped or weak in those areas a shoulder impingement or tear will more likely to happen. Never thought lats and deltoids can be weak in surfers? Think again. The human body is a piece of art. Everyone is different and unique in the way they move.
Pilates exercises to practice:
-Swan or Swan Dive (strengthen back extensors and abs)
-Pulling Straps and T-pulling Straps
-Forearm push ups
-Forearms pull up on the Chair
-Dolphins on the reformer
Of course, there is nothing more valuable than water time, but if you’re not as fortunate as those who live by the beach you need to cross train more.
Note: You can learn more about pilates for surfers from the author here.