breathing exercise for surfing
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Breath Training for Surfers

Breathe Training: it may sound so mundane, but it is a must. When you relax your mind, your body will follow. Your movement and focus will flow easily. Let's talk more about it in this article.

and breathe

Summary: Everybody knows that breathing is vital, but only some of us breathe properly. Learn how to improve your breathing on your path to become a better surfer.

You’re probably wildly protesting now, and we suspect that it’ll soon be followed by an unnecessarily masculine session of counterproductive bragging: “I don’t need training for how to breathe! I can breathe even with my eyes closed!” Sure, grandma, let’s get you to bed.

Yes, by the way, you can do it with your eyes closed, too (and naturally so, since otherwise, how can you even sleep?), but let us remind you that sometimes the acts that are taken for granted the most are the ones that are most neglected. Just try purposely walking on a crowded street, and you’ll see that people don’t really know how to walk properly. God bless them.

Similarly, most of us don’t actually know how to breathe properly, although we’ve been unwittingly doing that since we were born (without our consent, mind you). However, if you’re interested in sports, especially extremely demanding ones like surfing, breath training is crucial to preserve your lung health, sustain your blood pressure, and strengthen your chest and stomach muscles in the proper way. 

Moreover, more often than not, a healthy breath cycle means decreased anxiety as it has therapeutic and meditative characteristics as well.

So, let’s take a deep breath and delve right into why breath training is important and what breathing exercises you can do to improve your skills and quality of life.

Why Breath Training Is Important

The Mind

person meditating by the sea

With years of surf coaching under our belt, we’re aware that the mind of a beginner surfer can lag behind their body, and that’s quite understandable.

Surfing is one of those sports where everything happens on the ocean, in the middle of oncoming waves, and in a matter of moments. Even if you have the strategic mindset of a warmongering diplomat, every plan is thrown out of the window in that struggle with nature. You need to achieve a certain level of mindfulness that could allow you to be in the moment, be there and then. Yet, that flow state of mind is quite hard to attain and even to understand.

So, when a beginner is on the wave face, they can easily succumb to overthinking and anxiety even though they have mastered all the physical skills and attributes that would allow them to ride a wave. Moreover, the prospect of getting washed over by the waves generally hangs like a sword above the head of the novice, restricting their mental flexibility and bravery. Ultimately, it’s common knowledge that when anxiety pays you a visit, you start over-breathing.

Overbreathing means that there’s increased tension in your body accompanied by a feeling of weight in your upper chest. You start inhaling too little oxygen. It results in even more serious symptoms, including aches in your shoulders and head, cramps, and dizziness. And although you can return to the shore physically unscathed, such symptoms are bound to cause more and more anxiety and fear, which might permanently hinder your progress as a surfer, limit your bodily capacities, and damage your self-confidence.

Knowing a breathing exercise or two to alleviate that anxiety and fear, on the other hand, can set you back on your path and help you a great deal in your journey. In short, it's a direct path to your nervous system, and you should do your best to control it.

The Body

surfer in tube

According to meticulous research conducted by beach-going laypeople, there are three types of mammals that live in the ocean: dolphins, whales, and surfers. The lung capacity of dolphins and whales is nothing short of exemplary. However, the studies show that surfers can still improve. Especially the subspecies known as novice surfers do still have a lot to work on.

Considering that in order to become a confident and competent surfer you need to get washed over a lot, master decent tricks such as duck diving, and keep your cool once inside the noise and thrill of a rolling tube, lung capacity is indeed a very important aspect of surfing. Yet, the benefits of proper breathing aren't restricted only to lung function either.

With breath training, you’ll have more cardio strength since it helps increase the thickness of your diaphragm muscle. A strong diaphragm muscle means that you’ll be able to breathe better in high-stress conditions such as a tube or a double overhead wave. Moreover, increased cardio strength and strong breathing muscles mean that you’ll recover relatively faster since a proper breathing pattern means a steady heartbeat, and a steady heartbeat means that you’re able to maintain healthy levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body.

In addition, after a good routine of breath training sessions, you’ll find that your immune system is drastically reinforced. So, the chance that a respiratory illness will catch you and set back your progress will be incredibly decreased. Such a sustainably oxygenated body means that even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cancer will be unlikely to pay you a visit.

All in all, perfecting your breathing technique will elevate the quality of your life and increase your life expectancy, whether you’re surfing or not.

Breathing Exercises for Surfers

person doing breathing exercise

Pursed Lip Breathing

Let’s start with one of the easiest yet most fundamental breathing exercises you can do: pursed lip breathing. Simply put, it’s an exercise in which you only need to breathe consciously. Does it sound too easy? Well, it’s not. See, you’ve breathed quite instinctively all this while, so developing a conscious approach to it might not be as easy as you imagine.

That being said, it’s quite easy in the sense that you can do it anytime. Actually, you should do it anytime, like when you’re climbing the stairs, working out, cooking, listening to your boring boss whine about their lazy inferiors, and… smoking. How? Let’s find out.

  1. Make sure that there’s no tension in your upper body, especially in your neck and shoulders. Just relax.
  2. Inhale deeply and slowly while keeping your mouth closed and counting to two.
  3. At the count of two, purse your lips as if you just made it to the lavatory during an interstate bus trip.
  4. Exhale through those beautifully pursed lips and count to four.

To achieve a healthy breathing pattern, you should do this exercise at least five times a day.

Deep Breathing

You might not think that a simple exercise that you can do anytime, like deep breathing, can possibly benefit you all that much, but that’s not the case. In fact, it does so well to strengthen your lungs that it’s even one of the first exercises recommended to those recovering from serious lung diseases such as pneumonia.

It also increases your lung capacity and results in relaxation due to high levels of oxygen intake and circulation. Moreover, it has therapeutic attributes as well. As you’re concentrating on the vital act of breathing, your mind will clear up for a while, and albeit temporarily, you’ll stop thinking about that tube ride you completely botched last winter. In that sense, it’s a pretty easy and efficient way to fight mental fatigue.

Of course, you can just start taking deep breaths whenever you want and in whatever position. However, if you want to maximize the benefit of the exercise, there’s a right way to do it:

  1. Stand up or sit up straight and allow your chest to expand by drawing your elbows back.
  2. Breathe deeply through your nose and hold that breath while counting to five.
  3. Exhale slowly through your nose.

As a result of this exercise, especially when you’ve been out of training for a while or don't have a particularly strong lung capacity, you might feel a bit dizzy. That dizziness is because your brain is surprised by the sudden rush of high levels of oxygen, like a person who thought they were without kin inheriting a fortune from a distant aunt. It’s like, “Wait, how is this possible?”

When that happens, just take a breather from your breathing training and rest up. In time, it’ll get better with practice and with increased lung capacity.

Belly Breathing (or Diaphragmatic Breathing)

Expanding and contracting your diaphragm muscles may immensely strengthen your lungs. Doing that fast and on a constant basis can get you into Aquaman’s army, and you may become the first superhero with a surfboard instead of an unnecessarily fancy and encumbering costume. Oh, you think that superheroes don’t exist? Well, you may at least find refuge in the idea that you’re going to start surfing better if you exercise belly breathing three or four times every day.

How? Let’s do it together:

  1. Doing it just laying on your back might be enough, but to get the best out of it, it’s better to assume the ideal position: put your head on a pillow while laying on your back and bend your knees slightly. You can put a pillow under your knees to achieve the desired bend as well.
  2. Rest one of your hands on your chest and the other on your stomach so that you can feel those expansions and contractions.
  3. Inhale strongly through your nose and make sure you feel your stomach (or diaphragm) expanding beneath your hand while keeping your hands as stable as possible.
  4. Pucker your lips as you do in our first exercise above and exhale through them.
  5. Try taking deeper and longer breaths as you go on.
  6. Although it’s not a must at first, you can also start rolling your shoulders back and forth after a while and tilt your head one way or another. That way, you’ll be able to diagnose if there’s any unwanted tension in your neck and shoulders, and you’ll be able to relieve that tension through practice.
  7. As you go along, you can put a book or some similar block-like object on your abdomen as well, to make the exercise more demanding and beneficial.

To optimize the process and for the most tangible progress, you need to do belly breathing exercises for 3-4 sets of 5-10 minutes every day.

Interval Training (Low Intensity to High Intensity)

person jogging by the sea during sunset in spain‍

Interval training is the new norm for athletes and those who value (and sometimes overvalue) their fitness. But it’s not only a good exercise to lose weight and stay in shape; it also increases your lung capacity to a great extent. You probably have a general idea about how it’s conducted, but for the sake of thoroughness, let’s walk (or jog) you through the process.

Suppose you’re not in an already fit state. In that case, it might be better to start with a low-intensity interval training routine: try walking very fast for one minute, then take two minutes to walk slowly while still maintaining a certain tempo. In other words, even when you walk slowly, it shouldn’t turn into a casual walk in the neighborhood. Then, you need to pick up the pace again and repeat the cycle for at least an hour.

High-intensity interval training, on the other hand, requires more strenuous activities conducted more constantly. For example, you can do some cardio exercises in sets of three or four for half a minute, then jog for one minute. Or, you can replace cardio with strength exercises that could run you out of breath, like squats, lunges, and weight-lifting, and take a minute to jog in between sets. On that note, you can also check out the exercises we recommend for surfers.

Of course, you can adjust the minutes by listening to your body, too, while making sure that you’re loyal to the ratio. If you’re comfortable, you can lengthen the strenuous parts; if you’re not, you can keep practicing until you improve. No matter what you do, though, you’ll see that your breathing capacity will be enhanced significantly.

Counting Practice

Needless to say, surfing can be quite intense. After all, you’re in the ocean, and there are all these gargantuan waves that threaten to close up on you; there are sharks waiting for you to ding your board; there are a fair number of ghost ships just deviously expecting someone to cast the right spell that might as well be “Ouch,” uttered in a particularly awakening frequency. All things considered, keeping a focused mind and relaxed stature becomes even more important.

The counting practice is mostly employed to alleviate anxiety and fear in such high-tension situations. Especially for those who are suffering from bouts of panic, it might work wonders in a matter of seconds.

In high-tension situations, one tends to breathe irregularly and in quick intervals, which prevents the intake of healthy doses of oxygen. In that regard, your brain is cramped with fear and anxiety, like David Byrne on “Once in a Lifetime,” who’s in shock and woe after seeing his riches fade away: “How do I work this?”

The aim of the counting practice is to alleviate that shock and stress by slowing down your breathing. You just start counting your breaths, which allows you to direct your focus on its vitality. As a result, both your breathing and mind start to slow down.

As they say, the path to a healthy mind goes through disciplining your body. The counting practice doesn’t involve self-flagellation, but it surely is quite a profound way to such discipline.

Breath Focus

Breath focus is quite similar to the counting practice in the sense that it aims to relieve stress through building self-consciousness concerning breathing. However, it’s not exactly something you can do in the middle of a high-stress situation. Moreover, it’s also an exercise that requires more mindfulness.

The mindfulness part might be a bit ridiculous at first look. You’ll need to focus on certain words and phrases, and you’ll need to say some of those to yourself in repetition. The most used and recommended phrases tend to be quite straightforward: “Relax,” “Now, I’m exhaling stress and inhaling peace,” “Now, I’m breathing fire that could burn cities down and inhaling the self-help shelves of my local bookstore.”

But before you raise a well-justified objection, let us tell you that phrases like these are only a way for you to keep your mind anchored on the goal of the exercise.

  1. First, you need to make yourself as comfortable as you can get, whether by lying down or sitting on your favorite couch, since you’re both the psychoanalyst and the hysteric in this exercise.
  2. Focus on your breathing by alternating between casual breaths and deep breaths for a while. Heed how your body, especially the abdomen area, reacts to that alteration by placing your hands on your stomach.
  3. Start breathing deeply, but make sure that you exhale with a sigh like that of depressed old people who do nothing but watch the sea all day.
  4. Then, conjure a relaxing image or a phrase like those we mentioned above, and focus on that as you continue breathing deeply. As a surfer, you can imagine waves picking up your stress and anxiety and spitting them into a deep reef formation.
  5. You certainly don’t need to, but you can also mentally describe to yourself what’s happening, like: “Waves take my anxiety away” or “Waves bring me peace.”
  6. Don’t end up signing up to a wave cult that annually sacrifices surfers to the mercy of the waves.

Yoga Exercises With a Focus on Breathing

two people doing yoga by the ocean

If you look at what surf resorts and camps from around the world have on offer, you’ll see that most of them have yoga and meditation sessions. That’s because both are good pastimes for surfers. The yoga practices we recommend to surfers can attest to that claim. 

It’s no different when it comes to breathing exercises, as breathing the right way is essential to yoga. So, here are some yoga poses that can improve your breathing.

Lion’s Pose

You might think that a pose called “lion’s” will make you look majestic, but you’d be wrong. Still, it's good practice to release tension, especially when the tension is above your neck.

  1. Sit back on your heels on your yoga mat, spread your knees, and lean forward a bit while keeping your back straight.
  2. Push your palms against the space in between your knees.
  3. Take a deep breath through your nostrils and open your eyes as widely as you can, as if you saw a deer obliviously drinking water.
  4. Open your mouth, too, and stick your tongue out. (Forget that we said it wasn’t majestic; it’s actually downright ridiculous.)
  5. Exhale through that open mouth and over that sticking tongue while contracting your throat muscles and making a sound that goes like “Haaaaaaaaaaa.”
  6. Do it a couple of times and make sure that nobody comes and sees you like that.

Humming Bee

When you’re exposed to humming bees, it’s generally quite a stressful and annoying situation. But, when you are the humming bee, it’s just the opposite; so, it’s a great exercise to ease anger, anxiety, and stress.

  1. Sit comfortably, shut your eyes, and relax your face.
  2. Place your index fingers on your tragus.
  3. Inhale deeply and exhale while gently applying pressure on your tragus.
  4. Make a humming sound with your mouth closed while exhaling.
  5. Do it until you find yourself a member of a throat-singing folk band from the steppes of East Asia.

Sama Vritti (Equal Breathing)

Equal breathing is an exercise in which you need to inhale and exhale in identical intervals. In the end, you’ll have a steadier breathing rhythm and more balance, and unsurprisingly, you’ll be a calmer version of yourself.

It’s quite straightforward, too, as you only need to sit comfortably and make sure you inhale and exhale at the same count. If you don’t want to count, you can choose a phrase and repeat it for the duration of your inhalations and exhalations. It’ll be most beneficial if you do it for five minutes every day.

Wrapping Up…

So, are you yet surprised how many practices there are to improve breathing, which should be as easy as it gets since it’s what we do all the time? Well, you should be. It’s actually quite a wonder how we cannot even claim expertise on something we’ve been doing all along.

And imagine, if we were doing it wrong and still were able to enjoy life, what could happen if we did it right?

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching