Stretches for surfing injuries
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Surf Fitness: Best Surfing Stretches to Reduce Injury Risk

Surfing engages lots of muscle groups, and without adequate stretching, you may be risking injuries. Learn all about the best surfing stretches and minimize injuries.

Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all; you’ve heard how fun it is to be on the beach all the time, you’ve heard how mindful and zen it is to ride waves and feel like you’re one with the nature, and you’ve heard Naima Green saying surfing is great because “you need only three things: your body, a surfboard, and a wave.” So, at this point, it might seem like a huge bore, right?

However, there’s more than meets the eye in these quotes if you’re just glancing over. For example, you should also hear Raz, a former investment banker who’s been with us in a condensed version of our Surf Start program, and you should hear how sloppily he fared during his first month of training.

He was in bad shape when he started, and were he not in the company of the OMBE team, it might not have been such a smooth process for him. Why? Because if you’re not in shape, you run the risk of a lot of injuries. Considering that surfing requires you to engage almost every muscle group in your body, you don’t even know where these injuries might pop up.

That’s why we have a free program called Surfer Assessment that you should enroll in before starting off with your surfing journey. In that program, we offer exercises for you to self-assess your muscle groups and suggest you seek medical advice when something is awry.

Still, even if you passed all those assessments successfully, it’s best to be cautious about injury risks, and that’s why we prepared this guide for you. With the surfing stretches we’re going to recommend below, you’ll minimize injuries as best as possible.

Major Muscle Groups You Employ When Surfing

black and white image of a surfer spraying waves up close

Of course, before delving right into the stretch exercises, you may undertake, giving you a general idea about the muscles you’ll engage when you’re on the waves might prove beneficial.

If your interest in surfing so far has been restricted to watching competitions on your TV set or computer screen, then you might be thinking that surfing is a stand-up sport and that the most important muscles are the ones in your lower body. Well, a major part of surfing actually takes place when the surfer is either paddling or lying in wait in the water. Although the part where you stand up is the most spectacular and joyful part, it only constitutes a minor temporality in the big picture.

So, before getting into the muscles in your lower body, you need to think about your upper body and core, paddling strength, and popping up strength. In more detail, your triceps, chest, and shoulder muscles, like the deltoids and pectorals, and abdominal muscles, like the obliques and rectus abdominis work almost non-stop during your paddling and waiting processes.

Of course, in order to enjoy the waves and entertain your spectators, you’ll need to put on a good performance as well. You need to compress and decompress, keep your knees bent for the whole duration of your ride, and engage butt muscles like hip flexors and upper leg muscles like hamstrings and quads. Moreover, your ankle joints, knee joints, and hip joints should be both flexible and strong to absorb the force of the waves.

Additionally, to do turns successfully once you’re surfing, you need to have spinal mobility and flexibility that require you to have sturdy obliques and mobile spinal erectors. That might seem like a handful, but that doesn’t make the fact that all those muscles are important any less true.

Common Injuries Surfers Suffer

person with knee injury in black knit cap

Working and sometimes even overworking all these muscles in your body will inevitably take its toll and create some complications along the way. Especially when you add the violent nature of certain waves to the equation, it’s almost impossible to avoid injuries.

Yet, some of them are quite avoidable. You probably heard eye and ear conditions that are directly associated with us: surfer’s eye and surfer’s ear. Of course, no matter how strong or flexible you are, you might get diagnosed with one of these. Yet, there are tangible ways to prevent their occurrence. A good surf hat and a good pair of earplugs might help you preemptively tackle them.

However, you don’t have the same luxury with the prospect of, say, a knee injury or getting caught in a rip tide (God forbid). Don’t worry, though, as we won’t focus on natural injury causes such as rip tides, avalanches, or capitalism. Instead, we’re going to focus on injuries that may occur because of inadequate fitness and warm-up, or due to a wave that goes through a rough patch in their admittedly stormy life:

  • Shoulder injuries - Shoulder dislocation or subluxation is very common among surfers. It may be due to over-paddling or a particularly violent wash-over.
  • Ankle and knee injuries - As we say, your lower body is responsible for sucking up the wave’s explosive energy. So, inadequate levels of fitness and flexibility or locking your front leg too firmly on the board might cause various ankle and knee injuries like cruciate ligament or meniscus tear.
  • Lower back pain - Lower back pain may happen due to a variety of factors, all of which have to do with a lack of spinal mobility/flexibility: over-paddling, not popping up properly, carrying a stiff upper body as if it’s the umbrella of a member of British royalty, and so on.
  • Over-breathing and anxiety - These are not muscular injuries per se, but their causes and effects might as well be muscular. Luckily, we have a breathing guide for you.

Surf Stretches to Minimize Muscle Injuries

After repeatedly identifying inadequate fitness levels and warm-up as the main culprit of surf injuries, let’s now see what kind of stretches you can add to your daily routine to minimize the risk of these injuries.

Spine Stretches for Mobility, Flexibility, Strength, and Injury Prevention

person stretching his spine on a race track

Obviously, we have no idea about your particular lifestyle, but we know a thing or two about the lifestyle of the 21st century’s socially withdrawn people: they spend a lot of time in cars or shuttles, they hunker down in front of their computers in their leisure, and they sleep in weird positions.

Besides giving young independent scriptwriters lots of material for their unoriginal new idea for a movie, there’s only one outcome of such a lifestyle that’s any concern to us (surfers and surf coaches): tight muscles all around, but especially in the spinal zone due to all the unhealthy shapes your spine is forced to take. So, that’s where we’re going to start working on our stretches.

Rib Cage Roll

There are many spine stretches you can easily find with a brief search, but they hardly get any more surf-suitable than the rib cage roll.

  1. Place a rolling block (or a rolled towel) below your rib cage while you’re lying down.
  2. Bend your knees comfortably while the soles of your feet are on the ground.
  3. Bring your arms together on your chest area.
  4. Slowly move your upper body side-to-side for as long as you’re comfortable.

There’s also a variation to it: with the same starting position, you can also reach your arms over your head. However, you do need to engage your core for this variation. Otherwise, your rib might flare.

Side-Lying Spine Stretch

If the rib cage roll sounded too easy for you, let’s do a side-lying stretch, which is more demanding:

  1. Lie on your left side and bend your left knee in front of you while keeping your right leg a bit behind and in a straightened-out manner.
  2. Reach your arms over your head as you’re facing sideways.
  3. Stay in that position for a little while (20-30 seconds would be ideal) while making sure that your spine is straight.
  4. Ease into a neutral position, have a brief breather, and repeat the exercise on your right side.

The Torso Twist

person doing torso twist in a gym

Unless you don’t already have a level of spinal flexibility, you might find even the starting position of the torso twist difficult, but it’s one of the best surf stretches you’ll ever have.

  1. Lie on your back while your arms are stretched straight to their sides. Make sure that your palms are open to the sky.
  2. Bend your knees comfortably at a 90-degree angle and slowly lower them together to the right while you rotate your head to the left. In this step, make sure that your back stays firmly rooted to the ground.
  3. Once your knees touch the ground, gently re-assume your starting position and repeat the second step on the other side.
  4. You may repeat this exercise as long as you’re comfortable, but 15-20 times would be ideal.

Shoulder Stretches for Better Paddling and Less Paddling Injuries

person with stretched arms on a rock

If our day-to-day life takes a toll on the spine, it’s also relatively easy to conclude that the shoulders aren’t exempt either. Unhealthy sitting positions have many side effects, and they all negatively impact your surfing fitness and readiness.

So, here are some shoulder stretches that might prevent you from assuming such un-surfer-like postures and help you have a smoother paddling experience overall.

Arm Circles

Arm circles, which are admittedly one of the most basic warm-up performances for any sort of physical effort, certainly help relax shoulder muscles that carry most of the burden during paddling.

  1. Stand up straight and place your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Raise your arms to shoulder height and stretch them straightly sideways.
  3. Start with doing small circles.
  4. Make them bigger as you go along.
  5. Also, mind your breathing as you’re making these circles: inhale when you’re stretching and exhale when you’re relaxed.

The Sleeper Stretch

After loosening up our shoulders, we may start working on their internal and external rotations, which are equally important for safely paddling our way toward our wave, and the sleeper stretch is one of the best exercises to that end.

  1. Find a comfortable surface. Lie on your right side with your back in a 45-degree angle to the ground and legs apart as if you’ve fallen asleep on the floor after a long night of drinking and other vices. Make sure to keep your knees bent.
  2. Put your right elbow on the ground and raise your forearm.
  3. Grab your right wrist with your left hand.
  4. Slowly lower your right forearm to the ground with the help of your left arm.
  5. When your right forearm is on the ground, stay there as long as you’re comfortable.
  6. Repeat the same steps lying on your left side.

Floor Tricep Dips

Now, let us bring upper arm strength into the equation as well and have an all-around routine for your shoulders. Floor tricep dips will work and stretch every muscle you’ll use during paddling.

  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent right over your ankles and feet flat on the ground.
  2. Place your hands shoulder-width apart right under your shoulders with their palms facing the ground and fingers pointing toward your body.
  3. Raise your hips and upper body by using your arms and tightening up your abdomen to maintain a straight shape up your spine.
  4. Repeat the exercise as long as you’re comfortable.

Hip, Knee, and Ankle Stretches for a Flexible Lower Body

person stretching hips indoors

A good surfer is the one who can interpret the wave’s energy and channel it into their ride. To be able to do that, however, you need enough strength, mobility, and flexibility in your lower body.

Now, let’s see what stretching and strengthening exercises for the lower body are the most beneficial for surfers.

90/90 Hip Stretch

It’s possible to say that hips are what hold us together, and we don’t mean it in a sexual way either. Speaking from a purely anatomical point of view, we owe our stance and movement mostly to our hips, and it’s the same in surfing. Hip mobility is key to all kinds of maneuvers once you’re standing up on your board, including turns, airs, or even simply maintaining balance.

Therefore, a 90/90 hip stretch that loosens up your hip muscles is a must for every surfer’s warm-up routine simply because it endows you with more flexibility.

  1. Sit on the ground with your left leg in front of you.
  2. Bend it from the knee at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Place your right leg behind you at the same angle.
  4. Gently lean your upper body over your left leg until you feel a deep stretch at your hips.
  5. Maintain that stretch between 30-60 seconds. If you’re not comfortable holding that position for that long, don’t force yourself.
  6. Switch legs and repeat the steps above.

Deep Squats

person in green squatting indoors

Squats are mostly seen as hip exercises, and while that’s true to a certain extent, they’re actually a full-body workout in which even your abdomen muscles and spine are put under scrutiny. However, their real benefit is unsurprisingly on the lower body, especially on your knees and ankles, which stretch greatly during your vertical movement.

Although it’s an exercise included in almost all kinds of fitness programs and routines, the possibility of getting it wrong when you’re working in the comfort of your home, where you might not have instant access to proper guidance, is quite high. So, here’s the proper way to do deep squats:

  1. Stand up and keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keep your feet firmly on the ground as you’re going to carry your weight solely on the balls and heels of your feet.
  3. Take a deep breath and squat.
  4. While squatting, make sure that your knees don't go beyond your toes.
  5. Exhale through your mouth and slowly rise up to a standing position.
  6. Repeat the exercise ten times and at least for two sets.

Bottom Leg Lift

While it’s mainly an exercise for building up strength in your core, especially in your abdominal area, the bottom leg lift also helps stabilize hip and knee joints, which are crucial for absorbing the force of the wave.

  1. Lie down on your right side and place your head on your right hand as if you’re going to watch a bad TV show just to pass the time while stretching your legs in the shape of a banana.
  2. Make sure that your spine, neck, and head are aligned well.
  3. Lift your left leg and bring your foot in front of your thighs.
  4. Raise your right leg off the ground and stretch it without bending your knee while taking a deep breath.
  5. Lower it slowly to the ground while exhaling.
  6. Repeat it at least ten times and switch legs.

Ankle Rolls

To control your surfboard, you need subtle movements on your back foot, and the subtlety level of these movements is generally down to the flexibility of your ankles. Doing a few ankle rolls before every session will ensure that you have the necessary flexibility.

It’s also quite a straightforward exercise that doesn’t require too much of your time or energy:

  1. Stand in a comfortable position and lock your left foot a bit in front of you. It’s going to be your balancing foot.
  2. Lift the heel of your right foot while your big toe is on the ground.
  3. Rotate your heel from the ankle. You should rotate it ten times clockwise and ten times counterclockwise.
  4. Switch your feet and repeat the process.

Wrapping Up…

The surfing stretches we recommended above aren’t going to make you a better surfer all of a sudden. You might not even observe their effects on your fitness with the naked eye as they’re not exactly body-building exercises. However, should you add them to your warm-up routine before every surf session, you’ll find that your body is moving more freely on your surfboard.

Of course, the attributes of mobility and flexibility gained through proper stretching aren’t only good for your surfing performance. When your muscles are more mobile, flexible, and properly warmed up before you put them under duress, you’re also minimizing the risks of injury.

For more exercises concerning surf fitness, you can also check the OMBE guides on yoga, BOSU ball, and practicing for your pop-up.

Written by
Nico Palacios
surf coaching