Endless Surfing – Expand Your Injury Buffer-Zone

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swilly bec woods healthier living

Nature really is the best playground. As a strength & conditioning coach, I love getting stuck into the gym and being able to target specific body areas, movement patterns and aspects of training based on what I feel I need at that point in time. However, there is something pretty darn rewarding about getting physical in nature and surfing is one of those passions. Surfing however can be a risky sport, so increase your buffer zone to stay out there longer.

Take off and tube riding are the manoeuvres most commonly leading to injury. The most severe injuries are caused by surfboard contact (fins, nose, tail, rail). An article by Foo, Paul and Nicholls (2004)  looking at ‘Surfing injuries in recreational surfers’ concluded that lacerations are the most common surfing injury (54%), followed by contusions (36%), muscle strains or tears (4%), fractures (4%), joint sprains (3%) and joint dislocations (1%) in participants randomly recruited from surfing locations throughout Australia including beaches in Australia’s Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.  Lower limbs were found to be the most commonly injured area, followed by upper limbs, and the head and face.

  • Lacerations are the number one surfing injury – from the board, fins or rocks.
  • Concussions / head injury – surfing over shallow reefs or in heavy shore dump will greatly increase the chance of trauma. A hard shelled helmet is great for reducing lacerations but there is limited evidence for it reducing the risk posed by concussive forces (Johnson et al 2001). Improved neck muscle strength is thought to allow for a greater absorption of forces.
  • Shoulder injuries– such as rotator cuff impingement or tendonitis from shoulder strain. A chronic condition is most commonly seen in beginners (poor paddling technique) and older surfers (accumulated miles of paddling).  Shoulder issues are normally an overuse problem caused by repetitive paddling, unaccustomed volume or intensity of surfing and poor stabilising muscles.  Work on rotator cuff stabiliser strengthening to prevent the prime movers such as the deltoids pulling the humerus out of position and nipping soft tissue.
  • Back strains / sprains – usually as a result of wipeout and the associated twists and turns forced upon the torso. In addition to this, any sudden movements have the potential to damage a poorly conditioned back as well as the strain that can develop from prolonged paddling if the glutes and lower back muscles are not well conditioned creating a shear force around the sacro-iliac joint and lumbo-sacral region.
  • Groin – inflexible adductors, chronic scar tissue in adductors, poor squat technique and inadequate warm-up can all be contributors.
  • Knee injury – such as MCL injury from valgus stress.  This can be avoided by a good warm-up and good conditioning. Squatting with knees over the toes, training knee stability and strength endurance.
  • Neck (older surfers) – neck gets pulled into hyperextension with surfing and those older surfers with immobile thoracic spines will compensate in the cervical and shoulder regions.

A plan for reducing surfing injury prevalence could involve these key factors:

  1. Sensible surfing, understanding the waves, follow surf etiquette, know your own limits and boundaries (for example, probably don’t surf shallow reefs, slabs or heavy closeouts if you’re a beginner).
  2. Mobilise restricted joint areas such as the thoracic spine, shoulder, hips and ankles to avoid compensation in areas above and below.
  3. Stretch areas found to be tight in an assessment by a physical therapist or fitness professional. Warm-up with dynamic stretching and mobility work before strength training and before surfing/events. Use static stretching after or separate to high intensity training, and where appropriate, to optimise length-tension relationships and reduce overall muscle tension or cramping. Include myofascial stretching also for a more effective stretch in chronically tight areas such as the pecs, triceps and lats.
  4. Balanced surf strength program – balance pull to push ratios, focus on strengthening areas found weak from the right to the left side of body, anterior to posterior and transverse. Don’t just pump iron or try to get washboard abs.. train with exercises that have a functional carryover to surfing performance.
  5. Learn how to lift free-weights and execute the traditional lifts with perfect form.
  6. Create scientific training programs that follow sensible exercise progressions, intensity and volume, drill perfect technique and allow enough challenge without overwhelm.
  7. Aim to correct surf-specific imbalances in the gym. For example, a natural foot stance will likely develop a right rotated pelvis, therefore focus on balancing out musculature to prevent injury and early hip degeneration.
  8. Observe physiological and psychological signs of overreaching, overtraining and burnout in a competing athlete. A strength coach should be competent in this. Monitor / check-in with how the athlete is feeling before each session. Note things like quality of sleep, hydration, nutrition, emotional stressors, sore and tight body areas, appetite changes, etc.
  9. Ensure their nutrition is sound and supportive of their physical demands, providing the correct energy pathways and building strong bodies.
  10. Have a support team available for physical therapy/bodywork such as physiotherapists, chiropractors, ART/NMT therapists, muscular corrective therapists and other alternative therapists of choice such as acupuncturists, tai chi instructors and others of preference.
  11. Stay relaxed out there, like a cat!

Check out Surf Strength & Conditioning.

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