You don’t have to be a big wave surfer – or even an small wave one – to benefit from being stronger and more confident in the water, which is exactly what Surf Fit Life is aiming to make me within one week at their fitness retreat for surfers of all stripes, in Nazaré, Portugal, supported by Sharps Offshore.
Andrew Cotton is the former plumber from Devon, UK who has gone on to be one of the world’s best big wave surfers, riding record-breaking monsters in Portugal’s Nazaré beach break. He was surfing there on the same day as the new world record for the biggest ever wave ridden, but the wave he was on closed out unexpectedly, cannoning him 20ft into the air and 40ft out – the impact destroyed a vertebrae in his back.
Fortunately, he’s on course for a full recovery, but he tells RSNG that if he hadn’t trained to be strong, confident and fit out of the water, then he would probably have been paralysed. So what did we earn from a week of surf fitness?
*1. Daily Yoga Is Good Preparation For Extreme Sport Andrew Cotton’s PT is also a bit of a yoga fiend, so we start each day with an hour of yoga before breakfast. Andy ‘Blakey’ Blake is a sports therapist and sports science lecturer, and runs Bay Fitness, so he knows more about how your body works than most PTs. At the start of the week my entire back is a mass of tension from too much time logged at my desk, and my hips are laughably inflexible. Fortunately Surf Fit Life’s masseuse and osteopath, Rebecca Cordew, is on hand to provide treatment, and after a week of daily yoga my overall flexibility has greatly improved.
This means I’m much less likely to injure myself getting into a radical position to stay on a surfboard, or in a wipeout. ‘We’re taking the body through a greater range of movement than surfing requires, in order to protect it,’ says Blakey. This philosophy extends to the strength-endurance building circuits we’re soon doing, using battle ropes, Swiss Balls and agility drills to get all of our muscles firing through their whole range of motion. ‘If you have got strength and length then you’ve got greater protection for the whole body.’
2. Train Surfing Power With Weighted Monster Sets As RSNG discovered when we ventured into the monstrously powerful swell on Nazaré’s North Beach, going surfing is great for getting you fit for paddling. I spent most of my time windmilling my arms like crazy to get out back through the breakers. But when it comes to actually riding a wave, and then dealing with the wipeout, you don’t get as much of an opportunity to build the specific strengths needed ‘on the job’.
That’s where Blakey’s on-shore weights sessions come in. First up he teaches us correct form on barbell cleans and deadlifts, then his 25-rep ‘Monster Set’ starts with a barbell and five reps of the following with no rest in between: barbell power clean into squat; sumo high pull, thrusters (squat to overhead press); deadlift and finally ‘bastard burpee’ (with press up) to pull up.
It’s tough, but because the exercises keep shifting loads to different muscles, you train your energy systems to drive your body through it – just like you’ll have to do paddling for a wave, or after a wipeout, in between successive waves landing on your head.
‘It’s really good for improving your thresholds; your onset of blood lactate, your aerobic threshold when the lactate kicks in, and your anaerobic threshold when your body can no longer process it. We can teach our bodies to work at higher intensities for longer and recover faster. It’s good for surfing because there are bouts of high intensity and low intensity, and you don’t get to choose when these fall,’ says Blakey.
3. Being Zen Beats Wipeouts A key component of Andrew Cotton’s big wave preparation has become achieving a calm mindset, using efficient breathing techniques. He says we can all benefit from this in our everyday lives whether we surf or not. It’s valuable to him because after having a vertebrae crushed by the power of a wave, he knows you can’t fight that force. ‘You can’t fight the ocean, because you are not going to win. But as human beings, what we try to do is swim against the current, fight the ocean. You’re not going to beat it, you’ve just got to flow with it.’
The key technique used by Cotton is breathing long breaths (three or five seconds) in through the nose and even longer (10 seconds) out through the mouth, filling up the belly as he breathes in – he holds his tongue in front of his teeth to elongate the breath out. ‘You can hear him on the sled behind the jet ski, sounding like a deflating ball all day!’ says Blakey. ‘On a big wave day I’d like to start the day trying to get into the zone and it’s a good breath to come back to – in through the nose and out through the mouth. It calms everything down a bit,’ says Cotton.
4. Holding Your Breath Is Easy On Land… Andrew Cotton can hold his breath for anywhere between three and five minutes (it can vary for everyone by 50% day to day, he says). But how long might be need to hold his breath in a bad wipeout at Nazare? ‘That’s the thing that scares people because it’s so unpredictable. It could be a minute but more than likely it will be just ten seconds, but you just don’t know,’ he says, adding that confidence is key.
So, one morning after yoga, we set about boosting our confidence by learning to breath hold on dry land. Blakey uses a mindset technique to get us chilled out as we lie on our backs on yoga mats. ‘Focus on a single muscle in your body and feel it completely relaxing,’ he says. We then use the long breaths in and out, filling our bellies as we breathe in, for one minute before holding our breaths.
I manage 2 minutes 19 seconds before the urge to breathe out becomes overwhelming. I try it again a day later and this time I make it to three minutes. Then something mind blowing happens. Cotton guides us through a Wim Hoff breathing technique where we repeat the minute of long breaths, then dump all the air out of our lungs and hold our breath with no air in us. This time I manage 3:25 before I have to breathe in, although my chest is convulsing for almost a minute of that time.
I turns out that it wasn’t a lack of oxygen initially holding me back, it was the thought that I needed to breathe…
5. …And Harder Underwater ‘The reality is that being able to hold your breath statically is nothing like surfing.’ Cotton is impressed I managed to hit 3:25 but he’s right about this, as I find out when we take the hypoxic training into the pool (DON’T TRY ANY OF THE FOLLOWING DRILLS YOURSELF – enquire with Surf Fit Life if you want to do them). We start with a anaerobic pyramid where we do lengths of front crawl taking a breath every two strokes, then three, then four, all the way up to nine strokes and back down again.
It’s tough but then the fun really starts. I begin by holding my breath for ten seconds floating in the pool, then swimming a length underwater, then holding my breath for another ten seconds – I feel like my chest is going to explode! Cotton teaches us to glide through the water and slow the whole stroke down to stop burning the O2 so quickly. ‘The muscles in your legs are the biggest in the body so you need to avoid using them too much. And being streamlined in the glide, with your head down, really covers the distance.’
6. But You Can Still Swim With Empty Lungs Next, our partners tumble us around underwater to simulate not breathing in a wipeout for ten seconds, then we take another ‘dump breath’, breathing all the way out and in to replenish our oxygen, and then going again as if another wave has swamped us. But the final test, which is aimed to fast-track the mammalian dive response in us, feels the most unnatural.
We have a series of surprising evolutionary hangovers that help us to survive underwater. When your face is put into cold water your heart rate slows down, your blood shifts away from your arms and legs to your brain and heart, and at depth your spleen even contracts to dump oxygenated blood into your bloodstream.
For a surfer in a wipeout you really want to train this response beforehand to come online, fast. So, for this drill we dump all of our air at the deep end of the pool, grab a kettlebell to take us down, then when we feel we have to breathe we kick off to try and swim a length – it’s a crazy feeling and I only manage half a length, but it shows how much you can affect your body with the power of the mind. Watch this video to see how Cotton does it (but don’t try it at home):
7. Dedicating A Week To A Goal Pays Dividends By the end of the week I’m a kilo lighter, my cardio fitness has been boosted and my anaerobic power threshold is higher – my flexibility has improved too. But the biggest difference is my confidence in the water. Before it was easy to look at even small waves about to topple onto you, and the boiling white water, and start to panic about being held under. Now I know I can handle them, and although I have a deep respect for the surf, I now see it as more of a playground, which sums up Andrew Cotton’s approach to surfing:
‘I always wanted to approach those big waves like you would approach a two-foot wave; with playfulness, being in a critical spot, turning or being in the barrel – I don’t want to ride a big wave for a photo I want to ride it for a feeling and you don’t get that feeling hanging on you get it surfing it.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch these clips to see Andrew Cotton’s big wave riding technique...
Thanks to Sharps Brewery who worked with Andrew Cotton to launch their Offshore Pilsner. ‘When the wind is offshore, surfers use the word 'clean' to describe the conditions. The name of this Pilsner fits perfectly because the taste is exactly that; so clean and refreshing like wave spray. A perfect end to a perfect session,’ says Cotton.
Visit Surf Fit Life’s website to find out more about booking your own surf fitness retreat with Andrew Cotton.
Photos by Mikey Corker, Josh Simpson, Mick Corbet, Matt Ray
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time and do not attempt breath holds underwater on your own and without a qualified lifeguard present, who is aware of your intentions to do so.