HIITing the lip in professional surfing

Written by Jeremy Sheppard

November 24, 2018

I wanted to contribute a blog post to HIIT Science with the hopes it might offer a working framework, as well as inspiration, for practitioners beginning in a new sport, as I did in elite surfing in 2008.

Curiosity as an Ally

When I started working in competitive surfing in the capacity of sports scientist/S&C coach, curiosity was the emotion I tried to bring to work each day. I had to. There were few resources available at the time; some studies of injury incidence, severity, and location, and roughly 4 or 5 studies examining time-motion analysis of recreational surfing and competitive heats. These resources, along with my personal experience as a surfer (in fact below semi-pro level), was as good a place as anything to start. I remember these days and the fun opportunity it was to jump into a sport I loved (I began surfing in 1994), with a clean slate I could use to grow my practice. With that said, I simply rolled up my sleeves and tried to take the following philosophy to work every day:

“curiosity and an open mind are wonderful allies”.

If you’ve ever surfed before, you’ll appreciate that surfers need to be fit, right? Sure, so that will require some training. OK…what kind of fit then do we need to be? What are its demands? I think it’s a good idea to get curious about a few things when we look at sports performance enhancement. This is all linked back to appreciating that all-important context. I call these my three BIG questions:
  1. What is happening in the sport during competition and training?
  2. What qualities does the sport develop without me intervening (where do I fit in)?
  3. What are the reference points of performance (or key performance indicators)?
These three questions precede my final big question:

can I enhance performance through training, and if so how”?


What is happening in the sport? Answer: A Paddle and a Float When you surf, you don’t actually surf that much. It might actually be better to say, ‘I’m going for a paddle and a float’, rather than ‘I’m going for a surf’.  Turns out, actual wave riding occurs for only ~5% of the time, with the remaining time is split between paddling, and sitting on your board7,8. Paddling intensity varies quite a bit, however, from low intensity paddling across large distances, to moderately high intensity bouts of paddling to move against current, oncoming waves, or out of a dangerous position. Additionally, shorter bouts of all-out sprint paddling occur to paddle into waves or gain a position advantage over a competitor in a surfing heat. What qualities does practice in the sport develop? Paddling is happening a lot in surfing, so it’s likely important. And we generally rationalize that it is wise to train things that are important. But we must accept that we are trying to improve performance, which is not necessarily the same as training what is happening a lot in performance. The super cool thing about surfing is that regardless of whether you are taking your child out for their first surf with you (in my case, a joyous occasion on my son’s second birthday) or you are the world champion, surfing is play!

“Even if you are ‘paid’, it’s still just play”

Surfers surf a lot. Folks with jobs wish they could surf more, and for those privileged to have surfing as their job surf plenty with competitive purpose. They also just surf because, well – surfing is cool, fun, and both physically and emotionally rewarding. They do this typically for 14-25 hours/week. If we consider that an elite surfer may surf a low of 12 hours a week, with a typical high of 25 h, this means that he is actually paddling for 8-12 hours a week. At the extreme end, in the case of mint surf conditions across a week, we have actually seen 40 hours of surfing, which equates to ~20 hours of paddling in a week7. By nature of the demands of surfing, the surfer is also then performing many minutes of high-intensity sprint paddling (~5 min/h of high to sprint intensity paddling). That is, in essence, quite a lot of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) happening before we practitioners come in and ‘intervene’. The important point here is that after all this ‘play’, there is already measurable physical fatigue9. Surfers also don’t generally elect to take significant time away from this play. Holidays for a competitive surfer are nearly always surf trips. ‘Birthday surf’ and ‘Christmas surf’, are terms used commonly that highlight this playful and near-obsessive approach. (I missed my wedding rehearsal because I was surfing, but fortunately, my wife surfs too, so she understands the affliction, and I was forgiven within the decade. I’m not entirely sure about my mother in law’s forgiveness). In other words, as long as a surfer is surfing, high-intensity activity is taking place through play. This does not mean that it’s being utilized ideally and to best effect, however, just through surfing alone. What are the reference points? Sprint paddling ability (e.g. elite males ~1.8-2.1 m/sec) is a huge asset for a surfer for at least two reasons: 1) you are able to get more waves because you can create more momentum with your paddling speed to catch them, but you can also 2) sit ‘deeper’ on a wave than others in the surfing lineup. As is said in surfing, ‘position is possession’. To a non-surfer, ‘possession’ might sound like an aggressive word and overly strong language, but I have to admit, surfing is an incredibly selfish sport. Sharing waves with a buddy here and there is fun, but in a crowded lineup, you are competing for limited resources that are not shared. In a competitive heat, its arguably just as important to keep your competitors off of waves as it is to ensure you are on the waves you want. So, sitting deeper for possession is critical for all, but for a competitor, if you can take off on a wave deeper, you can get your first scoring manoeuvre in earlier and in a more critical part of the wave face, which is a key component of the judging criteria, regardless of whether we are discussing barrelling waves, turns, or aerial moves. In terms of sprint paddling, the faster you can be, the better. The ability to thrive on very high volumes of ‘low-intensity paddling’ (~0.8 – 1.1 m/sec for elite males) and to perform intermittent bouts of moderate to high-intensity paddling (~1.2-1.7 m/sec for elite males) are also very important. Of course, this makes intuitive sense. If you can paddle at lower intensities without heavy fatigue loads, you have good ‘paddling economy’, so you can surf more. Surf more, more fun, get better (which is also more fun). This requires reasonable strength levels and can be improved with strength training, and well-functioning posture and breathing mechanics, and what you might call a robust shoulder complex. Comparisons of sprint paddling, repeat sprint paddling, and paddling endurance time trials show large differences between juniors (<18yr) and adults, as well as between age and gender-matched groups of recreational, competitive, and elite surfers6,10. Even if you’ve never surfed, if you are clued in enough to visit this website, you probably would have easily guessed that. What I would offer as nuance, however, is that in elite surfers, there is a difference between how we would approach top sprint speed and maximal aerobic speed objectives. To paraphrase my colleague Matt Barr (also a former PhD student I mentored), ‘some qualities you develop as much as you possibly can, as more is always better. Yet others you pursue as much as you need to support the achievement of the training and competition demands. In surfing, my team would relate Matt’s first point to the sprint paddle (as much as you can get) and maximal endurance paddle speed (MAS) to the latter (as much as you need). In simplistic terms, an MAS of 1.25 – 1.35 m/sec and sprint paddle of >2.0 m/sec is of great value to an elite surfer compared with counterparts that might have higher MAS and lower sprint paddle ability. Training: does HIIT fit? Considering that high-level surfers are surfing a lot, achieving great paddle volumes, and by nature of the demands of play actually performing high-intensity efforts, you might wonder whether HIIT fits in at all according to my philosophy. It does, most certainly. The who, when, and how – the context – is key. First, just because participation in the sport involves a certain quality, it doesn’t mean it develops that quality to the best of our potential. If that were the case, to use a team sport analogy, small sided games would be the only defensible way to condition players in a running sport like football. Yet, small sided games are often used in conjunction or in concert with more modality-generalized HIIT methods (running, cycling, rowing) to enhance the effect. Just like in team and racket sports, with coaches who do all their conditioning ‘with the ball’, there are surfing coaches who would suggest that you just need to surf more to get fit for surfing. While I am with this philosophy up to a point, in elite sport, you aren’t looking to get 90% of your needs met – you are aiming for that next performance breakthrough. Although surfing offers the opportunity to enhance skills through play whilst also conditioning athletes (e.g. surfing/small sided games analogy), isolating specific qualities (technique, strength, or energetic demands) through concise approaches and a controlled environment, offers the ability to gain additional advantages for specific paddling abilities1,2,5,11. For professional surfers, this means we need to be prepared to consider opportunities to insert HIIT alongside our efforts of quantifying the athlete’s surf training volume, and then adjust accordingly3,4. I’d suggest there isn’t much benefit to doing 2 x HIIT sessions the weeks during, or following a spike in total paddling volume that comes from the surfer ‘surfing their brains out’. However, during lower volume weeks that take place after only moderate volumes of surfing, we found that paddling specific workouts were beneficial. For example, to emphasize sprint speed and repeat sprint ability, sprint efforts (e.g. 6-10 x 15 m sprint paddle, which is a 10-second effort for elite males, on 45 sec – 1.5 minute) can be implemented with only a modest increase in total paddle distance for that low volume week. To the reader, you might find it initially absurd that a few sessions, delivered in a somewhat reactive manner (nearly void of consistency), involving only 90-150 m of additional paddling can make a worthwhile difference. Yet, that’s what we saw. We found effective approaches for hitting anaerobic glycolytic and aerobic oxidative responses (type #3 targets) by using short interval efforts of 15-30 seconds at intensities of 110-120% of their maximum aerobic speed, utilizing a 1:1 work:rest ratio. An important note here was that due to undulations in training volume, we were unable to realistically plan for a controlled ‘6-week intervention’. So, we used HIIT paddling only as a supplement, and in response to and alongside the high volume of paddling that was already taking place. An exception to this was with our junior development programs, where we were able to implement training interventions with some level of consistency and control. This was because some of our junior surfers went to school (if surfers become highly accomplished at a young age, their travel schedules make it very difficult for them to realistically finish school during adolescence unless they are at a specific school that adapts to their needs through a specific program. We partnered with one such school). Surfers in school will often surf before school (and are often given the first period of classes off school to ensure they get enough surfing in). This presented an opportunity to implement sessions of HIIT in pools or safe calm water environments, in addition to their surfing and other strength and conditioning activities (e.g. mobility, stability, strength, gymnastics, skateboarding). So, what did we learn? We learned that despite an already high paddling volume that surfers are doing, specific, controlled HIIT interventions in the form of paddle training, and that these type #3 oriented HIIT efforts definitely have their place5. However, because of the high paddling volume surfers are already performing, we needed to be highly conscious of load quantification, and the importance of resiliency of the structures that effect, and are affected by paddling (e.g. back, neck, shoulder). We also learned that for elite level surfers (who are surfing a lot), removing paddling from the act of board-riding could have a profound effect on skill acquisition and high-intensity fitness. We showed this in two novel ways. First, skateboarding is a very powerful conditioning tool. The action involved is relevant to surfing (and snowboarding) as the athlete has to produce and absorb force and coordinate the board. Rest periods and work periods can be implemented to target desired adaptations, and intensity can be ramped up or down by manipulating the features (mini-ramp, vert-ramp, park features). Second, we were able to utilize a personal watercraft (jet-ski) for high speed ‘pickups’ for surfers in training sessions. This technique essentially removes the paddling component of surfing altogether, delivers the surfer back to the wave take-off zone very quickly (within seconds really), before they literally ‘step off’ the ski into the next wave, creating a ‘density’ effect of wave-riding that would be impossible to achieve by paddling. Initially, one might think that by doing this we have removed the ‘fitness’ component of surfing, but this is not the case. This technique essentially manipulated the session such that the surfer wound up riding 5-6x more waves per time period12. By quantifying activity within sessions, as well as monitoring the physical stress response (in our case heart-rate and lactate levels), it allowed us to design sessions that aligned with our goals. Author Notes on jet-ski technique: For years I did not speak about this jet-ski technique for two reasons: 1) we felt it was a competitive advantage, but 2) quite simply, we felt people adopting this technique could maim or kill an athlete. In my time in the surfing performance community, I partnered on this technique with an extremely talented water-man (surfer, coach, spear-fisherman) who was our jet-ski pilot. If I didn’t have this pilot, there is absolutely no way we would have done this in the manner in which we did. Since photos, videos and discussions of this technique we used are well documented, I no longer see this spoiling a competitive advantage for Australian surfers. However, (unless you hire my colleague as your pilot or someone he recommends) I maintain that this technique is dangerous, illegal in some parts of the world, and not worth the risk of seriously injuring or killing an athlete you work with. Author Acknowledgements: My time working in professional surfing was an incredible experience, and please view the video below if you’d like to learn more. My experience was enormously enhanced by the tremendous sport-science support I received from colleagues and through having outstanding Masters and PhD scholars. Although I am grateful to be able to provide a blog to this site based on this experience, I do so knowing that this would not have been possible without my network, as I can’t and don’t do anything on my own! About the author: Dr Jeremy Sheppard is the Director of Performance Solutions at the Canadian Sport Institute, as well as the Integrated Service Team Lead and Off Snow Coach for Canada Snowboard. References
  1. Coyne, Tran, Secomb, Lundgren, Farley, Newton, Sheppard (2016) Association between anthropometry, upper extremity strength, and sprint and endurance paddling performance in competitive and recreational surfers. International Journal of Sport Science and Coaching 11(5): 728-735.
  2. Coyne, Tran, Secomb, Lundgren, Farley, Newton, Sheppard (2017) Maximal strength training improves surfboard sprint and endurance paddling performance in competitive and recreational surfers. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31(1): 244-253.
  3. Farley, Andrews, Secomb, Tran, Lundgren, Abbiss, Sheppard (2014) The validity and inter-unit reliability of custom-made surftrax GPS units and use during surfing. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning 22(5): 102-105.
  4. Farley, Secomb, Parsonage, Lundgren, Abbiss, Sheppard (2015) tracking 6 weeks of training/surfing sessions of adolescent surfers: Just what are these young surfers up to? . Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning 23(6): 95-97.
  5. Farley, Secomb, Ferrier, Lundgren, Tran, Abbiss, Sheppard (2016) Five Weeks of Sprint and High Intensity Interval Training Improves Paddling Performance in Adolescent Surfers. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 30(9): 2446-2452.
  6. Farley, Abbiss, Sheppard (2016) Testing Protocols of Surfers’ Anaerobic and Aerobic Fitness: A Review. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 38(5): 52-65.
  7. Farley, Abbiss, Sheppard (2017) Performance Analysis of Surfing: A review. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31(1): 260-271.
  8. Secomb, Sheppard, Dascombe (2015) Time-Motion Analysis of a 2-Hour Surfing Training Session. International Journal of Sport Performance and Physiology 10: 17-22.
  9. Secomb, Sheppard, Dascomb (2015) Reductions in sprint paddling ability and countermovement jump performance after surfing training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 29(7): 1937-1942.
  10. Sheppard et al. (2013) The development and evaluation of a comprehensive sport science testing protocol for competitive surfers. International Journal of Sport Performance and Physiology. 8: 490-495.
  11. Sheppard et al. (2013) The effect of different paddling technique coaching cues on sprint-paddle performance in competitive surfboard riders. International Journal of Sport Science and Coaching. 8(1): 43-51.
  12. Sheppard, Farley, Tran, Lundgren, Secomb, King (2014) An evaluation of the use of personal water craft to create technical and physical overload in training of an elite surfer. Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning 22(5): 144-148.

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Have you ever thought about what tools are best for telling us when to apply HIIT the next time? How do we know when we will handle it again without driving our athlete into overtraining or injury risk? If you’ve read our ​book​ or taken our ​course​, you’ll know about how important this variable will be when we look to design the ideal program. Both heart rate variability and subjective comments were key factors we discussed. But is one better than the other?
Maybe. We’ve stumbled upon an incredible study that might just help clear our thoughts on the matter in terms of athlete readiness and when to apply HIIT again in the future to maximize performance potential. The blog post written by ​Diego Hilgemberg Figueiredo​ compares training plans guided by either HRV or subjective inner feelings. The findings may surprise you. Check out a sneak peak in the graphic below as to why heart rate and HRV can’t always bring us certainty around readiness to perform. They’re good, and helpful, but you must know your context! Combine it with feel to get the most power in your programming.


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