Surfing has an undeniable mystique. You may have even fantasized about becoming one of those zen-like mavericks of the waves. At one with the elements. Masterfully balanced and yet flexible as you slice through an ever-shifting sea. And let’s not forget the sun-streaked hair and killer abs.
Yes, it’s all incredibly romantic until you get hammered by your first wave and water shoots with surprising force into places where the sun doesn’t shine. Sorry to break in with that harsh blast of reality. But the other not-so-romantic side of the coin is that surfing, like many difficult things you try to master, takes a lot of hard work and determination.
And even more so as an adult. No longer blessed with a sense of immortality or the rubber band body of an 8-year-old, you’ll need to be particularly dedicated if you’re going to learn to stand up and negotiate constantly shifting waves without eating it most of the time.
But the good news is that it can be done. With the right preparation, guidance and attitude, it’s never too late to take that surfing fantasy of yours and turn it into reality. Ok, maybe not the fantasy where you’re riding giant waves at Jaws, but the one where you can actually stand up and catch a few 3-footers.
Unfortunately, many would-be surfers toss in their wet suit after their first failed attempt. That’s why a plan of action is so important. With something as challenging as surfing, you can’t go at it willy-nilly. So to keep you on track, we’ve got some practical advice to help you make your surfing as an adult dreams come true.
Let’s dive in.
Get Comfortable in the Water
Yes, this seems obvious. If you’re not a strong swimmer, you can practice in a pool or lake or even take lessons. But eventually, you will want to spend a good amount of time swimming in the less predictable ocean environment.
As a surfer, you’ll need to be aware of tides, wave breaks and how the wind affects the conditions. Swimming or sometimes just observing the ocean on a regular basis will start to give you a sense of these things without having the added pressure of standing up on a slippery board.
And that sense of ease will definitely give you an advantage when you take your first surf lesson.
Get in Shape to Surf. Don’t Surf to Get In Shape.
Yes, surfing is an amazing full-body workout. But if you don’t have at least a decent level of fitness before you start, you could get discouraged pretty quickly. Just popping up off your board into a standing position requires strength and flexibility. And that’s just the beginning!
Specifically, you should try to work on three things: upper body strength, cardio and flexibility.
Most surfers spend more time paddling than they do riding waves, and that goes double for beginners. Working your upper body with weight training or functional exercises like pushups will make that a lot easier.
Running or biking are good cardio exercises and will also make your time in the water more enjoyable. But if you already have a board or can borrow one, it’s also a good idea to practice paddling on its own through flat water.
Just as important as upper body strength and cardio training is flexibility, especially as we get older. Surfing is jam-packed with a lot of uncontrolled movements. And the more flexible you are, the less chance you have of getting injured.
So before you become a surf dog, you may want to get yourself to a yoga class and practice that downward dog.
And don’t forget to practice those pop-ups! It will keep you from flaming out in the first 15 minutes of surf class. Here’s a helpful video to watch before class.
Even with the right training, you may find yourself wincing with muscles you never knew you had after your first few lessons. But training beforehand should help that phase of the learning curve go a lot easier and keep you on track with your surfing goals.
Don’t Go It Alone
If not approached with the proper respect (and even when it is), surfing can be dangerous. So grabbing a board and learning by yourself is not the best idea–even if the waves don’t seem overwhelming.
That’s why it’s best to take a surf class or at least go with an experienced surfer that can show you the ropes. Beyond the risks, surfing is also a highly technical sport. And you don’t want to learn bad techniques that you’ll have to unlearn later.
So if you’re serious about making surfing a part of your lifestyle, be smart and learn it the right way. Beyond technique, a coach will also teach you about important stuff like surf etiquette (i.e., how not to piss off scary locals) and will also know the spots and times of day that are best for beginning surfers.
And if you have a friend or family member that’s also interested in learning to surf, even better. Just like a workout buddy at the gym, you can encourage each other through what will probably be a challenging journey.
Buy the Right Board for Beginners
One of the biggest mistakes that novice surfers make is not buying the right board – something that can make or break you when it comes to surfing.
While experienced surfers usually prefer a shorter, narrower board for mobility, it’s much easier to learn to balance on a longer, more stable board. So don’t worry about looking like a pro for now and get a board that’s appropriate for your level. It should help you get up and stay up faster!
You may also want to consider buying your board second-hand. Although it’s tempting to deck yourself out with flashy new equipment, you may want to hold off at first. Once you’re up and surfing, so to speak, you can always trade up.
And don’t forget that wetsuit! Even on a sunny day, ocean temperatures can get uncomfortable faster than you think. So to prevent freezing your butt and other parts off, invest in a suit that will keep your muscles warm while you’re paddling or just sitting there waiting for waves.
Even in a place as warm as Hawaii, you’ll at least want to have a rash guard on to prevent the board from irritating your skin. Thus the name rash guard!
Pick the Right Spot
If you’re taking surf lessons, your instructor will know the best spots for beginners. But if you’re heading out with an experienced friend or a group of novices like yourself, picking a spot appropriate to your level is crucial.
Trying to paddle out and compete for waves with a group of experienced locals will be hard enough when you’re ready. And if not, it could scare you off of surfing altogether. So best to avoid popular and competitive local spots at first and pick a place where you’re free to make mistakes.
You can ask a friend or someone at your local surf shop for places that are kinder to beginners (also known as “kooks”). You can also check out surfline.com, a forum packed with information on surf spots around the world.
Even in the perfect spot, you’ll still have to take a lot of spills and make a lot of mistakes. But at least nobody will be giving you the stink eye while you do it.
Check the Forecast
Even a beach that’s considered perfect for beginners can be dangerous on the wrong day. That’s why it’s important to learn about things like swells, currents and tides and check the conditions before you head to the beach.
If you hang in there long enough, you may get good enough to head out when the swells get bigger. But at first, waves between 1 and 2 feet are best for absolute beginners on big boards.
Learn Surf Etiquette
Surfing at first glance may seem all zen and hang loose. But this sport is actually filled with a surprising amount of unwritten rules. And unless you want to piss off a bunch of experienced locals (and you don’t), you need to get clued in about how to conduct yourself when you’re out there hunting waves.
Surf etiquette may vary a bit from spot to spot, but there are a few big no-no’s that you should know about off the bat.
First of all, don’t “drop in” on another surfer’s wave. If surfing has a first commandment, this may be it. Dropping in is basically stealing someone else’s wave. When you drop in, you deprive the surfer of being able to enjoy the full power of the wave. Not to mention you put yourself at risk for a collision.
So how do you know if you’re stealing someone else’s wave? Every wave has a peak. If you’re observing the ocean carefully, you should be able to see where that is.
The unwritten rule says that the wave belongs to the person closest to the peak. If there’s a surfer closer to the inside of the wave than you, be sure to give them priority. If you’re the surfer closest to the peak, you’re free to enjoy the ride.
At some beaches, there are even lineups to catch waves. While you may be anxious for your ride, be patient and wait your turn. And remember that if you fail to catch the wave, there are no do-overs. Miss it, and it’s back to the end of the lineup.
Another rule you should always stick to is never throwing your board away. Loose boards can be very dangerous and can cause serious injuries to other surfers. So no matter how tempting it is, hang on to it!
These are just two of the many unwritten rules that experienced surfer’s abide by. Remember that etiquette may vary from beach to beach. This is where heading out with a more experienced surfer that knows the beach can make your life a lot easier.
For more on surf etiquette in general, check out this helpful video.
Even the best surfers wipe out. And so will you. A lot. You’re also going to make a lot of other mistakes like paddling out in the wrong place, losing your board or accidentally breaking surf etiquette.
Try not to sweat it too much. The rewards of learning to surf are great, but there are a lot of dues to be paid upfront. When it comes to riding waves, the learning curve is pretty steep.
And just like any new skill you’re trying to master, you get out of it what you put into it. So hang tough, do the work and remember that falling isn’t failing.
So keep getting back up on that horse, and one day you WILL be able to ride it.
Know Your Limits
One of the challenging things about learning to surf as an adult is checking your ego at the beach. Yes, there will be 7-year-olds that can out surf you. Try to remember that they’ve probably been surfing since they could barely walk.
There will also be days when the conditions are too rough for you. Even if all of your friends are in the water, sitting out on the beach is always wiser if the waves are beyond your skill level.
Knowing your limits will help to keep you and other surfers safe. And trust us, sitting it out on the beach is a lot less humbling than having to be rescued by a teenage lifeguard.
You Do You
Hardcore, experienced surfers can be famously snarky when it comes to newcomers. Follow the etiquette, but try to ignore any comments from jaded locals. And try to forget about how you look.
It may take you weeks or months for you to stand up and stay up. But who cares? Remember that surfing is a hobby. And hobbies are what we do for fun, right?
So enjoy nature and that amazingly clean feeling you have when you get out of the water. The skillset will come eventually. Besides, as a very wise surf philosopher once said, “The best surfer is the one that’s having the most fun.”
There’s no doubt that surfing is a challenging sport to pick up – and even more so as an adult. Trying to harness the power of a wave in constantly changing conditions takes training, guts and an affinity for the water that you don’t develop overnight.
But like anything else you put your mind to, it can be done. Proper preparation, an experienced guide and respect for the ocean are all key to the process.
Above all, try to be patient with yourself. When you catch your first big wave, all that wiping out will be worth it. Until then, hang in there and keep practicing those pop-ups!
PS: And for those days when you need a little extra inspiration, a good read can always help. Check out this book by Tom Vanderbilt with some valuable advice on how to become a beginner all over again. And yes, he did learn to surf at middle age.
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