Pilates and the Surfer
"When we think of Surfing, we think of balance; the Surfer standing on a board as he/she rides the waves against the constant movement of the sea and the body’s center of gravity on the board. It’s all manipulation of energy, which is what Pilates is really about."
- Dina Voigt
Pilates is a method of full-body conditioning. Just because it is considered a “core-based” technique does not mean it works only the “core.” Pilates was originally called Contrology and consisted of 36 mat-based movement exercises and a ton more on various Pilates apparatus.
Pilates is great alternative training for surfers, especially seasoned ones who have years of wear and tear on their body. It can be used for injury prevention and most importantly, Pilates educates you about the way the body should move in a healthy and balanced way. One of the major benefits of Pilates is it builds awareness of energy and teaches your body to move and operate more efficiently, making it beneficial for any sport.
Why is Pilates great for surfing?
As with any specific sport or everyday activity, there are injuries and imbalances common to surfers. There are repetitive movements in the body that cause imbalances. Our daily functions are affected by our recreational, as well as occupational, movements. Imbalances create injury and compensation.
When we think of surfing, we think of balance; the surfer standing on a board as he/she rides the waves against the constant movement of the sea and the body’s center of gravity on the board. It’s all manipulation of energy, which is what Pilates is really about. Think about the vigorous paddling the surfer has to do to get out to just the right place at just the right time, then go from a prone position to a crouched and standing position, straddle-sitting somewhere in there and so on. There are definitive muscle recruitment patterns, biomechanics and balance needed to execute the movements of surfing. Repetitive patterns need balancing. Many surfers complain of lower back, shoulder, neck and elbow pain and injury.
With this in mind, let’s use paddling as an example.
When paddling, the surfer is in a prone position (lying on the belly), the arms are working vigorously to propel the surfer and board through the power of the sea. While in the prone position and paddling, the spine is almost always in hyperextension. While in a prone hyperextension, we tend to let go of the ab connection when fatigued. If the deep abdominal muscles are fatigued, they are not working properly. This increases the pressure and tension in the lower back and encourages further imbalance in the already imbalanced and weak places.
Teaching the body to align properly and the deep abdominal muscles to recruit appropriately in this position will take the excess stress off the lower back and encourage the lats and lower medial traps to work more efficiently.
The biomechanics of paddling:
Surfers often suffer from lower back and shoulder injuries thanks to constant paddling and lying in the prone position. For example, being in a prolonged back extension can pinch the lower back area and if you let the abs relax when you’re tired, the tension increases. If you pull your navel toward your spine, press the pubic bone into your board, and lift your belly off the board, the lats and lower medial traps will work more efficiently and take the stress away from the lower back. The Gluteus Medius (pie shaped muscles on the lateral part of the hip under the Gluteus Maximus) is key to stabilizing the pelvis on the board along with the pelvic floor and adductors. This combination of muscles grounds the body to the board but you do not want to execute this in a rigid way. Practice is important so it becomes second nature, especially when you are tired.
As the surfer transitions from prone to standing; there is a lot of communication in the body, from initiators to movers to stabilizers. This patterning of movement can contribute to injuries and imbalances common to surfers. Pilates exercises, such as swan, pulling straps, forearm pushups, pulls, dolphin, swimming and many others will work both generally and specifically to help surfers improve their imbalances.
From head to toe or toe to head, the brain, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and fascial tissues must all learn to communicate and work together to allow the body to operate at its optimal potential: as a smooth-running machine. Remember, when we try to work with an imbalanced, disjointed body, injuries will occur and re-occur.
We all have imbalances in our bodies; the wonderful thing is that Pilates can bring us to our best possible balanced body. Pilates can be generalized for overall fitness and balance for each individual. It’s as personal as your surfing therapy.
By Kim Kuznitz, Certified Pilates Instructor and avid surfer