Ready for Winter? 3 Tips to Prepare Yourself to Surf Big Waves

Amanda LeVettInstruction, Surf, Surf TipsLeave a Comment

A few things before I start:

In this blog entry I am using the term “big waves” loosely. Partially for you, and partially for me, as “big” can be a relative term. Whatever you consider a big wave, we all know the fear we can face when learning to surf big waves.

All waves are NOT created equally. There are faster waves, slower waves, hollower waves, crappy waves, baby waves, radio waves, waves hello, waves goodbye, etc. Small waves can feel big. Big waves can feel small.

Also, although some of these tips may be helpful for big wave chargers, I am simply referring to the larger swells that may hit our home breaks. And finally, I am clearly making the assumption that you have similar fears to mine and/or some of the fears that I have heard from my students. If you have any specific questions you are welcome to ask in the comments below or email us at [email protected]


Tip #1: Prepare yourself to surf big waves.

“Damn. That was easy. I wish I hadn’t prepared so much.” Said no one, ever. So how can you prepare to surf big(ger) waves?

-Surf. 
Many of us are afraid of not making it out to the line up, getting caught inside, or simply not having enough energy or oxygen to paddle through the brick walls. There is nothing better than surfing to help with your endurance and your comfort level. The more you surf, the more comfortable you will be in all sorts of conditions. The fitter you’ll be. You’ll probably get better too 😉 BONUS!

-Hypoxic Breathing.
This is super cool. Hypoxic breathing, or breath control training, has been quite controversial and many of the recent studies about its benefits have been inconclusive. However, coach and author of “Swimming Fastest,” Ernie Maglischo, has found that hypoxic breathing’s clearest benefit is the reduction of hypercapnia—a foe of surfers.

Hypercapnia is responsible for that urge to breathe when you are holding your breath. This urge is part physiological and part psychological and it is usually set to “freak out,” mode. Your brain tells you WAY before you are too low on oxygen that you need to breathe. So, by including hypoxic breathing into your training program you can eventually reduce this urge and become calmer when holding your breath.

The training is simple:

  • When swimming laps, limit your breathing to every 5, 7, or 9 strokes throughout a set or for a specific distance.
  • Start with 400 m of freestyle (or any stroke) and breathe every 5 strokes. Then do a 400 m with a breathe every 7 strokes, and so on. You can go as extreme as one breathe every 10 or 11 strokes which is roughly every 25 m or halfway per lap.

You may want to start on a seated bike in the gym. Passing out is not common but better safe than sorry. I also want to warn you that repeated restriction of oxygen may cause headaches. PLEASE start slowly, and drink a lot of water.

With the warning aside, I will say that hypoxic breath training mimics what most of us go through when we paddle out. Imagine paddling, then a wave comes and you have to duck dive or turtle roll. Then you start paddling immediately and then oh god, you have to duck dive again. Not to different from breathing every 7 strokes in the pool, I will say.

how to surf big waves


Tip #2: To surf big waves, have the right equipment for the right conditions.

I love surfboards. I will admit that I have way too many. They sit in my garage and stare at me as I pull my car out on my way to surf. While in the water a little voice inside, easily mistaken for my conscience but definitely not because she’s vindictive, says to me “the twin fin would have been so much better” and then all I can think about is why my board sucks.

BUT this is different. Bigger waves move faster. Think of them as big cylinders. The bigger the cylinder, the further you are from the center, the faster the rpm’s. That said, a little more foam for some bigger swell can be a game changer. A bigger board can help you paddle faster, it can help you get into those bigger waves sooner, and even give you a split second longer to pop up. Bigger boards can also help with positioning on the wave, as you will likely take fewer late drops.

So, remember foam is your friend.

NOTE: There are so many more factors to consider for you step-up board, too many for this article. But fear not, I love surfboards so expect an article on quivers.


Tip #3: On bigger days, try point breaks or reef breaks.

I live in an area where the waves are very reliant on the movement of the sand. Simply, I surf beach breaks. If your home break is also a beach break then next time the swell picks up try surfing a point break.

Waves break at an open beach because of the sand build up or sand bars / sand banks. This sand can move about in as little as a couple days depending on the swell size, swell direction, tide, and whether there is rain or water pushing the sand into the ocean.

So when big swells hit a beach break, the channels can be unclear and/or the peak of the wave can be inconsistent. At a point break or reef break, the more permanent contours of the ocean floor (rock or reef) can hold against the energy of the larger swell. Therefore, you can finally add some rhyme or reason to the breaking waves. The take-off zone can be more clear and consistent. The channel is more apparent and bigger, and if you get caught inside you know you can paddle right or left to avoid some sets on the head.

Somehow, the size of the wave is a little less threatening when you can make some predictions about it. Or maybe we’re all control freaks. But whatever works help you surf big waves!!

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