Featured in: Health  |  August 20, 2019

Riding mountains of moving water

Discover the euphoria of big-wave surfing.

By Christine Yu

Bianca Valenti, paddling out in the early morning light in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, last year, hoped to score one really special wave. But the California-based pro big-wave surfer was not quite sure how giant the waves would be.

When a peak popped up, Valenti (biancavalenti), 31, was in the perfect spot. She spun around, started paddling hard and slid into the wave. Valenti wanted to be barreled—in which a surfer rides under the curling lip of a wave inside a tunnel of water—and when she looked up, she realized that the wave was gigantic, estimated to be in the 40- to 50-foot range. “It was a buttery smooth ride the whole time,” she says.

Surfing big waves is when Valenti feels most alive. She is among the elite surfers who chase the massive swells that make you feel like you are being powered by a Mack truck.

Big wave surfing can feel euphoric. “In all other aspects of my life, I have 50 different things going on at once. Surfing those waves, my focus is so narrowed and heightened that I end up losing my sense of hearing because everything is so switched on. You’re reacting and adapting to things so fast,” says Ian Walsh, 36, a pro surfer from Hawaii (ian.walsh).

Riding the big surf as a pro is not a laidback day at the beach. Not only do you need to be a high-level athlete to paddle out into the world’s biggest waves, it takes years of experience to stay poised and calm in the most critical conditions.

“I chase big waves around the planet. In order for those days to go well, a lot of preparation happens beforehand in the gym, on the bike, in the pool and surfing in a variety of conditions,” says Walsh. It takes mental conditioning, too.

Prepping for Big Swells

“The first thing we focus on is confidence,” says Samantha Campbell, founder of Deep Relief // Peak Performance (deep2peak.com), a training facility in Maui where athletes like Walsh and another pro surfer, Paige Alms (paigealms), 31, train. “Being mentally prepared is having confidence in your body and equipment, and allows you to be committed [in the water]; that allows you to be safer. If you’re hesitant because you don’t feel ready, that can be detrimental,” Alms says.

For example, Walsh has an extensive training program to prep for the big-wave season in which each day is programmed for a specific purpose.

Some of Walsh’s days are dedicated to activation and mobility—turning on all his muscles to make sure they’re firing properly—in an effort to build a nimble body that can absorb the impact that comes with surfing and to reduce the risk of injury. Others are devoted to developing the strength, power, speed and agility needed to paddle and drop into waves and stay low during the ride, and to resist external forces, such as wind and chop, that try to force him off his board. (Campbell loves moves such as a Hex-bar deadlift and combining box jumps with throwing a medicine ball laterally against a wall.) Walsh also builds his cardio engine with cycling, which he appreciates for its low impact and high effectiveness, along with high altitude hiking and running.

Stability and balance work are other important training components
too: They develop the neural pathways between the brain and the feet to hone the body’s awareness of its position in space. Being able to know where you are means that “if you’re air-dropping into a wave, you don’t need to look to see where your feet are in relation to the board and wave. Your brain has built those connections,” says Campbell.

Big wave

Breathing and Recovering

A key skill for big-wave surfers is holding one’s breath, says Campbell. They practice this maneuver for longer and longer periods of time in order to stay calm and prepare for long hold-downs—and that torturous feeling of struggling for air. Surfers start by working on static breathholds— lying down on the floor and holding their breath under the supervision of a trained instructor—and move on to dynamic sessions where they incorporate breath-holds into rock running or HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions to mimic what it feels like to hold your breath after falling from a giant wave.

Finally, recovery is a key piece of the training puzzle. “The recovery days are just as important as the days you’re pushing hard,” says Alms. Whether it’s a complete day of rest or active recovery, it’s a chance for the brain and body to relax and consolidate the gains achieved in the gym.

“Big waves are where I feel the most alive and in tune with Mother Nature. It’s something I love to do,” says Alms. “Knowing what I can do in the gym gives me the confidence. It puts me in a better mindset to push myself knowing that I’ve done the groundwork.”

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