Fitness vs. Skill

Any great surfer will tell you that truly mastering the sport is just as much about fitness as it is about skill. In biology, fitness is defined as “an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment.” In surfing, its about mental and physical stamina. Its about one’s ability to get up not once, but again and again and again.

In the first hour or two of surfing, you might get lucky. You might catch on to the ocean’s patterns quickly and begin to balance with a sort of innate ability. I did. The first time I ever surfed, at the age of 19, I got up. It was incredible, surprising, adrenaline-inducing. I still remember where I was: Carolina Beach. And I remember who was with me: a dashing Australian who let me borrow his longboard. And I thought I was charmed.

Over time, the beginner’s luck begins to wear off. The aspiring surfer settles into a period of falling constantly, and feeling “off pace.” I remember this time in my own surfing journey well. One year after my first surfing experience, I decided to buy my own board. Surely if I did it once, I could do it again. So why not go all in? How little I knew about what stood before me.

My second journey out into the ocean was a bit of a nightmare. It was a hot afternoon. I was wearing a flashy Roxy brand rash guard and making quite the statement by running aggressively into the ocean with my bright blue board raised above my head. Within minutes, I was under the water, crushed by the breakers, which began pushing me relentlessly back to shore, my board pulling me along. I felt helpless. But alas, I got up and tried again, and pushed out harder. This time, making it past the breakers and out into deep, deep water. I could feel the riptide underneath me, and it was strong. I finally got to a place where I was able to sit on my board, wait for a wave. As I waited, I savored the cool of the water and the feeling of power in getting through the breakers this time. I found a wave, began paddling and kicking to catch it, got halfway up, and then wipeout. Back to the breakers, yet again. This time, the water pushed me down, into the sand. Hard. A few waves later, I gave up for the day, without a single ride.

In the weeks that followed, my arms and legs grew tired, my abs sore, and my pride small. But I continued, with limited success at first. Whatever big ego I brought into the water that first day was long gone. The ocean was my master, not the other way around. This is the inevitable process of acclimating to ocean life, and it is where many would-be-lifelong surfers give up.

At first, all that is required to conquer a wave is a sort of sharpness and good timing, perhaps even sheer effort. Over the course of more time, though, fitness trumps skill. Paddling and lifting ones’ body repeatedly requires great effort, and bodies that are not used to the constant exertion will tire rapidly. Furthermore, new surfers must learn the art of surfing and give up on making it through sheer will. That, too, I learned, is a sort of fitness: it is a mental agility to withstand wipeout after wipeout and still continue.

Building the Body for Fitness

My summer of learning how to surf-and I did-led to many life lessons. On the theme of fitness there are a few worth unpacking here. Surfing for hours requires agility, strength, and physical endurance. It requires strong arms: to paddle aggressively and rapidly lift up the body’s weight. It requires a strong core: to balance the body and assist with paddling and lifting. It requires steady and strong legs: for kicking aggressively through rough patches of water and standing with confidence. It even requires steady, calculated breathing: for times when you have to duck dive or you get pushed underneath a big wave. Building up these things requires time and consistent practice.

Imagine the body’s equivalent of strong arms, abs, legs, and breathing for mastering the ocean of life.

Our arms are the part of us that carries us forward and pushes us toward our goals. They are our appendages that reach out for things new and beyond. In a sense they are our drive, our persistence. If we don’t learn how to endure and carry on, we will give up when things get tough and surrender our bodies to the whitewater.

Our abs are our core that provides us with balance and stability. They are our inner compass, which requires calibration and daily exercise. We must take dedicated time to strengthen them so that they work fluidly and instinctively.

Our legs are the part of us that carries us. For most of the day, they support the entire weight of our body as it moves from one place to the next. On a surfboard, they are the part that steadies us and keeps us above the waves. To strengthen the legs, it is not enough to just use them. We must enhance their capacity to carry us through cross-training, changing up our routines and challenging ourselves through new experiences. In addition, we must let our legs rest, fully, deeply, so that when it is time for them to perform they have capacity to move rapidly and steadily.

And finally our breathing is our most essential, and often overlooked, function. Have you ever worked out and felt lightheaded, only to find out that you forgot to breathe? Without oxygen, our bodies are good for only mere minutes before our brains begin to die. Typically seen as a passive function, many pro surfers treat proper breathing as an essential aspect of their training routine. Some do underwater training. Others breathing exercises. Their goal is to enhance their lungs’ capacity to hold and manage air so that they can stay underwater without struggle or fear.

A post I ran across about breath training puts it this way:

“Thinking uses oxygen. Struggling uses oxygen. In a hold down, panic is your enemy…Save your energy and your oxygen and wait for the wave to release you before pushing to the surface for air.”

What a rich metaphor for how we might integrate active breathing into our daily way of life! We must train our lungs to hold extra oxygen for tough times when the air is thin or non-existent, when the waves of struggle or disappointment might otherwise overwhelm us. Then, when we reach surface after a big wave, we must slow our pace to take time for a full recovery, to allow our lungs to return to normal function and completely refill with oxygen. It might seem silly, but how many of us have gone through hardship and then too quickly gone after the next big thing only to find ourselves beat down and wheezing for air not much later?

So, what’s the big lesson here? Mastery takes perseverance, mental and physical training, and patience. I didn’t learn how to surf overnight. And I won’t learn how to surf life’s waves overnight either. Just when I think i’ve mastered the ocean, another big one will come along and knock me out. But, with that said, the point of surfing isn’t to stop falling. The point is to fall as well as you can, get back up, and try again until you ride one with gusto.

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