Competitive surfing: a physiological profile of athletes and determinants of performance

Farley, Oliver Raymond Lewis
Harris, Nigel
Kilding, Andrew
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Master of Sport and Exercise
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Auckland University of Technology

Despite a huge growth in competitive surfing there is still a paucity of research available to underpin assessment and conditioning practice. Limited research investigating surfers’ aerobic and anaerobic fitness provides an initial insight into the physiological demands of surfing; however it is limited in terms of competitive surfing and is characterized by methodological discrepancies. Likewise performance analysis has not been utilized extensively in surfing. Information available to-date suggests that competitive surfing is characterized by repeat high intensity intermittent bouts of paddling interspersed with moderate and high heart rates. Additionally, research evidence indicates that surfers possess moderately high aerobic fitness levels, comparable to other athletic groups such as competitive swimmers and surf life savers. To understand more about the sport of surfing, fundamental research into competitive surfing is needed. Therefore, the objectives of this study were to use methods of performance analysis to measure the physical outputs, workloads and activity patterns of elite surfers during competitions, and to specifically measure their anaerobic power output and peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak) on a modified kayak ergometer, and the relationship between these outputs and surfing performance.

The study investigated the performance of surfing athletes during competitive surfing events. Twelve national ranked surfers were fitted with heart rate monitors and Global Positioning System (GPS) units and videoed during two sanctioned competitions. From the 32 videos analysed the greatest amount of time spent during surfing was paddling 54 ± 6.3%. Remaining stationary represented 28 ± 6.9% of the total time, wave riding and paddling for a wave represented only 8 ± 2%, and 4 ± 1.5% respectively. Surfers spent 61 ± 7% of the total paddling bouts and 64 ± 6.8% of total stationary bouts between 1 - 10 seconds. The average speed recorded via GPS for all subjects was 3.7 ± 0.6 km/h, with an average maximum speed of 33.4 ± 6.5 km/h (45 km/h was the peak). Surfers spent 58 ± 9.9% of the total speed zones between 1 – 4 km/h. The average distance covered from the two events combined was 1605 ± 313.5 meters. During the heats, surfers spent 60% of the total time between 56% and 74% of age predicted heart rate maximum (HRmax), 19% above 46% HRmax and approximately 3% above 83% HRmax. The mean HR during the surf competitions was 139.7 ± 11. b.min-1 (64.4% HRmax), with a (mean) peak of 190 ± 12. b.min-1 (87.5% HRmax).

The aerobic VO2peak uptake and anaerobic peak power of nationally ranked surf athletes was determined over multiple testing occasions using a customized surf-paddle specific, kayak ergometer. Eight national level surfers participated in the incremental VO2peak test and 20 participated in the anaerobic power test. A kayak ergometer was modified with a surfboard and hand paddles, in an attempt to simulate a surfing-specific paddling action. The subjects’ peak power (W) output calculated via the kayak ergometer computer was 205 ± 54.3 W, during a 10 second maximal intensity simulated paddle. A key finding from the current study was the significant relationship between surfers season ranking and anaerobic peak power output (r= -0.55, P= 0.02). Although correlations do not imply cause and effect, such a finding provides theoretical support for the importance of anaerobic paddling power in assessment batteries and conditioning practice for surf athletes. During the incremental VO2peak uptake test, subjects recorded a VO2peak of 44.0 ± 8.26 mL/kg/min, a result similar to previous studies. We found that there was no significant correlation between the surfers’ season ranking and aerobic VO2peak values, or aerobic peak power outputs. Thus suggesting that peak oxygen uptake and peak aerobic power are not defining measures of surfing ability.

In conclusion, competitive surfing involves repeated measures of low intensity paddling, followed by intermittent high intensity bouts of all out paddling intercalated with relatively short recovery periods, combined with intermittent breath holding. Paddle power is conceivably important for competitive surfing athletes due to the significant relationship between surfers’ season rank and peak anaerobic power. The ability to produce maximal power might improve surfing performance by allowing more powerful surf athletes to paddle and catch waves that lower ranked competitors miss.

Surfing , Physiological profile , GPS and heart rate monitoring , Anaerobic and aerobic testing , Performance analysis
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