Surf Fitness - Undergraduate Research Studies the Biomechanics and Physiological Benefits of Surfing
By Margaret Chantung
Surfing as a sport has seen a rapid growth in popularity since the 1960s. On any given day along San Diego County’s 70 miles of coastline, thousands of surfers may be spotted in the ocean, riding waves or patiently waiting for their next ride. While most would agree that they surf for the pure enjoyment of catching waves, a new Cal State San Marcos study seeks to further substantiate the sport of surfing as a dynamic physical workout.
"Studies have been recently conducted with professional surfers in competition, but there is limited research on the average person who surfs recreationally," said Assistant Professor of Kinesiology Sean Newcomer. "This study gives us an opportunity to consider the physiological benefit of surfing for amateur surfers of all ages and fitness levels, including both men and women."
While the concept of surfing appears simple—all you technically need is a wave and a surfboard—anyone who has attempted surfing knows that the reality is much more complex. Physically speaking, surfers are essentially strong swimmers with a keen sense of balance. Stamina and upper body strength are crucial in order to paddle from the shore through breaking waves to reach the surf line. Once there, surfers wait on their boards and then paddle intensely when a quality wave presents itself. As the wave peaks, a surfer must stand rapidly and smoothly from a lying down position, balancing in a fluid upright position as they glide on the breaking wave toward the shore.
"Surfing can definitely be considered a form of interval training that combines short, high intensity bursts of speed with a recovery phase, repeated during exercise training," said Newcomer.
Students Ride a Wave of Hands-On Research
The research project is part of Newcomer’s course, Introductory Exercise Physiology 326. About a dozen students who took the course during fall 2013 are now interns on the project, mentoring the 40 students who are currently in the class. The student mentors are responsible for every aspect of the research protocol, which includes both laboratory and field work.
"Last year’s students are helping to teach this year’s students how to use the lab equipment while advising and training them," said Newcomer. "This is a terrific opportunity for the more experienced students to take on a leadership role while allowing the current students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to a real-world project. And the added benefit is the outreach to the community in the recruitment of surfers to participate in the study."
Students meet research participants at the beach to outfit them with waterproof heart rate monitors that are synchronized to a video camera filming them while they are in the ocean.
"I help analyze the data to match up the heart rate of the surfer to the activity that they are doing in the water–paddling, riding waves, sitting stationary on the board or other miscellaneous activities," said former kinesiology student Alyzza DeMesa. "We also record their maximum and minimum heart rates and how much time they spend in the water doing each activity."
The Science of Surfing
In the laboratory, research participants take part in a number of activities that test their anaerobic and aerobic fitness levels. Using a Biodex isokinetic machine, which applies computer-controlled resistance, students assess the strength of the subject’s quadriceps and hamstrings. The test helps them determine the role of leg strength in a surfer’s stance and balance.
"I get them all strapped up and make sure that they’re completely snug but comfortable," said kinesiology major Erik Tolentino, who graduated this past May. "I line up their knee with the machine and then also check for any internal or external leg rotation by having them do a couple of practice kicks. This is important because if their knee is not properly aligned with the machine, there is risk of damaging the ligaments due to the high resistance."
Students also test the participants’ upper body muscular power and utilization of oxygen using a swim bench customized with a surfboard to simulate paddling.
"With each participant we switch roles," said Chelsea Peters, a senior kinesiology major. "We are all responsible for informing each participant what they will be doing and why we are performing this particular protocol. During this particular test, one person takes the heart rate every 50 seconds, one person runs the metabolic cart, one person takes down the watts put out by the participant every 10 seconds, one person holds the hose out of the way and everyone cheers the participant on!"
Over the next two years, Newcomer and his students hope to study 600 surfers.
"Many surfers believe that while surfing is fun, it’s not necessarily a viable form of exercise on its own," said Newcomer. "This information has so far shown that surfing is very beneficial to the cardiovascular system and is a great part of a healthy lifestyle."
"It’s one thing to learn about the effects of exercise, but it is another to actually see it happening," said Peters, who is planning to go on to graduate school for her master’s in athletic training and a doctorate in physical therapy. "Actually being able to conduct research has changed the way I learn. I have been able to learn concepts and apply them in the lab. I know what to look for while testing and I am able to point out when something is abnormal. I know a lot of us are now considering going into research because of the opportunities afforded to us at CSUSM."
On the Breaking Edge: What’s Next
Newcomer and his students recently presented data from this study at the Southwest Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine Conference in Costa Mesa and are now collaborating with multiple research groups in Australia. In the coming months, many of the laboratory-based studies will be transitioning from the swim bench into the water using a specialized swim flume that was recently purchased by the kinesiology department for these and other studies. The surf research group will also begin collaboration with the Southern California region’s growing multibillion-dollar surf industry."Starting in the spring, we look forward to working with several companies to help with product testing and design," Newcomer said.