Saltwater Fitness ~ 3 Ways to Improve your Breathing for Surfing

Witch’s Rock Surf Camp is presenting monthly surf fitness articles by Saltwater Fit, a local Tamarindo fitness & nutrition company creating a movement around accessing joy through exercise. Founders Nick Holt and Julie Gohring have been living in Tamarindo for over 7 years and surfing for a combined 15 years. They teach beach boot-camps through Nick Holt Fitness and help people all over the world feel and look their best through their remote online coaching programs. 

We all know that fitness is critical for any surfer, so we’re super excited to team up with Saltwater Fit and give you tips and exercises to best prepare you for your trip, help you last longer in the water, and make sure you stay injury free. Nick and Julie will also be presenting weekly surf fitness seminars at Witch’s Rock! Here is their second article, 3 Ways to Improve your Breathing for Surfing

                                                        3 Ways To Improve Your Breathing For Surfing

Woman Meditating on Beach

Face down in the pool I could barely make out our instructor’s muted voice “2:58, 2:59…3 minutes! You guys made it! Keep going, don’t stop now. 3:10, 3:11…” I surfaced at 3 minutes and 15 seconds gasping for air in a state of slight lightheadedness and dizziness. I let it sink in for a second and then thought to myself, how the hell did I just do that? Before this weekend free-diving class, I’d never held my breath for over a minute. I just tripled my breathing holding ability with one simple technique. Holy shit.

It wasn’t until months later that I realized the crucial part of the breathing technique that allowed me to triple my breath hold was activating the correct breathing muscle. Now, you might be thinking to yourself — wait a minute, I breathe just fine, I breathe all day long without having much trouble at all. What’s the big deal with breathing?

Well, I’m here to show today how much breathing correctly matters to so many things in our life, not the least of which is surfing. Being able to breathe well and hold my breath for minutes has given me a confidence in the water that I never had before. It’s a powerful skill that you too can develop and give you more confidence in the water.

I’ll cover the 3 reasons why breathing matters so much to surfing and then I’ll give you my top 3 exercises to improve your breathing. First things first, let’s do a quick test to see how well you breathe.’d you do?

If you’re more a chest breather, you’ll want to learn how to become more of a belly breather. Even if you can belly breathe, there are reasons why you still need to maintain and train that main breathing muscle to stay strong and energized.

Why Does Belly Breathing Matter?

As mentioned in the video, the diaphragm muscle is the major breathing muscle in the body and is designed to most efficiently get air into our bodies. When you predominately breathe out of your chest, you’re using muscles not designed for breathing. Not only the chest, but the neck and upper back muscles also have to chip in to make up for an inactive or weak diaphragm. And if you think about how many breaths you take every day, its a ton of repetitive stress for muscles not designed for it.

So what happens in many chest breathers is that they have overworked chest, neck, and upper back muscles. Overtime this can increase the chance of injury and most definitely create chronic back pain.

The other issue is that the secondary breathing muscles aren’t as efficient as the diaphragm at getting air into the lungs. So not only will you create extra tension in your body with chest breathing, but you’ll also be limited in your breathing capacity without belly breathing.From a surfing perspective, here are 3 reason why you should care about breathing.

3 Reasons Belly Breathing Will Improve Your Surfing

1) Better Paddling Mechanics

Proper paddling technique requires a decent amount of flexibility through your middle back (thoracic spine). If you don’t have that flexibility because you sit a lot or chest breathing has your shoulders rounded forward, your thoracic spine will not extend properly and you wont be able to paddle with power. Not only will you not be able to paddle as well or as fast, but you’ll put the tendons, ligaments, and muscles of the shoulder at risk for injury.

2) More Confidence

With better breathing mechanics, you will be able to get more oxygen to muscles. This will lead to the ability to hold your breath longer which will give you much more confidence in the water. It will allow you to be more comfortable surfing bigger and more advanced waves.

3) Decrease stress & Recover Faster

Using your diaphragm to breath has been shown to reduce stress by triggering your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the part of the nervous system that is responsible for “rest and digest”. Most of the time we are walking around in our “sympathetic” nervous system which is all about “fight or flight.” Spending more time in parasympathetic will allow the body and mind to reduce stress and recover better.

So, now you know why it’s important, let’s talk about what can we do about it? Learn to engage and use your diaphragm with these 3 exercises.


3 Exercises To Improve Belly Breathing:

Focused Belly Breathing

Using the feedback of your hands, this technique brings awareness to how you are breathing. This is very similar to our test where you place your right hand on your chest and your left hand on your stomach. The focus should be on moving your left hand (the one on the stomach) while keeping the hand on the chest quiet.

Instructions: Sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Take deep inhales, expanding your belly. Use your diaphragm muscle, which will push the stomach outwards, moving your left hand as your belly expands. Exhale deeply and let the belly return to normal. The right hand on your chest should remain still. Try for 10-15 cycles (one inhalation & exhalation is one cycle) of deep belly breaths.

2. Crocodile Breathing

This is one of my favorite breathing exercises, and it builds off what you learned in the belly breathing exercise. This exercise adds a little resistance (through gravity) to your breathing, helping your breathing muscles fire more effectively.

Instructions: Lying face down on the ground, rest your forehead on top of your hands. Relax and take deep breaths into your mid-torso area. The idea with crocodile breathing is to try to expand the full 360 degrees of your lower torso (meaning your belly, back, and sides) with breath. You should feel your belly get full and wide on the ground as you breathe deeply. This ensures that you’re using your diaphragm and not your chest. Shoot for 3-5 minutes of crocodile breathing. Choose a relaxing song that lasts somewhere between that time, or set a timer so you can focus on your breathing instead of the clock.

3. Balanced Rhythmic Breathing

Maybe the simplest but still highly effective technique is the cycled, counted breathing technique. It’s popular with a lot of mindfulness practices. You simply count the duration of each inhale and exhale, progressing the duration of each in a ladder format.

Instructions: Start with a simple 4-ladder breath exercise. It works like this. Start by taking an inhale for 1 second, hold for 1 second, and then exhale for 1 second. Then inhale for 2 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and exhale for 2 seconds. Continue up to 5 seconds, and then go back down to 1. Repeat this cycle for 2-3 minutes. Master The Basics & Then Progress To More

Advanced Techniques

Once you get the basics of belly breathing down, then you can start to explore other more advanced breathing techniques. I wrote a comprehensive article here detailing some advanced techniques and other resources.

If you want more breathing exercises combined with a great full body surf workout, make sure to check out my free workout here.

Nick Holt Fitness
Nick Holt Fitness


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