If a surfer wears a wetsuit, it’s advisable to thoroughly wash the wetsuit with cold water after being out in the ocean. Regular washing rinses out the salt and preserves the quality of the neoprene material. This routine wetsuit maintenance is accepted as a necessary investment of time in order to maximize the useful lifespan of the equipment.

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Similarly, if you’re a surfer, your body requires routine maintenance due to how surfing affects muscles, joints, bones and fascia (connective tissue). Restorative practices including movement, massage and constructive rest are good ways to preserve the useful lifespan of your most irreplaceable equipment: your body.

There are some specific pain points and repetitive stress injuries that my surfer friends here in SoCal regularly complain of. Fortunately, I’ve found that it’s possible for these pains to be reduced or avoided with the right fitness therapy stretches and exercises. I’m offering up a few of those solutions right here today.

Common Surfer Aches and Pains

There is a wide spectrum of how surfing can negatively impact your body. On one side, there’s my friend ‘Stormin Norman’ who has been surfing for years with minimal negative side-effects. His biggest complaint is an occasional cramp in his right ankle or subtle pinching in his lower spine. On the other side, the lower spine pinching can get a lot worse. For some, especially those who already have low back pain outside of the water (like me), surfing can exacerbate the underlying issue.

Take my friend Mitch, whose dormant shoulder injuries and hip asymmetries from years of competitive hockey are often aggravated by surfing. The pain isn’t so bad that it keeps him out of the ocean altogether, but sometimes it’s bad enough for him to end a surf session early. Mitch also deals with the low spine pinching, which I’ve come to realize isn’t unusual among surfers: Every one of the other six surfers I interviewed reported the same lower back pain.

The common low back pain spot on surfers. Image Source: InjuryMap Low Back Pain

The second most common pain point, on the whole, is the shoulder girdle. This shoulder pain is derived from the repetition of the paddling motion.

Muscles of the shoulders and back

Since my friends’ two biggest musculoskeletal problem areas caused by surfing can both be traced to the repetitive motion of paddling out, rather than the act of surfing itself, I’ll be focusing my recommendations on paddling, as opposed to riding waves.

So what’s the solution to these issues? While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, there are a handful of principles that can be applied, as well as a few specific exercises that are applicable to most surfers.

Treatment of these aches, pains and imbalances involves restoring softness to overly tight muscles with self-massage techniques on therapy balls. Plus increasing elasticity in muscles/fascia to optimize mobility in the neck, upper back and hips with static and dynamic stretches. It may also be necessary to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles and bring balance to shoulder strength by conditioning weak opposing muscles to paddling.

Pre-Surf Shoulder Stretches

For some, shoulder pain and impingement in the front and side of the shoulders around the deltoid muscles is the most prominent issue. Others report discomfort in the trapezius just below the base of the neck. Also it shows up in the rhomboids between the shoulder blades.

To prep your shoulders for surfing, dynamic stretches are a safe and effective way to warm up these muscles, bringing circulation and proprioception (body sense) to the area. The exercises shown in the Tune Up Fitness Back Stretches & Exercises playlist on YouTube is a great place to start.

My pal Lish helps prevent the tight achy feeling in his shoulders by performing the Epaulet Arm Circles before his sessions, as well as throughout the day, whenever he finds a chance:

Lish grabbing a round of Epaulet Arm Circles before hitting the ocean

Ease the Lower Back Pain: After you Hang Ten… Just Hang

To help reverse the compression caused by the extension of the spine while paddling out, an easy remedy is to… hang. From a pull up bar, gymnastics rings, or even the side of your car.

Lish using the rails on the roof of his car to provide spinal decompression. Photo: Max Bayuk

The simple act of hanging from an overhead object not only decompresses the lower spine, but also decompresses the shoulder joints in an overhead position. This helps reduce those paddling-based shoulder impingements.

Surfer Self Massage: Wave Goodbye to Tension

There’s a reason it’s recommended that beginners use foam boards without fiberglass coatings: they are more forgiving to the surfer and less likely to cause damage to both the the surfer’s body or the board, if the board hits the surfer (say, in the head), or the surfer hits the board (say, with their knee).

Similarly, when it comes to self-massage tools, it is recommended to default to using softer, more forgiving objects, in order to prevent unnecessary bangs and bruises, which is why the Roll Model® Therapy Balls are a soft, forgiving dense foam rubber.

The Tune Up Fitness YouTube channel has a playlist of Roll Model Method techniques, which will provide you with the basic framework for the different ways you can use a massage tool on your tissues.

But some specific areas with a high likelihood of helpfulness include the following:

Author Max massaging upper trapezius with an Alpha ball against a palm tree


Therapy ball lower back massage to reduce pinching
Roll out crampy calves

I hope that you’ve found some solid inspiration here to take care of your body at least as well as you take care of your board and wetsuit.

As with surfing, there is a learning curve to activities like stretching and self-massage. Once you’re familiar with the basic tools and techniques at your disposal, you can begin to more easily adapt them to your lifestyle and wave-sliding routines. The more time and effort you invest in becoming comfortable with the nuances of these activities, the better suited you become to react to the ever-changing environments you encounter, in the water and underneath your own skin.

Liked this article? Read Where Surfing Meets Yoga

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