Surfing is an awesome sport for anyone who likes being active and spending time on the water. It will take you to some of the world’s best beaches, and there’s an undeniable sense of community among people that share a passion for the sport.
If you watch people who’ve been surfing for years, you might think there’s nothing to it – a couple of paddles, a quick jump, and you’re up, right?
Well, wrong, actually. As much as the pros make it seem easy, surfing is hard work, especially for beginners.
Not only is it physically demanding (believe me, you’re going to feel the burn the next day), but it’s physically challenging too. Heading out into breaking waves and trying something new isn’t for the fainthearted, after all.
Having said that, while learning to surf might not be an easy task, if you stick with it, you will certainly be rewarded. Nothing quite beats that thrill of gliding across the ocean on your carefully chosen wave.
Although there’s no ‘magic trick’ for learning to surf – for most of us, it will take some serious time and commitment – there are a few things I wish I’d known before I learned to surf.
So, here are some top tips to help make your life as a beginner surfer that bit easier (and more enjoyable!).
Prepping on dry land might not be loads of fun, but if you want to make the most out of your first surf session, then it’s definitely worth it.
Find a Mentor
Surfing solo for the first time isn’t fun (or safe). We definitely recommend finding a surf school in your area if you can. Group lessons are a great way to build up your confidence and technique while under the eye of a trained professional.
Plus, you’ll be amazed by what you can learn from talking to your fellow beginners – you’re probably all having similar issues and talking them through will help you correct them quicker as well as making you feel better about yourself.
Alternatively, if you have a friend who’s an experienced surfer, why not ask them if you can tag along one day? Although this is a cheaper option, be wary that not everyone will have the time and patience to answer all your questions, and you might end up finding out a lot of things the hard way!
Watch some Tutorials
There are many things to take in on your first few surfing sessions – you’ll be trying to remember your technique all while being exposed to the feeling of the waves and your new gear for the first time.
Watching a few videos online will hopefully cram some knowledge into your head in advance, so it’s easier to recall on the day when a lot of other things are new.
Know your Gear
As with most things, having the right tool for the job is essential for surfing. The best way to begin your surfing endeavors is with a large, floaty board. The ‘floatiness’ makes the board nice and stable in the water, making it easier to catch waves and it means that you can sit back and rest on your board when you need to.
It’s also best to start with a foam (or ‘soft-top’) board. The foam means not only protects your board when it gets knocked around on the bottom, but it also protects you when you collide with your board (which will almost certainly happen a few times as you’re learning).
Practice your Pop-Up
‘Popping up’ is the movement that brings you from lying flat on your board to standing, and it’s a bit like a push-up following by a jump. Once you’ve been surfing for a while, you won’t think twice about your pop up, but when you’re out there for your first few sessions, it will be one of your primary focuses.
Popping up for the first time with a wave behind you can be a little daunting, so it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the movement on dry land first. Have a little practice on the sand before you head in the water, and keep an eye on where your feet end up (you want tour leading foot forward and your other foot back).
Check out this video for some in-depth pop-up techniques:
Set Realistic Expectations
Setting realistic expectations is crucial when you’re a beginner surfer (or, in fact, any level). Don’t go out there hoping to shred some waves during your first few sessions. It can take weeks, months, or even years to get to that stage.
At the very least, even if you don’t stand up once, you’re going to start building up your surfing muscles and get yourself used to being in the waves.
If you do manage to stand up and catch a wave while you’re relatively new to surfing, then congrats, but you might not manage it the next time. Learning to surf isn’t a linear experience, you’re going to have your ups and downs, and you’ll enjoy the whole thing a lot more if you aren’t putting heaps of pressure on yourself – surfing is meant to be fun, after all!
As with any sport, getting your heart racing and the blood flowing before you begin is a good idea to prevent injuries.
We really do recommend that beginner surfers take it seriously. When you’re new to surfing, you’re likely going to be using muscles you’ve rarely used before, and the burn is real.
Some pre-stretching and warm-up exercises will make a huge difference to your aches and pains the next day, and it can make the difference as to whether you can surf almost every day or just once or twice a week (and the more you surf, the quicker you’ll learn).
Find some Beginner Waves
As a beginner, you ideally want consistent frothy shore breaks at least waist high to practice on. There might be kids or surf school students training in the same area, which will give you an idea of how far out to go.
Then, when you’re moving out the back, waves roughly 3-4 feet breaking nicely and regularly are ideal. Waves this size are good to practice on because they aren’t as scary as larger ones, and they aren’t as powerful either, which means you won’t spend as much effort fighting to get back out there every time you get brought to shore.
Plus, if you head out to a spot full of experienced surfers, they’ll probably take all the best waves anyway. And if you do go for one before you’re ready, you’ll probably end up cutting them off and might find yourself getting yelled at. By choosing smaller waves and quieter spots, you’ll make learning to surf a far less stressful experience.
Watch the Waves
You’ll see surfers of every level gazing out across the horizon at the beginning of every surf session. And no, they’re not just pretentiously making a show of how seriously they take their surfing (well, most of them), they’re actually studying the waves so they know where to go and how to make the most of them.
This article is a good starting point for things to look out for.
In the Froth
The froth (or white water) is a great place to get used to being on a board, but it’s very different from being out the back.
Paddle (even if you don’t need to) and Pancake
Although beginner boards are so floaty that you might not have to paddle at all to get taken by the white water, it’s good to practice it anyway for later on (and to build your strength).
Place your body weight so that the board sits flat (as a pancake) on the water. Too far back and the lip will lift, and too far forwards means your nose will dip (brace yourself, your first nose dive will most likely be quite spectacular).
Push with your Pelvis
I honestly wish someone had told me this earlier. Pushing down with your pelvis (and using your core) gives extra lift to the cobra stage of your pop-up, and, believe me, it makes all the difference.
Don’t stay there Too Long
It can be tempting to stay in the comfort of the firth forever, especially once you get the hang of standing up. But remember, the aim of the game isn’t to become a ‘froth-master’ – it’s to get out there and catch real waves.
Staying in the froth too long can get you into bad habits (like not paddling enough) and can make heading out the back daunting if you stay there too long.
Paddling and Surfing Out Back
Know the Rules
Usually, it’s one person per wave. If a wave is breaking, the person closest to the breaking point (probably a more experienced surfer) has the right of way – which is why quiet spots are better when you’re learning. Brush up on the rules here so you don’t go getting into any fights.
As for the paddling itself, here’s a good video with simple tips and techniques to use:
Wait for a Break
Getting out the back can be tricky, especially with a huge floaty board. You’ll see people on smaller boards ducking and gliding their way out – but you just can’t do that in big waves with beginner boards.
Take your time and wait until there’s a lull in the sets or, even better, find a channel where the waves aren’t breaking – you’re going to need that energy for later.
Use the Safe Zone
Paddling out can take it out of you, so if you need a break once you’re out the back, just head slightly further back from where the waves are breaking. You can sit here, regain your strength, and look where the waves you want to catch are breaking without fear of waves crashing on you (just make sure you don’t go too far out – you need to be able to get back in!).
Look Behind You
Timing is everything with surfing. You need to know where to position your board to catch the waves – generally, with beginner boards, it’s roughly 5 m back from where the waves are breaking.
While you’re learning, you’ll try and catch waves too early and too late all the time, but you won’t realize this is what you’re doing without glancing back over your shoulder as you paddle (before you pop up).
Once you get a feel for where you should be, you’ll know whether to give up on a wave if you’re in the wrong spot. It’s better to save your energy for the ones that you’re perfectly placed for. Go for a few carefully chosen waves, rather than crash around going for loads that you’ll never catch because you’re in the wrong spot.
Add Two More Paddles
Perhaps it’s all their enthusiasm (or fear of nosediving), but beginner surfers always want to stand up too soon.
When you’re paddling for a wave, you’ll feel it start to take you, and it’s then that you stop paddling and pop up. If you keep paddling for waves and missing that woooosh as it takes you, then you’re probably jumping up to soon.
If this keeps happening, try adding two more paddles every time you think you’re ready to pop up – this trick will set you right in no time.
Surfing is intense on your muscles, especially the ones in your back.
Remember to pace yourself – going for every wave and exhausting yourself won’t improve your technique, and you might end up hurting yourself.
Beginner boards are great because you can sit on them and relax your back or, if you’re super tired, simply take a break on the shore then head back in.
The work doesn’t stop when you get out of the water, I’m afraid…
When you get out, do some gentle stretches to keep yourself nice and supple and ready for your next surf.
Here are a few good ones, yoga based, but great to loosen the muscles again.
Make sure you’re learning from your mistakes.
Nosediving a lot? You’re probably too far forward on your board.
Falling off as soon as you stand up? Your knees probably aren’t bent.
Keep hesitating? Maybe you need to try some smaller waves.
Some surf schools even film you as you earn, so you can really home in your problems
Remember, surfing is HARD. You’re going to suck at first, but even pro surfers were beginners once.
Don’t be too tough on yourself, take your time, don’t give up, and, above all else, make sure that you’re enjoying yourself!