Fitness for Surfers: Q&A with Lucy from Think Eat Feel

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Surfers, go grab your yoga mat and settle in for an interview with Lucy Johnston, a surf instructor and clinical exercise physiologist who specializes in treating surf-related injuries. Find her at Think Eat Feel.

Today, we talk about how to stay healthy in between surf sessions and separate exercise myths versus facts.

Hey Lucy! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Thanks for having me on The Salt Sirens. I hope this chat helps someone, somewhere to excel in their surfing and health in some way!

My clinic is based in Torquay, Australia. However, I travel hosting workshops and I still spend as much time as I can in the far North Coast of New South Wales.

I took an interest in optimizing the health of other ocean water addicts after a  few personal experiences that opened my eyes to the importance of movement and nutrition to advance your abilities and prolong your lifespan in and out of the water. 

When I was about 18 years old and completing a surf lifesaving qualification, I rolled and tore the ligaments in my right ankle while running in shallow water. Tearing ligaments is a frustrating injury as unlike muscles–which have great blood supply–they have little stretch and contraction. So, ligaments take a long time to heal, if ever. You need to work on strengthening everything else around the ankle more than normal to keep it stable from then on. This is something you could work on regularly through balance and weight training to prevent it happening in the first place. I was interested in the way that the body compensated (in a negative way) to make up for my weaker ankle and what exercises I could do to help heal without surgery.

A couple of years later, I went to California to work for the Australian Surf Academy. As a lean, fit surfer, I never really thought much about what I ate. Moving to the states opened my eyes! I remember being on the beach and seeing a huge bus pull up every morning and about 50 kids get off with water bottles and walk off into the distance. At the end of the day the kids would return and drive off. I found out this was a weight loss camp, where parents could enroll their kids over the summer break to lose weight by walking all day and eating healthier food. It confused me that this program was even needed. However, after working 7 days a week for 8-10 hours a day on the beach for 3 months, I was amazed that I, too, had gained 11kg (24lbs) in this time! It was purely because of the ‘over the top’ portion sizes of the food that was packed with unnecessary energy I was eating there. 

When I came back to Australia, I realized that we were heading the same way. I went to uni and studied a Bachelor of Exercise Science and Nutrition. So, I’ve ended up with a physical therapy practice where I use Clinical Exercise Physiology, Nutrition, Bowen and Massage Therapy.

My main interest in studying was initially to treat myself. I wanted to be the best surfer I could be, reduce my risk of injuries (which I had a few along the way), eradicate chronic fatigue, and know exactly how to fuel and treat my body using nutrition as preventative medicine. I wanted to understand the sports psychology of how I could surf bigger and more challenging waves and push my own body’s capabilities. This lead to helping others. I was a personal trainer and group fitness instructor throughout uni which allowed me to put everything I learned into practice.

Once qualified, I ran my own clinic in Byron Bay and moved the clinic to Bells Beach four years ago. I’ve worked with many ocean athletes from professional surfers to the fortnightly shorey hunter. What is interesting is that usually, it’s the professional athlete who has the most challenging body to work with. Why? Because they push through pain and injuries due to goals and competition deadlines. This strict schedule doesn’t allow time for recovery before having to use their body again. 

Through my experience of working with many people, I have realized a few key strategies that allow athletes to be at their optimum, no matter what level they are at.

You’re a certified surf instructor as well—how did you get into that and where is your favorite place to paddle out?

I didn’t intend on teaching people how to surf but it was definitely a fun job when I was doing it. I was living with a friend who ran the local surf school called Go Ride A Wave in Torquay and needed some extra people one summer. I taught throughout uni. It was a great way to meet other ‘frothers’ at the time and everyone is always happy at the end of the day when they stand up for the first time on a board!

Favorite place to surf is such a hard question, Chantae. I think I would have to say Lennox Point, simply because it is such an amazing wave on its day (mid-week, uncrowded) and the water is warm. However, Winki Pop and  my favorite right in the Mentawais come a close second for sure. I haven’t been to your home break in Fiji yet so maybe these will change!

Yes! Come visit me in Fiji, you’ll love it. What inspired you to create Think Eat Feel?

Think Eat Feel, an online program, was about 7 years in the making. I started it for two separate reasons.

First, I’ve found that most of us assume that everyone else–especially elite athletes–is always feeling really good and pain free in their body. Yet, that is absolutely not the case. Most people have at least one little niggle or ache and pain or issue that gets to them whenever they do their sport. And I guess the ‘stories’ page on the website allows people to see that you can overcome these issues quite easily with the right process. Sometimes people think it’s normal to put up with their pain or injury or lack of ability. This is not true and it doesn’t matter what age or level of fitness you are at, you can work on optimizing your body.

Second, I really wanted to share my philosophy after learning from amazing people that I have completed courses with over the years that have taught me their methods and treatments for the body. Whether these people have been physical therapists, hands-on therapists, psychic mediums, university lecturers, or medical physicians, they have all impacted my learning and applications to my clients. 

(P.S. The Salt Sirens get 50% off the Movement Series #1 with the discount code ‘SALTSIRENS’ at checkout!)

Your first point is so true. When I think about it, my friends and I always seem to have something going on with our limbs. Currently, it’s my knee!

Is your program solely for elite athletes, or do you think those who surf, dive, paddle as a hobby should take part in as well?

Think Eat Feel is is definitely not just for elite athletes. Most of my clients are athletes that still have their regular day job but are super passionate about being the best they can be at their physical pursuits. The Movement Series #1 is a training program that has no time frames and anyone at any level can do it. You just see what level you can do in the program and start from there!

What injuries do you typically see associated with surfers? A lot of my surf mates complain about wrists and shoulders, why is this? 

Shoulders are definitely a common issue in clinic. Shoulders, lower backs, necks and knees are probably the main areas of complaint.  Shoulders and wrists happen for a few reasons. Most commonly a person can get bursitis (wearing of the fluid sacs that sit among your shoulder joints to cushion them) in the shoulder because we drop them forward too much as we paddle. Dropping the shoulder doesn’t allow it to sit in the correct position and have the required amount of space within the joint for all the tendons and muscles that attach from that joint to glide correctly. This causes wear and tear. We usually drop our shoulders forward because we lose extension or ‘lift’ in the lower spine which is required to keep our chest lifted off the board when paddling. If your chest is resting on your board, then generally your shoulders will be dropped and you will need to crank your neck back which is not healthy for the cervical spine either.

Usually, to treat this, I release the tightened soft tissue such as the pec muscle attachments that connect into the front of the shoulder which are now shortened. Then, train/strengthen the posterior side of the body (lower back, mid back and neck extensors) to hold the shoulders more open and for longer.

Oftentimes, if we sit at a computer or drive for a large part of the day, the back side of the body becomes lengthened and weak which are also the exact muscles we need to contract and be strong to hold us up when paddling. 

When it comes to wrists: If the shoulders, the chest, and core muscles are weak (muscles that are required to produce power in a push up and pop up in surfing), then the weight of the body is placed downward into the wrist joint. Bones are hard to break. So when the soft tissue such as muscles of the shoulders, forearm, and chest let us down, the bony joint will take the load through compressive force. That’s why wrist pain often occurs. The good news is you can build muscular endurance in the core, chest, and arm muscles to withstand several duck dives and pop ups and not get wrist pain. When loading onto our hands we should always be thinking about drawing the weight of the body away from the joint, not into it.

How can these types of injuries be prevented? For example, when I see surfers spending a few minutes stretching on the beach, I wonder if that really prevents injury–or does it end up being for show? 

For sure completing a little ‘activation’ warm up is a great idea before performing any sport. I usually give people a crawling pattern, a quick jumping pattern, and a mobility exercise that encompasses a lot of things in two quick moves before paddling out. This is purely to get your brain firing up the correct muscular pathways of muscle recruitment and allow your reaction speed to kick in straight away which does prevent injuries. But that is assumed that you already have the mobility and muscle strength there from training your body over time. Stretching just one muscle group at a time before heading out can actually slow your nervous system down and be counter-intuitive to the sport that requires quick initiation of movement. So I usually leave the stretching to during a complete training session. 

I strongly believe that if you want to keep doing what you love and do it well, you need to spend some time on your body to condition it with remedial and strength exercises. Basically, check you have good mobility in all your joints, good activation and endurance in your muscles to add stability to your joints, and muscular strength to maintain lubrication within your joints and allow more power in your sport whether it be in your bottom turns while surfing, your kick while diving, or your stroke while swimming and paddling for waves.

What are some of the healthiest habits surfers can have for their lifestyle?

Surfers often have a healthy lifestyle just by being outside in nature which I think is one of the most important things for most people, for their mind. 

In terms of reducing injury risks, can you replicate the movements you want to do in the water in slow motion on land? That pop up on your board–can you do it on your mattress? Can you slow it down?

It’s often a lot harder to do a movement super slow and you will find out your weakest links by doing this. Then repeat these movements until it becomes easy (whilst breathing into your belly). Then, gradually speed it back up. 

Know how to assess yourself. In my workshops we go through how to check your range of movement to know if you have good mobility or what to work on with your stretches. This saves you doing unnecessary stretches, too!  If you know your strengths and weaknesses then you can focus on just the things you need to optimize and spend more time in the water doing your actual sport and not feeling anxious you will get an injury. Get confidence in your abilities and your body by understanding how to use it!

In terms of using food as medicine, prioritize whole foods. These foods have had little interruption. I.e., it don’t need extra packaging, have had little transit time, were not refined by a machine or handled by too many people. Basically if Mother Nature created it and man hasn’t tampered with it, eat it!  

Variety is also key to injury prevention. Sometimes our body is just sick of going through the same movements repetitively. Mix up your sports so you don’t overuse one area too much. 

Looks like I’ll have to practice my pop-ups on land a bit more! How essential do you think rest is when it comes to progressing as a surfer?

You are the best doctor for your body. Because nobody understands how it feels like you do. It’s important to be able to be still and listen to what your body is telling you and set time aside for body maintenance. This is one of the hardest things for water sports because unlike land based sports, surfing for instance is dictated by the weather conditions on the day or the week ahead. Professional surfers work their training routines around the swell. This gets tricky because recovery is the most important component of getting fitter.

You must have adequate rest between sessions. If the surf is good, we often surf our brains out for days on end and then rest. Understand that after day one, we are not getting fitter, we are just wearing ourselves and our joints out. So making sure you are feeling mobile, fueled up, and warmed up before you go into that situation is important. Staying hydrated and eating complex carbohydrates, plenty of vegetables and leafy greens and healthy proteins before and after these sessions will help aid in the repair process, too.

It helps to have an ongoing strength and conditioning routine in your weekly schedule so when you do get that swell hitting, you know you are at your optimal to handle the conditions. Prioritise your body in your day to day so  it can be there for you for many more to come!

Thanks, Lucy! I’ve certainly learned a lot with this conversation and I’ll be setting aside some time next week to start your Think Eat Feel series #1. I could use the mobility and strength.

Great news! The Salt Sirens readers get 50% off of the Think Eat Feel Movement Series #1 portal with the discount code “SALTSIRENS” at checkout!