I know what it is like to finally get back on a windsurf board, excited to taste the salt water again, feeling the wind on your face, the sensation of gliding over the water, only to realise after an hour or two that you have to stop. You have no more energy. Your forearms are aching, your legs are tired and you somehow don’t manage to get your breath back.
When I was at university in Newcastle (UK) I would always come back to Tenerife over the holidays to help out at my parent’s Surf Center. While in the UK I would focus on studying and living the stereotypical student lifestyle (lectures, parties, hangovers) which meant that not much time was spent at the gym. I would come back to Tenerife to help out at the Surf Centre and realised that I was knackered after a day teaching.
From my second year onwards I took up judo which improved my cardiovascular performance as well as increasing my overall fitness. The difference to my next return to Tenerife was impressive. I could get back into the rhythm of lessons and free-surfing with no impediment from my body at all.
Now I see lots of people who rent at the Surf Center that are bummed out when their body won’t allow them to continue windsurfing for more than an hour or two due to either their hands getting blisters (usually after a few days on the water) or because they are out of shape.
However there are a few people that don’t have those problems. The common trend is this: they have done other sports during the period before going on their windsurfing hoiday. From here on I will give my advice on how to stay fit for windsurfing. However, I must add a disclaimer: I am not a personal trainer nor physician or fitness professional of any sort. I am merely a windsurf instructor who is giving his experience and opinions. Any advice you read here is to be taken as a guideline and is intended to provide you with information to come up with your own training program or help you to convey your training goals to a personal trainer.
The amount and intensity of the exercises I mention below will naturally vary from person to person due to weight, fitness and experience so I make no mention to weights or repetitions. With that said, here is my advice on how to train for windsurfing.
What muscle groups are used in windsurfing?
Windsurfing is an effective full body workout meaning that there is virtually no part of our body left out during the exercise. There are however some muscle groups that are called upon more than others. Also, there are some muscles which are used more in windsurfing than in other sports and therefore need to get more attention during workouts.
The main muscle groups used in windsurfing are:
- Forearms: for holding on to the boom.
- Core body: for stability and transferring the sail power into the board
- Upper back: When we sheet in with the sail
- Lower back (lumbars): To keep the body stretched when leaning back
- Quadriceps and Hamstrings: Again to transmit the sail power into the board, to act as suspension on choppy water and to steer the board (the micro-steering to keep the board on course also counts)
I will mention exercises for each of these below. However, it is important to remember that while windsurfing requires strength, the main limiting factor is usually endurance. Therefore, aside from strength training we also need to focus on increasing our endurance.
Endurance training for windsurfing
How do we train endurance for windsurfing? Keep in mind that there are two alternating phases, generally speaking, during our windsurfing sessions.
During the long tacks we are basically maintaining body tension to continually convert the wind power from the sail into forwards motion through the board. Less body tension means more energy is lost and we are not taking full advantage of the sail. This phase is the equivalent of running a marathon.
To train this, any constant low intensity activity will do such as jogging, cycling or swimming. In the gym you can use the treadmill, static bike or the elliptical machine at an easy pace for anything between 20 to 40 minutes.
Short bursts of energy
For gybing, jumping, wave riding, waterstarting, beachstarting in waves or pretty much any maneouver. Each time we unhook to do a specific manoeuvre we are resorting to a high intensity burst of energy from our body. If the continuous sailing is a marathon, these bursts are sprints. Using this logic it makes sense that this method can’t be used for long tacks. I once went windsurfing in 50 knots and the choppy water stopped me from daring to hook in the harness which forced me to head back to the beach to rest my forearms after two tacks.
To train for these manoeuvre phases we can use high intensity interval training (HIIT). I am very fond of the Tabata workout method which consists of 4 minutes of alternating high and low intensity exercises. 20 seconds of high intensity workouts followed by 10 seconds of very low intensity exercise. An example is 20 second sprints followed by 10 seconds of walking repeated 8 times until we reach the 4 minute mark.
It may not sound very impressive but you once you try it you will see it is much harder than it sounds. I recommend you start off with less repetitions and work yourself up. I started off with doing the high intensity parts at 50% energy output and increasing gradually until going in at full throttle from the beginning of the workout. To make it more interesting and to make it more complete, change the high intensity workout each time.
An example Tabata workout would look like this:
20s – Burpees
10s – rest
20s – Squats
10s – rest
20s – Sit-ups
10s – rest
20s – Sprint
10s – walking
20s – Burpees
10s – rest
20s – Squats
10s – rest
20s – Sit-ups
10s – rest
20s – Sprint
10s – walking
There are heaps of variations of this. For windsurfing I recommend your combine exercises that work the key muscle areas. Some of the following are useful. I recommend using exercises that imply body motion rather than muscle-specific exercises.
How to Get Fit for Windsurfing
All our exercises here are going to be focusing on increasing our endurance of holding on to the boom.
Wrist curls – Dumbbell
Sit down, lay your wrist on your knee with the dumbbell in your hand with the palm of your hand facing up. Then it bend backwards through the weight of the dumbbell so that it rolls to the fingers. Then pull the fingers up again. Even with very light weight you should feel forearm work.
Wrist curls – Barbell
The same exercise as mentioned before can also be carried out with a barbell. Your forearms should lay on a rigid surface with the palms of your hand facing up.
You can get these commercially or you can make your own. Basically it is a bar to which a rope is attached. On the other end of the rope is a weight. The rope is unrolled. With outstretched arms (at 90º to the body) and hands facing down, start rolling up the rope. You can use this to strengthen the interior or exterior muscles depending on which direction you roll the bar. For windsurfing you only really need to focus on the interior ones which you do by turning the hands in towards you.
Tennis ball squeeze
Another option is to squeeze a tennis ball which is also cheaper.
During these exercises you want to focus on squeezing and holding the squeeze for a while. Remember we are training the muscles to hold on to the boom, not to squeeze and release constantly.
The better our body transfers the sail power into the board, the faster we will go. The biggest loss of energy transmission is when we get pulled forwards, bending at the hips. This is where the training of the core body will show the greatest impact.
I have not found any other exercise that trains the core body as well as planks do. A side benefit is that it simultaneously also trains the rest of the body as we need to keep the tension throughout the entire body, not just in the centre region.
Lay on the ground in the push-up position. Put your forearms on the floor but keep the rest of the body off the ground. You should only be touching the ground with your toes and with your forearms. Now hold this position for 30-60 seconds. Focus on keeping your body (from shoulders to ankles) straight. Avoid pushing your hips in the air or letting them fall towards the ground as this means that you are not holding the body tension.
You can also do this exercise with outstretched arms.
Once this exercise becomes easier you can increase the difficulty in two ways. The first is obvious, just hold that position longer.
The other is to to do alterations to this. This will train more areas of your core such as the obliques.
On the hand or on the forearm, turn your body so that you are facing sideways. This exercise works the obliques more. To increase the difficulty even further, raise the other arm above the body.
Cross stretched plank
This one is a killer but also much more effective, especially for windsurfing where we are never in a perfectly balanced position. In essence, from the original plank position, lift the left arm and the right leg and hold this position for 30 seconds. Them swap arms and legs so that you are now lifting the right arm and the left leg.
Medicine ball plank
Another way to increase the intensity of the plank workout is to simply prop yourself up on a medicine ball. The lack of stable ground under your hands will make this a killer. You can also combine this will push-ups to kill two birds with one stone.
Upper and lower back
When sheeting in we are using our upper back. When we are pushing our hips forward we are contracting the lower back as well as the glutes. Here are some exercises to train the back muscles:
Getting on a rowing machine is probably the fullest workout you can do to train for windsurfing. You are including all the essential muscle groups. First off, you are gripping the handle, so you are working the forearms. Secondly you are naturally using your back. Depending on whether you are pulling to your chest or your belly button you will work the upper or lower section more. And last but not least you are working on the quadriceps when pushing yourself backwards. Like I said, a full workout of the essentials.
To work the upper back a simple exercise is to do pull ups. They may not be for everyone as they are pretty hard to do if you are not yet in top physical condition. However, in most gyms you have machines that have a small platform for your knees that will help you up. As you train your back more you just take away more and more weight to make it harder. For this exercise it is important that you have the palms of your hand facing away from you as if you have them facing towards you you are not working your back muscles but your biceps.
Since a regular pull up is pretty hard to do we can start with the light version. This means the inverted row. We essentially lay down on our back beneath a bar and pull ourselves up towards it, making sure to keep the body in a straight line.. As our feet are touching the ground we are not forced to lift our entire bodyweight.
Essentially all you have to do for this is pick up a barbell, bend over at the waist (keeping your back straight), and pull the weight up towards your chest.
To work the lower back, the Romanian Deadlift is a great exercise. From the same starting position as for the barbell row, lean over forwards and then push your hips forward again to straighten your body. You should feel the lumbars working to get your body back in the upright position.
Quadriceps and Hamstrings
On the board we are constantly transmitting wind power from the sail into the board through the front leg while also keeping the board level with the back leg. We want to work with exercises that focus on that asymmetry.
To get started with training the quadriceps we can start with squats. Start off with no added weights and then add dumbbells as you get stronger. From an upright standing position, feet shoulder-width apart and parallel to each other, start bending your knees while trying to keep your upper body as vertical as possible. Try to keep your hips in line with your ankles. You should be lowering you body towards the heels. Don’t go all the way down. Only until your hips are just below knee height. Form there push yourself up again. You want to drive the body up through the heels and avoid bending your knees inward.
Now let’s focus on some asymmetry.
From the upright standing position, feet shoulder-width apart, you want to step outwards about 50 cm with one foot and start to lower your body over the heel of that foot. Again, you want to maintain your upper body as vertical as possible. Then push yourself back to the starting position through the heel and repeat with the other leg.
We start in the upright standing position, feet close to each other but without ankles touching. We take one foot and advance about 1 meter and lower our body over the heel of that foot. We want to lower the knee of the other leg so that it is nearly touching the floor (but not quite). From there we push ourselves back to the stating position through the heel. Once we are back in the initial stance, repeat with the opposite leg.
TRX for Windsurfing
There are heaps of TRX exercises for these muscle groups which you can have varying in difficulty. As the ropes are not stable structures we will always be working the stabilising muscles simultaneously (such as the core body).
Other sports that prepare for windsurfing
The endurance that you get from cycling will easily translate to lasting longer when windsurfing. Apart from this you also have the full leg workout which is one aspect why windsurfers in the professional leagues have incorporated cycling into their preparation for competitions.
To work the cardiovascular performance there is no simpler, and with lower barrier to entry, exercise than jogging. Being able to increase your speed to challenge yourself more requires more willpower and discipling than a steep hill when on a bicycle but also less expensive. Remember, endurance is the name of the game, with maybe a few sprints sprinkled in there to get the heart rate up. You can always take a break after those sprints by slowing down to a walk.
Rowing is as perfect as a workout for windsurfing can get. Nearly all the same muscle groups are targeted and the endurance is worked on as well. You can even vary the intensity from long regular low intensity rowing to short sprints of 10-20 seconds to replicate the phases when windsurfing.
Aside from the fact that we will at some point need to swim during our sailing sessions, swimming is a great non-weight bearing exercise which helps you not only improve your endurance but also the bursts of high intensity.
If there ever was a sport to train your forearms, climbing is it. Whether it be outdoors (if you’re fortunate) or indoors, the way your forearms get trained when rock climbing is unparalleled. Fun story, I once went rock climbing for an entire day and had windsurfing lessons the next. That was when I started using the harness to teach beginner lessons…
When I went skiing for the first time over the 2013-2014 new year (I used to do snowboarding before then) I noticed how much we work the quadriceps and obliques when carving. Also the semi-flexed stance when skiing definitely strengthens the quads.
For more information on how to get fit for windsurfing you can check out the links below:
Get Windsurfing Fit – the guide by pro windsurfer Sean O’Brien and PT NIc Pillonel
Health & Fitness for Windsurfing – the book by Henrik Beyer
Strength Training for Windsurfiers over 40 – a post by SurferToday