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Did you see the 1998 Hollywood surf film In God’s Hands? The plot was thin and the acting, featuring well-known surfers in lead roles rather than real actors, was poor, but the cinematography was stunning. Besides the lavish tropical shots and gorgeous surf action, there were ethereal scenes of the surfers running on the seafloor while holding boulders to weigh them down. It may have seemed far-fetched to non-surfers in the audience, but in the 1990s, running underwater with rocks was having a bit of a moment in big-wave surfing.

The workout, according to practitioners, conditioned surfers to more effectively manage breath-holding while underwater in duress. It expands lung capacity and is a heck of a cardio workout. Old school big-wave surfers mostly surfed and figured out ways to eke out a living without working. The new breed were turning into Greek gods. Suddenly, training went beyond big-wave prep. Surfers started hitting the weight room, the yoga studio, the high school track. It wasn’t enough to simply surf to get better at surfing anymore; many good surfers were transforming themselves physically into bona fide athletes. At first, it was mostly big-wave surfers, pros, and aspiring pros. By the mid-2000s, lots of surfers, though probably not most, were treating their favorite activity as an honest to goodness sport.

I frequently ride a bit of twisty singletrack accessed by a steep, punishing fire road approach. I often see a middle-aged man jogging up the trail dragging a bag full of weights while tossing a kettlebell ahead of him into the dust, just to pick it up and toss it again. I asked him once what the deal was. Training, he said. For mountain stuff. Backpacking. Trail running. Ski touring. I was just riding uphill to get to the downhill. It was fun. I was getting fitter and better at mountain biking, but really just incidentally. I once knew a man who spent his winters hiking around the Bay Area with a backpack full of bricks in preparation for Sierra backpacking trips all summer. Made me feel like the laziest backpacker alive.

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So, what about you? Do you hit the gym to make your backpacking easier? Do squats to help your downhill skiing? Swim laps to prep for surfing big days with lots of current?


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Photo: Aaron Jean