Breathe.  Your life depends on it.  Literally. This rings especially true for surfers. Don’t panic in a hold down. Prepare yourself with breath training for surfing. Don’t forget to book an instructor if you are starting out or need some guiding expertise in new waters at

Don’t Panic: Breathe Better with Breath Training for Surfing

If you’ve ever been in a hold-down situation, you know the fear, the anxiety, and that instinctive need for breath that kicks in.  The freaking out, the chaotic kicking and paddling for the surface, all of which does nothing good for the situation.  You need to learn to breathe better.  It will help your paddling, help you in hold down situations, and improve your overall health.

Breath is something that should be trained, but often goes neglected.  That neglect is unfortunate, as the benefits of breath training extend much further than the simple ability to hold your breath for longer under water.  But anyone that has been in that hold-down situation knows it doesn’t feel like some “simple ability”; it feels like the only important thing in the world.

Control Your Nervous System with Breath Training for Surfing

Breath is the quickest way to tap into the nervous system.  Breath can add stress to your system, increase the heart rate, increase alarm signals throughout the body, or conversely,  it can be calming, slow down the heart rate, help you to focus, and increase alertness.  Consequently, the ability to hold your breath, stay calm, and relax, could literally save your life.  But it all has to start with the basics of quality breath.

Get Quality Breath Working

What is a “quality breath”?  Before you can explore any details of breath enhancement training, you need the ability to simply breathe efficiently.  So what does that even mean?

Diaphragmatic breathing: if you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve likely heard this term.  It simply refers to breathing with your diaphragm as the primary driver of the breath.  The diaphragm stretches across your body under your lungs, between your chest and your belly. As the diaphragm contracts down into the stomach, it creates a negative pressure in the lung cavities.  This negative pressure then pulls air down into the lungs, so that the oxygen can do its life-giving thing around the body.

seated breath training exercise

You’ll hear this referred to as “belly breaths” or “buddha breathing”, as those terms refer to the expansion of the stomach upon inhale.  This misses the boat just a bit though, as people can cheat this, and simply push their stomach out with a muscular contraction, rather than it happening reflexively from a descending diaphragm.

Don’t Be a Neck Breather

The majority of people, through stress, injury, neglected posture, blocked nasal passages, and emotional or mental trauma, have shifted to what is termed “neck breathing”.  Because of this, you’re using secondary respiratory muscles of the neck and shoulders to be the primary drivers in breathing.  This creates a lot of unnecessary tension and strain in those muscles, that are already being used to paddle while surfing.  Do you  already have neck and shoulder tension?

Add to that a few thousand neck breaths every single day and it exponentially worsens the situation.   Not only is this neck breathing pattern inefficient for your physiology, as well as oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, it also makes it near impossible to paddle efficiently as you could in the surf, or get a full inhale prior to a hold down.

Stand in front of a mirror.  Take a breath in.   Did most of the movement come from the neck?  Then you’re a neck breather.  Don’t feel bad, you can change it, and if you have any intention to surf better, prepare your body for hold-down situations, and maintain a healthy neck and shoulder girdle, you should change it.

That neck movement you most likely saw should only be about the last 10-30% of inhalation.  The  primary   portion of the movement should be rib expansion, and lastly coming up into the neck.  Lastly is the key word here, not firstly, and not primarily.

You’re about to catch a 6 foot set on the head.  You’ve already been spun underwater for about 10 seconds on the last wave, you’ve just gotten to the surface, and you see the next set wave about to pummel you.  Your heart rate is up, and you’re stressing out.  You take a shallow neck breath in, and prepare for the next hold down.  This is 100% inefficient.  You are putting yourself in danger.  You can and should do better.

That shallow neck breath is only getting about 20-40% lung capacity filled.  That’s not a good thing when you’re prepping for a punishing hold down.  That neck breath is also sending alarm signals to the nervous system, which in turn increases the heart rate, and burns up oxygen.  These aren’t good things for your hold down.  If you’re in a stress situation, you’ll revert back to whatever breathing pattern is habitual.  It’s likely that a neck breath is habitual for you, and it’s nowhere near efficient or beneficial for your surfing.

How to do Breath Training for Surfing

Lay on your stomach.  Breath into the floor and low back.  Slowly.  Get into box breathing rhythms.  3-4 second inhale, 3-4 second pause, 3-4 second exhale, 3-4 second pause.  Slowly and rhythmically continue doing this, with a focus of breathing into your stomach and low back.  Really feel that expansion of the stomach.  Don’t force it, allow it to happen because the lungs are filling with air.  Relax the neck.  The floor pushing back against your stomach will give you some tactile feedback of belly breathing.

lying on stomach breathing exercise
Lower back is inflated with air in top photo

Once you’ve gotten that down, lay on your back and continue.  If you need more tactile feedback, place your hands on your belly button.  Breathe into those hands.  Relax the neck.  Feel your low back lightly expand, feel your stomach raise up, and feel your ribs expand laterally.  The neck is the last to move.  This is where performance breathing starts.  If you can’t breathe well in a perfectly relaxed setting, you’re not going to breathe well when you’re catching a 6 foot set on the head.

This type of breathing can lead into meditation if you’re interested, which has shown numerous benefits for overall well-being, so it’s a good thing.  You’re training a new breathing habit.  Work on it, so that when you’re in a stress situation, you’re not reverting back to shallow stressful neck breaths.  Start with the laying variations, and then begin to check in on yourself throughout the day.  How’s your breathing?

Put your breath training for surfing into action with a giant inhale prior to a wipeout.  That basic understanding of how to breathe without using only those over-used neck muscles is the key.  Now to get in a giant inhale from the diaphragm.   This breath should take about 1 second, and you’re going for 80-100% inhalation.

Think of breathing in through a 1.5-2inch diameter hose.  Big open mouth, suck air into the bottom of the lungs, not the neck.  Get air into that stomach.  You’re not really sucking air into the stomach, you’re filling the basin of the lungs, and all the way up to the top.  A fully efficient inhale.  The key is to then relax as soon as you’ve got that giant breath in.  Relax the neck, relax the mind, and let the ocean do its thing.  Don’t focus on the suck of it all.  Focus on relaxing.  You’ve got enough oxygen, so let yourself be tossed around, and start coming up when the ocean has finished with you.

The key is the giant inhale, to the bottom of the lungs, and then relaxing the neck muscles.  That unnecessary strain sends alarm signals to the brain, increasing heart rate, burning up that life supporting oxygen.   Giant inhale into the basin of the lungs.  Not that shallow scared stressful little neck breath.  There’s a huge difference, and one that could make a huge difference in your well-being.

It starts with the ability to diaphragmatically breathe.

It’s your surfing, and your body, and you’re the one dealing with the hold downs.  Take some time to prepare yourself for the situations you’re putting yourself into in the ocean.

Learn to breath diaphragmatically, get meditative if you like, and then master the giant inhale.

Remember, if you are a beginner or experienced surfer in a new place, it’s always best to find a local instructor or guide at before you go in the water.

Check out our other posts for more surf training exercises and surf training for paddling power.

  • Cris Mills – The Surf Strength Coach