Ian Walsh on the Future of SurfingElite surfing is now populated by people like Ian Walsh, high-performance enthusiasts with tailored workouts. And the future holds even more…
Shaken by close calls in the heavy surf off Maui, Ian Walsh wanted to understand what his body went through in those moments of high stress and low oxygen beneath a big wave.
Suddenly, just surfing wasn’t enough to succeed—and maybe not even enough to survive. Here, one of the world’s best big wave surfers offers a glimpse at the future of his sport, where high-performance training can mean the difference between life or death.
THE RED BULLETIN: Growing up a surfer on Maui, it seems like getting into big waves is just a natural evolution. Was it?
Ian Walsh: We’d have big days all winter long, so I just eased into it when I was really young. But around my mid-teens is when it really set in that I didn’t want to be missing those days if my brothers and friends were going out there.
What made you start thinking you needed to train for it?
One day at a big outer reef I just got really pounded—held under forever, skipped across the bottom, my whole body got shredded on the reef. At that point in the day it was the third board I’d broken, so I was already tired and beat-up, and that was when I realized, “Wow, being tired and getting this pounded is 10 times worse now than when you’re fresh.” That’s when I started to think, “OK, maybe I can’t just wake up and eat a bowl of cereal and go out here. I’ve got to be prepared.” After a couple of those incidents I met a guy who was opening a gym right by where I lived, and he really started to show me what it is I should be doing to train outside of the water.
What was that early training like?
The first thing I really latched onto was learning about a foam roller, loosening up your ligaments and just rolling everything out. And general circuit training stuff— not a lot of heavy weights, because the point wasn’t to get any bigger, it was just to kind of get everything in tune and firing more consistently. So a lot of basic lunges, pull-ups, push-ups, everything alternating to sync with which muscles were working.
Were you focusing on breath-holding work at that point?
No, just stuff in the gym. That was still a very quiet issue that I had—that I couldn’t hold my breath that long.
What makes you say you couldn’t hold your breath? Compared to other surfers?
If you look at some of my peers, they all were amazing divers. They were out speardiving, catching fish and just had really good lung capacities. I always felt like I couldn’t get that deep, and couldn’t stay under that long. Even just holding your breath as a kid, sitting on the couch, getting to 45 seconds or a minute was a struggle.
So how did you address it?
It was October 2010, I believe. I was flying and the in-flight magazine had an article about this freediver and his wife [Kirk Krack and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank] who would train all these people—like Tiger Woods, and David Blaine for his magic stunts. I was reading about their technique and how they build up levels of lung capacity and teach these breathing patterns, and I started thinking. At the time, Red Bull had just implemented their highperformance program, so I took a bunch of screenshots of the article and emailed it to Andy Walshe—who was heading up the program—and was like, “Do you think we’d ever be able to get this guy to do a course with me, or figure out where he is?” And a few months later he ended up in my house on Maui. We had a full five days to figure it out.
What did he have you doing?
The first day Kirk flew in and went to dinner with my family, and at dinner he’s like, “OK, lie down and try this.” And I lay down and [held my breath], like, 45 seconds or a minute. And then he says, “Now try this breathing technique,” which was basically slowing your heart rate down and letting out more carbon dioxide than you’re letting in oxygen, and unbalancing it so you have more room to fill up with oxygen. And the first hold I did was three minutes, right there.
So after that was the winter we started paddling in at Jaws, and on a decent-sized day I got rocked and held under for a really long time. I remember coming up and having less than two seconds before another huge wave hit me, and I fully went into everything I had learned in the course. I went right into a diaphragmatic breath and sort of took a second to control my heart rate and then went straight back under, and I was way more comfortable than I had ever been up to that point. I came in that day and emailed Andy and Kirk right away just saying, “I can’t thank you guys enough.”
What’s your training like today?
I have a pretty good program that I do for six weeks before winter. I’ll do a window of breath training for four or five days, where that’s all you do for those days—go through the pool motions and some static apnea [facedown underwater breath-holding] stuff, and then some freedives. Basically getting used to holding your breath almost to the point of torture.
Then the rest of my program is that I’ll wake up early and go surf every morning for a few hours, then come in, eat a second breakfast, and I’ll go to the gym for two to three hours and do a bunch of different stuff. Not a lot of weightlifting—a lot of it’s done with my own weight, like pullups, and just a ton of circuit training. And then I’ll eat again and usually go for a long bike ride, like 35 to 40 miles or so. Some days I’ll go to Pilates or yoga as kind of an end-of-the-day reset. Unless the waves are good—then I’m surfing again.
And that’s just the first part of your training?
Yeah. After week one, once I get everything firing, I’ll start to do breathholds within the circuit training at the gym. I’ll do a breathe-up similar to if I’m about to go underwater, and because my heart rate is higher, that feels a lot more like surfing than it does to just lie in a pool facedown holding your breath. That’s where I feel like I start to push myself a lot.
Sounds like off-season boot camp.
Right, except there is no off-season in surfing. That’s what’s hard: You have to make time. And I still want to be able to surf, so I might be in the middle of training, but if there’s a late-season swell in Indonesia that looks huge I’m going to dip out and go surf it, you know? Because in the end it’s still about surfing. And even just last year I felt like I overtrained, and it took away from some of my time in the water. I feel a lot of athletes do that. They might get so adamant about having a routine in the gym when they should be spending more time at their sport, and the gym should just be a tune-up.
Where does the motivation come from to train this way?
A lot of guys just kind of surf, and that’s it. I’ve noticed the benefit for a few years now. I used to just surf all winter long, and then move right into the Southern Hemisphere winter and surf all summer long down there. Usually by August or September I’m going so hard I just run myself into the ground. A few years ago I stopped doing that. I would finish my travels and go home and actually focus on a window to get myself ready for winter, and in doing that I noticed how much better I felt for the duration of the season.
Are any other sports part of your program?
I got really into mountain biking and road biking after my knee surgery last year. Now I love to do that. And then if the waves are flat I’ll do downwind paddleboard racing. And snowboarding—as much fun as it is, it’s definitely a workout, hiking around at altitude trying to find powder. I did a lot of boxing for a few years, full hand-eye and a lot of speed, hitting mitts or sparring. Good cardio. And it was fun, you know?
It’s a good life skill, too.
It’s absolutely a good life skill.
Have you noticed a change in surfers’ attitude toward training in general? It seems there’s been a shift in the way people accept it.
Oh, definitely. Tenfold, in every aspect of the sport. All the way down to the juniors, there’s a much more professional approach than, like, 15 years ago. Now the top 10 surfers in the world, they’re all training year round, they have coaches. You look at the top juniors and it’s the same thing. And a big part of that is seeing the longevity of some of the guys’ careers that have taken care of themselves. You can get a lot more waves under your belt if you can stay in the water and stay healthy.