Surf Science: Why it Matters

Two California professors are changing our sport for the better

tk
Taylor goes for gold (more like neon yellow) in the CSUSM Surf Research Lab’s $50,000 flume. Photo: Michael Ciaramella

The sight of a grown man paddling his ass off in pursuit of a dangling tennis ball was almost too much to stand.

I was this close to shouting, “Good boy, go get it!” But I didn’t, because the grown man was Taylor Knox.

At 45 years old, the 20-year CT veteran is a fitness aficionado, evidenced by his barrel-chested appearance and 185 pounds of raw American muscle. Taylor works out 6 to 10 hours per week on top of his 15 hours of ocean time. Despite his warm demeanor, TK is not someone you’d make the butt end of any joke.

Yet there he went, thrashing away on the aquatic treadmill, chasing the fluorescent sphere like a well-trained pup. Taylor’s board was six liters too small and the breathing apparatus across his grill gave off a Bane-y impression, which is to say he looked ridiculous. But Taylor knew what he was getting himself into. He signed up for this. So what could a surfer of Taylor Knox’s caliber be doing in such kooky circumstances?

2i8a8231_1
T Knox, looking not-so-kooky in a burrito of epic proportions. Framegrab: Jimmicane

Enter Sean Newcomer and Jeff Nessler — surfers, San Diego natives, and the masterminds behind California State University San Marcos’ Surf Research Lab. Sean has a Doctorate in kinesiology, while Jeff’s PhD is in biomechanics and mechanical engineering. Their dual interests coalesce perfectly, allowing them to jointly study surfing from an academic standpoint.

“We have degrees that are very different from one another, but we collaborate and complement each other really well,” says Sean. “Looking at these problems from two different points of view can be very helpful in understanding the global impact of surfing on the body.”

While the professors have had successful ventures in the field of surf academia, they’ve also faced their share of adversity. Particularly, they’ve had trouble convincing members of the academic community that surf studies are important enough to publish in prestigious journals.
“The interest in action sports, or surfing in particular, is not very high,” Sean tells me. “We can have really great data and come to powerful conclusions, but the reviewers are just like, Yeah, but it’s surfing. So we have to fight to get reviewers that care about action sports and understand how they’re growing.”

So far, the duo has successfully published three articles on surfing, while several other papers are currently out for peer review. But if you look at their site, you’ll realize that a lot of their research has gone unsubstantiated by the scientific community. They’ve worked on projects ranging from strength differences between back and front legs, the thermal properties of wetsuits, and the aerobic conditioning necessary for the sport. Despite these efforts, surf science has yet to gain the traction that is often seen in mainstream sports.

“All the traditional sports – basketball, track, football, etc. – have had these same studies done and published about them,” claims Sean. “It comes down to the fact that people understand the significance of those sports because they see them all the time.”

But that may be changing very soon.

Surfing’s inclusion to the Olympics has provided further momentum for the CSUSM professors. The Tokyo Games will legitimize the sport of surfing on a global scale, thus piquing the interest of the general public and transitively the scientific community.

_s8a9683 Taylor and Dr. Sean Newcomer talk science, like This board is a little small but it feels pretty sick. Photo: Taras

“With surfing becoming part of the 2020 Games, there will invariably be more emphasis on the sport science aspect of surfing, and it’s exciting to be ahead of the game in that aspect.” Sean states. “For example, BMW, who is creating gear for the U.S. swim team in Rio, has been using similar research techniques to study their athletes’ movements in the water. Through our studies, we can work with surf brands to provide similar products for surfers.”

Often considered the most scientifically-minded surf gear manufacturer, Hurley’s ideals are directly in line with Sean and Jeff’s studies. Because of this, the California-based company has invested in the CSUSM program after hearing about their previous studies on the thermodynamics and biomechanics of modern-day wetsuits.

Being the physio part of the team, Sean worked on the thermodynamics issue. “We’ve found that while surfing, individuals have uneven heat distribution across their bodies. During an hour surf session, some parts of the body will stay really warm while others get increasingly colder. We’ve seen up to a 10-degree (Celsius) difference across the same body. Generally the upper chest and back are the warmest because of all the direct sunlight they receive during times of rest, (i.e. sitting in the lineup), meanwhile the legs are the coldest as they are constantly dangling in the cooler water.”

Meanwhile, Jeff tackled the biomechanical aspect of the wetsuit study. “We’ve found evidence that wetsuits may have further benefits than just warmth,” Jeff informs me. “For instance, certain wetsuit constructions can change the way you paddle, particularly by lengthening and changing patterns of complexity in the stroke, all without compromising the surfer’s energy expenditure. In simple terms, certin wetsuits can actually improve your paddling ability.”

Nowadays, Sean and Jeff do testing that is specific to Hurley’s gear in hopes of creating an objectively superior wetsuit. That venture becomes all the more relevant in accordance with this heavily circulating rumor: Hurley may have been contracted to design Team USA’s surf gear for Tokyo 2020. This would mean that, in all likelihood, the professors’ work would be seen by millions around the world in four years’ time.

Even with this in mind, Sean and Jeff have never focused their studies on professional surfers.

“We test mainly amateur surfers, because we feel that type of data would be the most useful on a larger scale,” Sean explains. “Most people aren’t pro surfers, so why would data on a professional athlete have any bearing on them? We do some testing with pros, but that’s more for benchmarking the peak levels of physical ability.”

Which brings us back to Taylor Knox.

_s8a9595
Taylor Knox paddles in the flume, a pool that creates a controlled current (between 0-2 meters per second) in order to test paddling speeds, hydrodynamics, and other stats that would be difficult to calculate in standing water and/or a naturally moving water source like the ocean. Photo: Taras

Their current study, the one that had Taylor paddling upstream like a horny salmon, is testing maximal VO2 levels* in surfers. In layman’s terms, they are testing how well surfers’ muscles utilize oxygen in times of extreme exertion. Specifically, they want to see if surfers perform differently in a flume (above) than they do on a jimmy-rigged surf ergometer (below).

ergA CSUSM student tests out the ergometer, an apparatus that uses water pressure to measure energy expended during a period of physical exercise (in this case, paddling). He wears the reflector vest so the professors can track arm movements. The face mask calculates oxygen intake and CO2 exhalation, from which they can calculate the VO2 levels.  Photo: CSUSM

Sean and Jeff’s theory is that high-level surfers will reach greater VO2 levels in the flume than on the ergometer, because the motion is more similar to the paddling that they do on a daily basis (as proven by previous studies). Meanwhile average surfers should have less of a disparity between the two tests because their bodies are not as primed for paddling as high-level surfers. Taylor Knox affirmed their beliefs.

Achieving well-above-average results for a 45-year-old man, Taylor proved that a lifetime of surfing has indeed affected his paddling ability and oxygen utilization. But Taylor got a lower score than the average WSL professional (age range 20-30), so he wasn’t ecstatic with the result.

“I can do better. I’m just tired from surfing all day yesterday,” he proclaimed.

Even in light of his not-ultra-high results, Taylor found significant worth in Sean and Jeff’s testing. “I think it’s valuable for pro surfers, because you might think you’re very fit aerobically and ready for the tour, but this thing could tell you otherwise. Then you could alter your training to make sure you are ready,” Taylor says. “For the average surfer, it’s a good indicator of how a board paddles. I’m always telling my shaper, This board paddles great or, This board doesn’t paddle well. That makes surfing so much more fun — when you’re on a board that works well for you. Plus it will give you an understanding of your own physical ability and limitations, which is good for every person to know about themselves.”

Sean couldn’t agree more.

“We’ve had people say, Who cares about aerobic fitness – surfing isn’t paddling. But those people are very, very wrong” asserts Sean. “We’ve learned that 40-50% of the time in the water is spent paddling. So most of the energy expenditure in a session has nothing to do with wave riding. If you’re not in good aerobic paddling shape, it limits the amount of time you can spend in the water and how many waves you can catch.”

2i8a8207_1
Scientific fact: if you can do this at 45, you’re doing something right in your fitness regimen. Framegrab: Jimmicane

There seems to be a consistent theme in Sean and Jeff’s studies, being that people — scientists and even some surfers — question the actual value of their work (It’s just surfing, Who cares about aerobic fitness, etc.). But one thing they fail to see is the impact that these studies have had on CSUSM students.

According to Sean, “Student involvement goes through the roof when the subject is action sports. They seem to be intrinsically motivated to do the research on this topic.” What they’ve learned is, when you take kids that are focused on higher education but love performing and/or watching action sports, they are going to be doubly motivated to work hard.

This got the professors thinking — big.

“We’ve thought about creating an Action Sports Institute at CSUSM,” Sean divulges. “But to get an institute on a CSU campus, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. An institute must be interdisciplinary and you have to provide your own funding, not just for the physical construction that would house the institute, but also to sustain the institute.”

Currently, Sean and Jeff are working with CSUSM and local action sports industry leaders to determine the feasibility of their vision. They have considered ideas of major donors, leasing out their facilities to fitness professionals for use of professional athletes, and potential study abroad programs on their campus. For the latter, they make a good case.

“We have the weather, the waves, the industry and everything else right here — so why not bring people from around the globe to our campus?” asks Sean. “Students could come to study different disciplines under the blanket of action sports. This could become increasingly valuable now that surfing and skating have been added into the Olympics. This means that countries around the world are going to be scrambling to figure out how to field teams in these sports and to discover the science behind them. Our program could act as a conduit for a global understanding of action sports science.”

So really, you can’t say that Sean and Jeff’s work is inconsequential. It’s important to surfers, it’s valuable to the industry, it’s helping engage students in all facets of science, and it’s likely we’ll see some of their research at play in the Tokyo Olympics. If all goes well, the professors will build an action sports institute around their two favorite things: surfing and science. With that, we all win.

cw-ca0095
T Knox makes one last case for science. Aaaaand that’s a wrap! Photo: Corey Wilson

*VO2 is the scientific term for the volume of oxygen utilized by a certain mass of tissue. In this case, it is measuring the milliliters of oxygen used per kilogram of muscle tissue at the time of peak exertion while paddling. This number speaks to general aerobic fitness of a person, specifically in relation to their paddling. A higher VO2 reading denotes a higher level of paddling fitness, leading to longer sessions and less fatigue.

Dr. Newcomer and Dr. Nessler are always looking for more surfers to test in the San Diego area. If you live near Carlsbad and want a free $500 physical evaluation, all while helping the progress of our sport, email Heather Furr at furr007@cougars.csusm.edu.