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The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Surfing Like a Pro

By Nick Holt / July 1, 2017

So you want to try surfing? Maybe you saw surfers out in the water having a blast on your last tropical vacation or watched some amazing Go-Pro videos like these.

Or maybe you’re just curious about what it feels like to ride a fiberglass board on top of the moving ocean. Spoiler alert – it feels amazing.

Learning to surf might just change your life. I know it changed mine.

But before you book your ticket for an epic surf vacation, check out these tips to help you get started, keep you safe, and ensure you have fun.

1) Choose a Good Location

Type of Waves:

In surfing, there are numerous different types of waves, including reef breaks, point breaks, and beach breaks.

1. Reef breaks will break over coral reef or rock shelves. They can be very consistent and predicable, which is the main reason why reef breaks are so enjoyable.

2. Point breaks are waves that wrap around a point of land that sticks out from the shore. When the waves come from the right direction, these can be some of the longest waves in the world. A few of the most famous point breaks in the world can break for almost a mile long!

3. Beach breaks are waves that break over sandbars. Beach breaks can be very different depending on the quality of the sandbar. The sandy bottom of beach breaks makes them a good choice for beginners who are just learning to surf.

In addition to the various breaks, you have different types of breaking waves – advanced waves that are fast and hollow, like when you see guys getting inside the tube (or in surfer lingo, getting “barreled”, “shacked”, “tubed”, or “pitted”). Yes I know, surf lingo is pretty ridiculous.

In contrast to those fast, hollow waves there are the mellow, slow-rolling waves which are perfect for long boarding, a different style of surfing that’s mostly done on a softer, slower wave.

A gentle, slow-rolling beach break will be the perfect set-up for you to learn.

Wave Season:

You’ll also want to do some homework to find out when the wave season is for your surf getaway. Most surf breaks will have an “on” season when the waves are bigger and more consistent and an “off” season when waves are smaller and less consistent. When you’re just starting out, you might want to go in the “off” season because the waves will be more manageable. Sometimes if you go to a surf spot during the “on” season, it will be more crowded and maybe even too big to learn.

When you’re learning to surf, the wave quality won’t make much of a difference. Pick a smaller spot that’s less crowded and you’ll have more fun.

Water Temperature:

Another factor to consider is water temperature. Most locations in the world, unless you’re in the tropics, will require the use of a wetsuit to keep you warm. Surfing in warm water is an absolute joy. That’s why I would recommend finding a tropical location. The warm water is one of the reasons why tropical places like Hawaii, Central America, and Indonesia are such popular surf destinations.

I’m a little biased since I live in Costa Rica, but there are great warm-water surf destinations across the globe. Here are some of my other favorite spots, besides Costa Rica:

• Nicaragua
• Panama
• El Salvador
• Mexico
• Indonesia
• Australia

To learn more, check out these 5 best places in the world to learn to surf.

Watch Waves and Look for Patterns

One of the best ways to become a better surfer is to become a better reader of waves. You can have the best balance in the world and be a super strong paddler, but if you can’t read where the waves are breaking, you won’t be surfing too many waves.

Reading waves is a tough skill that requires time and practice. Before going out to surf, spend some time sitting on the beach watching the waves. Try to notice patterns. Where exactly are the waves breaking? Is the tide high or low? Are there any rip currents you can see? Which direction (right or left) is the wave breaking? What is the wind doing?

If you pay close enough attention, you’ll be able to pick up some patterns. If you feel overwhelmed and have no idea what you’re looking at, ask your instructor or a nearby surfer to help you out. Here are some good questions to ask:

Are there any rocks in the line-up that we can’t see?

Is this wave a right or a left (referring to the direction the wave breaks as you are in the water looking at the beach)?

Are there any rip currents out there?

Does this break change a lot between high and low tides?

2) Prepare Your Body

Surfing is a very physically demanding sport. It requires strength, balance, power, endurance, and flexibility. While working at one of the best surf camps in the world, I saw the same pattern happen all the time – people would come down on a surf trip underprepared for the physical demands of surfing. A 10-day surf vacation would have to be cut in half because participants were too tired or sore to paddle out on the last few days of the trip.

Doing a little preparation before your trip will go a long way. Here are a few fitness tips to get you prepared for a week or more of surfing:

Get Comfortable In The Water

Spend some time in a pool, lake or ocean before your trip. Swimming is a great way to develop good paddling strength, but more importantly it will get you comfortable in the water. Being afraid of the ocean is one of the biggest obstacles beginners have with surfing. Spend time in the water and practice your breath-holding. By increasing your confidence in the water, you’ll be in a great position to have a great time surfing.

Improve Your Balance

It’s no surprise that surfing requires tremendous balance. The good news is that you can improve your balance by doing some pre-trip training. Find a balance disc, a bosu ball, or an Indo board (the best option because it simulates the surfing motion). None of these land-based tools are perfect, but challenging your balance with one of these tools will definitely help. Even a yoga class that incorporates balancing poses would work well. Add in 10-20 minutes of balance-work a few times per week at least a month prior to your trip.

Train Surf-Specific Strength Exercises

Learning to surf will require both explosive power to jump up from laying down on your belly as well as upper body endurance to paddle for hours and catch waves. Exercises like the surfer pop-up work really well to train the explosive pushing muscles of the pop-up while machine rows, bentover rows, or resistance band pulls will develop great muscular endurance for the paddling muscles.

3) Choose the Right Board

With all the surfboard options these days, it can be confusing to know which one is right for you. Choosing the right surfboard size is always a trade-off between stability and maneuverability. Fortunately, if you have a good instructor on your first lesson, they will make the decision for you.

A bigger board is more stable, and easier to paddle and stand up on. A smaller board is less stable and harder to catch waves with, but will be much more maneuverable.

Always start on a bigger board until you feel very stable. Once you’ve mastered the pop-up and feel comfortable on a larger board, it’s time to downsize to a smaller board so you can maneuver more easily. Finding the right board takes some trial and error, so make sure to rent and test a bunch of boards before you purchase one.

Types of Boards

To simplify things a bit, all surfboards are generally categorized as a longboard or a shortboard based on its height – from tail (back of the board) to nose (front of the board).

Most high performance shortboards are between 5’ – 6 ½ ft long. Once a board gets over 7-8ft it’s classified as a longboard, and longboards can be up to 11ft in length.

If you’re a beginner, always start on a longboard.

When you’re just getting started surfing, a good rule of thumb to find your perfect board is to add 3’ to your height and use that length of board. This means that for the average 5’10” male at 175 lbs, a 9’ board would be perfect to learn on. For a smaller female, let’s say 5’6” and 140 lbs, a 8’ – 8’6” board would work well.

Different Materials of Surfboards

Most shortboards will be made out of a hard polyurethane fiberglass material, which gives the board responsiveness to perform high-level maneuvers on the wave.

Longboards come in both fiberglass as well as foam soft-tops, which is a hard foam that is durable and softer than fiberglass. For your first lesson, choose a soft-top board, as it’ll be safer and more user-friendly than the fiberglass alternative.

Surfer Pro Tip About Surf Wax:

Fiberglass boards require you to use surf wax on the deck of the board so that you have a sticky surface to keep from slipping off the board. The soft-top boards are made with a tacky layer of foam so that you don’t need any surf wax.

If you use a fiberglass board, make sure you buy the right kind of surf wax. Most surf wax will be labeled with the correct water temperature that it’s designed for.

4) Get the Right Gear

Surf Swimsuits

This might be more important for the ladies out there, but I think it also applies to guys. There are surf specific bikinis and board shorts for a reason. Make sure to get one made for surfing. If you wear a casual sunbathing suit, there’s a good chance you’ll have a wardrobe malfunction in the waves. Trust me, it happens all the time.

Even in very small waves, the ocean is powerful and can easily disrobe you if you don’t have on the right gear.

I also recommend buying or renting a rash guard, which is a tight-fitting top that protects your skin from the sun and from the wax on the deck of the surfboard. If you’re surfing in colder waters, consider getting a wetsuit to help keep you warm.

Other Gear

Sunscreen: For some of the more tropical locations like Central America, Hawaii, or Indonesia, make sure to use a high-quality sunscreen designed for water sports. Opt for sunscreens that have zinc oxide, which leaves a little white residue on your face to protect you from the harsh sun.

Surfer Pro Tip – If you plan to be out in the water for a while, find a small face-stick, stick it in your pocket, and re-apply to your face every hour or so.

Hat: A surf hat can also be a good option for sun protection. They make a variety of different sizes and styles. You might look a little silly wearing a hat in the line-up, but sun safety is something you want to take seriously.

5) Take a Lesson

Just like any other sport, learning a few basic skills and techniques will drastically increase your chances of standing up on the board. With a good instructor, you should be able to stand up on your first lesson. And that’s where all the magic happens!

A quality instructor will also teach you safety and etiquette rules that are important in the water, in addition to providing local knowledge to keep you in the best position to catch some waves.

Remember, the ocean is a powerful and unpredictable force and having someone who knows what they are doing is an absolute must.

6) Fuel Your Body

As I mentioned earlier, surfing is physically demanding. In order to make the best of your session, make sure you are properly hydrated and fueled up. Even a little bit of dehydration can negatively affect your performance.

Especially if you’re in a tropical location, you’ll be sweating a lot more than normal and therefore losing more water. And once you’re in the water, you’ll have fewer opportunities to rehydrate.

Drink a lot of fluids in the hours before your session.

As far as nutrition, this one is totally up to you and what your body prefers. I would definitely have a solid meal with plenty of carbs the night before so you have ample stored-up energy. Treat surfing as you would any other longer endurance exercise. You’ll want to eat before you hit the waves, but make sure you don’t have something too heavy in your stomach.

My go-to breakfast is a protein shake filled with fresh fruit, some greens, and coconut water. In a pinch, I’ll grab a protein bar or some fruit.

7) How Long & How Often Should I Surf to Get Good?

A normal surf session is about 1-2 hours. When you’re learning to surf, 2 hours will feel like a long time. If you last the full 2-hours on your first session, congrats! As you improve your conditioning and become a more efficient a paddler, surf sessions can last up to 4-5 hours. Some of my most amazing sessions have lasted up to 6 hours!

And surf as often as possible, of course! Once you learn the basics of body positioning on the board, paddling for waves, and popping up, then it’s only a matter of practicing those skills as much as possible. The more often you can get out in the water, the more waves you’ll catch and the faster you’ll improve. I would say, in order to really get better, you need to dedicate many months to surfing multiple times per week.

Ready To Surf?

Now that you have some solid knowledge about what to do and how to prepare for your trip, hopefully you’re pumped up to go surfing.

For me, surfing completely transformed my life, especially my fitness. It’s a sport that demands so much and requires you to be a very well-rounded athlete. I truly believe it’s one of the best types of exercise you can do to be fit, lean, strong, and flexible.

But the biggest reason why surfing has been a complete game-changer for my fitness is the fact that I found a physical activity that I absolutely love.

It’s my active passion.

I’m highly motivated to train for surfing because I know that the fitter I am, the more fun I have surfing. I don’t dread going to the gym because I know that when I’m stronger, I surf better. I look forward to going for a run because, not only do I feel great afterwards, but I know that building my aerobic conditioning will improve my surfing. I love going to yoga classes – yes, because I enjoy sweating, but more importantly because as a stiff guy who neglected stretching for most of my life, being loose and flexible helps my surfing.

I truly do hope that you get out and try surfing, but if you don’t, the bigger message I want to share is that in order for fitness to become an effortless and easy part of your healthy lifestyle, you need to find a physical activity that you love to do. It’s that active passion that’s crucial to a healthy, fit lifestyle. I’m so pumped about it that I’ve built a whole coaching program around this very concept.

And if you’re thinking about coming down to Costa Rica, drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you.


  • Julie says:

    As a surfer, I wish I would have read an article like this when I first started. This is super informative and helpful...love it Nick!

    • Nick says:

      You are very welcome Julie, glad you enjoyed it!

  • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

    I'm perpetually a beginner surfer, but this article as an amazing overview how to get started and progress. Thanks for putting in the time to create this for everyone.

  • Todd says:

    I'm looking forward to taking my first surf lesson this summer. Great article!!

    • Nick says:

      Thanks Todd and I like to hear it about the lesson, where you doing it?

  • Justin says:

    Awesome read... im a newbie/oldgrom...that has had a love for surfing my whole life but made excuses...until now, I head out to Costa Rica in 2017, and been fitness/bodytraining for 10 years. My training has refocused for surf specifics, and hope i can maximize my first trip. Getting my body ready is and will never be a problem...im anxious to see my progression, and hope i can advance swiftly to enjoy the time in water when im able to surf (Weekends/travel)

    thanks for extra motivation

    • Nick says:

      Thanks Justin! I love to hear it, where are you going? It sounds like the fitness part of surfing wont be a issue for you. You'll just have to get some good instruction on technique and then put in some solid practice time. Good luck and have a blast on your trip!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks for the comment, Justin. Happy you liked the article. Nick really did a phenomenal job with it.