Several years ago a very famous surf brand coined the phrase:
“Only a surfer knows the feeling”.
To my mind the marketing team were spot on. Surfers so often find themselves attempting to describe a sensation or even an emotion to somebody who has never experienced our favourite aquatic pursuit. While we gesticulate wildly and twist our hands to mimic the shape of the breaking wave, the listener’s expression can vary from slightly perplexed to outright confusion (i.e get this fool away from me).
The feeling of a surfer can be that of sublime exhilaration as he/she glides weightless along the wave or even the slowing down of time as they successfully negotiate that most Holy of Grail, the tube ride. These are feelings that I and the marketing team at that large surf brand, believe that only a Surfer knows. Please don’t get me wrong all sports have their own special feelings and I’m sure they all correlate in some way, however it is those specialised sensations, generated by travelling on top of and occasionally within moving water that keep us coming back time after time, session after session.
Sublime exhilaration and time slowing down aside, there is one feeling that only a surfer (bodyboarder, windsurfer, paddleboarder, kayaker) knows and that is the horrendous act of pulling on a complete suit of rubber and plunging into freezing cold water. To be a surfer in any country that doesn’t enjoy the phenomenon of the “Endless Summer” at certain times of the year you will experience cold water surfing.
Improvements in wetsuit technology over recent years has enabled us to pursue locations that were once off limits and we are seeing fantastic imagery coming out of the coldest areas on Earth. Iceland, Russia, Norway, Ireland and Canada are now bona fide surfing locales with hardy souls riding waves beneath snow capped peaks at ice-covered beaches.
I have been a cold water surfer for the past 20 years or so. Let me tell you that despite the advances in the wetsuits we wear, it remains an unpleasant and potentially dangerous thing to do, particularly without the correct preparation. I still remember tow-surfing a deep water slab four years ago with a wind chill factor of -11c and 5c water…. Genuinely ranks as one of the worst experiences of my life. I thought salt water shouldn’t turn into ice?
This past winter I started working with Focus Performance and adding their fantastic supplements to my routine made me keen to consider other ways I could improve my nutrition in order to improve my surfing. In particular how could I adjust my nutrition and physical preparation in order to improve the quality of my time in the water during the cold months.
Before I go on…. I don’t mean the age old process of peeing in one’s wetsuit…. However pleasant it may be, the results are short lived and odorous.
So I started to think how I could essentially turn up the internal thermostat. The best wetsuit in the world will not work without a decent supply of heat from the body, warming the layer of water trapped between the rubber and the skin. Therefore if the radiating body heat reduces so does the warming effect of the wetsuit and your session is basically over. I also believe that the reason most surfers suffer from numb hands and feet, despite the boots and gloves we wear, is due to this slight reduction of the body temperature causing the survival instinct to kick in and demand blood to the important internal systems.
Essentially we are entering an environment we are not supposed to, during our exposure time the body will respond in ways that will reduce our ability to perform and therefore our enjoyment will dissipate. If the heat source is more efficient the enjoyment level with increase exponentially.
Thermogenesis basically means heat production in warm blooded animals. The main proponent of Thermogenesis is brown adipose tissue, however we will discuss this marvellous fat a little later. For the time being we will consider that as we eat, our body burns calories to digest the food, and creates heat, resulting in a temporary increase in body temperature. In other words we turn up the thermostat.
It is widely accepted that certain foods carry a higher Thermogenic value and I believe that consuming these foods in the right way really has a positive effect on maintaining a higher level of comfort in a cold environment (such as the North Atlantic).
Cayenne Pepper: The chemical within the inner membranes, capsaicin, gives the pepper that wonderful spicy kick. As soon as cayenne pepper hits the mouth you can feel that sweat inducing temperature hit, however it is what occurs during the digestive process that really stokes the furnace. It is also suggested that other hot chillies may have the same effect.
Coconut oil: So much has been written about Coconut Oil in recent years, including some pretty interesting claims, that we sometimes find ourselves guilty as labelling it as another “hipster” fad. However this oil contains fats which are broken down by the body and converted into energy, rather than just being stored in fat cells. This process really does turn up your core temperature.
Peanuts: High in niacin (vitamin B3), peanuts are also considered a warming food due to their ability to increase blood circulation and speed up the metabolism. I definitely lean towards nuts that have been through the least amount of processes before reaching the shelf. Preferably the ones you have to shell yourself and are not coated in salt and flavourings.
Brown rice: Carbohydrates don’t come much more complex than those in Brown Rice. These carbs take a long time for your body to digest when compared to the simple carbohydrates that seem to plague the western diet. Since brown rice and other whole grain sources like quinoa are slowly metabolised, they ensure that the furnace burns for longer. Please go for the labour intensive method of washing, boiling, washing rather than the two minute microwave version.
Fresh ginger: In my opinion everyone should eat ginger all year round. You only have to look at the prevalence of ginger as an ingredient in so many old remedies to realise that the health benefits are considerable. I do like to cook with the stuff but mostly I’m all about the raw… Crushed, grated, sliced, however you like but throw a good bit of ginger in some hot water, steep for a few minutes and experience the pinnacle of Thermogenesis…. I really like to get the skin in the brew as well but that’s personal preference. If you’re feeling brave you could always chew on the bits left in the bottom of the cup for a real kick up the backside.
Cruciferous Vegetables: This fascinating group contains Arugula, Bok choy, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Chinese Cabbage, Greens, Radish, Horseradish, Kale, Cress, Mustard Greens, Turnip and Watercress. I would need an entirely different article to list the incredible benefits of these veggies and another one to even begin to discuss the benefits of the high Phytonutrient content but for the sake of this discussion let us consider that amongst the myriad health benefits of Cruciferous Vegetables is the fact that they have a profound Thermogenic effect on our body systems. Note: isn’t it interesting that several of the veggies listed above are the ones that our parents used to have to force/bribe us to eat… Now we are tripping over ourselves to find good, organic sources of Kale, Greens and Brussel Sprouts.
Ice water: Seriously…… Ice water will help us stay warm….. We know we need to drink plenty of water every day and it’s pretty obvious that surfing dehydrated is going to have a detrimental effect on performance. However I also find that drinking a glass of iced water is a great way to turn up the thermostat pre surf. The reaction of the body when very cold water is introduced internally is to heat the stuff up as quickly as possible and the body races to increase the temperature. I like to squirt a bit of lemon juice into mine along with a teaspoon of natural electrolytes and a bit of zest just to increase the hydrating, alkalizing, detoxifying properties.
I have found that although each of the above mentioned foods definitely have an effect on increasing Thermogenesis, the true benefits are derived from combining them in a structured way in order to really reap the rewards and truly improve the cold water experience.
For example I always start my day with a combination of lemon juice, lemon peel and electrolytes in water, however if I plan to surf I will make sure that they are mixed with iced water to really “wake up” the body systems and kick start the thermogenic effect. I will then make sure that my breakfast contains the usual essentials however I make a point of adding a bowl of brown rice, quinoa or buckwheat to the meal.
While I’m eating breakfast I grab a few handfuls of Cruciferous vegetables (usually cabbage, kale, broccoli and sprouts) and lightly steam them until just soft enough to blend. A quick whizz in the blender with some of the nutrient rich steaming water and a good sprinkle of cayenne and the result is poured straight into a vacuum flask to take with me. Usually there is some brown rice left so I add a protein source and pack that up as well.
In another flask goes a wonderful mix of hot water, crushed and sliced ginger, chunks of lemon and a small amount of cayenne or a few slices of chilli. After a teaspoon of homemade coconut oil peanut butter I’m out the door. If I’m surfing straight away I will usually drink a cup of ginger tea immediately before paddling out, or more usually the process involves a decent walk to get to the desired location, so I can sit and survey the conditions with a bit of the soup followed by a cup of tea.
I definitely find that this process works wonders for improving the quality of my experience, however as I said earlier we are entering an environment that we are not supposed to and inevitably the session will draw to a close with numb hands and feet and shivers. This is when the preparation pays dividends. Immediately post surf I find that more of the cruciferous soup and the brown rice/protein mix just fires the body back up.
A big cup of the ginger tea really helps the circulation to reach the extremities (“only a surfer knows the feeling” of that itch associated with warm blood re-circulating the hands and feet). As long as I have taken good quality technical clothing and a second, dry wetsuit I usually find that I am warm enough for another session in very little time after re-fuelling. I have found that a scoop of Focus Performance Earth Grown Greens mixed with the hot water and ginger serves as an excellent alternative to the cruciferous soup.
The process I have mentioned above is obviously personal preference and I have found that this works well for me, but perhaps you could try a couple of the ideas to see if they improve your cold water experience.
Earlier in the article I mentioned brown adipose tissue. This amazing fat is extremely prevalent in our bodies when we are babies but unfortunately it tends to dissipate as we grow and mature, in fact brown adipose tissue levels in sedentary adults are close to zero whereas white adipose levels (the bad stuff) are overwhelmingly (dangerously) high.
The primary function of BAT is heat production!
It is now widely regarded that the way to maintain and potentially develop BAT is by exposing the body to cold conditions on a regular basis. From an athletic standpoint this makes perfect sense to me. If we want to lift heavier weights we follow a progressive programme of lifting weights to increase strength. If we want to run faster we follow a progressive programme of training for speed. Surely if we want to experience enhanced levels of comfort in cold water we follow a progressive programme of exposure to said environment in order to train the body’s response and rather than strengthening the biceps, triceps or quads we are instead looking to adjust our fat composition.
I have been reading and following the work of Wim Hof aka The Iceman and I am truly fascinated. Wim seems to prove the above theory. He has made significant changes to his body over the years and the proven health benefits are staggering.
I have started implementing some of his principles into my own training, involving ice baths and breathing techniques and I cannot wait until I write the article for you, explaining if or how this has been of benefit to me in terms of my cold water surfing.
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