Rx: Go Surfing and Call Me in the Morning

Gemma Yates takes her daily dose of medication. Karen Harrison photo .


“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

The old saying holds a lot of truth and while speedy descents and deep pow tracks are integral to life in the mountains, there’s no doubt our lifestyles take their toll. Torn up knees and sore backs are so commonplace among mountain athletes that it’s become difficult to find a real lifer who doesn’t have a scar or brace to prove their passion.

By Emily Bradbury

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Whether sidelined by an injury, seeking more balanced training, or simply burned out, many mountain athletes are finding new strength and energy for the sports they love by swapping their snow sliders for surfboards.

After a crash and a fractured spine took Whistler Ski Cross racer Ashleigh McIvor off the World Cup circuit in 2007, she packed her board bag and headed to Bali. “Surfing was the best thing for my recovery,” McIvor says. “It’s the one sport that gets your back bending the other way and really engages those muscles. More importantly, surfing reignited my passion for sports when I was just hating skiing.” Ashleigh surfed her way to good health before going on to win the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.

“It’s the one sport that gets your back bending the other way and really engages those muscles. More importantly, surfing reignited my passion for sports when I was just hating skiing.”

Even without spectacular ski or snowboard crashes, chronic back pain with associated hip and knee problems are the most common injuries Whistler physiotherapist Allison Megeny treats at her practice. “The nature of mountain sports, specifically skiing and biking, put your body into the forward flex or “hunched over” position,” she explains. “Surfing, by contrast, puts your body in extension, opening the front side and strengthening muscles that tend to be neglected.”

Megeny, who was the physiotherapist for the Canadian Women’s National Alpine Ski Team for five years, often advocates surfing for mountain athletes. “You have to take each case individually,” she cautions, “but if you can combine surfing and yoga with functional injury-specific training, that’s the complete package. If you can do it in a warm environment with lots of nutritious food and Vitamin D, even better.”

“I’ll never forget how free and happy I felt riding that first wave,” says Hillary Harrison, a former Pemberton resident and mountain bike racer who spent time in Costa Rica recovering from ACL surgery and found that surfing filled a huge void. “When I wasn’t able to bike or ski, catching a wave was the only way I could get that same adrenaline rush and connection with nature.”

In 2009, Harrison channeled her surf inspiration and opened Peaks N’ Swells Surf Camps with the goal of catering specifically to mountain athletes with a whole body approach that includes yoga, nutrition and personal training. “I wanted a surf camp where athletes could really excel and learn the sport, not just be pushed into waves and sent on their way.

Freeskiing World Tour Champ Laura Ogden credits off-season surfing for strengthening her core and lengthening her torso, but the biggest bonus was that it forced her outside her comfort zone. “There is something inherently good for the soul in being novice at something similar to what you excel in,” she says. “The learning process is so good for our brains and for me, it makes me more critical of my skiing and biking.”

“They say the ocean has healing powers,” Harrison says, “and I believe that. I’ve seen people move beyond an injury and progress way beyond what they thought was possible. But no matter how you break it down scientifically or physically, there is something intangible about becoming part of the incredible force of nature, even for just the few minutes you’re riding the wave. You’re not thinking about your hip or your back. You’re completely in the moment and loving it.”


Dave Barnes Illustration

Keith Ray of Whistler Chiropractic Explains Surf Rehab

Skiers, boarders and cyclists spend a lot of time in the forward flex position, resulting in muscular imbalances and postural strain injuries. This stress on the muscles, tendons and ligaments leaves the spine vulnerable to injury. Many times, acute injuries are not the result of a fall, but the end result of imbalances caused by chronic overuse in a particular sport.

The best way to prevent these types of injuries is to strengthen the posterior chain, which includes the glutes, hamstrings and back muscles. Paddling a surfboard is a great way to exercise these muscles and riding a wave is the perfect reward for your effort.

“What I would really like to do is write a prescription for surfing.”


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