I’ve always been in awe of surfers. As someone who is afraid of the ocean and also extremely clumsy, it’s not a sport I ever thought about trying.
I have taken a total of two surf classes in my life: One when I was 14 and one this month. Both times, in Oahu. And while each lesson reinforced that surfing is hard, it wasn’t until I tried underwater rock running—an endurance staple for surfers, apparently—that I truly understood the immense level of athleticism and mental strength the sport requires.
For anyone who hasn’t seen Blue Crush, underwater rock running is exactly what it sounds like: You pick up a heavy rock and then run along the ocean floor. I tried rock running on the North Shore of Oahu, where Red Bull flew me out to watch the epic surfing that happens at the Volcom Pipe Pro. The contest is held at the world-famous Banzai Pipeline, a reef break that produces epically large and dangerous waves on the North Shore of Oahu. (You can check out footage from the competition on Red Bull TV to get an idea.) On the trip, we had a few opportunities to do as the pro surfers do. We took a surf lesson and did a strength workout that was similar to what the Red Bull-sponsored surfers do to train. Both were challenging, but I could keep up. Rock running, on the other hand, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
First, here’s a little background on why surfers rock run in the first place.
It’s hard to find specifics online about the origin of underwater rock running, but it’s a tradition that people in Hawaii talk about as if everyone knows it’s a thing. Pro surfer Ha’a Keaulana says she rock runs as part of her training; her father, Brian Keaulana, a renowned big wave surfer, lifeguard, and Hollywood stunt coordinator, has often been credited with pioneering the training technique.
Kirk Ziegler, a North Shore lifeguard, tells SELF that, to his knowledge, rock running became popular around the 90s as a way for surfers to simulate (and train for) the stress of being held underwater during a wipeout.
Certified trainer Samantha Campbell, C.S.C.S., who trains the Red Bull big wave surfers, says that honing the ability to hold one’s breath is an important part of surfers’ training. Two of the main ways they train this skill are by practicing the static hold (also referred to as “static apnea”), which involves holding your breath underwater for as long as you can while staying still, and practicing the high heart rate hold, which involves holding your breath underwater when your body is being put under stress and your heart rate is elevated. Rock running falls into the latter category.
“Most of our athletes take a freedive course to learn breathe-ups (how to properly take in air above water to be able to efficiently hold your breath), lung stretches, and how to safely increase static hold time,” says Campbell. “During the season, most of our big wave surfers practice static holds one time per week before breakfast, and we incorporate high heart rate holds into workouts to simulate a high-intensity hold-down with minimal chance for breathe-up.” A high-intensity hold-down IRL would be when a big wave surfer wipes out or is otherwise being held underwater by a massive wave and needs to hold their breath as they fight to get out of the situation.
“Here in Hawaii, we use rock runs during off-season and preseason conditioning when the waves are flat,” Campbell says.
As someone who is in pretty good shape, I thought that rock running would be a breeze. I was very wrong.
Rock running is a good example of functional training, or training that simulates a real-life movement pattern. It’s really just picking up something heavy and walking with it, which is also known as a carry exercise. I figured I had this in the bag.
Except, lifting an odd-shaped boulder is a lot different than lifting a kettlebell or medicine ball. I thought the water would make it easier; maybe it did, but I still really struggled to squat down and pick up the boulder properly. The thing is, you have to get your feet firmly planted on the ocean floor, and then squat down and pick up the rock with both hands, like you’re deadlifting it from the ground. My biggest problem was that I wasn’t able to sink down to the bottom in order to do that. I kept taking a huge breath of air beforehand, which Ziegler told me was just going to make me more buoyant and be counterproductive. But without that air, I felt unprepared to dip underwater and lift a heavy (probably about 40 or so pounds) rock up into my arms.
So, we resorted to Ziegler simply handing me the rock above water, which effectively got me to sink to the bottom.
Once my feet were on the ground, I started to run. Walk is probably a more accurate description, to be honest. Since the rock was unwieldy, I was trying to keep it in my arms without scraping myself, while also focusing on holding it high enough to make room between the rock and my legs so I wouldn’t bang my knee into the rock with each step.
I only lasted for about five or six seconds underwater at a time. While I didn’t feel any sort of burning sensation in my muscles, I did feel completely trapped and like I was losing my breath a lot quicker than if I were to just dip underwater and hold my breath. Each time I resurfaced, I was completely out of breath and gasping for air.
The ultimate goal of doing breath hold training regularly is to not feel that sort of frantic breathlessness.
By practicing high heart rate breath holds, you can train yourself to keep your heart rate as low as possible during a high-stress situation so that you can conserve oxygen, Campbell says. Like, for example, when you wipe out or are forced underwater by a humongous wave. “We find that our athletes that practice rock running have an easier time controlling their heart rate and staying relaxed during stressful situations underwater or on land,” Campbell adds.
It also helps train your mental strength and endurance, which you need when you’re trapped underwater.
Rock running helps you alter your physiology, but, just as importantly, it also builds mental fortitude and confidence. Basically, you’re training yourself to resist the urge to breathe, “allowing for longer and longer holds,” says Campbell. (Over time, athletes work to increase how long they can hold their breath comfortably, ideally working up to a few minutes.) “With a tangible goal of getting from point A to point B or trying to go faster than your opponent, your brain learns to ignore the discomfort and push through to finish the job.”
This was really challenging for me. I didn’t feel confident, and I didn’t know how to resist the urge to want to breathe. After all, I was just doing one isolated session of high-intensity breath hold training. Feeling trapped underwater is uncomfortable, and I certainly don’t have the skills or physical adaptations to overcome that instinct to panic.
Most of us can probably hold our breath for longer than we may think, Ziegler says, “but our mind becomes too stressed with the belief that we need air immediately. Rock running helps you [deal with that].”
Rock running made me admire the sport of surfing even more than I did before.
I felt kind of defeated during my rock running session, but I didn’t want to get out of the water until I finally was able to pick the rock up off the ground without help. I did it eventually, but then only lasted for a few seconds underwater, since I skipped taking a very deep breath of air before.
I wasn’t good at rock running, but that’s normal. Ziegler reassures me that anyone’s first few times rock running will be short. “With every attempt underwater you run farther and farther because your body becomes more comfortable,” he says.
I’ll likely never rock run enough to actually improve my breath-holding abilities, but the experience gave me an even greater appreciation for the sport of surfing and the impressive athletes who do it, especially the ones braving the intimidating waves at Pipeline. Maybe I’ll add a third or fourth surf lesson to my resume one day, but I’m more than happy to leave the epic big wave adventures to the pros.