Training for Big-Wave Surfing? It’s All in Your Head.

Natxo González paddles a thin line. At 25, the professional big-wave surfer from Spain’s Basque Country has already challenged some of the most legendary waves on the planet, riding giants at Punta Galea near Bilbao and picture-perfect tubes at Namibia’s Skeleton Bay. But he also nearly lost it all in 2017.

Surfing Nazaré, in Portugal, a wave that can reach up to 80 feet in height, González crashed at high speed. His inflatable life vest, a survival tool adopted by nearly every big-wave surfer, failed to inflate, and he had to endure a massive five-wave set, where hold-downs from one wave can keep surfers underwater for over 30 seconds at a time. González was on the brink of unconsciousness when a rescue jet ski swooped in to save him from the swirling whitewash. 

Despite his near death experience, González was back in the water in a little over a week, chasing mega swell in northwest Ireland. The Basque surfer’s uncanny ability to experience and compartmentalize trauma, like his close call at Nazaré, has helped him continue to find success on the Big Wave Tour—the gold standard for competitive big-wave surfing—while navigating the mental peaks and valleys of a sport that demands 100 percent focus not just to succeed but to survive. 

González, who has been surfing off the Basque Country’s coastline for nearly two decades, credits his early accomplishments to mental and physical preparation outside the water. We caught up with the big-wave savant after the debut of his miniseries Made in the Basque Country, and with the professional surfing season in full swing, to learn how he deals with fear, establishes limits, and maximizes his time in the water when the going gets big.

Train the Body, Train the Mind

González thinks big-wave surfing is 80 percent mental, but he says that his physical conditioning allows him to keep his mind sharp and alert in critical situations.

“If you aren’t strong physically, I don’t think your mind has a chance to withstand the large amounts of water that can crash on you in these big waves,” he says. 

For González, that physical training begins five months before the season, which typically starts in late fall, and includes in-pool and gym sessions five days a week. He also works to develop proper breathing techniques that become essential when he needs to shift into survival mode after a big fall.

To prepare for such a scenario, González simulates crashes in a pool, getting his heart rate up before submerging himself underwater. He says that knowing how long you can hold your breath doesn’t really translate to surfing and surviving in big waves, because it doesn’t account for the wave jostling, disorientation, and surges of adrenaline that deplete your normal oxygen supply. González considers traditional breath holding a static training situation, while surviving a big wave hold-down is a dynamic one. One of his most strenuous exercises consists of swimming full-out for 50 meters and then immediately swimming the next 25 meters completely underwater. After a 30-second break, he swims another 25 meters underwater before resting for two minutes. Then he repeats the cycle four more times. 

In another exercise, his trainer places four dumbbells at five-meter intervals in a 25-meter pool. González swims underwater to the first dumbbell and waits for his trainer’s signal (usually two stomps on the pool edge) before moving on to the next. Not knowing how long he’ll have to wait keeps him alert in between bursts of physical output. Slowing down at each dumbbell helps González evaluate and connect to his breath in the midst of physical exertion and fatigue, a process he carries over into his surfing.

“You naturally have your adrenaline through the roof,” he notes. “But we practice how to relax in that situation.”

It’s a technique that he credits with his survival at Nazaré. Held down by wave after wave, confidence in his physical preparation saved his life. 

“I had to force myself to stay calm, relax, and not move anything,” he says. “That way I’m not consuming energy, and I can try and hold on for as long as possible. In the end, it’s all about survival—but those are situations you never want to experience.”

Let Fear Be a Teacher

González considers fear to be one of the greatest teachers for any surfer.
González considers fear to be one of the greatest teachers for any surfer. (Photo: Jon Aspuru/Red Bull)

When he crashed at Nazaré, González was coming off a breakout season and surfing at a world-class level. He admits he was overconfident for such a big day—and it nearly cost him.

“I think the person who isn’t afraid when they are surfing giant waves is going to have some serious problems,” says González. “It doesn’t matter how well-informed you are, or how strong you are mentally and physically—the ocean always wins. It’s important to keep those mental checks in mind, because if you don’t you can easily die.”

González believes that all surfers, regardless of their ability level, can and should learn from their fear. He says it’s essential to consistently check in with yourself before paddling out, asking: Is this wave too big? Am I comfortable if I have to bail? Is there a safe entry and exit for my ability level? These questions can help put fear in perspective, away from the cloud of adrenaline. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

“Last year I suffered from pneumonia, and I came back to a really good winter of surfing—we had big storms and big waves,” remembers González. “But I didn’t feel good in the water. I was afraid. If you don’t feel like you can control that fear against anything, you shouldn’t be in the water.”

Be Patient

Grant “Twiggy” Baker, González’s surf idol and a three-time big-wave champion, didn’t win his first world championship until he reached his forties. In González’s eyes, the legendary South African is a prime example of gradual improvement over an extended period.

“Baker has been catching big waves for a long time,” González says. “Big-wave surfing is really all about experience—experience that you acquire from surfing big sessions that make you a better all-around surfer.”

Even for pros like González, surfing continues to be a lifelong learning process and a humbling one. You expectations should be realistic, he says, and your progress slow but incremental. Respecting such lessons is paramount to a healthy life catching waves. 

“For a while, you are going to be afraid of waves at three feet, five feet,” notes González. “Then you move on to six feet and bigger. Step by step. It’s a slow evolution. Of course, you have to see your limits, and that’s the good thing about big waves—seeing that barrier. That limit continues to push itself, and someday the day will come when it’s too much. Until then, I’ll be in the water, no doubt.”

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