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Surviving Hold Downs and wipeouts in Surfing

I’ve just returned from presenting Part One of the Sea Hearts Surf Club Waterwomen’s Workshop called, “Your Brain on Fear,” an all-girl surf getaway and I wanted to share how to create a plan of action for our most common surfing fears: hold downs and wipeouts. At our Surfaris, we will learn a three step process for tackling our surfing fears called LAP List, Action (below), Positivity.

If you’ve been following our process to conquer your surfing fears, you’ll know that the first step is to List or Acknowledge everything that scares you when surfing or being out in the ocean.  Naming our fears is an essential step that allows us to overcome our natural instinct to avoid things that scare us, see that anticipation is actually worse than the experience itself, feel in-control of our fate, and to change the story we tell ourselves about what we fear.

Fundamentally, Fear Prep or listing our fears shines a light on what we naturally want to hide away.  But once we’ve exposed what lies beneath, how do we tame our demons and learn to perform despite their rumblings?

This is ACTION, Step 2 of “Your Brain on Fear:” Create a Plan of Action for Each Fear.

Get ready, this is your game plan for tackling the things (like hold downs, wipeouts, injuries, and even sharks) that scare you both before they happen and when the lip of an eight foot wave is actually bearing down on you.

We are going to look at both Prevention of these scary circumstances and Response when you’re in the heat of the moment.  

Having a script for each fear that you’ve trained for and rehearsed is key for entering the famed “flow state” and performing your best no matter the conditions.  Our goal is to create a space between the stimulus and your response so you can slow down whatever is happening and make a logical, thought-out, and critical response based on your training rather than being controlled by your Fight-or-Flight Instinct.  

So how do you write such a script?  What are some the critical things you need to do in order to feel comfortable in bigger waves?  

This is how you create a Place of Action for one of our biggest fears in surfing: drowning.  Over time, I have recognized this as the most prevalent fear we have as surfers, so let’s figure out how we write our best script to prevent and respond to being held under.  


Breathing is not only essential for human life, but it is the foundation of high performance in all our endeavors. Managing your breath will extend your life, help you out of any type of stressful situation, and give you the ability to perform at a level beyond your wildest belief.  If you understand the importance of breathing, you won’t be surprised that for most of us, our biggest fear while surfing is running out of oxygen. Whether we get held under water by an incoming set, a lip pushing us down after a wipeout, or any other situation where the ocean takes over our ability to breathe, our first instinct is to panic.  Yet when fear kicks the amygdala into gear, one of the only ways to regulate our nervous system is through breathing. So what can you do to prevent hold downs from happening and react appropriately when they do?


In order to prepare to take a wipeout or hold down like a pro, our first step is your breathing. You should aim to hold your breath for at least 2-3 minutes.  If that sounds daunting, train incrementally. You can enhance the quality of your breath regardless of your initial untrained breath hold in way that will significantly affect your confidence and ability in. the surf. The first step is to train under normal conditions. Start working on your static breath hold at home as part of your daily routine by using our steps below.

Waterwomen’s Breath Training Method

  • Warm Up:
    • Pranayama Breathing: Begin with Pranayama breathing like you do in yoga class. Essentially, breath in through your mouth and blow out with force, as if you were blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Do one set of 30 breaths at a steady pace, then do one set at a quicker pace.
    • Diaphragm Pumps: This exercise strengthens our diaphragm muscles.
      • Both nostrils: Breath out of your nose with force 30 times.
      • Alternate nostrils: Block one nostril and breath out of nose 30 times, then do the other.
    • Packing: Fill your lungs with air until they feel 75% full, hold for 3 seconds, then “pack” more air into your lungs until they are completely full. Hold for 3 seconds. Breath out. Repeat 3 times.
  • Breath Holds: When you breathe in for each hold, draw the breath in deep and low into your stomach. Try to completely relax during your holds, meditation techniques like the ‘body-scan’ are helpful. Here’s the procedure. You can do as many timed holds at the end as you wish. I often find the 2nd or 3rd to be the longest.
    • 30 Seconds Hold, 30 Seconds Rest
    • 1:00 Hold, 1:00 Rest
    • Timed hold
    • Rest
    • Best Timed Hold
  • Remember the 12 Second Rule: The 12 Second Rule goes something like this: the majority of hold downs in small to 1x overhead to 2x overhead will never last longer than 12 seconds. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule and if you’re surfing 10 ft plus, you’ll have the occasional 30 second hold down that will feel like an eternity. But for the most part, that’s it, just 12 seconds. Try counting how long people are under next time you watching surfers in big surf. I really love this explanation of the 12 Second Rule.
  • Take a Quality Breath Before Impact: You can train all day and night but if you are not able take action under stress by taking a quality breath before each wave, you’re missing the point. That’s why it’s important to practice taking a deep, low breath that fills your lungs and extends your diaphragm before every wave you duck dive. The more you practice, the more likely you’ll be able to take a quality breath while you’re taking the third wave of the set on the head.


If you’re out of shape, you’re putting yourself at a critical disadvantage from the outset while surfing. Surfing involves short bursts of high intensity movement, strength, and endurance. Before our Surfaris, all the participants get a WaterWomen’s Surf Training Plan to get them ready for their trip. This makes a surf trip way more enjoyable, prevents injuries, and allows for exponential improvement in a short period of time. Lots of times you will decrease the likelihood and the severity of a hold down by being quick and strong. Here’s what we recommend to all surfers, regardless of level. Mix this with as much surfing as you can.

  • Cardio: Swimming, running, paddling, rowing.
  • Functional Strength: squats, lunges, pushups, pull-ups, rows, and single-legged standing exercises.
  • High Intensity Interval Training: Essentially, this kind of work out combines both of the above and is characterized doing high heart rate cardio exercise, followed by rest and strength training. Being able to control your heart rate during exercise is so helpful for surfing and surviving hold downs.
  • Stretching/Yoga: All types of physical activity should be followed by stretching as you get older. The spiky ball and the foam roller are your best friends.


  • Surf Forecast: Do you know how to read a surf report? Do you have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into even before you get to the beach. Swell height and direction, tide, period are all over the Internet. Learn what they mean and what kind of waves to expect at you home break. There’s no better way to prevent scary situations from happening to surf within your limits.
  • Surf Check: If you consulted the surf report before you left house, your next order of business is conducting a proper realistic surf check. Learn to watch what’s happening before you get in the water. Some questions to ask yourself:
    • Where is the channel? The rip? The impact zone that you want to avoid?
    • How are other surfers fairing? Are they making the drop? Are they getting worked?
    • Sea Heart Alexia mentioned that she imagines herself in the impact zone, getting worked. She counts from the beach and analyzes whether she could safely withstand that beating before she goes out.
  • The bottom line is Know Your Limits. It is up to you to know when you should paddle and when you should stay in. Challenge yourself incrementally. Get comfortable with a range of conditions and then try a little bigger on a easy tide. This is a surefire way to make sure you can handle what the ocean throws at you and that you will never experience a hold down longer than you can handle.


But just in case, let’s talk about those epic thrashings. A lot of people cite the “violent shake” of the ocean as something they feared most.  You know the feeling: the sight of a giant wave feathering over your head, the crack as a wave explodes on the reef, the sensation of getting tumbled in an angry washer machine towards the deep.  Without proper training, our natural response to go into panic mode: your pupils dilate and fixate on the wave, muscles tense up, and we try resist the pounding. All this tension results in wasting valuable oxygen.  Thus, the best thing we can do is RELAX. Protect your head if you are in shallow water but otherwise go completely limp in the fetal position and let the wave do as it wishes. This will conserve oxygen and help you counter your instinctual fear response.

You can practice this in a pool like the video below:


Once you’ve increased your static breath-hold and trained for the “Violent Shake,” the rest is mental. You must learn to control your fear and to create an override button on amygdala’s Fight-or-Flight instinct. After you’ve acknowledged your fear, here are some tips you can use to get your brain onboard. These are used both in and out of the water.

  1. Use a Counting or Cue Word: Many of the Sea Hearts I’ve interviewed for our How Sea Hearts Deal with Fear series including Alexia and Kate, use counting to get through gnarly hold downs and wipeouts. If you back your counting with your Breath Hold Training, you’ll get a confidence boost each time you’re held under for 10-12-14 or 16 seconds knowing that you can hold your breath for a 1:30 or longer. To do this, you just start counting slowly from the time you duck dive. This takes your mind of the situation by allowing you to focus on the task of counting.Another tried and true method is using a Cue Word like “Relax,” before you duck dive. This word tells your mind to access your parasympathetic nervous system while telling your body to release tension and go limp. Practice coupling your Cue Word with meditation and relaxation techniques so that you create an association between your Cue Word and being completely relaxed.
  2. Meditation: The act of meditation soothes the Fight-or-Flight instinct by slowing down the heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and all other nervous system reactions to fear. Learning how to access the Parasympathetic System on command through daily meditation, will produce incredible results in your surfing and in life. You can also use meditation techniques in the moment. Surfers like Mick Fanning train by alternating extreme high intensity exercizes and periods of complete stillness. Doing similar training will teach you to control your heart rate and breathing and to be able to return to a calm, collected place in your mind before you face the next challenge.
  3. Visualization: Our minds cannot decipher the difference between actually experiencing something and just thinking about it. This means we can play our surf sessions over in our mind, create images bout how we want to surf, and curate the story we want ourselves to hear. Imagine yourself duck diving an eight foot wave easily, coming out the back, turning and expertly catching the next set wave into the channel. For more tips about Visualization, check out the Surf Stoked Moms post on that subject.
Woman meditating on beach

The key is to not push yourself beyond your ability, rather take small steps and become comfortable at each level then push yourself a little more.

Have you ever asked yourself, ‘how does Steph do that?’ What allows top-performing women’s big wave surfers to do what they do and surf waves like Jaws, Mavericks, Nazaré or Teahupoo? Having a Plan of Action for everything that could go wrong including hold downs and wipeouts gives you an incredible amount of confidence. PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING.

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