Foot strength and surfing: Why it’s important and how to build it

foot strength and surfing

When you think about surfing, you probably think about balance and core strength— two essential components of keeping you upright and planted on the board. But while both components are necessary, there’s one area of the body that trumps both: the ankles.

The contact between your feet and your board is imperative as a surfer. Your feet and ankles are under constant pressure the entire time you’re on the board, and any weaknesses and imbalances can easily contribute to injury.

Research has shown that surfers with greater lower-body isometric and dynamic strength have higher-scoring turning maneuvers during wave riding. But strengthening your hips, glutes, and legs has benefits far beyond just the water. Single-leg training—something we’re huge fans of—is one of the best ways to develop ankle-knee-hip-core stability, balance, and strength, which translates not only into better performance but also less strain and risk of injury. 

Pro Surfer Brianna Cope training barefoot using Spacer Mobility Products.

If you have ever wondered why surfers love to be barefoot, we have your answer— keep reading to find out!

Being Barefoot May Lead to Better Surfing

If you know anything about us at Spacer Mobility, you know we’re all about the barefoot life. For lifters, runners, and just about everyone, including surfers. While grocery stores and restaurants may not be the biggest fan of the no-shoes movement, surfers are lapping it up. 

Astudy by the Exercise and Rehabilitation Center at the University of Birmingham compared barefoot walkers to those wearing common footwear and the differences between kinematic, kinetic, and muscle activity during walking. They found some interesting (but not surprising) results for barefoot walkers:

  • Increased forefoot spreading under load
  • Anatomically wider feet than chronic shoe-wearers
  • Shorter step/stride length and increased cadence (pace)
  • Flatter foot placement
  • Increased knee flexion
  • Reduced peak vertical ground reaction force at initial contact
  • Lower peak plantar pressures and pressure impulses

So, how does this translate to surfers? In simple terms, walking barefoot alters the mechanics of the foot and its functionality—for the better. Better foot mechanics and ankle flexibility mean better balance on the board.

Greater foot strength translates directly to better performance. While surfing is a full-body sport, the lower body does most of the work, and strong ankles and feet are at the heart. 

Ankle flexibility is also essential for achieving a good range of motion of the foot.  Severalstudies have compared barefoot walking to shod and found that modern footwear is associated with weaker intrinsic foot muscles that may predispose individuals to reduced foot stiffness and flat foot. However, walking barefoot may increase ankle joint flexibility and movement, which allows barefoot walkers to have flatter foot placement. As such, the foot spreads out more and has a greater contact surface with the ground. 

Think of it like this: If you’re doing a handstand, how would your balance change if your fingers were splayed out as much as they can splay versus crunched up in a ball? Now apply the same concept to your feet. Splaying your toes as they’re meant to be splayed (which is difficult when they’re crunched in shoes all day) improves contact with the surfboard, which allows you to have a better grip and balance. 

According to the study from the University of Birmingham study, barefoot walkers put less pressure on the back and middle part of the foot. Because of maximum contact with the ground, weight distribution is more even than it would be with shoes on. Concerning surfing, better weight distribution could improve various surfing maneuvers. When putting a lot of pressure on turns, having your feet firmly planted on your board with an excellent grip can improve your movements. 

In short, going barefoot offers benefits for everyone, not just surfers. The more you walk, run, or just be barefoot, the stronger your feet and ankles will be—and studies back it up. Two studies published inMedicine & Science in Sports & Exercise andScientific Reports found that wearing minimal footwear increases the strength of the intrinsic foot muscles, but when done excessively, it could lead to injury. That’s why we always recommend starting slow. 

Going barefoot may not be the gateway to becoming a pro surfer, but for those looking to get into the sport or those already in it, it can help to improve balance, stability, and overall performance. 

3 Ways to Strength Your Feet and Ankles for Surfing

Surfers are subjected to many elements, and injuries aren’t uncommon. From eyes and head trauma to shoulders, lower back, knees, and ankle sprains, they see it all—and you can usually thank the compressive forces of waves, slips, or awkward landings. 

Some of the most common injuries seen in surfers include:

  • Shoulder impingement
  • Back and hip strains
  • Ankle hypomobility
  • MCL tear

While you may be unable to stop the force of a wave coming at you, you can strengthen your feet, ankles, and hips for a stronger foundation and a reduced risk of injury.

Use a stability board

Stability boards look tricky, but they’re actually a lot of fun—and a great way to strengthen the ankles and simulate surfing scenarios. The unsteady surface of the board challenges your ankles’ stability and range of motion, much like a surfboard does, in a safe and controlled environment to minimize injury risk. They also help to strengthen the leg muscles and improve balance. Check out our New Stability Trainer Pro

Standing heel raises

Standing heel raises are a simple and highly effective way to strengthen your ankles and feet, and no equipment is required. Stand up straight with your feet hip-width apart (on an edge is preferable). Slowly lift your heels until you’re on your toes, and lower back down to starting position. For optimal strengthening, ensure you’re going through the movement slow and with control. 

Sand walking

If you need another reason to hit the beach, strengthening your feet and ankles is a great one. The sand's uneven surface and soft texture naturally strengthens your feet, ankles, and calves as you walk through the stand; they activate to maintain balance on an unsteady surface.

Apart from our Stability Trainer Pro, we recommend training barefoot with Toe Spacers to help achieve optimal foot function and form.