How Surfing With Clear Ears Will Help You Surf Your Best
Words by Brandon Rasman, MSc, PhD Candidate.
An Overlook of your vestibular system.
Visualize this scenario. After catching a wave, you paddle back to the line-up. While paddling, a fresh set starts rolling in – these are the waves you’ve been waiting all session for. You paddle harder. There’s a couple smaller waves to duck dive before you reach the take-off spot. No problem. One, two, alright done. Here comes the set. The second wave looks better, you let the first one pass. The second wave is the one. It has size, it’ll be a steep drop. Focus. If you make it, this will be the wave of the day…
Now, would you like it if you were spun in circles, moments before the wave reaches you? No, you don’t want to be disoriented and dizzy for this near perfect wave? If you’re not wearing ear plugs, you may not have a choice!
What am I talking about? Let me fill you in on a secret: water in your ears could be stimulating your vestibular organs. A while back, I wrote a paper describing how wearing ear plugs while surfing is not only important for keeping the inner ear healthy, but also for maintaining a clear vestibular sense. Here are the quick points from that paper:
- Vestibular organs (located in the inner ear) are sensory receptors that contribute to spatial orientation, motion perception, eye movements and balance control.
- Flushing water into the inner ear can artificially stimulate vestibular receptors, causing a sensation of movement that can sometimes be disorienting.
- Even if we’re not aware of it, this likely happens frequently while surfing.
Model of the ear, the vestibular system is highlighted with the red circle.
Why preserving normal vestibular function is critical for your surfing performance:
Having water stuck in the ears can be very annoying. It can lead to ear infections, affect hearing and lead to bone growth that need to be surgically removed. These health reasons should be enough to convince you to use SurfEars ear plugs. Most of these problems are progressive and tend to arise over time in the water. However, what you should know is that neglecting to wear ear plugs may negatively affect your surfing performance during any session.
Surfing is a dynamic and challenging task for the brain. The balance system has to rapidly gather and process sensory information to generate the motor actions necessary to keep the body from falling off the surfboard. Furthermore, we don’t simply want to not fall off our board. We want to carve the wave up and down, throw some cutties, maybe even bust the fins out or throw an air. The reason we can learn to perform and master these complex tasks is because our balance system proficiently utilizes the sensory cues it receives. But this becomes increasingly difficult if those sensory cues don’t make sense. That is exactly what can happen when water gets into the ears. This can activate the vestibular receptors in a way that tells our brain that the head is moving in way that it is not. The balance system will in turn respond to this virtual vestibular perturbation, leading to a postural response that is not needed (and therefore, may be destabilizing). Still with me? Both the virtual vestibular sensation and consequent balance response will likely be subtle and not consciously noticed. But make no mistake, the brain notices, and these events can disturb balance control to the point that your performance may not be quite as sharp as what it would normally be.
I know what you’re thinking, “this would be a problem for beginner surfers, I have great balance.” If only the human body worked that way. Vestibular errors are vestibular errors. They may evoke varying amounts of disorientation and different sized responses across each individual, but everyone’s brain will have to deal with these errors. I work in a research lab where we use vestibular stimulation techniques to study the human balance system. When preparing for experiment testing, we always get a kick when the participant tells us they do some type of sport (i.e. gymnastics, dancing, surfing) so they probably won’t really respond to the stimulation. What do you think happens when we run the experiment? The balance system responds to perturbations and that’s a good thing. If there’s an unexpected error, it will react.Maybe you are an experienced surfer, and yes, maybe your balance system has developed some strategies that are tuned in towards specific aspects of surfing. Who knows, there could even be some habituation and long-term adaptation to all those virtual vestibular perturbations caused by water. But it is most likely that a flood of water into your ears will make surfing more difficult for your brain. I’m making the case that to optimize your surf performance, you should keep the vestibular system clear. You’re better off having your vestibular receptors undisturbed to surf at your peak. It might spare you from kooking it on that next set wave.
Brendan “Margo” Margieson in balance. Photo by Dean James.
Will earplugs become common place in competitive surfing?
Athletes have always looked for a competitive advantage. When watching pro surf comps, I like to watch how surfers prepare for an upcoming heat and the different strategies they use once in the water. But how many competitors pop in a pair of ear plugs before paddling out? Sometimes it’s hard to tell by watching the WSL’s coverage but from what I can see, a low percentage of surfers use ear plugs during competition.
Why? Probably a variety of predictable excuses, like “I don’t want the hassle of wearing ear plugs” and “I’ve always competed without them, why would I want to change my routine?” But I’m willing to bet that the majority of surfers (pros included) don’t have any clue about the vestibular consequences of water getting inside their ears. A strong flush of water into your ears will temporarily influence the vestibular system and possibly affect the body’s natural balance function. It doesn’t matter who you are – Kelly Slater, Stephanie Gilmore, John John Florence – you can not escape vestibular physiology.
Once upon a time, ice hockey goalies wouldn’t wear any face protection. Tennis rackets were small and made of wood. Heck, doctors would perform surgery without gloves! We make changes for safety, practicality, and performance reasons. I’d say wearing ear plugs while surfing qualifies as a smart next step to increase performance.
Competitive surfers and their support teams spend a heap of time and money working on improving their performance. Strength conditioning, balance training, visualization sessions. All of that is great. Why not add another simple and easy technique? Toss in a pair of ear plugs and keep the vestibular system clear.
About the Author:
Brandon is a PhD Candidate working in the field of movement neuroscience. His research is focused on investigating human balance control under novel and dynamic scenarios, and he is constantly searching for ways to link his scientific work with surfing. When he’s not in the lab, he’s often out trying to find some tasty waves.