x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Surfin' UAE

Students are riding the wave to popular Fit Surf classes in Dubai - and finding their way to fitness.

Jason Smith and James Oliver, Surf Dubai warm up before class.
Jason Smith and James Oliver, Surf Dubai warm up before class.

Surfers are well known for their muscular torsos, rippled abdominal muscles and enviable outdoors lifestyles, so an exercise regime that promises office-bound, road-weary Dubai residents even a smidgen of that effect was always going to be a winner. And despite the 6am start, twice a week for the past two-and-a-half years, a small group of bleary-eyed men and women, of all ages and levels of experience, have been gathering at Sunset beach, the open beach next to the Burj Al Arab, for Surf Fit classes.

The success of the hour-long sessions, which run every Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday, has continued to grow, according to the founder of Surf Dubai, Scott Chambers, since its inception in 2007. Classes remain capped at six students to ensure the instructors can monitor their progress effectively. "We need to be able to see students progress, communicate with them and show them where they need to go," Chambers explains as he waits for the last of his students to arrive for their Monday morning session.

The small group of twenty-somethings that have signed up for the month's Monday and Wednesday sessions consist of three males and one female, all dressed in board shorts and vests. They have varying levels of experience in the water, from the total beginners to Jason Smith, 27, from Dubai, who has been surfing for more than a decade. For Smith, the class provides a means to improve his fitness and strength in the water, ahead of the UAE's first official surfing competition in Dubai next month.

"It has definitely improved my surfing," he said. "It helps develop fitness, sure, but also core strength, which is really important." To begin the session, Chambers and his friend and colleague Daniel Van Dooren lead a "warm up" run along the beach. The run is deceptively easy to begin, but is soon punctuated by instructions from Van Dooren to "drop", sending everyone crashing purposefully to the sand in a sort of push-up without the legs, before they push themselves back up onto their feet and continue.

This is no boot camp though. The instructors are gentle with those who need a bit of confidence or are just starting out, and challenge those who need a push. And with the sun on their backs and a decent surf, everyone is still smiling as they finish the run, go through a set of stretches, and then head down towards the water's edge for the next round of exercises. First on the hit-list are the quadriceps. The legs are put through a gruelling series of rotational squats that simulate typical surfing movements, which start to burn after around five squats and leave the legs feeling like lead weights.

Next, with one leg forwards and their arms out at their sides, the students turn in a jumping squat movement, 180 degrees, and then back again, firing up the thighs and working the love handles in the process. After 10 full rotations they switch the leading leg and repeat. "Guys, bend your legs and keep your balance," instructs Van Dooren as he corrects the technique of those with less experience.

Then it is on to sprints into the water, until they are waist-deep, where the group hold their noses and squat down, immersing their heads completely before sprinting back to the shore and repeating the routine. This class is obviously not for those with a fear of the sea or without basic swimming skills. All of the moves, Chambers explains, are geared towards improving a surfer's performance and fitness in the water while offering non-surfers an impressive all-round workout and a glimpse into the sport.

"We are working core strength, cardiovascular fitness and muscle control," he says. "Some of the people who come to this class have never been in the surf before. For them it's either a start point or about gaining functional fitness. "In Dubai there is a huge mindset towards body building and people forget why they are training. This is a way of making people more durable and functional in everyday life and the sports they do."

Following the sprints, everyone heads back up to the beach where a row of exercise mats, each sporting a black tube and oval, wooden board, sits waiting on the sand. The board balances on the tube and is used to carry out a series of core-strengthening exercises that also test balance - beginning with a push-up, hands resting on the board, legs stretched out behind. After a set of 15 it's on to a version of popular core exercise 'the plank', using the board as the platform for the arms - no easy feat as participants try to keep balanced as well as supporting their body weight.

For those finding any exercise too easy, Chambers and Van Dooren always have a more difficult option on offer. After holding the pose for one minute it's then on to the tricky part - squats, balanced on the board. For the beginners, Chambers and Van Dooren help steady them. For the more experienced though, it's 20 unaided repetitions. The whole circuit is repeated twice. And then, after a briefing by Van Dooren on safety and the basics, with a good swell in for the week, it's out into the sea with the brightly coloured Quiksilver beginners' boards, for the final half of the session.

The more experienced do their own thing while Chambers watches from the beach, ready to debrief them on their progress. For the less confident, Van Dooren stays beside them in the water, ready to help as they try to paddle out as quickly as they can, before catching and riding a wave back in. Paddling is a great workout for the arms and shoulders, as well as the core - balancing on the board is not as easy as it looks. And if you're a surfer, it's what you spend most of your time in the water doing, so it's not a bad thing to perfect.

When there is no surf, which is sadly quite often, the second half of the class involves paddling, at speed, to buoys offshore, as well as learning basic rescue techniques and swimming out to the same buoys and back again. The Surf Fit programme was initially devised by Chambers and his friends, who grew up in Dubai and are self-taught surfers, as a means to keep themselves fit during the lulls in the surf season.

"It was a long time between getting waves and we felt our performance was not where we wanted it," he says. "So myself and a couple of friends started doing this routine that we are now sharing. "It all focuses on in-water performance but at the same time is very much about improving general fitness and well-being." It is, he enthuses, a great answer to anyone looking to get fit. "All of this combines to be a great calorie burner," says Chambers. "It's definitely something that can help you lose weight. People leave this session and go to work feeling energised and productive."