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In the Deep End with Mark Visser

While some waves we caught yesterday, or last year, or ten years ago, still burn bright in our minds, as surfers, we're predisposed to looking forward to that next ride. "One more," we like to say.

The deal with "one more" is that you have to be ready for it when it comes. And part of that means staying comfortable in the water. So, when the opportunity to hang out with Mark Visser and go through his Ocean Warrior Course came up, I felt compelled to take advantage. Rosy Hodge and Joe Turpel also joined in.

None of us will be qualifying for the Big Wave Tour anytime soon, but we all want to get the most out of our sessions, even if the majority of them are in average, everyday conditions.

Visser on Breathing Techniques
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The legendary big wave surfer Mark Visser shows the WSL team how to get comfortable under water.

As he explained to us, Visser almost drowned in a sheep's trough when he was three years old and has pretty much spent his entire life trying to overcome a paralyzing fear of the water. To prove to himself that he wasn't afraid, he's surfed Jaws at night and parachuted a jet ski out of a plane to ride a wave in the middle of the ocean.

Motivated to finally vanquish the phobia once and for all, Visser developed his Ocean Warrior educational training courses to help calm the mind and body and be prepared for whatever the next hold down may entail. He's applied everything he's learned from water safety gurus, big-wave riders, world-class free divers, Navy SEALS and anybody else that spends an inordinate amount of time underwater. Lately, he's been working with the likes of Kai Lenny, Kelly Slater and Garrett McNamara.

Joe Turpel Joe Turpel WSL

On the day Rosy, Joe and I met up with Mark he'd just finished training with Slater. Comparatively, we probably looked like the Bad News Bears, but Mark kept insisting that we had to let go of any expectations or ego and just dive into the experience. So, we did the best we could and rolled up to the pool at the Boy Scout Camp in the Pupukea hills that he was using as an impromptu training facility.

Visser opened with basic water safety tactics demonstrated by lifeguard legend Brian Keaulana: how to do CPR, how to get an unconscious victim onto a surfboard, etc. It's all stuff every surfer should know and doesn't take long to learn.

Then it was into the actual physical part of the course. Visser explained how different parts of the body use more or less oxygen, and how during a wipeout, if you can essentially shutdown those big muscles that burn a lot of oxygen (namely in legs), it's relatively easy to extend your time underwater.

"The idea is to relax as much as possible," said Visser. "From your fingertips to our toes think about every part of your body and try to relax them even more. For example, keeping your eyes closed underwater can lead to a longer breath hold because it requires a lot of oxygen to send visual signals to your brain and then process them into recognizable images. If you're getting pinned to the bottom by a 10-footer, chances are there's not much to see anyway."

It was in the pool where all of this was really brought to life. After teaching us the mechanics of the "dump breath" technique, Visser asked us to take a breath and swim from one end of the pool to the other under water. We then took our heart rates. After a discussion about how to relax the body and mind underwater, we did the exercise again, but this time Visser asked us to see how far we could glide off of each stroke underwater and limit how many strokes we took. Everyone made it across the pool much more gracefully, stayed underwater nearly twice as long and cut their heart rate in half.

That's what having the ability to relax underwater can do for a surfer. It doesn't matter if it's two-foot or ten, letting stress or anxiety creep into your surf session can alter your physiology and limit your performance.

Rosy Hodge Rosy Hodge WSL

For the next exercise, Visser has developed a routine where you take a breath with a increased heart rate then float underwater while somebody flogs you, replicating what your body may go through during a wipeout. You do this four times in a row with only one breath between floggings ... and the floggings get increasingly worse. The goal is to increase stress on your body, like being caught inside on a big set, while training yourself to stay calm and conserve oxygen.

Rosy, Joe and I ended up spending over three hours at the pool with Visser. On the way back home Joe and Rosy mentioned how the Ocean Warrior Course could not only help them in the water, but also when the camera is on during big events.

As much as the Ocean Warrior course is about surf training, it's also about life training. Whether it's a beating at Pipe or standing on stage in front of a thousand screaming surf fans, or just trying to meet a deadline for work, we all have moments of panic or anxiety in our daily lives that may inhibit our peak performance. Having the right tools to overcome that is a game changer. The Ocean Warrior course comes with two separate online video programs for total beginners as as well fully advanced so you can take your time to increase your skill level as you go.

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