Clear ears: a trick to surf at your best

Words by Brandon Rasman, MSc, PhD Candidate.

Overlooking your vestibular system?
Let’s visualize a scenario. After catching a wave, you turn around and paddle back to the line-up. Out towards the horizon a fresh set is rolling in – these are the waves you’ve been waiting for. You paddle harder. Your heart rate rises with the excitement. There’s a couple smaller waves to duck dive before you reach the right spot. No problem. One, two, alright clear sights. Here comes the set. The second wave looks better, let the first one pass. This is it. The wave 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 a bit disoriented and dizzy for this opportunity? 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 little secret: water in your ears may be stimulating your vestibular organs. A while back, I wrote a blog 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: 

  • 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.

You can find the blog here: https://surfears.com/2017/07/06/keep-the-senses-clear/ and I encourage you to browse the internet and read more about the vestibular system.

Model of the ear, the vestibular system is highlighted with the red circle.

Why preserving normal vestibular function is critical for surf performance
Having water stuck in the ears is annoying. It can cause ear infections, affect hearing and lead to bone growths that require surgery. These health reasons should be enough to convince you to use a pair of plugs. Most of these problems are progressive and typically arise over many sessions of surfing. However, what you should realize is that neglecting to wear ear plugs may negatively affect your surf performance during a session. 

Surfing is a dynamic and challenging task for the brain. The balance system must rapidly gather and process sensory information to generate the motor actions necessary to keep the body from falling. Furthermore, we don’t simply want to not fall. We want to carve the wave up and down, throw some cutbacks, maybe go for that 360° air rotation (you, not me). 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 more difficult if those sensory cues, well, don’t make sense. That’s exactly what can happen when water flows into the ears. This can activate the vestibular receptors in a manner that informs the brain that the head is moving in way that it isn’t. 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.

I know what you’re thinking, “this would be a problem for beginner surfers, I have great balance.” If only life worked that way. Vestibular errors are vestibular errors. They may evoke varying amounts of disorientation and different sized responses across the population, but everyone’s brain will have to deal with errors. I work in a research lab where we use vestibular stimulation techniques to study the balance system. When preparing for experiment testing, I always get a kick when the participant tells me they do some sport (i.e. gymnastics, dancing, surfing) so they probably won’t 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 strategies that are tuned for 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’s more 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 surf performance, you should keep the vestibular system clear. You’re better off having your vestibular receptors undisturbed to surf at your best. It might spare you from that next fall off the wave.

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Brendan “Margo” Margieson in balance. Photo by Dean James

Will earplugs become common in competitive surfing?
Athletes are always looking for a competitive advantage. When watching professional surfing, I like to observe how surfers prepare for an upcoming heat and the different strategies they use once the contest is on. But how many competitors pop in a pair of ear plugs before paddling out? Sometimes it’s hard to tell by watching World Surf League coverage (come on WSL… use those fancy cameras and zoom up to the ears), but from what I see, a low percentage of surfers use plugs during competition.

Why? Probably a variety of predictable explanations, like “I don’t want the hassle of wearing ear plugs” and “I’ve always competed without them, why would I change my routine?” But I’m willing to bet that the majority of surfers (including the pros) don’t have any clue about the vestibular consequences of water getting their ears. A strong flush of water into your ears will temporarily influence the vestibular system and possibly affect balance function. I don’t care who you are – Kelly Slater, Stephanie Gilmore, John John Florence – you cannot escape vestibular physiology.

Once upon a time, hockey goalies wouldn’t wear any face protection. Tennis rackets use to be small and made of wood. Heck, doctors would conduct surgeries without gloves! We make changes for safety, practicality, and performance reasons. I’d say wearing ear plugs while surfing qualifies.

Competitive surfers spend plenty of time and resources 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 waves. 

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Posted on:
July 23, 2020

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