How to stay in the flow: Speed, Power and Compression – A Case Study.

Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach…minus one.

A bit over a month ago, the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach was celebrated in Victoria, Australia. Legendary Bell’s Beach was visited by the WSL’s surfing elite. Jordy Smith, Gabriel Medina and John John Florence, among many other luminaries, brought the stoked-filled crowds to their feet on repeated occasions.

How to stay in the flow: feel v.s. technique.

The competition was fierce and full of incredible grit and talent. In the end, Brazilian Italo Ferreira was crowned champion of this, the second of eleven stops that make up the 2018 WSL Men’s Championship Tour.

And though the crowds warmly greeted and rooted for their favorite competitors, there was an inevitable, unspoken feeling of quiet disappointment when, heat after heat, surfers went all out against each other, but this time without the presence and formidable skill of one of  surfing’s all-time legends and eleven-time world champion: Kelly Slater.

And this feeling is only natural.

Kelly has forever revolutionized the world of competitive surfing.

Kelly SlaterIn my humble opinion, Kelly lives in the same star-studded firmament as other world sports phenoms like Ronaldo, Federer, and Brady. His accomplishments in the CT remain a historical milestone in the sport of surfing:  11 World Titles, 55 career victories, as well as being the youngest and oldest World Champion in men’s history.

And did I mention he is also an accomplished big-wave charger? Slater is as comfortable competing in 12 ft. Trestles as he is competing in monstrous Peahi or Teahupo, riding waves in excess of 35 feet, with a unique style and uncommon aplomb.

He is not of this earth folks!

What he does with massive bombers never ceases to amaze me. But it’s what he does on smaller waves, demanding greater finesse and “feel” of the wave, that is really special.

Like golf or tennis, when done right, a swing or serve can seem, at least to the unpracticed eye, as a fairly simple and effortless movement.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s this apparent simplicity of mechanics through mastery of complex motion which often propels talented athletes to a whole new level of performance.  It’s the key to how to stay “in the flow”.

And Kelly is one of the undisputed masters.

But first, let’s talk basics…

I have always been intrigued by how professional surfers keep their power and speed going through sections of the wave. They make it look so effortless and seamless. As I researched a bit more on this topic, I discovered that there are three essential aspects all professional surfers agree on for achieving ultimate riding mastery:

  • Speed
  • Power
  • Flow.

Back home, I have watched local surfers in Cancun for some time now.

Even though there are a couple of good spots, there’s not much of a culture here. Now, it’s not to say that my compadres don’t try!  (just being out in the water, in less than ideal conditions, is merit enough). But the sad truth is that their surfing falls very short of these three basic elements.

I’m quite sure that if they spent some time reading and researching a bit on how speed, power, and flow really work, they’d be even more stoked. Some of them could even take their surfing to the next level.

Check out the following video. See if you can notice anything in particular:

Our unsuspecting “victims” are having a blast, for sure, even if they are doing it all wrong. Chances are they are not even aware of the three fundamental mistakes which are holding them back for better performance, growth and enjoyment:

  • Stop and starting
  • Flailing arms
  • Squatting

Also, look at their posture. They seem to be more concerned with how they look on the wave, rather than focusing on the wave. The wave is the real star here, not the other way around.

It’s like they think surfing is about them and not the wave.  That’s what surfing is…it’s about riding a wave.

To achieve this level of sensibility and “feel” takes diligent practice and dogged determination. You have to work hard to acquire the proper muscle memory and technique. Eventually, when you do it enough times, your mind and body will arrive to a complete understanding of this.

Clayton Nienaber Surf CoachAccording to Clayton Nienaber, world-class surfer, surf coach and surfboard shaper, surfing must be done with a “hell of a lot of more feeling”. He adds:

“People use their bodies too much. You have to “read ” the sections. The waves tell when and how to do a turn. It’s like peeling an onion: you peel one layer, and then you find another layer beneath. There you may discover something beautiful and grand…and then you peel another layer and this time, maybe your discovery may not be as significant, but it will still be incredibly valuable”.

Of the three most hampering and wrong ways to surf (mentioned above), surfing flat is very possibly the hardest to beat. And that’s because we all think that going all out on the face of the wave is the way to speed and power.

It’s not.

Mastering the bottom-turn is the surest ticket to speed, power and flow.

the bottom turn: power, speed, flow.And yes, I can hear some of you saying: “Oh, I know that dude! Been doing it for ages…what else can you tell me that I don’t already know!”. Well, this may surprise even seasoned surfers and newbies alike. They should both stop for a moment and give some consideration to the following advice.

See, just like in life, the devil is indeed in the details.

So hang around a bit, especially since this information comes from two of surfing’s greatest: Taylor Knox and Kelly Slater.

Speed, power, and flow…nailing the bottom-turn every time.

Taylor explains it like this:

“If you put your board on rail and you feel yourself leaning and driving through the turn, you’re going to get speed out of the bottom turn. Most people surf flat, stepping on the tail of the board, getting a direction change, but this sacrifices a lot of speed”.

He goes on, listing the 5 essential techniques that must be learned and mastered by anyone who really wants to take their surfing to the next level:

  1. Surf on rail.
  2. Lean into the turn.
  3. Twist on turns (top turns) and hold for longer
  4.  Surf top-to-bottom.
  5. “Feel” your way through the bottom turn.

Our coach, Clayton Nienaber, goes deeper into the concept of leaning into a bottom turn, addressing two things you MUST do with your board:

  1. Hold off the bottom turn.
  2. Release off the top turn.

By the way, for those of you who are newcomers to surfing and are a bit unsure about the different parts that make up a surfboard, here’s a pic from that can help clear this up a bit:

Nienaber continues to add:

“Note that when you hold the bottom-turn or release at the top-turn, you experience two very different “feelings” on the wave, even though both rails are the same on either side of the board. You have the same design which does two different things.

The following analogy applies:

Imagine you are riding a bike you lean into the curve. If you don’t lean and only turn while steering the wheel, you’ll fall over the handlebars. Likewise, when taking a curve slowly, you have to sit up straight, turn the handlebars and the bike will turn.

In surfing, when you take off and you go down the face of the wave and you create speed from the wave, you have to lean on the bottom turn. The rails are round and they are designed to roll same as the bike’s tires are designed to roll. You engage the rail, allowing the board to turn smoother, longer and better. When you roll, you get weightless.

This allows your board to accelerate through the water.

Also, by rolling into the rail your bottom curve is submerged into the water. Because it’s curving your bottom curve, it actually turns you up to the top of the wave. You are leaning in the direction of the wave you want to go to. This will result in your board turning in that direction.

When you become weightless, it is easier for the board to get sucked up the wave face, towards the top of the wave.

A bike turn relates to what the bottom-turn should feel like. The top-turn is a simple twist (like tennis or golf), where the twist determines the power you will gain, as you go down the face of the wave again”.

“It’s essential you understand that when coming up the face of the wave, you are burning off speed.

When you twist, you use gravity to ride back down the wave, very much like a skateboarder going down a ramp. Going down, the skater gains speed again for his next move.

I can’t stress enough moving away from the following bad habits as soon as you are able to:

  • Flat surfing.
  • Flailing arms.
  • Hopping
  • Bouncing

Not only will these practices make you lose speed always, you will also burn through your energy a lot faster, feeling exhausted very quickly. Getting into the “flow” will remain nearly impossible to accomplish”.

Compression, twisting, leaning…

And so we come to Kelly Slater’s take on the bottom-tun. His exploits and accolades as an active advocate of the sport have advanced the sport of surfing well into the future. So pay close attention.

Experts love Kelly’s surfing because of what he does in the bottom-turn…

  • He takes off, nose straight to the beach.
  • Kelly then leans gently on the rail.
  • The board then rockets to the top of the wave.
  • He twists naturally, gaining tremendous explosive power, racing down the face of the wave.

But what immediately follows is equally amazing…

  • Kelly comes out of the power zone of the wave (bottom of the wave) looking up at the lip.
  • When he hits it, he’s looking back down at the power zone, riding it and getting speed from it again.

And on, and on it goes, almost never losing speed and power, always flowing smoothly and in harmony with the wave.

“Most people look down the line and see the shoulder and try forced turns half-way down the shoulder…this kills your speed”. Kelly also says that gunning down the line doesn’t work for him, preferring top-to-bottom, rail-to-rail surfing.

Again, like Knox and Nienaber, Kelly mentions the bad habits we should all try to stay away from:

“…squatting during the bottom-turn. Don’t do it. Squatting won’t give you speed or acceleration. It hinders your movement. You become flat footed and this leads to twisting in the bottom-turn which causes the surfboard to drift and slide out”.

Kelly goes on to add that, much like track athletes competing in the 100-meter dash, the movement during the bottom turn should feel similar to the lunge the track athlete makes at the crack of the gun.

“This compression through the lunge gives you much more acceleration, and it enables you to lean into the turn. If there is no space below you, you are never going to find speed. And remember, no matter how you are turning, the wave always determines your approach”.

So why do the majority of surfers end up not doing right?

Coach Nienaber explains:

“Most surfers run away from the power zone instead of actually being in it. They don’t realize that they can surf closer to the foamball than they think. The fact is that being closer to the foamball gives you more freedom. As mentioned before, surfing is about what your body is doing at the bottom and the top of the wave. “Feel” and “Flow” stem from this knowledge. And gaining awareness of this remains one of the biggest challenges surfers have to face”.

So there you have it! A quick primer of speed, power and flow (and compression) from three of the world’s best surfing athletes. Wherever you are, I hope you can put these sage tips and advice to practice.

Remember, it’s not about you. You are not the star. The wave is.

  1. “Read” the sections.
  2. Surf rail-to-rail, top-to-bottom.
  3. Lean into the rail and lunge for greater speed up the face of the wave.
  4. Twist.
  5. Repeat.

And always be learning awareness.


The resources of this article come directly from an interview done to coach Neinaber by Mike Balter (Surf Mastery Podcast) a bit over a year ago. Even though it has been a while since coach Nienaber has been on the podcast, his insights and profound knowledge on surfing, speed, power,  compression, and flow remain as relevant now as they were a year ago. 

For a more in-depth look at coach Nienaber’s professional surfing life and one very incredible step-by-step video of Kelly Slater’s uncanny surfing ability, please go to the podcast. Look for episode 025: CLAYTON NIENABER – Surf Coach, Shaper, Shredder. 

Also, if you have found this article useful, please share it with your friends or anyone you think may benefit from this information.

As always, thank you very much for reading. Talk soon!