You know you’re not attending a conventional group-fitness class when the instructor asks you to kick off your runners and socks when you walk in.
The next hint is the music playing in the background: it has the kind of driving beat that keeps people moving but the songs refer to big waves and sunshine. Finally, there’s your equipment: a standard-size surfboard tethered to a plank, with three rubber balls called air bladders in between. Pretty soon you’re drawing from what the Beach Boys called the greatest sport in the world for a workout that would make King Kamehameha glisten.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle; you’re paddling out to sea,” class leader Derek Ralphs hollers to participants lying on their stomachs atop the wobbly boards at a recent Surfset class at Steve Nash Sports Club downtown. “Get ready,” he says, lifting his torso up off the board, “now pop up into a lunge.” For the next 45 minutes, he guides people through moves on and around the board that are inspired by surfing but that also reference everything from stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking to skateboarding and even yoga.
Ralphs is the only instructor in the province certified to teach this particular style, but the class itself is part of what seems to be an emerging fitness trend in Vancouver: one that brings the beach indoors.
The format and the board itself were developed by Surfset Fitness cofounder Mike Hartwick, a former minor-league professional hockey player who spent his off-seasons on the beaches of California. He missed surfing and its physical benefits during the winters.
“When he retired from hockey, he turned to his passion for surfing,” says Ingrid Knight-Cohee, director of group fitness at Steve Nash Fitness Clubs, who visited Hartwick to learn about the format. “He wanted to train for it year-round, so he developed this virtual surfboard and developed an entire repertoire of movements on the board to train people to become better surfers.
“It’s an evolution of functional training, and you’re using stability tools to better engage the core muscles,” she adds. “The minute you step on it, you realize how challenging it is and how much fun it is.”
Surfing is a full-body workout: paddling out to sea improves cardiovascular fitness and helps develop shoulder and back strength, while positioning yourself on the board builds lower-body and core strength. The core muscles, meanwhile, are used throughout, especially for balance and the transition between lying down and standing up.
In a group-fitness setting, a board that tilts beneath your feet makes everything harder, whether it’s squats, lunges, 180-degree jumps, or planks. Sometimes, Ralphs will have people do yoga moves like downward dog or bridge, which are much more demanding on top of an ever-shifting surface than on solid ground.
“It’s a very challenging class,” Knight-Cohee says. “You’re having to engage your core muscles just to stand up on the thing. Everything is that much more intense because of the instability factor.”
Adding to the beach theme is the use of SandBells. A cross between a gliding disc, a dumbbell, and a sandbag, the neoprene sand-filled sack looks like a big beanbag and comes in a range of sizes, from one to 23 kilograms. It’s used for strengthening in water-sport ways: Ralphs might have participants hold one in both hands while standing up to mimic the rowing of paddleboarding. He makes references to the Molokai 2 Oahu paddleboard race, a gruelling 48-kilometre course between the two Hawaiian islands, to get participants visualizing an ocean voyage. Or he’ll get people to sit on the board while leaning back, pretending the SandBell is a kayak paddle or a canoe oar. It can also be used to do exercises like lunges, placed on the floor for people to slide it along the ground with their foot, increasing the intensity.
Although ideal for surfers wanting to keep in shape year-round, the class isn’t exclusive to them; anyone who’s willing to catch a virtual wave can join in.
“You just have to go to Tofino to see how many addicts there are in this region,” Knight-Cohee says. “But you don’t have to be a surfer to do the class. Your first experience will be pretty wobbly, but it’s a quick learning curve. And it’s definitely far more interesting than running on a treadmill.”
While the Surfset class takes place on an imaginary shore, 6Pack Indoor Beach in Richmond brings the oceanfront inside, quite literally. The 18,000-square-foot facility on Mitchell Island has more than 700 metric tonnes of sand covering five full-size volleyball courts. There are even barbecues. With 10-metre ceilings, it hosts beach-volleyball leagues, tournaments, and drop-in games. There’s also archery tag—involving 12-kilogram bows and arrows that have foam tips resembling a giant marshmallow—which can be done in groups or on a drop-in basis. (The spot also offers kids’ birthday parties, allowing little ones to dig for hidden treasure, and movie nights as well as corporate fundraising and team-building events.)
“People in Vancouver always want to be active, but it rains here all the time; you can’t even depend on going to the beach in the summer,” says Lisa Tam, 6Pack’s programs and events director. “Here, you’re doing something fun; you’re getting exercise, but you don’t even really think about it. With archery tag, it’s kind of like when you play laser tag: you’re running around shooting people; people are shooting you, and you’re trying to get away. After a while, you go: ‘Wow, my legs are a little sore.’ ”
That’s because any time you’re running on sand, the stabilizing muscles in the legs have to work harder than on a road run. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2011, running on sand requires 1.6 times the energy that running on a hard surface demands, and your body has to work harder to respond to external factors. Plus, the soft sand provides a lower impact than concrete.
An advantage of this indoor beach compared to, say, Kits Beach is that the sand is deep-cleaned every night with a nonchemical treatment; there are also no cigarette butts, bottle caps, or pieces of broken glass on which to step.
“The owners wanted an alternative to going to the bar at night, something that was fun and active,” Tam says. “With beach sports only becoming more popular, people want to be able to do them all year round. There are a lot of health benefits to playing in the sand.”