How to be mentally and physically ready for big waves

February 14, 2022 | Surfing
Kai Lenny: riding the world's biggest waves in Praia do Norte, Nazaré | Photo: Red Bull

Kai Lenny and Nic von Rupp explain the philosophy behind their training in the run-up to their big wave surfing challenges.

Though they grew up in opposite ends of the world, Kai Lenny and Nic von Rupp are surprisingly similar in everything from their childhoods and their surfing philosophy to their approach to training.

Both of these big wave surfers have learned firsthand what it takes to not only survive the biggest waves in the world - but to enjoy the ride.

Kai and Nic have been surfing legendary waves from an early age.

Nic grew up in Praia Grande, Portugal, near Nazaré, while Kai was raised in Peahi, Maui, near Jaws.

For Nic, learning to surf on Nazaré's record-breaking waves taught him the life-or-death importance of disciplined training from an early age.

"You're constantly surfing the biggest wave in the world. So you've got to be prepared for the worst-case scenario," notes the Portuguese.

Kai's upbringing had a similar effect; like any Hawaii local, he has a healthy respect for the ocean's power.

"These monsters have been here for thousands of years," Kai explains of big waves. "I can't outsmart them."

Kai Lenny: always mentally and physically fit for the world's largest waves | Photo: Red Bull

Training Body and Mind

Their familiarity with the strength - and danger - of the world's largest waves means Nic and Kai are anything but jaded when it comes to their training.

Their shared philosophy: embrace the fear, prepare for the worst, enjoy the ride.

That's why Nic feels training isn't a chore - it's vital to his survival.

"It's essential to have your body and mind prepared to endure one of these powerful wipeouts," Nic says.

Kai did his best to explain just how powerful these wipeouts are in the first episode of the second season of the "Life of Kai" series.

"It's like getting hit by a semi-truck, holding your breath, and then getting beaten up by guys with 15 crowbars," adds the Hawaiian.

While it's impossible to ever truly be prepared for the impact of a big wave, the central focus of Nic and Kai's training is to ensure they're as ready for it as possible.

Both Nic and Kai have shared their training programs on the fitness app Masters - and it's clear from their programs just how essential rigorous mental training is to their routine.

Masters is an app where top athletes - from Olympian Shaun White to NBA star JJ Redick - share the routines they and their trainers actually use.

Meditation, breathing exercises, and visualizations are sprinkled in alongside strenuous core workouts, foam rolling sessions, and encouraging video messages from Nic and Kai themselves.

That extensive mind and body training empowers Kai to shut off his mind and follow his instinct when surfing.

In one of his Masters app videos, Kai advises, "Don't think - feel."

But, he adds, it takes a whole lot of work to get to the point of "not thinking."

Kai Lenny: getting airborne on a massive Nazaré wave | Photo: Christian Stadler/Red Bull

Embracing Fear

One of the most important lessons he's ever learned in big wave training is to "prepare like crazy" so that when you're trapped or crushed by a big wave, "you don't think about what to do; you know what you do."

Nic and Kai's shared philosophy of embracing the fear and rigorously preparing for the worst-case scenario is what allows them to enjoy the ride, even on the world's biggest waves.

The difference between life and death in a single moment comes down to years of conditioning and mental training.

At the same time, the danger of surfing doesn't overshadow the joy of it for Nic.

He explains that the 30-day training "block" he's shared on Masters "is not a regime. It's for you to have fun and push yourself outside your comfort zone."

Kai says that to this day, when he wants to learn a new maneuver, he always starts from the beginning and works his way up.

This "baby steps" approach is at the core of his training program, but "it's not going to be easy," Kai says.

"Sometimes, it's going to suck. But it's going to be rewarding."

The surfers' upcoming races are something of a homecoming.

Kai is preparing to compete on the North Shore at Sunset Beach, in his home state of Hawaii, while Nic gears up for big waves in Nazaré, near his hometown.

Kai and Nic will undoubtedly need every ounce of the strength they've gained through training, and the rest of us will get to see it in action when they effortlessly carve through the world's most extreme waves.