Cris Mills: The surf coach you didn't realise you need
Introduction and interview by Alex Mitcheson
Looking back at one’s surfing past we're treated to vignettes of nostalgia. Moments encapsulated in memory: running flat out down the beach, paddling as if tomorrow would never come, and catching wave after wave after wave. Sessions where it seemed like your arms and legs would never stop and your board was stuck to your feet, when every wave was another opportunity to push yourself a little bit harder, throw more water, get the board more vertical — and only exhaustion could send you in.
Years pass, and mysterious things ebb into your life. Fatigue, sore muscles, stiff joints and lack of power all begin to take a seat at the table of which is your surfing life. These guests haven’t been invited, yet, here they are. And the more you ignore them, the more you can feel their burning stare. What has warranted these frailties masked as demons to appear?
Life has happened — with a dose of time for good measure. Who knew, two, sometimes even three-day hangovers are legitimately a thing?
Reminiscing and lusting over fond memories of when surfing was surfing — and only that — will do no good. There’s a necessity now to do some work out of the water. As time goes by, maintaining a physical form capable of surfing waves is no easy vocation. However, one of the choicest cliches is the very underpinning of surfing forever.
You reap what you sow.
One man who breathes this sentiment and yearns to improve any surfer’s life, both in and out of the water, is Cris Mills. The highly qualified Floridian has spent the best part of a decade working all over the globe, and although he has pushed his own physicality to the limits he now works specifically with surfers in the areas of movement, nutrition, mobility, and the very foundations of athleticism — he’s the surf coach you never realised you needed.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Cris, getting his take on how surfers no longer at their physical peak can still get out there and rip, what approaches are needed, and the truths you'll need to confront along the way.
Alex Mitcheson: How realistic is it for somebody to sustain the same level of surfing into their forties, fifties, and beyond?
Cris Mills: Completely realistic — if they are willing to invest in their own physical capacities. So, life inevitably happens, and during all of this is the relentless pursuit of gravity of our musculoskeletal system. There’s the necessity for input though, in order for our physiology to support the skill. And it’s not even silly to say that the skill can continue developing and progress.
I’ve met guys on some of the surf trips I’m involved with who are in their fifties, and even their sixties, who are legit shredders! All because they are doing what they need to physically and also with nutrition to keep themselves on point.
Do you think people are looking at surfers like Kelly Slater, Laird Hamilton, Layne Beachley, and even Gerry Lopez and failing to realise the work they have put in?
I think people fail to realise the lifestyle which surrounds these surfers’ capacities. Laird is literally a machine; he lives and breathes training day in day out. Kelly works with the world’s best practitioners and monitors his nutrition with dieticians extremely closely. You could call them outliers I guess, and whilst they have these environments they work within, ultimately it boils down to putting in the time.
What’s your personal experience of this?
Just three days ago I had a monster paddle session at Currumbin, and it’s tweaked my back. I know what it is, and I know how to fix it. Inevitably it comes down to the fact I haven’t pushed myself that hard in probably a couple of months, I’ve been doing more computer-based sitting down kind of work than usual.
Surfing has this unique way of mirroring your health — when something isn’t right in our surfing it has a direct correlation. Whether it be mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, cardiovascular, and even nutritional — surfing will show what is lacking or needs attention. You might be gassed out after ten minutes, perhaps you cannot stop thinking about work and are missing waves, or your pop up is getting noticeably sluggish? These things can be balanced out if you realise what needs to be done.
What’s the biggest enemy of ageing surfers?
Injuries are definitely up there, but the overall neglect of yourself physically and health-wise leads to deconditioning. The culmination of the luxuries of modern life leads to poor eating choices and lack of movement. These are the big ones.
A few beers here and there is OK, right?
Unfortunately, this is predetermined by genetics, your history, and also age. Younger surfers have youthful genetics, hormones, and properly functioning livers [laughs] on their side. The parasite infection you may or may not have caught in Bali a decade ago could still be playing a part. And then there is obviously the genetics we are given at birth, which let’s be honest, is a lottery. Each person is an individualised case.
If you are curious and want to really know what your genetics are like, Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms testing could really benefit your approach to nutrition.
How easy is it to incorporate training into your life?
It’s easy if someone is willing to devote a decent amount of time and back it up with consistency. Somewhere along the way society has started feeding people concepts and ideas that changes in your physical health can happen really quickly. The 30-day shred challenge and lose 20 pounds in 20 days etcetera, are unrealistic. If someone has led a poor lifestyle for a decade, they can’t fix it with a couple of months training — physiology just doesn’t work this way.
Being realistic and consistent will give you results.
Name some basic health and fitness aspects you think are the most neglected by ageing surfers?
Getting nutrition right. If you have a pro-inflammatory diet you are going to have issues with proper core function. Are the muscles stabilising the pelvis and the spine firing properly or not? There are neural loops which connect your gut to these muscles and poor diet will stop them functioning optimally by alerting them to inflammation constantly.
Another one is poor and/or inefficient breathing technique. There are ways you can get your diaphragm — which has an important role — to strengthen by lengthening and deepening your breath. Again, this has a direct relationship with your core and can affect a whole host of your mobility.
What ‘one-off’ habit can you recommend that is going to help with surfing out of the water?
There should always be some effort put into just some good old-fashioned cardiovascular stuff. It sometimes gets called Long Slow Distance cardio and three times a week is ideal: it can be a myriad of things from jumping in a pool for thirty minutes, a light run, completing a certain distance on a rowing machine. Stuff which works your pulmonary system and gets air in and out of your lungs is going to protect your heart and arteries and give you the staying power to be out in the water and catching waves.
The most common mistake/misconception you see with people’s training regimes and approaches?
Training way too hard. Professional athletes train intense, yes, but they also train smart. I see people all the time who jump back into training full on and don’t consider their new sleep and nutrition demands. They turn the dial to ten and actually degrade their physiology because of it.
Getting the variables right in terms of health first, like hydration, sleep status, and nutrition means you can start dosing yourself with the training; slowly beginning to take the intensity up and therefore finding a sensible sweet spot.
Do you think pride plays a part hindering an ageing surfer from looking into training and having a reality check with themselves?
Absolutely. Surfing has to be one of the most egotistically driven sports out there. Couple this with the romanticisation of one’s surfing youth and a failing body and it can be such an ego burn. Self-questioning and doubt begin to creep in, and you can either ignore it and suffer, or look at what is wrong, have a wakeup call and begin work towards alleviating it.
Overall it can be very affronting and raw — it’s definitely not easy — yet once driven and motivated you can achieve great things.