Ian Walsh: Mental Toughness, Breath Work, and Meticulous Preparation

Boom, boom, BOOM! The surf at Cloudbreak sounds like artillery fire. It might not top out near triple digits like Portugal’s Nazaré , be cold, misty, and sharky like Mavericks, or growl as ferociously as Jaws, but everyone in the big wave surfing community understands that you underestimate this pounding Fiji break at your peril. Even the best know going in that there’s a good chance of getting barreled like a stuffed toy in a washing machine should they make a minor miscalculation while dropping in or hit an unexpected bump on a face that collapses like an office tower in an earthquake.

If you’re going to fly across the Pacific to Tavarua Island, you’d better bring your A game, and even then, things happen on a wave that rivals Teahupo’o for sheer thickness and ferocity. When Ian Walsh showed up in 2011, he was ready to roll. The eldest of three Hawaiian brothers who can all hold their own in any lineup in the world, Ian is known for his hard-charging style that matches power with power. And yet on this day, Cloudbreak was in no mood to cooperate. With unique hydrodynamics created by a series of underwater reef ledges, it moves like no other wave on Earth, sucking surfers down the line before they know what’s happening at the best of times. And this particular swell was far from that – unpredictable, nasty, and malicious. Seemingly rideable waves snapped shut in a second, as the wind whipped spray and foam fifty feet into the air.

Even though he had been surfing for as long as he can remember, Ian took some of the heaviest shots of his career that day. “I got absolutely pounded,” he said. “All my boards broke, I got a few new injuries, and I went back home to Maui with my tail between my legs.”

With so many spots around the world producing good surf, you could’ve forgiven Ian if he’d vowed never to return to Cloudbreak. But if there’s one thing everyone who knows them seems to note about the Walsh brothers, it’s their resilience. So even though his boards got snapped, his body was battered, and his fears were stoked, Ian vowed to return to Fiji stronger and more capable. As his injuries healed, he got back to work in the gym and had a great winter World Surf League contest season while making the most of a big winter at Jaws.

Back in the Saddle

The following summer, Ian was checking global surf forecasts and suddenly, there it was: Cloudbreak was going big. So he quickly packed up his gear and got on a plane. But while his surfing and accelerated workout program in the 11 months between trips had, he believed, prepared him for whatever mayhem Cloudbreak could throw his way, the memories of what had happened last time kept cropping up in HD. “I was better prepared, my equipment was dialed in, and I felt physically ready after a successful winter and lots of training,” Ian said. “Yet I also knew that last time it was heavy and I got smoked, so there were all these lingering doubts. Eventually I had to reconcile with the fact that at some point during the trip I might get completely smoked again, and that was OK. If you’re a boxer, every time you get in the ring you probably know that if you’re going to land some good shots, you’re going to have to take a few hits. Once I’d come to grips with that, I was ready.”

And boy, was he. Ian not only equipped himself far better than the previous year, but also caught four of the best rides of the day. Even among 30+ of the world’s best big wave surfers, Ian’s performance stood out, with one wave in particular – a seemingly effortless ride through a long left-handed barrel – earning him a Ride of the Year entry in the Billabong XXL Awards. But more than the accolades or acclaim from his awestruck peers, his comeback performance had allowed Ian to prove to himself that no matter how big the setback, he would be able to overcome it both physically and mentally.

It’s All in the Preparation

Ian’s virtuoso riding at Cloudbreak, Peahi, and virtually every other big-name surf spot you could mention isn’t merely the result of preternatural instincts, freaky athleticism, or growing up in one of the sport’s most lauded families (although all of these are contributing factors). It’s also due to his obsessive level of planning. Whether it’s pouring over weather data, continually fine-tuning his board quiver, safety gear, and wetsuits, or nailing the minutiae of globetrotting travel, Ian truly leaves nothing to chance so that once he gets in the water, he can focus fully on the task at hand.

“I’ve always liked geeking out on equipment and forecasting,” Ian said. “And though logistics can be draining, I like knowing that I have the right fins, leashes, and everything else I’ll need to be my best no matter where I’m heading. Once I’ve pieced together the puzzle, I feel confident that I’ve done everything I can to be ready.”

As well as checking all the logistical boxes, Ian also invests a lot of time and effort in honing his physical preparation. In addition to working on all aspects of his surfing, boosting his endurance with long bike rides, and gutting out grueling gym sessions, Ian says that he tries to add one new skill a year that will help his body withstand punishing wipeouts and hold-downs.

“Six years ago I started doing more breath work and it’s been a game changer,” Ian said. “The breath holds not only help me survive being held underwater, but also keep my heart rate lower and allow me to better ration my energy when a situation gets sketchy. When the conditions get really dark and violent, I like having a relative understanding of what my body might go through.”

We Can Work it Out

Another thing Ian has added to his physical preparation game in the past few years is mobility, realizing that being powerful and strong only gets you so far unless you’re also supple.

“I start most weeks with a mobility and activation workout,” Ian said. “That enables me to check in on my body and assess where I’m at, which then helps me set the tone for the rest of my training for the week. Now I’ve been doing this for a long time, I can feel when a new bump or injury has changed my movement patterns and can work to correct them so I’m not over-compensating. To me, mobility work is just as much about increasing my self-awareness as it is about recovery.”

When he does wipe out, Ian might not always suffer a catastrophic injury, but rather receive a lot of different micro-traumas – cuts, bruises, swelling – that force the normally hyper-kinetic 35-year-old to slow down his seemingly perpetual motion for at least a few days. Recognizing that he doesn’t bounce back as quickly as he once did, Ian has layered other modalities on top of the breath work and mobility.

“I find that contrast therapy [combining an ice bath and sauna treatment] really helps during the season,” Ian said. “I also get a lot of massages. Recently I had a monumental day in Portugal and followed the swell to Africa. Then I raced back to Jaws for a really big session. All that happened in 10 days and I’m still pretty beat up. I got this big hematoma on my right triceps that turned black and then the swelling traveled down to my elbow. When I got back in the gym I noticed this line of bruising running all the way along my right hamstring. It must’ve happened so fast while I was pinned underwater that I didn’t even notice. Those are the kind of kinks I need to have worked out so I can get back out there. I need all my muscles to be loose and relaxed so they’re ready to fire when I need them.”


A Moment Before Breaking 

The best preparation in the world would count for nothing if Ian wasn’t able to execute in the water. While his land-based training certainly helps, everything comes down to what happens in the few seconds that encompass paddling, popping up, dropping in, and carving the wave face.

“I’ve learned that I can’t be 100 percent on all the time because that’s just sensory overload,” Ian said. “So now once I’ve checked all my gear, I try to take a few minutes to chill and reset. Then once I get in the water, I click back on. It’s easy to get anxious but I’ve got to the point where whatever happens, happens. I trust my instincts and ability to read the conditions, and I’m ready to go.”

It can sometimes be difficult for athletes to describe what happens during game day action because they’re so absorbed and focused. Yet due to the mindfulness that breath work, mobility, and all his other preparatory practices bring, Ian is more cognizant than most about the pivotal moment that separates a made wave from a horrifying wipeout.

"When the wave lines up and you see it, it’s like the whole horizon goes dark with what looks like a building marching at you,” he said. “Every natural thought is telling you to paddle towards it and get out of the way as best as you can, but in order to catch the wave you need to hold your line while risking getting caught inside and try to position yourself to have a chance at catching the wave. I tell myself, ‘OK, it’s time to activate,’ and then I just go full speed ahead. Once I commit to that wave and turn around, it’s the only time in my life when I’m not thinking about 10 things at once. Suddenly, the roar of the wave falls silent because I’m so dialed in that I lose any part of the hearing sense.” 

Where the Wild Things Are

Sometimes this process ends up with Ian popping out of a frothy tube big enough to drive a double-decker bus through it – as he did repeatedly when winning the Peahi Challenge in 2017. And on other occasions, Ian’s board wobbles right before he gets thrown off and tossed over the falls like a rag doll. So how does he deal with the latter, when everything goes dark as he’s depth-charged to the bottom of the ocean?  

“I force myself to stay positive, no matter what’s happening,” Ian said. “Even if I’m getting pounded on the head by wave after wave, I tell myself in the couple of seconds that I pop up that at least I’m a little further from the danger zone than when I got tossed off. This helps me stay calm and focus on what needs to be done rather than starting to panic, which is only going to tire me out and make the situation even more dangerous. Understanding how to breathe and the techniques to use help so I can slow things down even when it gets scary.”

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