Surfing and ACL injuries aren’t as common as you’d think but they can leave you feeling uncertain about when or if you’ll be getting back to surfing again.
First of all, recovering from an ACL tear is fully achievable and with the right routine and lifestyle changes you can come back surfing stronger and faster.
If you’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of tearing your ACL you’ll probably be itching to know what’s next. How long it takes is down to you and how quickly you can heal but there are some tried and tested ways of speeding up healing and avoiding future injury.
Let’s take a look at exactly what an ACL injury is, how long it takes to recover, how you can promote healing and ways you can improve your surfing alongside preventing another disaster.
What is an ACL injury?
An ACL injury is when your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is torn. The ACL is a major ligament in your knee that connects the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shin bone). It helps provide stability for your knee joint and keeps you from hyperextending your knee (critical for surfing).
When this ligament is torn or ruptured, it causes pain and swelling in your knee, as well as instability when you move your leg.
ACL injuries are common in sports like soccer, basketball, and football. They’re also common in everyday life if you fall or twist awkwardly.
Common symptoms of an ACL injury include:
- Knee pain
- Instability when walking or running
- Popping or clicking sound in your knee
If you have an ACL injury, your doctor may prescribe physical therapy to help strengthen muscles around the knee and improve mobility. Surgery may also be an option if you have severe injuries that don’t respond well to other treatments.
If you are unsure exactly how you’ve injured your knee check out our guide on meniscus tears and surfing to find out about other symptoms related to knee pain and surfing.
Let’s take a closer look at recovery times and potential timelines for ACL injuries.
Recovering from an ACL injury
First, your recovery time will depend on how severe your ACL injury was and what symptoms you were experiencing before the injury happened.
If you tore your ACL completely, or if you have another condition that makes it hard for your body to heal itself (such as diabetes), it will take much longer for you to recover than someone with a minor tear that hasn’t been dealing with any other injuries or health problems.
Your recovery time will depend on how well your physical therapist helps speed up the healing process through exercise and stretching routines at home (and sometimes even at work).
If they’re not doing their job well enough or if you’re not staying consistent with your recovery program it can considerably slow your healing and can lead to surgery.
The amount of time it takes you to recover from ACL surgery will depend on several factors, including:
- Your age
- Your overall health and fitness level
- Your weight and height
- Your pre-surgical condition (how much damage was already done to your knee)
- How well you follow your surgeon’s post-surgery instructions
For example, if you’re older than 35 years old or if you’re over 6 feet tall (or both), your recovery time will likely be longer than someone who is younger or shorter. The same goes for body weight, the heavier you are, the longer it will take to recover.
But don’t worry! You can still expect to see some improvements in strength and flexibility within the first few weeks after surgery, which is why consistent physical therapy is so important during this period of time.
After six months of physical therapy and home exercise programs prescribed by your doctor, you should be able to return to all normal activities including surfing without pain or discomfort.
Exercises to help you get back on a surfboard quicker
Your knee and the muscles that surround and support it can be stretched and trained to help with your recovery. The great benefit here is all of the stretches and exercises on this list will help you surf better as well.
*Please be aware these are just recommendations and you should always check with a medical professional who is aware of your specific condition before undertaking any exercise.
- Lay on your back with both legs straight and flat on the floor
- Keep both feet relaxed on the floor with your toes pointing at the ceiling
- Slowly pull your toes toward your head until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle (the back of your lower leg)
- Hold this position for 30 seconds without bouncing or jerking around; try to relax; breathe normally and enjoy the stretch!
- Rest for 30 seconds and repeat five more times
- To do the groin stretch lie on the floor with both feet together and arms at your sides
- Slowly bend your right knee and bring it up toward your chest or as far as is comfortable
- Hold for 10 seconds and then repeat three times on each side
- If you feel any pain in the inner part of your thigh or groin while doing this stretch, stop immediately and consult with a healthcare professional before continuing to exercise
You should start out doing this exercise one to three times per day for several weeks before progressing to more intense exercises that strengthen the muscles around your ACL tear.
Some people find it helpful to do these exercises as part of their daily routine rather than just when they’re recovering from an injury or surgery, it’s all about finding what works best for you!
- Keep your back straight and your knees slightly bent.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor and your toes pointed forward.
- Lift your heels as high as you can without shifting or leaning forward. Hold for five seconds, then lower them back down to the floor and repeat 10-15 times.
Side leg raises
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and facing straight ahead, holding onto a chair or table for support
- Keeping your knees straight but not locked, raise one leg out to the side until it’s parallel with the floor (if you feel comfortable doing so)
- Lower it slowly to return to a standing position and repeat with the other leg in an even tempo of 10-15 reps per side (about one second up and one second down)
Knee-strengthening exercises will help you recover quicker and surf better
Strengthening and stretching your groin will considerably improve your flexibility and your turns. The powerful gouging carves you see at the WSL tour events come from hours of strength training alongside pure surfing talent.
Try to see your circumstances as an opportunity to improve your surfing, fitness and strength as a whole and prevent any future injuries, not just ACL tears.
Pro surfers aren’t immune from ACL injuries either
The world’s best surfers have fallen prey to dodgy airs and heavy lips leading to ACLs taking them out of the game. Let’s take a look at how a world champ damaged their ACL and still came back with a vengeance.
John John Florence
It’s not an easy feat to rehab from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, but it can be done. John John Florence is a pro surfer who suffered a serious knee injury that required surgery and months of physical therapy.
First, he got his surgery performed by Dr Brent Moellenberg at St. Joseph Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Then, he began his physical therapy at Ala Moana Center with Mr Dicky Hsieh, who has been working with him since 2015. He started out with two days per week of physical therapy sessions, then transitioned to one day per week after six weeks post-surgery.
Hsieh says that Florence was able to focus on getting better rather than focusing on competing in tournaments during this time period because he wasn’t travelling much he stayed close to home after his surgery so he could continue his rehab without disruption or distraction from other things going on around him (like competing).