This is 48: Surfer Dave Kalama Turns a Corner

Surf icon Dave Kalama is still riding 60-foot waves and winning Stand-UP-­paddleboarding races two years shy of his 50th birthday. What’s his secret? Stephanie Pearson enlists at the waterman’s ­legendary North Shore camp, where he serves up nonnegotiable commandments for lifelong ­fitness—and lots and lots of crunches.

dave kalama surfing age 48 how old is dave kalama

    Photo: Robert Maxwell

Kalama at work

Unlike the average guy, Kalama rises at 4:45 a.m. and heads to the beach for his 75-minute peak-fitness workout, which includes 500 crunches, 400 lunges, and sprinting backward up a 50-yard dune.

MAUI'S DAVE KALAMA has a reputation for understatement that is as legendary as his fearless approach to riding monster waves. But don’t let him fool you: at 48, the five-foot-eleven, 200-pound former high school ski racer, windsurfing world champion, tow-in-surfing pioneer, and James Bond stuntman (he rode a 40-foot wave in the opening scene of Die Another Day) is at the top of his game. He’s currently in talks to surf a huge swell somewhere on the planet for the National Geographic 3-D film version of Susan Casey’s bestselling The Wave. And though he didn’t start stand-up-paddleboard racing until his late thirties, he’s dominating younger competition a decade later.

“I still want to win,” says Kalama, who took second at the 32-mile Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard World Championships in 2012, bested only by 16-year-old Connor Baxter, who beat him by 24 seconds. “I’m almost getting excited to be 50. Who else at 50 is still competing with twentysomethings?”

More impressive: though Kalama descends from waterman royalty—his grandfather helped introduce outrigger canoeing in California during the 1950s, and his father, Ilima, was the 1962 U.S. amateur surfing champion—he is also a busy husband and father of four. “Finding time to exercise is really a chore,” he says. “Between family obligations and work, I’m like the average guy.”

Well, kind of. Unlike the average guy, Kalama rises at 4:45 a.m. and heads to the beach for his 75-minute peak-fitness workout, which includes 500 crunches, 400 lunges, and sprinting backward up a 50-yard dune. He’s been perfecting this routine for the past 15 years, and it’s how he maintains the complete body strength to compete with kids a third his age. Add in Kalama’s aloha personality and intuitive knack for teaching, and he’s the ultimate guru for weekend warriors who think turning 40 means a long, slow slide into athletic mediocrity. In 2009, Kalama packaged his fitness expertise and created four annual, multiday Kalama Kamps around the globe, schooling participants in paddling technique, wave dynamics, and the coveted fitness wisdom that can keep middle age at bay.

“When I started stand-up paddling, I was 230 pounds of couch potato,” says 48-year-old Kurt Forster, a consultant from Florida and one of nine Maui campers I joined in May to get steeped in the Kalama gospel. “I’ve lost 40 pounds because Dave has motivated me.” It was Forster’s fifth Kalama Kamp. “He taught me how to reach goals by taking tangible steps, and that small changes can make a huge difference.”

A typical day at Kamp includes a 6:30 a.m. start on the beach with a kinder 6-minute version of Kalama’s peak-fitness workout, followed by a session in Kahului Harbor to practice paddling technique and an eight-mile downwind paddle off the North Shore or surfing at Thousand Peaks on Maui’s south side. Throughout the day, Kalama and his co-instructors, Brody Welte and John Denney, film their students’ technique and offer one-on-one coaching.

By the last day, I’m sunburned and humbled by the relentless pounding of the Pacific. But I’m walking away reinvigorated, with a solid grasp on a new sport and the teachings of Kalama. It’s not just about burning muscles; Kalama takes a whole-lifestyle approach to fitness that factors in career, family, and other obligations in your forties. Besides training your body, he trains your mind and your will. “Will is the domain of those who succeed,” he says. “And be patient. The process will evolve once you improve your fitness naturally.” Want to believe your best years are still ahead of you? Just follow the nine rules Kalama lives by.

1. Use It or Lose It

Kalama Says: “Age is only how many times I’ve been around the sun. I’m not going to let a number dictate how I deteriorate.” But being in his forties has forced him to “take fitness more seriously,” he says. “I used to get away with more. Now I have to be consistent.” Kalama practices complete-body-strength training techniques, like his peak-fitness workout, and pursues low-impact sports, like cycling and yoga, to help prevent injury. “I don’t do anything silly. At my age, I need to ease into stressing out my body. I’ll build up to it rather than blow myself out on the first day.”

Your Rx: First the good news. Recent studies report that for fit athletes who maintain muscle mass, there is no direct correlation between aging and increased risk of injury. (The one exception is an Achilles tear.) The bad news is that as we age, sarcopenia, the degenerative loss of skeletal-muscle mass, begins. After age 40, people lose 8 percent or more of their muscle mass each decade. Aging also reduces your body’s resiliency, which means recovering from a workout or injury takes longer. To avoid chronic stints on injured reserve, “use it or lose it,” says Dr. William O. Roberts, a sports-medicine specialist at the University of Minnesota. “Muscle mass is better maintained in people who are active.” Active in your forties means roughly 150 to 300 minutes of exercise per week. Roberts says it’s also essential to rest one day a week to allow your body to recover.

2. Get Goal Oriented

Kalama Says: Having a goal focuses you. His next mission is to paddle 250 miles nonstop from the Big Island to Kauai. “I don’t care if it’s shuffleboard, you’ve gotta do something. If it’s a local 5K race, work your way up to a 10K next year. A competition is good because it happens on a specific date, and there’s camaraderie that goes along with it.”

Your Rx: In your forties, you can fall into a training rut. Your brain and body need change and motivation to operate at peak levels, says Greg Chertok, who is the director of sport and exercise psychology at the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center in Englewood, New Jersey, and works with athletes in the NBA, NFL, and NHL. “Attaining goals is accompanied by a hormonal rush of serotonin, dopamine, and feel-good hormones that activate the pleasure system in the brain.” To keep it fresh, your forties is also a good decade to pick up a totally new sport, like snowboarding, surfing, or skate-skiing. Kalama started stand-up racing at 39.

3. Do the Right Thing

Kalama Says: “I always want to give you the why. There’s got to be a purpose to the action.” Whether it’s juggling two pieces of coral while jogging (for hand coordination and body awareness) or doing intensive breath-hold exercises onshore (to calm his mind while taking an underwater pounding), Kalama has calculated reasons behind every physical action.

Your Rx: “When you’re in your twenties, you can throw all the volume and intensity you want into a workout and it isn’t likely to hurt you,” says Neal Pire, an exercise physiologist who has worked with Olympic athletes. “But when you get older, you have to do what is going to reap benefits without overdoing it.” Pire recommends three sets of 10 to 15 reps of the following exercises three days a week:

Road cyclists: Squats and single-leg squats. Why: Squats control your hips and balance your pelvis, which helps produce downward force on the pedals.

Mountain bikers: High plank. Hold a push-up position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Why: Mountain bikers need a strong shoulder girdle to control the bike while riding aggressive obstacles.

Runners: Forward and lateral lunges, adjusting the weight load by holding dumbbells or kettlebells. Why: Running terrain is often irregular, which impacts your hips. Lunges help strengthen and stabilize the pelvic girdle.

Downhill skiers and snowboarders: Hop squats. Add a vertical jump at the end of a regular squat. Why: Skiing involves eccentric loading, meaning muscles are lengthened while under tension. To prepare for unexpected bumps and ice patches, explosive movements like hop squats strengthen your entire body.

4. Outwork Everybody

Kalama Says: “My high school ski coach at Mammoth rewarded hard work and punished laziness. He would pit us against each other, and if you didn’t win, you had to do the run again.” Kalama’s father was no pushover, either. Before he’d allow Kalama to ski on weekends, Ilima would give him a list of chores, like shoveling ten feet of snow until the sidewalk was visible. “Life was very boot-campish, but that’s how I learned to outwork everybody.”

Your Rx: “As you get older, you need to work even harder to keep up and excel,” Pire says. But in your forties, there’s a fine line between outpreparing your competition and overtraining. “Knowing your own body by now is paramount,” he says. “It’s what guides you to work harder, but also to stop and rest.” In your forties, do more “prehab” than rehab, he says. That means instead of playing your sport 90 percent of the time and conditioning only 10 percent, change that ratio to 70:30.

5. Mix It Up

Kalama Says: “Being a multisport athlete keeps every sport interesting and keeps you motivated.” Kalama cross-trains on his road bike, because cycling doesn’t require the same focus as paddling or surfing. “When I’m on a big wave, I don’t even hear it. I’m so focused on my balance and all the little clues that the wave is giving me. With cycling, I can turn my brain off and just grind or design boards in my head.”

Your Rx: “If you cross-train, you’re doing less to the same stress areas,” Pire says. “And the more varied your experiences are, the more tools in your toolbox.” He advises soccer for runners (to develop anaerobic threshold), swimming for climbers (to build core and shoulder strength), and basketball for mountain bikers (for the anaerobic benefit).

6. Find a Bro

Kalama Says: “When you have someone to pace you, you’re sharing the experience and your morale is higher. Find a play buddy who has the same priorities.”

Your Rx: In your forties, busy schedules, kids, and work chip away at your time and resolve. “Having a workout partner is about increased accountability and social support, which improves adherence to your goals,” says Chertok.

7. Know Your Poisons

Kalama Says: Eat well but know which foods slow you down. “Before a race, I’ll eat a bowl of Cheerios with a banana on top and almond milk. After that, I’ll have some eggs and bacon, but not too much,” he says. “I like to eat right up to that line where I’m not stuffed but I’ve got energy to work with in a race for the first hour or two.” He doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee. “I stopped drinking four or five beers a week a few years ago, because I realized I wasn’t able to maintain my fitness,” he says. “And coffee just makes me jittery. My days are limited when I can perform at a really high level, and I don’t want to waste any. But if you make a good chocolate-chip cookie, I’m doomed.”

Your Rx: “As you age, it’s important for each meal to have protein-rich foods that help maintain muscle mass,” says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. Clark recommends a constant supply of protein throughout the day, in combination with quality carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, to fuel your muscles. A high-performance breakfast might be oatmeal topped by a handful of walnuts and berries, with Greek yogurt and a boiled egg on the side. For lunch, a turkey wrap or almond-butter sandwich. For dinner, grilled chicken or fish on a salad or lentil soup. Nuts are an excellent source of protein as a snack. As for what to cut out, heed Clark’s advice: sugar should make up only 10 percent of your daily diet.

8. Slow It Down

Kalama Says: Breathing calms your mind during a wipeout or extreme exertion of energy, like riding a long wave. “When I’m able to breathe efficiently,” he says, “I can keep my body calm, recover quickly, and use oxygen better. Breath, combined with mental calming techniques like visualization, allows me to control my mind, think more spontaneously, and make better decisions.”

Your Rx: Studies suggest that breath work and meditation may slow or reverse cellular aging and protect against cognitive decline. “When we deep-breathe, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and lowers the heart rate and respiratory response,” says Paula Pullen, an exercise physiologist and yoga instructor at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. She recommends a four-part deep-breathing exercise a few minutes each day: Sit in a comfortable seated position, lift your breastbone, and pull your arms back so your shoulders don’t roll forward. (1) Take a long, deliberate breath, filling up from the bottom of your belly to your shoulders. (2) Hold the breath as long as is comfortable. (3) Exhale the breath as long as the inhalation. (4) Hold the exhalation for a few seconds before taking another deep breath.

9. Be Selfish

Kalama Says: “It comes down to a little bit of selfishness. You’ve got to take some time for yourself to work out, because it makes you a better person. You come back to your relationships and responsibilities in a much more productive frame of mind.”

Your Rx: In your forties, life is too busy not to schedule workouts. Hands down, the best time of day for training, Pire says, is first thing in the morning, when you have the least number of distractions and can control your time. If you can’t fit your entire workout into a morning, get up earlier or commit to at least 30 minutes of morning conditioning two to three times per week, then run, ride, climb, or surf later in the day. “You don’t have to complete your entire workout in one sitting.”

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