Laird Hamilton’s age-busting 10-point plan to supercharge your body

Laird Hamilton found fame and fortune surfing the worlds biggest breakers. But, as he tells Tim Lewis, his daredevil streak could easily have led him down more dangerous paths as a young man. Plus, he reveals his life secrets for staying ahead of the curve

Laird Hamilton has ridden many of the tallest, heaviest, fastest and longest waves ever conquered by a human being. Even people who dont like him of which there are a few have to concede that hes one of the greatest big-wave surfers of all time, if not the greatest. Even if you dont have the slightest interest in surfing, theres a decent chance youll have seen mesmerising stills or footage of Hamilton streaking down waves the size of a seven-storey building or, somehow, miraculously emerging from the wreckage of one that has curled over and smashed with the force of a Hollywood explosion.

But Hamilton, who is now 54, and who has been catching waves for half a century now (yes, he started when he was three years old) is both the archetypal surfer and not his wife Gabrielle Reece, a professional volleyball player and model, notes that he has never said the word dude in his life. In a sport famed for its laid-back vibe, he has always been driven, even ruthless. Hamilton has become a millionaire many times over, splitting his time between Malibu, California and Kauai, Hawaii, because he has become that most un-surfing thing: a brand. You can wear Laird Apparel, eat Laird Superfoods and drink the same creamer he uses to jack up his coffee.

Underneath it all, though, Hamilton still goes out on his board pretty much every day. And the tale behind how he became the most famous surfer in history is a remarkable one. I think Ive had a few lives already, he tells me on the phone from Kauai, one of the wettest spots on earth. I know I feel sometimes that Im maybe like a cat.

To start at the beginning, Lairds father was off the scene before his first birthday; Laird eventually tracked him down when he was 21, but there was little interest on either side to pursue a relationship. His mother, Joann, moved from San Francisco to Hawaii and the story goes that three-year-old Laird was messing around in the surf on Ppkea Beach one day when he got the attention of a surfer, Bill Hamilton, then 17. Joann and Bill clicked, Joann got a husband and Laird got a stepfather or, as Laird puts it now: I had an incredible mother and I had a superhero father turned into ultimate rival.

Early on, Laird found solace in water that he didnt have on land. With his blond hair and fair skin, he was relentlessly bullied by the Hawaiian kids at school. Today he would have probably been diagnosed with ADHD, but back then he was just considered wild and out of control. Bill Hamilton was young, had a fierce temper and struggled to deal with his often errant stepchild. At least once he struck him with a pipe. Going through it at the time, not so wonderful, Hamilton recalls, but what doesnt kill you makes you stronger. And the fact is that being an outcast has allowed me to do all the things Ive done. So in the end, I can only be thankful for that.

In Take Every Wave, a recent documentary made about his life, Hamiltons half-brother speculates that without surfing, Hamilton would have ended up in prison. Theres probably some truth to that, he laughs. Definitely the ocean was my saviour. It saved me from a lot of destruction. Or Id say self-destruction.

When Hamilton was in his late teens, a friend introduced him to the photographer Bruce Weber and he did some modelling. He was cast as a cartoonish baddie in the surfing film North Shore. However, while other surfers raised their profile by taking part in competitions, Hamilton never did. He says now that he hated the idea of being judged, but theres another theory: he couldnt stand losing. He guffaws. Well, Id definitely agree that Im a terrible loser. And competitions would have been disastrous. I think my nature of competitiveness is such that its not meant to be used in sport. Its meant to be used in survival.

Riding giants: Laird Hamilton surfs Teahupoo in Tahiti. Photograph: Alamy

So, instead of world titles, Hamilton made his name with outrageous stunts. In August 2000, on the Teahupoo break in Tahiti, he came down what became known as the heaviest wave ever ridden, or the Millennium wave. It was an outrageously dangerous feat: the wave crashed on to a shallow-water reef; had Hamilton been thrown from his board, there was no escape route. Surfer magazine ran an iconic cover with just the words oh my god on it what everyone said, apparently, when they saw the photograph. A real common question I get is, Tell us what its like right before youre going to drop into some giant wave, says Hamilton. And its like explaining a colour if youve never seen a colour. How many guys have been out there on these things doing what were doing? Maybe a couple.

Hamilton became a superstar, but behind the scenes his life was unravelling. He met Reece in 1995 during a TV interview and, eight days later, Hamilton left his wife and they moved in together. Its part of what the ocean teaches you, explains Hamilton. You have to make hay when the suns shining. But by the time of the Millennium wave, he was drinking two bottles of wine a night and it was looking like he and Reece were heading for divorce.

In the end, they pulled back from the edge. Relationships take effort and you have to decide if you want to participate, says Hamilton. We had to make decisions about wanting to be together or not be together and what that looks like.

Hamilton has two daughters with Reece, and an elder daughter from his previous marriage; the children are home-schooled. He denies that he has mellowed, but concedes that he is maybe more focused these days. Im not buckshot right now, Im more like a sniper, says Hamilton. Hes in ridiculous shape for his age, especially considering that hes broken most of the bones in his body at some point. Hamilton puts that down to an attritional daily regime that calls for alternating ice baths with saunas, and esoteric exercises such as working out underwater with dumbbells. His secret, he explains, is the ability to suffer consistently.

In the water, Hamilton, who popularised tow-in surfing and stand-up paddle boarding, has latterly become a pioneer of foil boarding: a hydrofoil extends from the base of the board, much like the latest Americas Cup boats. Instead of surfing, he appears to fly over the waves, reaching speeds that are impossible with the friction of traditional boards.

Last summer I rode a wave for six-and-a-half minutes in Peru, which is probably as long as anybody has ridden a wave ever, says Hamilton. And then were riding waves where were going over 50 knots, which is as fast as probably anybodys been on a wave ever. So when youre at this point in your career and youre doing things on waves that you have never done and possibly other people have never done thats a pretty spectacular thing.

How to stay at your peak

Laird Hamiltons fat-burning, age-busting, fun-loving tips for getting the most out of your body

Theres so much stigma and weirdness around being older. Get over it and keep moving: Laird Hamilton with his friend Don Wildman, who is 83. Photograph: Mark Von Holden/WireImage

1 Forget age. Just keep driving the car I take better care of myself today not as an accommodation to age but to maintain continual high levels of performance and just to feel good. I have a friend, Don Wildman (above), whos 83 an absolute stud who works out with weights, mountain bikes, paddles and surfs every day. Dons a living example of what its like when you keep driving the car. What happens is we decide were old and we just stop, and everything stops working. Theres so much stigma and weirdness around being older. Don and I were watching a tennis match and the announcer was saying, Hes 34 years old! Get over it and keep moving. Dont wait until you have a health scare or collapse. Get off your butt and feel better now.

2 Take care of everyday priorities The stuff you do every day your sheets and towels, the food you put in your body these are your priorities. Not a fancy car or fancy clothes. For instance, I used to drink red wine every day nothing like a good Bordeaux but havent had a sip of wine or beer in nine years. Sugar is not good for your body and alcohol is one of the biggest culprits. Alcohol doesnt taste good anyway. The reason people drink it is to have some sort of sensation, right? So if youre not into that sensation, its a waste of time. Its a discipline thing, too. As proof to myself that I had the willpower, I dont do it. Bottom line: if you want your rocket to fly, put rocket fuel in it. I want to be able to do certain things at a certain level.

3 Be a fat-burning monsterI dont eat energy bars when Im out on the water all day. In fact, I dont need to eat anything. My body runs off its body fat. Thats because Im paleo. I consume hardly any refined sugar, a few raw dairy products and almost no wheat or grains. I eat plants and animals. I grew up that way in Hawaii. Paleo researcher-kineseologist Paul Chek taught me that your body has enough fat on it to run for days… and that sugar fouls up your machinery. So after I cut alcohol, I began eliminating sugar and sugary fruit. I refined it over the past two years listening to primal lifestyle guru Mark Sisson and other paleo people. A triathlete can go for hours on a little almond butter and their own body fat. But if you eat refined carbs, your blood sugar spikes up and down. I love espresso. You could give me five shots of espresso, a quarter stick of butter, a quarter stick of coconut oil and other fat, and Ill drink that. I could go for five or six hours and not be hungry, because Im burning fat.

4 But dont be a zealot I have a saying: Every-thing in moderation, including moderation. I make it achievable, not stressful for me and people around me. Ill use a little coconut sugar. Ive got friends who have to stick to a diet at all times, and the stress of that almost overrides the quality of the way you eat. My eating is not such a hassle that I cant go anywhere.

5 Golf-ball your bare feetI grew up barefoot in Hawaii and didnt give a thought to walking on gravel, but people whod been in shoes their whole life couldnt even cross the driveway. The feet are loaded with nerve endings and are the key to balance and Im in the balance business. In fact, we all are. I also believe the earth is charged with an electrical frequency that matches your nervous system and immune system. Bare feet allow us to absorb that energy. To restore dexterity and balance after Ive been in shoes too long, I warm up by standing with one foot on a golf ball. I roll it around, poke it, put weight into tender spots. Its amazing how your system will be stimulated through working your feet.

6 Watch your backIve had back issues and injuries over the years. When your back goes out, youre out of commission. Give it relief with stretching and inversion, and strengthen it with core work. Someone once said, If you did 20 minutes of headstands a day, you probably wouldnt age. Gravity is always pulling us down, and inversion fights it. I do it on a teeter board or an upside-down hammock. I do planks and rotational exercises with medicine balls and kettle bells on a Swiss ball. Any natural pick-lift-twist-drop movement pattern, like picking something off the ground and putting it on a shelf, builds core stability. Best one of all? Stand-up paddleboarding.

7 Do the water workout from hell To me, swimming laps in a pool is like punishment being in a cage. Out of my disdain for lap swimming, Ive developed what in my opinion is the greatest exercise routine you can do: a no-impact, high-intensity strength and cardio workout that is a cross between swimming and weightlifting. Holding small waterproof dumbbells, jump into a fairly deep pool and sink to the bottom. Then jump up as hard as you can to pierce the surface and gulp some air. As the weights pull you back, blow it out. Exhale as you fall, inhale after you shoot up. The exercise blasts your legs, which consume five times the oxygen as your arms. Itll make you a stronger swimmer without having to swim laps.

8 Get role models Its monkey see, monkey do. Its hard to be the monkey that doesnt see. We all need an example, a road map, to tell us whats possible a Jack LaLanne [the US fitness surperhero]. Am I going to fret that Im old and washed-up when Im mountain biking and paddling alongside Wildman, whos 83? He lives, wears and eats a youthful lifestyle. And, by the way, who does Wildman use as his role model, since all his friends are dead? Me! So get younger buddies, too. When your friends get older and say: I want to go play some bridge, you tell them, I dont think so I want to go jump off the bridge.

9 Be innovative in all aspects of your life Coming up with new ideas keeps me young and excited. [Hamilton and Wildman invented the GolfBoard, a kind of skateboard for golfers that won the PGAs New Product of the Year award in 2014.] I think travelling to unique places gives you an opportunity to be active.

10 Make it fun Having as much fun as humanly possible is one of the keys to staying young, so find activities you love. I forget about time when Im out there on a stand-up paddleboard. Activities are better than the gym because youre not looking at the clock. Youll do more reps in nature than youll ever do in the gym. Youll go for hours and hours. And youll be thinking healthy thoughts not about how old you are. As told to Roy Wallack

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