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How the world’s top big wave surfers get ready for the sport’s biggest event

Puerto Escondido, Nelscott Reef, Dungeons—burly big wave locales virtually anonymous to the casual surfing fan. But Mavericks, an exposed A-frame in Half Moon Bay, Calif. 40 minutes south of San Francisco, has transcended mainstream consciousness with its surfing tradition and lore, becoming a franchise all its own.

And the hype is well deserved. “Mavericks is one of the scariest waves on the planet,” says Shane Dorian, a preeminent big wave charger who nearly drowned here following a 2010 wipeout.

Originating in deep water, Pacific swells slam into this rocky coastline with a dark, ferocious power, creating consistently rideable, 30-foot walls of water.

Each winter, a handful of dedicated surfers travel from all corners of the globe to harness the wave’s awe-inspiring power. With a Jan. 1–Mar. 31 holding period, the Titans of Mavericks surfing contest will showcase 24 members of surfing’s big wave fraternity. And not a single one is taking the opportunity lightly. Here’s what some of the Titans invitees are doing to prepare their minds—and bodies—for one of surfing’s most dangerous challenges.

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. Shane Dorian

In the world of big waves, Shane Dorian sits atop the proverbial peak. A tube ride in 2012 at Jaws literally changed the surfing world’s perception of what could be paddled into on a board. Dorian finished runner up at last year’s event and spent 11 years on the World Tour. But he’s never been quite comfortable surfing in competition at Mavericks. “I just don’t feel competitive in that environment,” he says. In big wave riding (and surfing in general), athletes regularly wait for waves before expending short, intense bursts of energy while paddling, riding, or getting pounded mercifully on the inside by bigger set waves. So aside from breathing exercises, Dorian uses short CrossFit workouts (one- to three-minute intervals) to simulate his surfing experience. It’s the variety that keeps him in the gym: “Running sprints, jump ropes, high box jumps, walking on hands, it’s always varied,” he says. “And if the board (on the wall) doesn’t have something on it I want to do I can make up my own workout.”

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. Kohl Christensen

When Kohl Christensen answers the phone, it’s obvious he’s grinning from ear-to-ear. Like most big wave surfers, he doesn’t just ride big waves so it’s hardly surprising he’s in Crested Butte, Colo., a million miles from sea level and his Oahu farm. “We just hiked up this peak right in town,” he says. “So sick.” Christensen has been splitboarding for the past week, bagging peaks on a pair of wide skis that attach to make a snowboard once he reaches the summit, allowing him to shred mountains of snow instead of water. To stay in shape, he picks fruit and maintains his North Shore acreage and does yoga in his backyard studio. But after chasing big waves in countries that also boast big mountains, like Chile and Japan, Christensen now heads to higher ground to get his cardio training whenever he can. “For cardio, I really like to find creative ways to workout instead of just a gym,” he says. “When the surfs down, I have bunch of friends in (the mountain) world that help me do that. I really feel like getting that kind of workout at elevation helps me when I’m surfing at sea level.”

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. Mark Healey

Breath control training is almost a pre-requisite to riding big waves. And arguably, none are as adept at the practice of breath control as Mark Healey, who’s also a dedicated free diver and spear fisherman—sports that require that he hold his breath for up to two and a half minutes. He uses special exercises to keep the muscles around the lungs and rib cage limber and his diaphragm strong so when he is in distress, he isn’t apt to panic. But chasing fish with a gun in 30 feet of water simulates stressful situations in the surf like nothing else for the Oahu native. “The beauty of spearfishing is that I get to work on breath control while doing something I love,” he says. “The fish dictate when to dive and how long you need to be down for. To have something randomly dictate your movements works you out so much more. In the same sense, big waves are about being able to adjust on the fly.”

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. Colin Dwyer

At 24 years old, Colin Dwyer is one of the Titans’ youngest invitees. While most guys his age are more worried about getting over a hangover than a giant set wave, Dwyer—a native of nearby Pacifica, Calif.—has watched the example of his elders like Dorian and Greg Long, who adhere to strict yoga practices and diets that provide high energy and are easy on the digestive system. Throughout his youth, Dwyer would rarely eat breakfast before surf sessions. “At 20, I started eating a lot more whole foods and I established a pre-surf meal routine. Every morning I down a bowl of Natures Path, I think it’s called? It has pumpkin seeds and granola and I eat it with almond milk. It’s super-filling and has a lot of fiber. Six hours later, after being in the water I never get hungry and am ready for whatever. I can’t believe how much cleaning up my diet has really helped my fitness.”

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. Shawn Dollar

Like many surfers in the Titans contest, Shawn Dollar goes through a checkbox before he rides big waves—and especially as he prepares to surf a contest in extreme conditions. “First, am I physically fit enough, second do I have the proper safety in place and finally, where am I at mentally,” says Dollar, who made the finals here in 2013. “Overcoming fear, that’s really what makes Mavericks surfers elite. What’s going on in my head when things go wrong and am I able to control that?” To check off his boxes, Dollar regularly partners with Darryl “Flea” Virostko, a three-time Mavericks champion, who often sets safety for his fellow Santa Cruz local via jetski. To stay physically fit Dollar does running and swimming intervals where he’ll run 100 yards on the beach, swim out into the ocean 100 yards using buoys as markers, repeating up to six times. “When you kick out of a wave you’re winded, you want to sit there, but you’ve got to move. Anything I can do on land that matches that intensity is going to help me be mentally prepared.”

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. Greg Long

Despite his soulful approach, Greg Long has had an unprecedented run in competitive big wave surfing, winning the Mavericks contest in 2008, the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau at Waimea Bay in 2009 (the last time it ran) and the Big Wave World Tour in 2013. He’s dedicated his life to the sport. So how does he prepare for big waves? He goes surfing. “The number one thing that helps you prepare for big waves, especially Mavericks, is surfing big waves.” When he’s at home, Long practices Ashtanga Yoga at his local studio to stay limber but he’s one of the most well-traveled athletes in the event, sporting a worn-out passport from chasing swells. And any swell he sees on the charts, even small “fun” sized disturbances that could possibly break at Mavericks, Long hits the road north from his home in San Clemente. “There’s no substitute for being out there warming up, getting used to the lineup and in tune with the break itself,” he says. “Not to mention it’s a ton of fun.”

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. Grant “Twiggy” Baker

2015 is huge for Grant “Twiggy” Baker as he looks to equal Virostko for overall wins (three) and become the first back-to-back Mavericks champion since Virostko in 1999 and 2000. To get ready, Baker cross-trains intensely, using kite-boarding, stand up paddling and Bikram yoga to stay fit. Paddling is a major part of his regimen. “I’ll paddle downwinders (paddling from one point to another down-coast, with the wind) and, if the waves are small, I’ll use the SUP to surf small waves. It really works different muscles and keeps you on a longer board.” Most surfers use different boards depending on the surf’s size. Switching to a longer board can throw surfers off if it’s been a long time between big swells. “I’m always riding my big boards (to keep in tune with them). There’s a lot of subtle adjustments going on when you’re riding big waves: they’re never super clean and easy. You have to navigate the lump and bump throughout the whole ride. If I can get my bigger boards out in smaller waves I’m (practicing) a lot more of those subtle adjustments.”