21 Things I’ve Learned about Kayaking from Running

I’m going to keep this short and sweet, but I will say that since returning from Chile, I’ve been lacing up my tennies for a run more often than not, trying to maintain some healthy momentum I gained while down south. After having kayaked nearly every day for two months, I returned home with a bit of trepidation regarding how I could maintain my health and fitness once I left the little paradise bubble of Pucón. I quickly realized that while my paddling fitness might not be maintained in the same way, momentum is a rare and special thing that I had to harness quickly, and just because I wasn’t going kayaking every day didn’t mean I couldn’t do something every day.

Here are a few nuggets I’ve picked up while pounding the pavement this past month. I think these notions cross over well from paddling to running to fitness… to life.

  1. Warm up. Get your head and your body keyed in for what you’re about to do. Focused, alert, and ready to play! video tip
  2. Track your progress. This is completely new to me, but after tracking my running progress for over a month, I’m starting to see the virtue in doing so with paddling. Note your struggles and your triumphs every time you get on the water along with any goals and what you’re doing to achieve them. This will be a great reference point for you if you suddenly find yourself in a rut with your paddling
  3. Be frequent. Easier said than done but frequency equals comfort and comfort equals motivation and willingness. The importance and benefit of “seat time” cannot be overstated when you’re looking for progress.
  4. … but keep it fresh. Frequency does not mean you have to do the same thing over and over again every time you get out. Mix it up and keep it exciting; this will help keep you from plateauing and stalling growth. See how few strokes you can take through a rapid or hop in a boat that will push your skills. When you know what to do well enough, you know what you can get away with. Change up your routine and you’ll keep finding a reason to get out the door and in your boat.
  5. Have a plan. Having a plan means having a goal, and that plan exists to make reaching your goal more manageable. Whether it’s a series of eddies to work as you move through a rapid or a set of drills to boost your strength and comfort, get on the water with an idea of how to spend your time and progress downstream so you engage in active paddling, not floating.
  6. … but be alright deviating from it. Since kayaking rarely goes according to plan anyway, have a back up idea of what to do if things start heading in a different direction. I call this “reconciling with my reality.” Accept where you’re at- mentally or in a rapid- and commit to your present, whether it was Plan A or not.
  7. Push hard in small ways.  You know this one. Find bite size challenges to tackle whenever you can. For me, this was pushing my pace on a big hill the other day on my run then tackling a challenging ferry in an unforgiving boat on the water. Throw yourself into a hole, go for the tiniest eddy you can. These small challenges feel like huge triumphs and go a long way to building your comfort and confidence. Bigger challenges won’t seem so impossible when they present themselves unexpectedly if you’re finding ways to push yourself daily.
  8. Listen to your body. It usually knows what it’s doing. Listen to pain and know when your body is telling you it’s reached its limits… this can just as easily happen on the river as it can on a run or a ride. Check in with yourself and keep tabs on your energy levels to avoid unnecessary setbacks.
  9. Nourish yourself. Eat well, rest adequately, hydrate, and take care of mind, body, and spirit. You are a complete package that requires frequent tending to in order to keep up with your play.
  10. Enjoy your surroundings. We play in a beautiful world. Don’t let fear or the bottom line overshadow your environment.
  11. Do it for yourself. It is just you out there, alone on the trail or last to leave the eddy. If you’re not doing it for yourself, the going will get tough faster than you can get going. Reevaluate why you do what you do and if you’re seeking approval or chasing the expectations of others, take a step back and make room for some expectationless adventures- a mellow paddle, a light jog… keep it about you and what you stand to gain.
  12. Cross train. Do some yoga, go for a bike ride, hop in a boat that will push your skills… this goes hand in hand with keeping it fresh and exciting. Don’t get stuck on auto pilot.
  13. Equipment matters. From a good pair of running shoes that you can’t leave home without to a helmet you literally trust with your life, your investment in equipment is important. Don’t skimp on those points that are seriously important to your success: warm, dry, comfortable, and protective. 
  14. Silence distraction. This should read, “be present.” Don’t worry about what others are doing or their progress. Be in your moment and drown out the voices of others by listening to the only one that matters: yours.
  15. Consider the wisdom of others. … consider. Chances are, you know some folks that have been in the game for a while. If you’ve established a trusting relationship with them, consider their viewpoints when it comes to matters of differing opinion. Even if you go with your gut, you can still learn from their experience.
  16. Don’t let weather dictate your plans. Some of my best days running, oddly enough, have been in heinous, chilly, rain. Funny… some of my favorite days kayaking have been in similar weather. It builds character and I guarantee you’ll have a better time out there than on your couch. 
  17. Accept that you’ll have good days and bad. Sometimes we just have off days… it’s a part of life. It doesn’t mean you’re less capable or just lucky on those “good days…” it just means you’re human.
  18. … but remember that attitude is everything. “Bad days” are only bad if you let them be that way. You can have a tough day or a challenging day, sure, but seek out a nugget of positivity before closing the book on your day, whether it was simply getting outside or the fact that you pushed a little bit harder than the last time.
  19. And a good support system can go a long way. Encouragement and support might be the only thing getting you out the door when you’re feeling low. A solid crew to paddle with, a few good friends who are stoked for your progress… the extra nudge of positive reinforcement keeps you on the positive side, too.
  20. Find your inspiration. Not long after I started running, I noticed I had Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run on my bookshelf, and I’d never read it. Not only is it simply a phenomenal read- seriously, this man knows his way around words- but every few pages or so, I get super psyched to go for a run. I think about his adventures and the people he’s chronicled, their amazing views on running and why they do what they do when I’m pushing hard up a steep hill or my lungs are burning. It might be a great read that gets you stoked- try Doug Ammons’ Whitewater Philosphy, River Rescue by Les Bechdel & Slim Ray, Leland Davis’ fabled North Carolina Rivers and Creeks, Catch Every Eddy, Surf Every Wave by Tom Foster & Kel Kelly, and, of course… any of William Nealy’s hilariously illustrated books, particularly KAYAK– or maybe just watching YouTube videos, boating with a particular buddy, or spending some time on the water in a beautiful place. Explore the zen and passion for kayaking held by others and you’ll find yourself reigniting your own.
  21. Go with the flow. Both literally and metaphorically… don’t fight the River and don’t forget to seek that “flow state” where you don’t think too much, you just enjoy. That comes from truly soaking in your surroundings, your moment, your place on the water.