Discomfort and Improving Performance

“It is easy to hate and it is difficult to love. This is how the whole scheme of things works. All good things are difficult to achieve, and bad things are very easy to get.”
— Confucius

I’ve learned to appreciate through my own personal training as a kayaker, and more recently through my experience as a coach, that significant leaps in performance are achieved through practice that is uncomfortable. If you want to advance as a sea kayaker, you’ve got to embrace discomfort rather than avoid it. I’m writing this article to help inspire you to push yourself beyond what’s comfortable and become a better, stronger, more capable athlete.

What does discomfort look like? Paddling for an additional five kilometres without a break to achieve your planned training distance, even though you really wanted to stop two kilometres back. Taking another three strong paddle strokes to get onto the wave that you might still be able to catch. Remaining in your boat, fighting the urge to eject, and trying to succeed with your fourth roll after three failed attempts. Digging deeply is uncomfortable but “it takes pressure to make a diamond,” as the saying goes.

Performance starts with basic mobility. The most common limits to physical development are an insufficient range of motion and incorrect positions/paths of movement. For example, tight hamstrings and hip flexors will limit your ability to rotate your torso and push on the foot pegs to generate powerful forward momentum with the forward stroke. They may also contribute to lower back pain, which limits the duration you can sit comfortably in your boat.

A robust stretching protocol is the path to improved mobility. This takes time, patience, and a healthy amount of discomfort. Yoga is not easy if you’re doing it right. The dull pain we feel when we stretch muscles to the limits of their current range of motion is necessary to enhance mobility. Sharp, shooting pain or burning sensations are not good either but you definitely need to “feel it” to make progress. We can also make use of tools like foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other mobility tools to smash, floss, and shear muscle tissue. They all cause discomfort in various degrees but the long-term reward is comfort and strength through an enhanced range of motion.

The foundation of physical training is adaptation, which arises from physical exertions that are uncomfortable. Whether we’re training for strength, power, or endurance, the objective is to apply a physical stress to our system and then to recover from that stress. It’s this stress that causes our muscles to be sore after a physical exertion like a long day of paddling, an intense surf session, or a weight training workout. Through the biological process of recovery, our body adapts and is then better able to perform with the new stress load.

If 10km is our current limit for a comfortable day paddle then increasing that distance incrementally each weekend will lead to enhanced endurance. If we can already paddle comfortably for 30km then increasing the speed to complete the distance faster will similarly improve our endurance. This incremental approach demands us to continually stress ourselves but in an incremental and iterative way that avoids the chance of injury.

I’m not advocating for punishing yourself with pain. An injured athlete can’t perform effectively and it’s a real shame if you can’t enjoy boating because you’re hurt. Whether you’re doing strength training or paddling, it’s important to maintain safe body positions through appropriate ranges of motion. Any activity that results in sharp, shooting pain is unproductive and should be ceased immediately. Similarly, if you’re stretching, any feelings of numbness or tingling (pins and needles) are an indication that you’re pushing your range of motion too far.

A phenomenon similar to this physical adaptation occurs as well with stress and the psychology of paddling. Many kayakers speak of their aspiration to develop a “bomb proof” roll, assuming that consistent performance in the pool translates to consistent performance on the sea. Reliable performance in the pool provides a useful foundation for further development of the skill, which must be cultivated through increasingly challenging conditions. It’s not uncommon to see a good forward stroke quickly erode in current when the kayaker is out of their comfort zone. The same person might find themselves coming out of their boat and swimming when their roll, otherwise reliable on flat water, eludes them in the fast moving water.

My personal experience on the wave at Blue Hill, Maine this spring was vastly different from my experience last season. Last year I got zero rides; this year I got on the wave several times and managed a few really satisfying rides. My challenge has progressed from the technique of forward stroke in current (although it can still be better under these conditions) to accurately reading the flow and formulating an effective tactical plan. I also need to work more on anticipation and feel for when I am on the wave. Improving these skills requires lots and lots of repetition, which is physically and mentally taxing, and I endure beyond the point of comfort because I know that’s what it takes to get good.

Regardless of one’s starting point or ambition, your progress in sea kayaking — or any sports endeavour for that matter — will benefit if you embrace discomfort. Push yourself. Dig deep. Challenge your boundaries. Work hard. Be uncomfortable. As a reward, your comfort zone will expand steadily and what was once hard will become easy.

Comments 3

  1. This is what I like about kayaking. It’s never boring because there is always something you can work on or improve. The sea acts as a coach. It’s always making you paddle harder, farther or it can agree to throw in a beautiful day so you can take it easy and enjoy the beauty of it all. With proper technique and safety skills there’s never a dull moment out on the water.

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      Author

      I love a lovely day on the water too, Marc. This can be starkly contrasted with days when the sea puts a big Stop sign on your plans.

  2. I’m currently hard at work feeling uncomfortable in Anglesey as we speak!

    The whole psychological aspect is one that could be treated separately as it is such a vast subject area, and one of great interest to me as it is my current limiter in several aspects of paddling.

    Great article as always Peter!

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