I recently finished a book titled “The Mindful Athlete” by George Mumford.   I first heard this book recommended by a former Navy Seal and SealFit instructor Lance Cummings.  Lance is a lifelong endurance athlete who spends extensive time in an OC-1 and can’t wait for the Gorge Downwind Festival (how could I not read whatever book he recommended )   My initial assumption was that the book would provide the tips and tricks to push beyond the mental governor to allow for me to push my physical limits in both training and racing.
George has worked with several of the best NBA athletes in the world including Michael Jordon and Kobe Bryant.   He has an amazing story and I highly recommend his book.  While the book did not directly reveal any magic secret that  enabled me to push my physical limits,  it was a great refresher on the power of meditation and how having a calm mind and high level of awareness can help facilitate getting into a flow state in which you realize your full potential.
Before reading the Mindful Athlete I had just finished The Rise of Super Man by Steven Kotler  which is all about achieving the flow state and more specifically how extreme sport athletes are getting better and better at tapping into flow more and more often.   While there are literally thousands of ways to get into a flow state,  linking runs in a downwind paddle absolutely epitomizes the state of flow both figuratively and literally.   I’m certain that performance on a downwind run is directly correlated to the percentage of time spent in flow.   In downwind paddling we enter flow when we get in perfect sync with the rhythm of the waves and work entirely with them and never against them.    Of course this is much easier said than done.

So How Did the Mindful Athlete Improve My Downwind

Reading the Mindful Athlete triggered me to start  paying attention to the thoughts in my head when I’m out paddling downwind.   What I quickly realized was that there were a couple of themes that consistently ran through my head when I was downwind paddling
  • Scarcity Mentality –  There is always this thought in my head that the runs I see in front of me and quickly escaping me are the last good ones to be had and I must catch them.   But this thinking often leads to a viscous cycle.   The run passes under the bow,  I vow not to let it get away, so the chase ensues.   I’m not intending to overcome the wave I’m chasing, rather to get behind it so that I’m actually riding the wave right behind it.   If the waves are small, I might just have enough time and power to pull this off and get into a good position for linking waves.   But more often than not,  and especially as the waves get bigger,  it is simply too late, and while I do catch a ride. it is often too little too late, to really position me to get into a flow of linking runs.   As a result,  the cycle repeats.    The run ends, I’m exhausted from the maximum effort chase, I stop paddling to catch my breath, my boat speed slows down considerably, and alas,  I’m back in the same spot with another wave rolling underneath my bow and quickly pulling away from me.

A Better Approach

  • If you find yourself in the cycle described above,  I suggest this.  Think for a minute about what the scene would look like if you were flying over it in an airplane at 10,000 feet.    Imagine the surfski paddler down there paddling like hell to catch a run when there are hundreds of miles of runs behind him.   At 10,000 feet the waves appear much more consistent and plentiful than they do when your in the thick of it.
  • In the mindset of knowing that it is very unlikely the pattern of waves and opportunity for runs is going to change drastically anytime soon,  you can now think about the optimal approach to getting into the flow of the waves and linking the runs.   Don’t chase the first run you see.  Rather focus on building steady boat speed first.  One way to do this is to rehearse the mantra that small runs lead to big runs.   It took me a long time to fully appreciate this concept, and for the longest time I was convinced there was only really one run in the conditions we have on the Great Lakes.   I’ve found another way of thinking about this is to simply think about steering the boat wherever you can that allows you to paddle at a solid and steady effort, gradually building up boat speed.  Once you’ve built up your boat speed, then it’s time to look for  runs.
  • Now when you catch your first run, it will be easier to match the speed of the wave because you are at a more steady speed, additionally  you won’t be so incredibly exhausted and you’ll have more capacity to paddle harder sooner to catch the next run.   As you link the runs, the momentum builds and now you’re in a state of flow.   Eventually you are likely to come to a point where you’ve come off the runs and don’t immediately see your next option.   When this happens,  immediately go back to the mantra of “small leads to big” and steer your boat wherever you can to ensure you can keep a steady and strong stroke and maintain a solid boat speed until the runs materialize once again.    If on the other hand, you stop paddling and wait for the next run (as I’m often guilty of doing) you’ll fall right back into the chase cycle.

If there are waves, there are runs (said the Jedi Master whose name shall remain anonymous)

The second major mental mistake that I often make,  is to allow the voice in my head to quickly start telling me the runs just aren’t there or aren’t that good.    Not enough wind, too inconsistent, wrong direction,  too big, too small, and on and on.    If there are waves, there are runs.   When I catch the voice in my head  taking this downward spiral I try to imagine Oscar or Boyan paddling next to me.  Surely they would be saying,  “there are runs galore”  you just have to open your mind to seeing them.    And of course, they would be right.    And this explains how in the same exact conditions, you can have periods of pure flow where you are linking runs and flying along.  Then you fall out of the flow and get caught in a chase cycle.   As much as you might tell yourself the conditions have changed, most likely they haven’t changed that much.   It is just that you have fallen out of sync with the flow of the waves.   Last weekend I was doing short out and back’s from the beach.  On my first run back to shore I caught some nice runs, but nothing spectacular.  On my second lap,  I got fully into the flow and all of a sudden I was seeing and linking beautiful runs.  Those same runs were there the first time, I just wasn’t able to get into flow with them.
I most often paddle downwind by myself, so this isn’t usually an issue.   But,  if you paddle with others and/or when racing downwind,  a very similar mental game ensues.   You watch your buddy pulling away from you and quickly convince yourself that he has “found the runs”  and you are in the wrong position.   This distraction either causes you to give up in frustration,  try too hard to force yourself onto runs,  or maneuver over toward your buddy.  When these thoughts start to race through your mind,  check yourself.  Envision the scene from 10,000 feet above the water and remind yourself that chances are, the runs really aren’t that different where your buddy is.   Most likely you’re just not getting into the flow of the runs and you need to focus on steady paddling, building up boat speed, and then getting on the runs when they present themselves.  Then once you establish momentum, use it to aggressively move to the next run.

Consciously setting different goals

I have always been a big proponent of always trying to record my fastest mile in downwind conditions.   While quantification can be good,  I’ve realized that I can’t always be in this mindset.     There are so many variables that go into average speed on a given day. The wind, current, and wave profiles are always changing and there will be fast days and slower days.   I now realize having this obsession has influenced my paddling.  I am most often doing out and back paddles, I turn around at a mile and as soon as the garmin beeps and I’m on the timed mile I chase to hard to get on the first run I see.   When I miss a run or two, then immediately my mind starts getting frustrated and looking for excuses as to why this won’t be the time when I get the record.   This mindset/approach can be dangerous and ultimately prevents me from taking a step back, believing there are runs, and having the patience to work until I start to see them and get into their flow.   A better approach to improving my downwind skills would be to add forced limitations such as not exceeding a certain heart rate, limited number of strokes, limited use of the rudder, etc.. which would all force me to better utilize the waves and hence become a faster paddler when limitations are removed.
I do think it is good to quantify your improvement,  but be cautious of making that your singular focus and trying to hard to muscle your way through it or worse yet,  come off the water unhappy.   If you’re out on the water paddling, then you’re having a good day, it is really that simple!

Some general thoughts

I think we all struggle to understand what is the right level of effort that downwind paddling should involve.   As we’ve heard from the very best,  it absolutely requires power and the bigger the waves, the more power it takes.  We’ve also heard it is by no means a free ride.  Downwind paddling is hard and intense work.   This all holds true and over the course of any good downwind run, your average heart rate will certainly reflect a maximum level of effort.   What differentiates the level of success in a downwind run is ultimately the timing of the effort.   To put it very simply,  if you are initiating all out efforts from a standstill or resting position then your working hard, but not achieving optimal performance.   If you are initiating all out efforts when you’ve got boat speed and momentum but need to quickly get to the next run, then you are performing well and should end up linking a lot of runs and having a high average speed.
The forecast shows solid downwind conditions on Father’s Day.   So let’s see if I can practice what I preach and set some new downwind PRs.   I’ll post the results on FB either way!