One foot in front of the other... That analogy could be used for so many things right now (getting through life in a pandemic?), but it's what I've been doing a lot of lately: running & walking. And in paddlesports, when life is a little more normal, we just put one paddle stroke in front of the other. And yet so many of us know that to be just a little more complex than that.
So, when I went for a long walk in the snow the other day, up a few little lumps & bumps (maybe just big enough to be called hills!) I donned walking boots for the first time in ages. I've worn trail running shoes a lot this year, but with fairly deep snow and a good dose of mud around, I figured the boots would help me out.
If you're reading this as a paddler and wondering where the relevance to you is, bear with me a while, I promise I'll get there...
Now, I've been doing a lot of trail running this year. I wear Salomon Speedcross shoes: for those who aren't into trail running, they're basically running shoes with big grippy lugs on the bottom, that give really good grip on rough or slippy ground. They're also shoes.
I have a few physiological quirks (as we all do), one of which is hyper mobile joints, including ankles, so I'd struggle with 'going over' on my ankles, and always assumed that as a result of innumerable sprains & strains, and one or two dislocations, that I wasn't steady enough on my feet to deal with running on really lumpy-bumpy-scottish-bog-type rough ground. A year on though, having worked on changing my gait to combat injury and run solely on trails, I'm able to run in places I never dreamed would be possible. I'm not a fast runner, but for me that's not the point: I feel like I can move freely, and my feet & legs know what to do to deal with the terrain. They can compensate for the rough stuff, and keep me upright.
So, back to my recent walk in boots. I've been walking up hills most of my life, and owned at least one pair of walking boots as long as I can remember. Most of that time I've owned two pairs: one for summer, one for winter. They have high tops for 'ankle support', and rigid soles. So, walking a route that I've now run lots of times, I thought boots would be a good choice given the conditions. Was I right?
A little while into our walk I started to become aware that my feet & ankles didn't feel like they were responding to the terrain very well. On a very short but slightly steep downhill section the old worry that I would 'go over' on my ankles returned. How could that be? I thought I'd come so far from that? I began to realise that the supposed features of my boots that should be helping me were actually hindering the ability of my body to do what it needed to do: to feel the ground, to correct for the terrain, and to keep me upright. The boots were taking over, dulling the ability of my body to perform.
I began to wonder: does a lot of the kit we use really help us? Or has the outdoor gear industry actually produced a lot of ways to prevent us from developing the proprioception and skills to deal with the challenges of our environment?
Now, I'm a big fan of good kit, and I love a good gadget. Modern kit keeps us warm & dry, gives us lightweight footwear, boats, paddles, and all sorts of other innovations that mean we can go further, faster and harder than those before us.
But how often do you question the kit you use, why you use it, and whether there's a better solution? Have you ever opted for developing a skill in slow-time, rather than buy a bit of kit that might get you so far, but not actually help in the long term?
So, how might this be relevant to paddlers? Just a few examples... Do you wear a PFD? What do you keep in the pockets? Does it allow you to move freely? Do you need all that kit?
Do you wear a helmet? How about a neoprene cap underneath it? Do you need it? How about that drysuit? Does it allow you to move well, to get full use of your bodies' capabilities?
Now I hope it's fairly obvious that the answers to these questions will be different on different days: just as my 'should I wear running shoes or boots' will be different on different days. For example, if I was off to tackle a graded winter climb, there would be no doubt in my mind that for me, a pair of running shoes wouldn't cut it, no matter how grippy they were. I'd want the stiffness of the boot soles beneath my feet. In the same way, on a January day on the water in Scotland you wouldn't separate me from my drysuit, no matter how persuasive you were feeling. But on a different day, I might choose neoprene shorts, a lightweight cag and a slimline pfd with no pockets, depending on my intention for the day.
So my challenge to you is this: do you need the kit you wear & carry, does it help or hinder you? I know my answer to the 'Shoes or boots?' question will be different next time I head out.
Zoe Newsam is a Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer, providing quality coaching both in person and online, based in the Highlands of Scotland & throughout the UK.