Are you Aroused?

Are you Aroused?

05/07/2018 1 By WetandMucky

Are you Aroused?

No, not in the sense you’re thinking you dirty minded lot, I mean in the kayaking sense… Allow me to explain.

I am currently in the French Alps with my partner and a bunch of friends for 2 weeks of kayaking amongst other activities.  During the first week, 4 of us went on an Advanced Water skills course with Andy Grimes (Fluid Combinations) and amongst the many useful tips and ideas I picked up (more of that to follow in another blog), the subject of “Arousal Levels” were introduced.  This came about for me on the first day, we were running the Durance Gorge which I had never kayaked before so straight away I was being lead into the unknown, heightening my arousal level (in a negative way) added to this we were very much focussing on river running strategies and tactics, eg. Eddy hopping, one-in one-out strategies etc.  This should be familiar to anyone who has done their 4 Star/Moderate Water Leader training.

Running rivers in this way allows the leader to control the group and inspect sections in order to run them safely. This is something I did on my 4 star, but must admit to being very bad at actually putting into practice on club and group trips.  What this meant for me was that there was lots of time sitting in an Eddy waiting for the leader and others to pass signals back before I could move.  In a Grade IV environment this can often be somewhat precarious eddies and the sections to be run can be pretty substantial, for me having too much time to sit and think is not a good thing.  My Physiological arousal level (adrenaline, testosterone, energy, etc) drops significantly and my Psychological ‘Fear’ arousal level increases exponentially.  I consider myself to be a pretty competent paddler up to Grade IV, however this change in arousal levels leads me to doubt my abilities, I then run into things nervously and make mistakes, ~I find myself leaning back, not attacking the moves with full commitment and I get frustrated along the way and often leading to thoughts of ditching the kayak and walking out – Not really a very good option in a Gorge run!! I especially noticed this when we came to the “Slot and Drop” rapid in the Gorge, after spending some 20 minutes inspecting and discussing lines, my energy and arousal levels had dropped to the point that there was no way I was paddling that drop, in fact after portaging my boat around the first bit I threw it down on the ground and was quite prepared to walk away from it.  Happily I calmed my nerves somewhat and ran the second section from the pool down and completed the rest of the run without further incident.

I have often found myself in this position, particularly towards the end of longer days and always just put it down to being tired or having an off day.  But now I am putting a little more thought into how I can manage those arousal levels in different ways.  I often carry a little snack in my BA for when I feel hungry, but I probably need to be replacing energy before I get to that stage.  As part of an after paddle de-brief we were looking at the contents of a bag to be carried by a river leader and one item caught my attention – energy gels!  Now I have used these in cycling previously but it never occurred to me that they could be useful in the river environment.  They give a very fast acting hit of energy in the form of Carbohydrate Sugars, they are often isotonic (balanced sugars and salts) so can help with tackling dehydration (another problem for many paddlers) and many also contain caffeine, which can give a psychological lift, just like that first morning coffee, I shall definitely be adding these to my paddling kit, along with cereal bars for a slower release energy source. 

I have also noticed this arousal level imbalance in another paddler on our trip who gets very worked up on sections of river that she is very capable of paddling, often resulting in tears (although there is a lot less squeeling this year than in previous visits).  One of the strategies she has found useful is to sing her way down rapids, the song of choice for her is often “Do your boobs hang low…” getting a few bars of this from her significantly calms her nerves on the river and results in her actually enjoying the bouncy wave trains which had only minutes prior been terrifying her.  I often chew gum when paddling (I know there is a whole other discussion about choking hazards, which we won’t go into here) I find it keeps my mouth from drying out but also reduces my arousal level as I feel somewhat more casual about my paddling.  I read some research (probably somewhere on the net) that chewing gum ‘tricks’ your brain into believing it is in a safe place because if there were danger around you would not be eating.  Not sure how much actual science sits behind this but it makes sense in a Pseudo-science kind of way.   I guess it’s about tricking your brain out of “Fight or Flight” mode, I have certainly found it helps me keep my nerves in check, although it does look terrible in videos!

In order to progress as a paddlers we need to move out of our comfort zones and in to ‘stretch’ territory, this is where we learn and develop, when we stay in our comfort zone we only practice what we already know.  Imagine a guitar player only ever playing the same song, he will get very good at that song because he practices it regularly but without trying a new song he will never develop and become a better guitarist.  The trick is to get ourselves to that stretch zone without over filling the cup to full on terror zone and this is where management of arousal levels comes in.  We can use little tips and tricks to manage our Physiological and Psychological arousal levels to keep us in that stretch zone and help ourselves develop, you may also notice these changes of level in other paddlers in your group, how can we help to manage the arousal levels in others?  Food for thought for another blog….

Stay safe, keep learning, don’t get too aroused…!



To find a wide range of energy gels please click on the link to Chain Reaction Cycles below (you’ll help us get a commission on any purchases)