When we joined our kayaking club saying boldly that we were going to do DW, we were greeted by a curious range of reactions. Some people were interested, some baffled, some admiring, some doubtful. The more people we talked to, the more we discovered how the race hinges on your mental endurance and resiliance rather than your kayaking ability.

Many paddlers who we watched with awe said they would never do DW as they know they couldn’t get through the night. Others who have been marathon kayaking for years just knew that when their brain said “stop” they wouldn’t be able to fight it. Several commented on how “it’s all in your head”.

Luckily I love all this stuff as my day job is as a psychologist! As a result I happily got to work thinking about all the tips and tricks I could apply to feeling miserable in a kayak.

The mind vs. the brain

Our mind is a powerful thing and we’d be pretty stuck without it, but at times it can really get in the way of the body and brain doing what it is perfectly capable of doing.

I used the word ‘mind’ rather than ‘brain’ to make a really important distinction: Our brain instructs our body. It tells us to move our arms, chew to eat and shut down to sleep. Our mind however, is all the thoughts and feelings that come with it. When we stay up late at the pub, our brain is instructing our body to sleep (which it needs to and wants to) but the mind is saying “just one more pint” and so you stay out until 2am. On the flip side, we may be out for a run and our body is loving the endorphin boost, but then the mind comes along and thinks “I can’t be bothered anymore” and so you take the shortcut home.

More often than not, we let our thoughts and feelings (the mind) win.

This experience might be familiar to you, or you might be new to the idea of ‘thinking about thinking’. Regardless, it is a really healthy practice to notice what the mind is saying and consider how it affects what you do. It is a weird experience when you first start noticing your thoughts and feelings, but it’s the first step to taking control over what you do.

If you remember nothing else from this page, remember this:


If I really believe that I’m going to win the lottery tomorrow, that’s no more or less true than believing I’m too knackered to finish DW. They are both just thoughts.

What to expect

At some point in the race all or some of the following may happen:

  • You may feel miserable and think that as you’re not enjoying yourself there’s no point in carrying on.
  • You may wonder why on earth you’re doing the race, convince yourself that you never really wanted to do it anyway and think that therefore you should give up.
  • You may feel guilty for putting your K2 partner through the race and feel obliged to give up on their behalf.
  • Your muscles may ache with every stroke, you may think that your body can’t do it any more so you’ll have to stop.
  • You may have pain in your knee/arm/leg/stomach/head that you think will probably only get worse and/or turn into something irreparable if you carry on.
  • You may see your support team looking tired and feel like it would be better for them if you stopped now.
  • You may start to think you’re not fit enough and maybe if you just trained harder next year you’d be able to do it.

You will probably have these kinds of thoughts over and over again. If you treat them as facts then there is no way you will finish the race. Luckily, they are just thoughts and you don’t need to let them control you.

I hope these tips and tricks will help you keep tabs on your pesky negative thinking and make sure that you can keep on paddling despite your mind trying to convince you otherwise.

Although I’ve tailored them to the race, all the tips and tricks do come from evidence-based therapeutic approaches. Trust me and remember that practice makes perfect.

Tips and tricks 

  • Break up the course in your mind:
    • Think of which bits of the course ‘don’t count because they are easy’, e.g. the Tideway will just take me to the finish (so 17 miles less), the first section is just a normal training morning (so 14 miles less) etc.
    • Know that when you’ve got to Newbury you’ve done the most intense portaging section, then when you get to Reading you’ve done most of the locks, then when you get to Marlow you’re half way…etc.
    • Get your support team to tell you how many locks/miles until you see them next. Compare this mileage to an easy stint you do at your local club, then you just need to focus on completing something you know you can do.
  • Watch your thoughts from a distance, don’t get hooked by them:
    • As unhelpful thoughts come into your mind imagine them as clouds passing through the sky or leaves floating down the river away from you.
    • Acknowledge your thoughts without letting them take over. E.g. that’s interesting that I think “I can’t do it”, I must be doing something pretty hard to think that. I’ll pin that thought to that bit of driftwood over there and watch it float away.
  • Visualise success:
    • Imagine yourself passing through each stage of the race in your mind. In particular imagine yourself paddling under Westminster Bridge. Imagine it as vividly as you can, think about what you will feel like, how other people will react when you climb up the steps, what you might do or say when you finish.
  • Play games to keep your mind busy:
    • The Animal Game – your partner thinks of an animal and you have to guess what it is using only questions with yes/no answers.
    • Animal, Vegetable or Mineral – much like the above, but what your partner thinks of can be anything!
    • 20 Questions – also similar to either of the above games, but you have to guess what your partner is thinking using only 20 questions.
    • The Alphabet Game – either in turns or as a free-for-all, you have to name as many things in a certain category as you can, working your way through the alphabet. You could do countries (Albania, Belgium, Canada etc.) or sports (Archery, Badminton, Canoeing etc.) and name everything beginning with A before you move on to B and so on.
    • Eye Spy – I’m going to assume you know this one.
    • Memory games – for example “Yesterday I went to the kayak club and I found…” taking turns to add items to the list of things found, and you have to recite the list each time before adding a new item on the end.
  • Sing!
    • Make sure you choose songs that will make you feel happier rather than get you thinking about your latest break-up.
    • Top of our list were Disney songs, Hymns, Campfire songs (e.g. the ants go marching) and generic sing-a-longs like Queen and Abba.
  • Devote your attention to observing something with curiosity:
    • Concentrate on the reflections in the water and how they move
    • Focus on an aspect of paddling technique and try to get that bit perfect for as many strokes in a row as you can.
    • Concentrate on the change in pressure on the balls of your feet as you move with each stroke.
    • Focus on your breath as it goes in and out, the feeling of the air against your nose and mouth.
  • Tell each other stories:
    • Recount past holidays
    • Share childhood memories
    • Make up weird and wonderful stories if you’re feeling imaginative
    • Think up some alternative endings or storylines to your favourite TV shows

Try out all these tips and tricks during training and you’ll find out which ones work best for you. Do give them time though as they won’t all be helpful the first time round. Practice makes perfect!

If you’re in a K1…

I’m not an authority on doing DW in a K1, but if you are looking at this page with that in mind then there’s no reason why you can’t apply the same motivation principles as K2 paddlers.

The benefit of doing the K1 stages race is that from day two onwards you know your body can do the distance (because you’ve done it yesterday). The downside of paddling in a K1 is that it’s harder to distract yourself from any negative thinking as you don’t have someone to chat to.

Have a look through the advice above and think of how you can apply it to being a one-man-band. For example, sing to yourself, play games in your head or with what naturally occurs around you (e.g. name every swan you see).

If you have any other suggestions that you want to share with DW newbies then let me know via the comment page.

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© S Hicks 2018

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