Embracing the uncomfortable

A life lesson from a harbour paddle

— By Andrew Russell

For years I paddled only on the left side. Continuous and perfected movements that were completely asymmetrical to drive a canoe faster through the water.

As a national team canoeist and 2008 Olympian, these countless strokes provided me incredible comfort paddling on the left side, and I was able to sustain power and output through challenging conditions and fatigue. To really emphasize the point, I would estimate I averaged between 800,000 to 1,200,000 strokes a season during my elite competitive years.

In 2012, I stopped canoeing with the national team, and formally retired from elite sport. I pursued other opportunities in school and professionally, and for years didn’t really paddle those perfected left-sided strokes at all.

Recently, I have become super excited about paddling again. However, this time I am doing so on lakes and the ocean on a stand-up paddleboard or SUP. One thing that is great about the SUP is that you switch sides, paddling right and left, and do things with much more symmetry than I was accustomed to in my sprint canoe training days.


One place I have enjoyed paddling recently on the SUP is the iconic Halifax Harbour. For those not as familiar with this body of water, it is famously the site of the Halifax Explosion, home to George’s and McNab’s islands, and a busy spot. There are container piers, sailboats, ferries, tankers, yachts, and jet skis. On a recent Sunday, I went out for a paddle excited to take on the challenging conditions and move through the waves.

During my six-kilometre paddle, I found myself often becoming uncomfortable on the right side during adverse conditions. A boat might pass by, or ferry’s wake would make its way to me, and I’d inadvertently switch back to the left side (my dominant paddling side). What would happen is I would tense slightly on the right when the wake would hit, and that would cause me to slow down and the board to be more affected by the waves.

When we become conscious of our weaknesses, we have an advantage because the opportunity to get better is staring us in the face.
— Andrew Russell

The secret to balance on a SUP is actually movement. When you are able to get moving it is much easier to balance, thus slowing down on the right was hurting my balance and leading me to switch back to the left.

About the third time this happened, something switched on in my head and registered the decrease in speed was the culprit for the loss of balance, and it was preempted by a conscious thought of “I’m on my right and those look like decent sized waves.”

To correct, I consciously decided to paddle hard through the next several sets of waves on the right side. When I made this decision, (while feeling a little on edge), I came out much better off and was able to avoid switching side and the slowdown in speed.

The rest of my paddle was great, and I was able to approach the route with even left- and right-sided strokes.

The purpose of this story is pretty simple.

We need to embrace the uncomfortable to get better.

If I wasn’t willing to force the issue on the right side, I wouldn’t get better. When we become conscious of our weaknesses, we have an advantage because the opportunity to get better is staring us in the face.

I hope you’ll take on your next challenge from both sides — your strengths and weaknesses.


Andrew Russell is the founder of FANFIT Challenge and a former national team canoeist who competed in the 2008 Olympics.