Winter seems to be dragging on here in Britain, but I’ve been able to paddle and train regularly and now the first Premier slalom race is a little over a month away. I’ve focused on three key areas over the winter, and as always there’s still plenty for me to learn about this sport despite first paddling a slalom course in 1977.

My technical goal has been to update and improve my lines on downstream gates. This has meant transferring some of my recent learning from sweep upstream gates, to take a more direct line and lean back to neck the pole. When it works this is very fast, and a lot of fun, but when it doesn’t work it’s painful (I’ve wacked my face a couple of times!) It’s fascinating to work out the best lines – and knowing when it’s faster to give a gate more room rather than less. A critical factor for me is vision. If I can look up and ahead to keep at least two gates in my field of view, I have more time and composure. Letting my vision drop or fixating on the closest pole invariably leads to a more cramped or clumsy manoeuvre.

Physically, I’ve maintained a longer period in the gym over this winter than I have in recent years. I’ve been a bit spooked by research that shows how much muscle mass and strength declines with age and that this accelerate past 50. Regular weight training slows, and can even reverse this, so I’ve taken on the fight and been in the gym 2 – 3 times a week. I feel the benefit on the water, but a consequence is less time on the paddling machine or flat water to work on specific paddling fitness. But having put in a big volume of this sort of work last year I feel like I’ve maintained a solid aerobic base, and can generally sustain a decent work load and pace on the water.

I’m particularly excited about the work I’ve done with physiotherapist Julie Pearce this winter. My original motivation was to fix my sore shoulder, but we’re now well beyond that into re-shaping my whole posture and body alignment. After many years I’m finally losing my hunched shoulders, and I’m able to sit more upright in my boat with better extension and rotation. Julie has a fantastic systemic understanding of the human body, which combines with her years of experience with elite paddlers to make her the best in the business (IMHO).

Paddling hasn’t all been in a slalom boat, and I’ve had a river paddling weekend in Devon, with high hopes of more rivers in the next few weeks. The Fairy Glen in north Wales has been on my to-do list for a while, so maybe this will be the winter I get there. I’ve also planned a trip to Val Sesia in May, which is one of my favourite paddling destinations with its huge range of steep creeks and spectacular scenery. The food, wine and ice cream are all pretty good too!

I feel so very fortunate to paddle as much as I do. I never take it for granted, as I’m at the age where news from friends and family is, sadly, often of cancer or some other serious ailment. When I was much younger, death or disability never seemed a real prospect, it was always something that seemed a long, long way in the future, or only relevant to other people. That view now seems naïve, and I now realise that life is precious and fragile. Carlos Castaneda wrote that a warrior is someone who lives life knowing that death is sitting on his left shoulder, and at any time death can reach out and tap to say time is up. At some point, I’ll paddle on white-water for the last time. Who knows when that will be, and I hope it’s not anytime soon. But knowing that there WILL be a last time is a beautiful reminder to enjoy THIS time to the maximum. I hope you do too.