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That lovin’ feelin’

“Whoaa that lovin’ feelin.”

When I wasn’t yet a coach, I remember ALWAYS being seated in rows 5-7.  I felt good because I felt like I was part of the engine room…you know, that part of a vehicle that makes it go?  It was like no other part of the boat mattered.  Power decided everything and power was what we had with a bunch of beefy dudes farting and smelling up the middle of the boat (sorry rows 8+).  We always were trying to bump the rate and just go faster.  At every rest break, we’d get yelled at by folks in rows 1-4.  It became bad for the team inter-personally and performance-wise to have such segregated sections of the crew; each with their own apparent roles and lack of empathy for each other.  At the time, all I thought was that the timing box was a place to chill out and just paddle easily in time like a drone, never changing, rigid and inflexible.  Rate nazis….

After becoming a coach, I suddenly had the whole crew looking to me to address things and the best way I could was to realize that, yes, certain areas of the boat had advantages and disadvantages to making the boat perform better.  I had to establish clear roles and responsibilities to sections of the crew while also giving the crew common goals and guidelines to being tighter as a whole.

This post is an ode to the timing box and what I feel it takes to create a good one.

What is the timing box?

It’s traditionally the front section of the boat involving rows 1-2 or even to row 4.  I always likened the section of the crew to the “brains” of the boat, not just because they were typically female paddlers (no offense fellas) but because there are several unique reasons why they control the way a boat races and runs while also having some unique limitations to how they cannot control the boat.

Generally speaking, the benches of the timing box are occupied by physically smaller and more experienced paddlers.  If you’ve never sat up there, try it some day at a practice as it can be eye-opening.  The gunnel curves inwards acutely as you get to row 1, forcing you to rotate your body WAY more to get good paddle attack angle.  The floor also slopes upwards slamming your thighs/knees into your chest, limiting your reach.  Smaller paddlers often can cope with the cramped space better with less compromise to their stroke technique.  Weight distribution of the boat fore/aft is also a consideration, especially when there may be a drummer basically sitting  on the very bow of the boat.  Too heavy up front and you might be taking on a bunch of water at speed due to the wake, too heavy in back and paddlers up front can’t even bury their blades in the water fully in addition to plowing the boat through the water like a swimmer with their feet low and head bobbling above the surface.

It’s a section of the boat where a paddler may only get visual feedback on timing from 1-3 paddlers, if at all.  Timing almost entirely becomes a task that falls upon inter-row communication and proprioceptive feel (your body sense).  Everybody behind the timing box sees what they do and any fluctuations in paddling rate or technique ripple backwards through the crew, causing either amplified chaos or unified modulations.  On race day, their connection to the drummer helps to further unify the boat based on the crew’s chain of command (hmm, future post maybe?).  Clearly, experience goes a long way in managing a group of 16 other paddlers through a crazy game of telephone.

Back when SFL was in its hey-day, crew rostering was always being tweaked from rows 3-10 but rarely in 1-2.  At practices, I’d always be chatting with the timing box during rest breaks between sets for feedback on how the boat felt to them, what they thought we could change, and how they felt we could execute those changes.  The reason for putting the timing box feedback first was that they knew when changes were happening in the boat without them initiating it.  Their feedback gave great insight into various cause/effect issues we’d run into (eg rushing, clean settle into race pace, acceleration on finish).  Our timing box was so used to being with each other, row 1 was even occupied by identical twins!  Now that takes being on the same page to a whole new level.  (I’m not saying you need identical twins on board just to make things work, but it certainly worked for us!).

An experienced timing box is like the carburetors or fuel injection system of your car.  They signal for more, the engine pours on the power.  They ease off, the engine eases off.  This is where experience and feel of the timing box make a huge difference in team performance.  The novice timing box is numb to how the boat is running, how the race conditions are, and what needs to be actually run to get max performance.  They will execute the pre-programmed rate jumps just as in practice (if you’re lucky).  Acceleration is notchy at best on the start because all they know is that they must get from 0 to race pace via X many total strokes and the rate changes every Y count.

Compare that to a great timing box that has 4 paddlers working as one mind to feel the race conditions and pace the start in a progressive way to accelerate smoothly and quickly to race pace.  Progressive is the key word.  Say the start is a simple 5-10-10.  The 25 strokes will feature variable stroke technique and variable rate changes between 1-5, 6-15, and 16-25 to drive the boat off the line.  In this level of crew, the start count is almost irrelevant besides the fact that counting for a short period helps unify the crew during a highly technical and highly important part of the race.  The reason why this scenario gives superior performance is that it relies upon the feeling and judgement of the timing box to avoid the crew wasting time, energy, and speed on paddling in a way that fails to accelerate smoothly to race pace.  The same can be said about the settle into race pace.  That rate drop should depend entirely upon the timing box’s decision on how the boat is running once the start count is completed.

Who can’t be in the timing box?

Nobody.  Like I said earlier, the demands of race day may dictate practice arrangements where the timing box is always kept intact and up front, but the front of the boat is a trippy place to be (trust me, I’ve fallen off the bow a handful of times to take a dunk or crowd surf).  Seriously, though, the experience that can be gained from being in rows 1-3 can really help ALL your paddlers develop better skills that can help the entire crew on race day.

Those skills are (in no particular order):

  • how to establish solid timing with less visual feedback
  • how to drive the boat for best performance
  • feel how the crew responds to changes you make (also how long does it take?  what is the limit to changes the crew will respond to?)
  • how to paddle well in water that is more “virgin” and undisturbed from others’ paddles
  • how to communicate with people behind you (without flatulence)

If you have the luxury of practice time to spare (what team actually does, I don’t know), try having all of your paddlers spend some minutes up there at some point during the season.  You will have a crew that understands each other as they never had before and your race results will show it.  Guaranteed or I’ll personally refund your blog view.

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Thank you

Wow, in just a few hours after my post about race starts, the views on the blog have jumped in multiples.  I don’t know if it’s because things are worth more after a person dies (figuratively/athletically in this case) or that social media has changed so much in the years since I started writing that my posts can actually reach more readers, but I want to say thank you to those who gave the pages a good looking over.  I started writing because I felt (and still feel) there was so much more to say and think about dragon boat that wasn’t being said before.  It’s nice to know my musings may stimulate further thought and discussion in this great sport among great people.

Power on readers, there’s more to come!

Physics of Acceleration

Acceleration = (final velocity – initial velocity) / (time at finish – time at start)

Basically, the more you change your speed in a shorter amount of time, the more you have accelerated.  Having a race start that features high acceleration is often a strong deciding factor in races of shorter distance and where the average speed of boats are closely matched.  With the 2017 CDBA Sprint Races just having finished this past weekend, it’s time for teams to start working the long game in prep for more 500m racing fun this summer.

What I wanted to write about regarding acceleration in race starts is to address the wide variation in how teams fiddle with stroke counts and stroke technique in hopes of finding an edge over their competitors.

Many coaches I’ve spoken with over the years often have one of two philosophies about race starts: don’t fix what isn’t broken OR try something different.  The leave-it-be coaches may have strong personal histories of success utilizing a certain race start count and stroke style to the point where the idea of trying something new seems like it would hurt more than help team performance.  That fear is completely understandable, and in certain cases, may be quite accurate.  Think of the novice team trying dragon boat for their first race.  The ‘ole 5-10-10 presents both a great mental and physical challenge with plenty of clacking paddles and drenched partners.  Chances are that coaching different rate ratios and stroke techniques would probably be lost upon such a crew because performance is being limited by base skill.  Now, take the elite paddling crew; each paddler with multiple years of racing experience and a high level of fitness.  If we’re referring to a tight-knit crew with at most 1-2 new additions vs a thrown-together “dream team,” tweaking the start might also be a waste of time because the crew has perfected their start and any change is, again, probably a waste of time.

So why chase new and different race starts at all?  My answer is: because no crew is the same as the next.

Getting back to acceleration, the basic philosophy of a race start is to get from dead stop at the starting line to race pace as quickly as possible.  I’ll ignore “as efficiently as possible” because when it comes to 500m or less, who cares who did it the cleanest if they lost to a team with a “messy” start?  If efficiency was poor in the faster team, it just means that team could have accelerated faster next time.  To me, a winning start is plenty efficient no matter how it looks.  Think of how noisy, messy, and almost out of control a drag race car start is compared to driving around your Prius.  The dragster was efficient at accelerating like a beast while the Prius was efficient at saving fuel and not waking the neighbors.  The dragster wins.  Be the dragster.

But how do you know if a start is giving efficient acceleration?  Well, you could test like I used to with a GPS and stopwatch or utilize buoys of known distance.  Find your team’s sustainable race pace and seek to get to that speed ASAP.  There’s the chance for playing around with ratios and technique.  The goal is to eliminate dead-spots in acceleration on the way to full race pace.  The other goal is NOT to completely overshoot race pace and exhaust the crew before you get past the 100m mark (unless 100m is the race).

On to ratios and technique, faster acceleration demands a greater amount of power.  Power is the rate at which work is done.  Each paddle stroke does some work.  Stroke too long and slowly and power is lost.  Rate up too quickly and shorten the stroke, power is also lost.  The sweet spot for every team lies in the middle somewhere.  Physically stronger, more explosive teams can afford to rate up faster because they can put out more power.  Weaker teams may benefit from an intentionally more gradual workup.

Once the start is over, the time to accelerate is done.  Some teams opt for a high stroke rate during the race because it seems “faster.” (as in people moving their bodies/paddles quickly must be making the boat move faster, right?)  Well, again it depends on how the team can physically maintain their chosen race velocity.  If the team can ONLY generate adequate power to sustain that chosen speed, then sure, thrash away.  Their hearts will probably be running a few extra beats/min higher than a team that is able to maintain the same boat speed but at a lower stroke rate.  If you have a paddling erg, you can see how your heart rate changes if you decrease the paddle resistance and hold a higher stroke rate during a time trial vs a slightly heavier pull but lower stroke rate over the same distance.

Case in point, you can see how DW drops the stroke rate but maintains their boat speed while other adjacent teams maintain high stroke rate without gaining ground:

Compare that to our video from the 2009 Sprint Race where SFL was doing dry starts with rather meek acceleration between strokes 0-2.  I definitely do not think the strongest SFL team of its day could stand up to the crews of today, mostly based on the average physical fitness of modern, A-div teams.

I’m still proud to say that I was able to coach a crew of highly dedicated and passionate paddlers of a wide variety of fitness levels and skill into becoming a consistent contender for A-div podiums over the course of several seasons.  Thanks for the memories, everybody!

In the pursuit of gains

As I woke up this morning, I felt like my legs were made of lead and my back like an iron rod.  I get cleaned up and then get ready for my day.  I drag down my giant 4lb sack of MuscleMilk Gainer protein powder down from the shelf and begin to mix it up in a patented plastic bottle that I got roped into buying off Amazon out of sheer convenience of “nutrition.”

“Everyday gains” is what the protein powder sack reads.  But really?  What is it I would be gaining?  Strength?  Power?  Better beach body looks?  Weight?  When I was working in outpatient orthopedic-focused PT clinics, I’d see three basic types of people: sedentary, weekend warriors, and committed athletes.  The sedentary folks may have chronic pain issues that prevented them from being active at all.  Whether the chicken or the egg came first, it no longer really mattered because they were where they were and needed to pull through chronic pain to be healthier.  Their basic fitness could be so low that everyday function was a struggle.  Weekend warriors might’ve been passionate about their hobbies and athletic pursuits but were always struggling with the compromises of real life.  Put in a few miles per day of running after working a desk job and then limping across the marathon finish line to discover aching, swollen knees for weeks afterwards.  They might’ve been fit enough to sprint for the bus to avoid being late to work but the tough compromises in time from a sedentary job and an “active” lifestyle outside of work created a hard balance for their bodies to cope with.  Lastly, the committed athletes occupied another realm of issues that sometimes arose from their efforts to always push the upper extremes of performance.  Stress fractures, early onset of arthritis, torn or degenerated tendons from high-repetition / high-load activities for years and years comes to mind.  Sure, not everybody in the clinic fit into these generic boxes nor did their medical diagnoses always follow these patterns, but they certainly did so frequently.

When I think of athletes trying to progress in their sport, I think of the difficulties that people have in general with keeping a balanced lifestyle and balanced body.  Let’s say you go to the gym and lift weights with a steady pattern over several months.  If you are following a good program, you should be gaining strength and maybe power depending on the workouts you are doing.  At the end of those several months, you have gained strength and power but have you improved performance?  Say you have noticed better performance in the sport of your choosing because your program was well-tailored to be translatable.  Are you then less likely to be injured pushing the upper limits of performance in that sport?  If you can’t say yes to that question confidently, I’d venture to say your training made you gain in certain areas of fitness but did not make you become more balanced.  By gaining in one/several areas of fitness (e.g. strength or power) you may have declined in flexibility, speed, or coordination.

A well-known, local orthopedist named Scott Dye has a phrase he calls the “envelope of function.”  Basically, every organ in your body has an upper limit in its operation where it can function normally without being injured.  Exceed the envelope and you overload the organ, causing reactive problems.  I like to expand that concept into a whole-person perspective: gradually expand your limits through smart and comprehensive training to create a buffer between the minimum required fitness needed to avoid injury and operate in optimal performance.

It’s my personal opinion that athletes who experience nagging pains during and after their pursuits while calling it “all part of the game/sport” are in a degree of denial or possibly simple ignorance.  From working with hundreds of people over the years, I can safely say that there is typically a way to help resolve or address pain arising from sport, often with rather simple concepts and changes.  Often times athletes with that singular-drive mentality and obsession with one element of the sport have a hard time expanding their minds to accept the possibility and value of being a well-rounded individual while also being highly specialized.

The bottom line is that when you think about “bettering” yourself through training and sport, I encourage you to work towards gains in multiple areas of fitness so that as your fitness improves, you remain a well-balanced individual.  Focusing upon one area of fitness and foregoing other elements of good health will end up biting you later on down the road.  Our bodies are good at compromising in the face of unbalanced change.  Don’t let the illusion of gains fool you into thinking you are actually a healthier athlete.

Rounding back? It may be your hips

The Problem

If you see folks who look like this picture below every time they reach, the causes could be multifactorial.  I’ve written about hamstring flexibility before and that can certainly be a contributing factor to losing low back stability on the reach.  Another cause that I haven’t written about is hip mobility and that’s what this post will focus on.

Drawbridge Fault

Because the low back is anchored to the pelvis and the pelvis connects to the hips, leaning forward on the reach involves flexing the hip and rocking the pelvis anteriorly (think of a ball rolling forward).  If all goes well, the low back can stay in a neutral position as if you were sitting bolt upright and simply tipped forward while reaching your arms out.  Now, if the hips stop early in flexion (think of stuffing a basketball under your shirt and bending forward), the pelvis stops and the low back must round for you to continue to reach.

The Solution

Now, while I’m a rehab professional who understands the body very well, I can’t claim to have come up with all the great solutions to helping it along.  For that, I look to those who have done the hard work already with good results.  Kelly Starrett is one of those PTs.  Here are 2 videos of him demonstrating methods to improving hip mobility.

As usual, feel free to leave me your questions and comments below!

 

FTP & Sweet Spot Training

In 2 years time, I’ve forgotten that I used to eat/sleep/breathe/read/write dragon boat blog material daily, what my password for the blog is, the password for the recovery email this blog is linked to, and (probably) how many sore muscles appear from resuming a sport you haven’t done in that amount of time!

What have I been doing all this time?  Well, for starters, being as good a father as I can be!  This is probably the number one reason I haven’t returned to the sport I still love so dearly.  Without a doubt, there are thousands of great parents in the sport of dragon boat  that balance family life with life on the water.  It was my personal decision to take a leave from the water in order to work on being a new parent and I have no regrets.  As for fitness, I’ve turned to riding road bicycles several times per week.  It’s quicker to get in a workout than paddling (IMO) and just as fun while being supremely challenging.

This brings me to the main topic of FTP or Functional Threshold Power.  It’s a term that has been tossed around greatly among cycling communities for its relevance to cycling performance and fitness; however, it is a relevant metric for any human-powered racing sport.  Basically, it is a guide to how hard somebody can perform an exercise for 1 hour.  It is a measurement that helps guide training and exertion during competition.

You might be saying that paddling hard for 1 hour takes completely different fitness than the ~2 minutes it takes for a 500 meter race and you’d be mostly correct.  While different energy stores and muscle fiber types are emphasized depending on the event at hand, FTP has a wide application to athletic performance in a race.  To quote Nate Wilson from the TrainingPeaks website:

It might not seem like FTP has much bearing on ability to sprint, but it very much does. FTP almost can be thought of as a sponge. The higher this number is, the bigger [the athlete’s] sponge is, and the more efforts they can absorb. Every time a race goes hard, it will take less out of the athlete with the higher FTP, and in return they will have more energy left in the tank for a big selection or for the sprint at the end.”

In cycling, FTP is most accurately calculated using a power meter: a device that measures how many watts you are generating as you ride.  To the best of my knowledge, the only power meter specifically for dragon boat paddlers is the Merlin Excalibur II.  The last time I checked, the Excalibur “v1.0” cost over $1k.  Considering how many paddlers there are in a dragon boat, the effectiveness of testing with a power meter quickly boils down to 1) how long can the team paddle hard together to get a good measure on 1-2 paddlers using the meter or 2) is the entire team willing to shell out the cash for 20 Excaliburs (never mind the issue of paddle lengths)?  The other option is using an erg or similar setup.  The one caveat I can think of is replicating how a full boat feels at race pace.  There are likely coaches out there who know more about settings to use to achieve this than I.

As with cycling, the purchase of a power meter is not essential to proper training to improve FTP.  FTP still exists even when it cannot be directly measured and calculated.  A rough estimate can be made using a simple heart rate monitor.  Here’s  how:

30 Minute Threshold Heart Rate Test
Warmup 10-15 minutes with 2-4 x 30 sec hard intervals; hit “Lap” on the device
20 minute set at steady effort where:
–  first 1/3 feels fairly easy, wait for effort to “come to you”
–  second 1/3 lets you know if you can sustain to end
–  last 1/3 feels VERY VERY hard to maintain power but you can to the end

Check your average heart rate for the last 20 minute of the set to estimate the Lactic Threshold Heart Rate.  Using this number, calculate your heart rate zones using the “Bike Zones” table here.  I am opting to utilize the bike zones over the run zones because biking presents greater resistance per “rep” if you will vs running, which may compare more closely the physicality of paddling.  Please note that variables such as body temp, hydration, caffeine, humidity, altitude, and fatigue can influence HR measurements.

Once you have calculated your zones, you can get into Sweet Spot training, which is exercise somewhere between Zone 3-4.  The benefits of Sweet Spot training have been shown to yield the greatest improvements in FTP over time aka bang for your buck.

What’s a Sweet Spot workout look like?  I’ve read cycling coaches suggest 5-20 minute intervals separated by rest interval of 50% the length of the effort (e.g. for 10 min at effort, rest 5 min till the next set).  Apparently the “gold standard” of FTP workouts is 2×20 min at Zone 4.  As you would expect, beginners or novice athletes should start with shorter sets with fewer reps like 3 x 10 min, while elite paddlers may rep it out like crazy (2x60min!) so long as working in the correct zones.

These workouts can be followed all season long, but scaled to match the fitness and needs of the athletes/team.  As with all types of physiological adaptation, FTP is something that changes slowly.  At 1-2 FTP workouts per week, it can take weeks to months for your investment to see returns, but like strength and other power training, a benefit is a benefit and faster is faster.

Long or short pull?

You can’t escape drag…

because drag is part of the word dragon.  Haha!  But seriously, dragon boat is a sport with some serious drag factors to consider primarily in terms of water drag upon the dragon boat itself.  This, however is not the topic of today’s post.  This post will focus on various paddle philosophies in terms of paddle time spent in the water vs out of the water because going fast means maximizing propulsion and minimizing retropulsion.

Excess time spent in contact with the surface you travel upon WILL slow you down

Excess or inadequate time spent in contact with the surface you travel upon may slow you down!

Pull and Recover

Two basic aspects of the stroke technique involve putting the paddle in the water, doing work, and then taking the paddle out to set up for another stroke.  You can’t escape this basic fact, but there are countless ways to make it happen.  Very few of these methods ACTUALLY result in better performance.  The key points to consider are that in one stroke cycle, the athlete transmits force to the water via the paddle in an efficient way to minimize fatigue and use good mechanics and then efficiently move the paddle through the air to begin the next stroke cycle.  Notice how the word “efficient” is a big deal with both pull and recovery.  Every coach seeks to instruct their athletes in the “best” and thus most efficient method for the stroke cycle (of course TBD), but here are some common pitfalls that may help guide your decision to adopt a certain style of paddling in hopes of taking better strokes.

Style 1: Long Pullback

–  This style involves the paddle blade entering at positive angle up front and pulling the blade back to exit at or after the hip, often times involving increased trunk de-rotation or sitting up vertically at the exit to allow for this increased paddle displacement.  It’s a style that is more prominent in smaller paddling craft than dragon boat.  (more on this later)

–  Possible benefits: increased distance of pull through the water may translate to more work performed (force x distance).  Larger amplitude body movements may utilize more muscle groups, reducing single muscle fatigue.  More distance traveled by the boat per stroke means less strokes performed over the whole race, also possibly reducing fatigue.  Slower rates associated with longer pulls may mean paddlers can synch better and use better technique per stroke.

–  Possible drawbacks (no punning around): more work means more force applied over a distance, per stroke.  Doing more work per stroke may actually mean more fatigue by the end of the race depending on what zone of intensity you are working in and what energy stores your muscles are relying upon the most (physiologically less efficient).  This style also relies on longer recovery distance and thus time, reducing the paddling rate and possibly average power.  Some may argue that the long stroke pulls the boat down or reduces lift of the hull, but it seems to be a moot point here’s why.

–  Make it good:  Are you performing more work, more efficiently than with a shorter stroke?  Are you propelling the boat without dragging it down through the pull phase?  At higher boat speeds, you must be skilled enough to exert enough force on the water to avoid from having your paddle actually slow the boat down.

Style 2: Dippy Stroke

–  This style minimizes the pullback at all costs because of some various studies on the power curve during a paddle stroke that correlates directly to the angle of the paddle in the water.  Paddles anchor up front at a positive angle and the exit is completed by or around mid thigh if not sooner.

–  Possible benefits: the rationale I’ve heard with this style is that if positive to perpendicular paddle angles provides the MOST force you can transmit to the water in a stroke, then everything involving negative paddle angle is a waste of energy and should be avoided.  Short strokes also makes higher rates easier to achieve, which may lead to higher average power (work performed over time).

–  Possible drawbacks: faster rates mean more attention to speed of movement.  It’s been well-established that faster movement reduces movement accuracy.  In less-trained paddlers, faster paddling may mean sloppier paddling causing a drop in efficiency and thus average power.  If you are paddling quickly in an inefficient manner, you will get very tired, very quickly.  Not something you want to happen exactly before you cross the finish line.

Make it good:  You have to be skilled enough at higher boat speeds to apply force to the water in a very short amount of time.  You must also be skilled enough as a crew to stay in time to maintain peak average boat power from being N*Sync.

The Snail and Cheetah

Analogy time!  Mr. Snail crawls on the ground without ever stopping contact with it.  I am no snail expert, but they seem quite efficient at crawling for hours at their top speed across long distances (for them) with minimal physiological reserves (no fat, small organs, low carb diet).  They are very efficient at going slow with permanent contact with the surface they are travelling upon.

Now take Mrs. Cheetah.  She blazes around the plains at highway speeds for short periods, making very short but forceful contact with the ground.  This performance is short-lived and fatiguing no-doubt, but wins the race to the weakling gazelle.  If the cheetah and snail were the same size and wanted to race who would win?  Who would care?  It’d be cool to watch!

Maybe a more tangible and intuitive analogy comes in terms of running, something most of us can do or have done.  To run like your lift depended on it, the average person just does it.  No thinking about cadence or forefoot vs barefoot vs heelstrike technicalities, just go all out.  If you were to travel 100 meters as fast as possible, would you try to double-foot long jump the whole way?  No!  While you are powerful every time you move, the energy spent and time spent doing it is not efficient.  Would you try to squeeze in 300 steps within the 100 meters as quickly as you can?  Also unlikely.  You’d get very winded and not be able to move fast because you have very little power behind every stride.  Your body naturally finds a cadence and ground contact time while you give your best athletic effort, to get you moving as fast as you can.  Specific training enhances your ability but doesn’t radically transform your running style.

In sum, paddling with the extremes of long or short pulls may diminish your overall efficiency unless you are specifically trained to maximize performance using those styles.  For recreational or new paddlers with less training, the better and more efficient stroke to utilize is likely a middle-ground, nothing-too-special stroke style.  It’s my opinion that outlier styles are best left to athletes with performance capabilities also far exceeding that of the average paddler or team.

Don’t forget what boat you’re in

One important point that I think many people overlook is quite simply that a dragon boat is not an outrigger or C1-4 craft.  The aforementioned boats have less drag than dragon boats but also much less mass.  Less mass means less inertia, or the force required to change the object’s state of motion.  I have no specific numbers to prove this, but am guessing that if a fully loaded dragon boat and OC-1 were travelling at the same speed, and all athletes stopped paddling at the same time, the OC-1 would drift to a stop before the dragon boat.  If this were true, it’d mean the OC-1 had greater relative water drag to overcome it’s inertia than did the dragon boat.  What this also would mean is that with every recover phase of the stroke, the OC-1 will tend to scrub more speed than will the dragon boat.  This means the OC-1 paddler wants to maximize pull phase time and minimize recovery time.  The dragon boat paddlers have, in this regard, a luxury of being able to decrease time in the water and lengthen time during recovery with less change in boat velocity if racing against the OC-1.

Does paddling as if in a much smaller craft translate directly to the larger craft?  Perhaps but perhaps exceptions can be made with little consequence.

Finding Your Torque: The Way of the Leopard

Most folks know and understand what torque is.  Just in case you don’t remember high school physics, torque is defined as “the cross product of the lever-arm distance and force, which tends to produce rotation” (good ‘ole wikipedia).  When paddling, there are many aspects of basic stroke technique that involve torque.  You exert torque through the paddle to the water, your body exerts some torsion force on the paddle and the boat itself, etc this much is intuitive.  What may not be as intuitive is how an innate metric like torque may actually be missing from key aspects of your stroke technique, leading to diminished performance and even increased risk of injury.

To quote Dr. Kelly Starrett in his book Becoming a Supple Leopard, “A stable, well-organized spine is the key to moving safely and effectively and maximizing power output and force production…midline stabilization and torque are two parts of a unifying system that work in conjunction with each other.”  What does this mean?  In basic terms, he is saying coordination and stability are key to producing and transferring max force.  You may think that this boils down further to say, “if you’re buff and experienced, you’re golden” right?  Not entirely.  Raw strength does not equate to stability and experience does not always equate to better technique.  For example, you may be able to deadlift 1.5x your body weight but do it in a sloppy way.  You may also be highly experienced at performing an exercise but do so with poor technique.  Both situations increase your risk for injury and prove to be limiting factors to improved performance.

Now think of paddling.  Say you compared 3 paddlers of equal experience: Paddler 1 is strong but muscle-bound to the point where they can only take a short stroke, Paddler 2 is very flexible and can reach way out for a super long stroke but resembles a wet noodle when paddling, Paddler 3 has the most picture-perfect technique you can imagine and uses it with a seemingly effortless appearance.  From my choice in descriptors, you can probably assume that Paddler 3 would be the best in a time trial situation and if you had a full crew of paddlers just like this person, it would be a more powerful, efficient, and faster boat than the others.  What makes this paddler so effective compared to the others, given the fact that they all have equal experience?  This is where finding good torque steps in.

If you search Youtube for paddling clinics, just about every speaker and coach talks about setting the blade firmly in the water on the catch.  Some liken the feeling of planting the blade to having it “stuck” in the water as if in instant-dry concrete.  Once a solid catch is obtained, then power is applied to the paddle to pull yourself (and your craft) up to the anchored blade.  While this perspective takes into account the paddle in relation to the water, it tends to overlook what the paddler is doing once a firm anchor is set.  If you get the paddle in the water perfectly but fail to find good torque through your body either because of joint instability, impaired motor control, or lacking of range of motion, you will NOT be able to exert good torque on that paddle.

So how do you know you are giving good torque?  As a coach, what can you look for to know if good torque is being applied by your paddlers?  From the first-person perspective, applying good torque requires you to be stable in neutral (or as close to neutral) spinal posture and have your extremities set and stabilized prior to actually applying power.  The first stroke of a race start is probably the easiest and most intuitive way to find optimal torque because slow movement is generally easier to coordinate.  Anchoring your blade 100% and setting yourself up to have your back straight, shoulder blades set down/together, feet braced against the foot stops, thigh pressing into the gunnel, and hands “pre-loading” the paddle, gives you stability before the GO.  In setting up this position and using your muscles to make yourself as rigid as possible, you are using muscular torque to compress and stabilize your joints while taking up slack along your body frame, in turn making them great conductors of force.  You will have a stronger, quicker and more precise drive on that first stroke just by having that setup.  After you start to pull, practice keeping a firm and rigid frame through the pull to ensure you are not losing torque along the way.

As a coach, you can watch for paddlers holding good posture throughout the stroke cycle.  Assuming the paddler is coordinating their paddle to your ideal, look for signs that they may be losing torque along the way and try to troubleshoot why this is happening (is it from lack of stability, lack of coordination, or lack of flexibility?).  Dr. Starrett refers to movement patterns that diminish torque to be “faults” and gives them clever and funny names such as the Stripper Fault (having your booty pop up before the bar lifts when doing a good morning squat).  Here are some common “faults,” complete with funny names, that I see in paddlers losing torque:

Neck Crane Fault

Neck Crane Fault

1.  Neck Crane Fault: cranking your head up to look forward (say at the timing box) while you flex your trunk forward on the reach diminishes the stability of your shoulder blades before the catch.

Head Banger Fault

2.  Head Banger Fault: after entry and anchoring the blade, some paddlers will throw their head down violently in attempt to get better drive.  Instead you are committing your neck muscles and scapular stabilizers to decelerating your bowling ball-weighted head instead of applying force to the paddle.

Drawbridge Fault

3.  Drawbridge Fault: during recovery and reaching forward, the paddler rounds their back either as if slumping in a chair or sidebending (due to rotation) resembling a curved bridge.  This unlocks the connection between your hips, pelvis and spine while destabilizing your upper body to take a good pull.

Roll Up Fault

4.  Roll Up Fault: after initiating the pull, the paddler’s pelvis rocks backwards, rounding the low back, and this rounding curve rolls up the spine to the head like a sinus wave.  This is a dynamic fault that destabilizes your whole system and can actually start as a result of the Drawbridge Fault.

Knock Knee Fault

5.  Knock Knee Fault: the paddler draws their knees together during the pull phase instead of pressing the outside leg into the gunnel and foot against foot stop.  This fault diminishes the connection between paddler and boat, decreases leg drive power, and destabilizes the pelvis leading to more instability up the chain.

Chicken Wing Fault

6.  Chicken Wing Fault: when anchoring the blade, the paddler’s elbows go from tipped up towards the sky to down to the water, giving the appearance like they are doing the funky chicken dance.  The apparent movement at the elbow is actually from the paddler not being able to stabilize their shoulders against the increasing load at the paddle while anchoring.  This diminishes how quickly they can anchor the paddle and delays the point where they can produce force during the drive.

Choo Choo Fault

7.  Choo Choo Fault: when pulling, the paddler breaks at the outside elbow, bending it and drawing it back making them appear like the crank of a locomotive as the wheels spin.  Bending the bottom elbow during the pull prior to initiating recovery diminishes torque because there is movement occurring along what should be a solid frame.

(I’m sure I can think up many more faults, but I’m all out of zany nicknames right now)

When practicing finding torque, I wrote earlier that going slow is key.  In the basic sense it’s easier to coordinate your body.  When the rate increases, most paddlers’ mental focus goes from ensuring good pulls and form to just staying in time.  I recommend drills that focus on strokes from dead stop or pause-type drills at a low rate to learn how to find torque.

Master torque application and you may yet become a supple water leopard!  Rawr!

Sidenote: I am in no way affiliated with Dr. Starrett except in being a fellow physical therapist.  I believe his book is a terrific guide to what physical therapists try to get their patients to understand everyday.  If you get a chance to read the book, you’ll be miles ahead of the average athlete in terms of knowing how to minimize your risk for injury and improve your potential for improved performance.

A little about carbon fiber

Ever wondered how paddle manufacturers make paddles lighter and stiffer or why some manufacturers indicate certain degrees of fragility to their paddles?  Well, I’m still figuring this out as well, but in so doing, I found a good explanation from Calfee Design, a local business that specializes in carbon fiber repair work for bicycles.

Check it out here!

Turn On Your Off Season

Right now in the Bay Area, most adult recreational dragon boat teams are winding down for their “off-season” due to local races stopping until around April.  Many paddlers will decrease the frequency of water training (if not cutting it out entirely) over the next few months.  If you are a recreational paddler who has practiced and raced from April to September this year, you may be excited to have all this free time to go on a week long vacation for once or sleep in on weekends without the guilt of missing water time with the team.  Don’t get me wrong, the long gap between local races is a perfect time to enjoy yourself away from dragon boat, but consider how your time spent will affect your return to the next season.

Don’t be a couch potato this off-season!

I read a great article by a cycling coach detailing his views on this very subject.  You can read it here.

Essentially, all Bay Area paddlers should recognize that we are not professional paddlers in any shape or form.  It is highly unlikely you are overtraining for dragon boat specifically and, as such, don’t need the time to recover from the sport like pro athletes can.  Realize also that if you decide to take a break from dragon boat this winter, will you inadvertently be taking a break from exercise in general?  Doing this can mean that you will come back next season weaker and more prone to injury than you are right now.

With this understanding, I recommend that everyone enjoy their time outside of a dragon boat but still challenge yourselves to enhancing your fitness in ways you could/did not while during the dragon boat season.  After all, being a recreational dragon boat paddler may mean you struggled to allocate a few hours per week for paddling alone, never mind time to cross train.  Work on enhancing your core stability, losing weight, stretch your tight paddling muscles, cross train in another sport entirely!  The possibilities are endless but all beneficial to keeping good fitness while paving the way to a better and healthier start of the next season.