Welcome to the SFL Dragon Boat Blog



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.


It’s that great feeling when you set out to accomplish something and through a combination of blood, sweat, and tears that you see that goal met.  Being a coach is being a leader.  This is somebody who formulates a strong plan and sets goals and methods to lead the team to success by the season’s end.  I previously wrote this article on goal setting and, over my later years of coaching, have found several key points that I’ve found essential to include.

1.  Know what the team wants

I came to a point in my coaching career where I thought I knew myself and where I wanted to be, but that place was not necessarily where the team wanted to go.  As a leader, I made the mistake of assuming that the goals I set were shared among everybody.  Of course, those goals failed and it’s no mystery why!  The saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” sums up the need for a coach to fit themselves into the team’s unified goal.  In elite sports, what team plans to NOT make it to the championship?  None.  On recreational teams, such as with dragon boat, the team’s vision of meeting a goal may not be to win, but merely to participate and spend time with other teammates.  Trying to push a recreational team towards a singular goal of winning a championship is as inappropriate as setting a competitive team towards a specific goal of finishing last.  A coach can suggest goals but cannot force a team to adopt them.

2.  Know what to do

After a team accepts the goals a coach suggests, a plan must be established.  Imagine an olympic weight lifter whose training for the games was decided randomly by rolling a die of random activities.  One day, the athlete lifts heavy weights and the next day lifts weights as quickly as possible.  The next day the athlete tries to lift half the weight, twice as many times and then doubles the weight to lift half the reps, etc.  Without a logical progression in specific training or a rationale as to why to choose certain activities, there can be no consistent progress towards any goal.  Random practice results in random results and is not a good way to meet a specific goal.  I recommend writing out a specific plan to get your team from where it starts the season to where it needs to be.

3.  Know what you want

As a coach, you are a person with a certain background and certain biases.  You have feelings and desires, strengths and weaknesses.  Ask yourself, what do you want to accomplish for yourself as a coach and why are you coaching in the first place?  Knowing yourself and understanding your reasons for making decisions is essential for your personal longevity as coach and success in leading the team effectively.

4.  Know how you are doing

The ability to test and re-test is a critical skill to use mid-season.  As you follow your plan, you need to know one thing: is it working?  What lets you know you are headed in the right direction?  Finding a reliable test, be it team fitness challenges, time trials, mid-season race results, etc, provides you with a compass throughout the season that can guide you to sticking to the plan or modifying it along the way.

5.  Put it all together

A team is a collection of individuals.  Get each individual to accept the goal and the path to meeting that goal.  Have them commit to what you say it will take to meet that goal.  Follow the plan to get where you need to be.  Adapt your plan as needed to address unforeseen challenges.  Make sure YOU are not contributing to the team falling short of its goal.  Don’t forget, have fun!

2013 Dragon Boat Paddle Comparisons

It’s been 4 years

since my last survey of dragon boat paddles available to athletes the world round.  With the growing popularity of dragon boat, changes in IDBF paddle dimension allowances, and improvements in manufacturing processes, some brands have flourished and others have faded away.  New philosophies in paddling performance and function have lead to many innovative products.

I’ve scoured the internet to find published prices and updated information on each paddle model from the manufacturer whenever possible.  If there is a major brand I’ve left out, please let me know and I’ll look into it!

Without further ado, here is the 2013 Dragon Boat Paddle Comparison List!

Finish It…Slowly?

How much paddling effort is optimal for different parts of the race?  Certainly very few if any athletes can go 100% effort for 2 continuous minutes without fatigue affecting performance, so for a 500 meter race, it behooves the athlete and coach to know how effort can best be used to pace the race in order to get the best time.

Physiology review!

Our muscles contain several different types of fibers, each with their own attributes that allow us a range of force-exerting capabilities from holding a baby kitten to performing a heavy dead lift.  Motor control is a complex system within the brain but outside the spinal cord, things get simpler.  This is what we can focus on for the scope of this post.  Motor neurons of different sizes connect like wires to muscle fibers, stimulating them to twitch and eventually reach sustained contraction, or tetanus, with enough action potentials/electrical signal.

We can group motor neurons into 2 main groups, large and small.  Likewise muscle fibers can be grouped into 2 main types, Type I and Type IIa/IIx.  Small motor neurons recruit Type I muscle fibers, which are slow to contract, produce low force, but are very fatigue resistant.  Think of the muscles that operate your eyelids.  Unless you’re the average college student, those things stay open most of the day and possibly through late nights in places your mother shouldn’t know about.  Similar muscle fibers operate even when you are walking.  Most healthy individuals can walk and talk with minimal fatigue.

Large motor neurons carry fast electrical signals to your so-called “fast-twitch” muscle fibers.  These fibers take relatively more signal to contract, but once they do, they produce high amounts of force in a short period of time.  They also fatigue quickly.  Going from a walk to a sprint or performing a box jump will fire these Type II muscle fibers.

Muscle Fibers in Paddling

Paddling is a mix of muscle fiber utilization, as many daily activities are as well.  The start of the race is strenuous because the boat is at a standstill and the water feels very thick/heavy.  Taking hard strokes through this situation will favor the Type II fibers.  As the boat reaches race pace and the speed plateaus, less emphasis on power per stroke (and thus less fatigue per stroke) can be applied to simply maintain race pace and hull speed vs accelerate the boat.  Have you ever been on a boat where the crew hits an overrate and keeps it there?  I have (a few times) and it doesn’t end well.  Rating down and reducing power per stroke results in a lower reliance upon Type II fibers for paddling and less fatigue.

Some teams may call powers or some equivalent bump in effort to strategically stay ahead of other racers or simply to fight a gradual decline in hull speed.  Again, taking harder or faster strokes will result in more Type II fibers being recruited, which will contribute to fatigue.

For the finish, is it better to pull a hard and fast acceleration or a gradual one?  It depends.  Highly trained athletes with good conditioning will have a better ability to recruit Type II fibers with less fatigue, but you can’t fight the physiology of trying hard.  Fatigue will hit and sap the performance of any and all who exert 100% effort.  No team wants to be slowing down by the end of the race, after all.  In this sense, a hard and fast finish will mean an athlete can exert themselves for a shorter amount of time before bonking out.

Don’t Bonk!

Don’t Bonk!

Assuming that your boat is dead-even with the competition, travelling at the same speed, and the other crew maintains the same speed through the finish line, your crew will need to accelerate to pass the other boat.  This is where a “finish” is useful in the most basic sense.

Acceleration requires the application of more force and power to the water.  This power ramp can be applied gradually over a period of time or more aggressively in a compressed time frame.  It obviously takes more energy to accelerate quickly and it is relatively more difficult to accelerate a moving boat than it is a stopped one (really!).

A crew that takes a more gradual approach to the finish may reduce the fatigue associated with accelerating the boat but will need to avoid making the finish so long that fatigue causes hull speed to drop before the finish line.  The competition also poses a variable for when and how to run a finish.  Calling the finish after that of other nearby crews potentially demands your boat to accelerate in a shorter amount of time to avoid being passed.  Being “forced” to finish on account of another teams potentially better race piece may result in excess fatigue for your crew and decreased performance.

Most coaches recommend racing your own race, which has plenty of wisdom to it, however when up against close competition the ability to adapt on the fly is very useful when winning is all that matters.

Avoiding Overuse Injuries

Reading through an edition of PTinMotion Magazine, I stumbled upon a quick article citing the findings and recommendations of a Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, MD of Loyola University Medical Center and his efforts to study risk factors of overuse injuries in young athletes ages 8-18.  I haven’t read his actual study, but I’m assuming most of the subjects of the study were not participants of dragon boat paddling.  Even if this were true, the repetitive and strenuous nature of paddling does present a risk for developing overuse injuries in youth and adult paddlers alike.

Dr. Jayanthi’s recommendations were as follows:
(Keep in mind these are angled towards athletes age 8-18)

–  Athletes should not spend more hours per week than their age playing sports

–  Athletes should not spend more than twice as much time playing organized sports as they spend in gym and unorganized play

–  Athletes should not specialize in 1 sport before late adolescence

–  Athletes should not play sports competitively year-round

–  Athletes should take at least 1 day off per week from sports training

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Take Home Message for Paddlers

Youth paddling in the Bay Area and many other places around the world is fast becoming a popular practice.  The teamwork, leadership, and athletic benefits of dragon boat as a sport are undeniable in promoting the present and future well being of young people.  What generally concerns me is how far behind dragon boat coaching and training are to more established sports such as basketball, running, or crew just to name a few.  Many coaches are qualified only by their passion and first-hand experience in the sport but not by their education in physical or sport training.  There is also a lack of specific studies regarding the impact of long-term dragon boat paddling on developing and mature athletes.  As a result, dragon boat paddlers and coaches will need to rely on the generalization of information found in studies like Dr. Jayanthi’s to help promote the longevity of their athletes in the sport.

Point by point, here are my recommendations based upon those from the study:

–  Athletes should avoid paddling more than 18 hours per week.  

Yeah, I know extrapolating the study recommendations would mean if you’re 40 years old you should be able to paddle up to 40 hours per week, but that’s literally like a full-time job!  Paddling is not your job.  18 hours of paddling would be 2.5 hours per day, longer if you take a rest day (see below).  I am not aware of any top team on the west coast that practices anywhere close to this amount and not still perform well on an international level.  I believe teams can do more good for performance in far less amount of water time than this number.

–  On-water training should not exceed twice the amount of time spent cross-training

This would often prove to be the strongest cap to on-water paddling time.  For example, if you work out in the gym 1 hour daily, that’s 7 hours per week and your on-water time should not exceed 14 hours per week.  What this allows paddlers to do is stay well-rounded.  Varying activities helps to balance your strengths/weaknesses, rest your affected paddling anatomy, and give you a mental break as well to minimize overuse injuries and mental burnout.

–  For young paddlers, stay active in at least one other sport or athletic endeavor

Again, varying activities not only reduces the risk of overuse injuries in the primary sport, but in growing athletes, helps to develop better kinesthetic skill and diverse interests for future health.  I’m sure you’ve all known at least one person who was injured playing a sport growing up and has become a generally sedentary person  ever since.  Having other interests can help avoid this.  There is also such a push to get kids “serious” about sports earlier and earlier that it’s really quite ridiculous.  The promise of college scholarships, parent bragging rights, and shiny trophies are only part of the hysteria.  This mentality has also lead to progressive rates in sport injuries among young athletes.  With ZERO scholarships available for dragon boat paddlers, the danger of getting too serious, too fast still exists and is preventable.

–  Paddlers, take some time off after the big race

Coaches, set your season goals and training plan around your chosen event and make sure the team gradually progresses towards peaking at that point.  After the main event is completed, give yourself and your paddlers a break.  Organizing long term training into progressive peaks and valleys helps reduce injury and allows for long term improvements to be made.

–  Paddlers should avoid paddling more than 6 days per week

What more can I say about the importance of taking a break?

Use these tips to be a more well-rounded, healthier, and happier athlete!