form & technique

Watt’s it all about?

Yes, it’s been years since I’ve last written.  No, I have NOT returned to paddling…but I have been interested in writing a short article about power, metering, and paddling for a while now.  Since largely leaving the paddling “scene,” I’ve fallen (quite literally, at times) back on road cycling to maintain some semblance of physical fitness.  For those of you looking for a great way to cross-train for aerobic fitness, I highly suggest it.  Not only do you not need to wear a PFD, but you get to see the scenery actually change through the workout in a shorter period of time if, say, you rode at 16+mph for over an hour.  But I digress.  A few years ago I bought a time trial bicycle (you know those weird “triathlon” bikes with the T-shaped aero bars and the oh-so-awesome solid rear disc wheel?) and tried to work on getting better PR’s during a 10-mile oval ride.  The bike was aero and fast but I found I had a hard time pacing such a longer event.  The first 4 miles would be pretty good feeling, the second would be terrible, and I had a 50/50 chance of giving up during the last 2 miles to the finish line.  I ended up getting a pedal-based power meter that could show me my real-time power output.  Not only was it helpful to know my performance in the moment, but also was a great tool to help me pace the event and develop a better internal “fuel gauge.”

My ride experience is explained by a term called Functional Threshold Power or FTP.  FTP is defined as the average power (or work done over time) for an hour-long, best effort.  The reason for this has been explained that above your FTP wattage, your muscles will start to accumulate more lactate than it can clear, resulting in progressively lower performance.  At or below that FTP level, your muscle is utilizing oxygen as its main fuel source at least as much as anaerobic fuel sources, which means it’s more sustainably fueled.  In cycling and other endurance sports where power meters are more normally implemented, FTP tests can be performed using hour-long or even 20 minute-long sessions.  While most dragon boat races are a great deal shorter than an FTP test and rely more upon anaerobic energy sources, IMO FTP is still a relevant metric to know in terms of pacing an effort for sustained and consistent performance.  It basically boils down to: paddling at your FTP will get you within PR territory for a 20 minute effort and going harder will mean you will fatigue sooner.  As an experiment, I’ve tried multiple consecutive efforts on the same day with adequate rest between bouts using 1) a stepped, progressive power output in, say, 3 phases 2) just holding X% greater than my FTP for the whole thing and 3) going a bit too hard early on and then trying to hold out till the end.  The results?  I found that my average power output was about the same for each attempt and the finishing times were very close as well, despite very different power profiles.  This may support what you may already understand as an athlete, that there is a give and take to your performance during a race event.  Burn out early, finish weak.  Ease up between start/power sets and have some in the tank for the finish.

How does paddler power output manifest in team performance?  In sports where quick acceleration can mean the difference between winning/losing, power to weight ratios can be a priority, meaning high power and low weight is better.  In a 500m race, the only critical point of acceleration is during the start as typically hull speed doesn’t vary that much for the remainder of the event.  As dragon boats plus crew are generally heavy and water resistance is a major resistor to hull speed and acceleration, I’d say that power:weight is not a priority for dragon boat as it would be for, say, crew or OC.  So what?  It means that a crew that is heavier but who can pump out more watts during the first 30 or so strokes will likely beat the crew that is lighter and less watts.  High power output is important for the start and in any phase of acceleration (ie power sets and finish, if your race strategy utilizes them).

How do you produce more power?  Since power is defined as the work being done over a period of time, there are 3 immediate methods assuming your technique is efficient: paddle the same effort but at higher rate, paddle harder per stroke at the same rate, or paddle harder AND faster.  This is primary explanation for when you see multiple boats with very different technique and/or paddling rates racing neck and neck.  They are all travelling at about the same steady velocity, which requires approximately the same power output to overcome hull drag.  The winning team presents, at some point during the race, a better average power output.  This is where paddling fitness and efficiency come into play.  You may make the right number of watts but have poor technique and or poor fitness which makes it unsustainable and lowers your average output over the race course.  As far as which of the 3 methods to producing more power should be emphasized, I would say paddling harder at increased rate is the way to go.  It’s probably what comes naturally anyway, but the pitfall is that amateur paddlers will decline in paddling efficiency/technique in this situation (how many racers look composed and efficient during the finish at YOUR club regattas?) likely resulting in less power boost than desired or even less power altogether.

Practical suggestions to developing this on the water would be to gradually bring the boat up to whatever effort/speed the crew feels to be a competitive race pace.  Practice bumping the effort per stroke and allowing the rate to “naturally” build.  Hopefully you are seeing the boat speed increase.  You can explore the crew’s red line in the same manner by practicing a maximal (but best technique) effort with race pace as the starting point.  At some point there will be a plateau in speed which reflects the crew’s fitness and technique limitations.  These drills, along with how your crew feels during/after them and if they can actively recover while still holding race pace, can be a “match” you can decide to burn during a race.  The more fit your crew is, the more matches they can afford to burn during the race as the situation calls for before overall performance drops.

As far as physical training and fitness goes, I still see many paddlers putting a lot of time in power lifting and into gaining muscle mass by lifting weights.  Power lifting and hypertrophied muscles can help your power and strength, but the pure anaerobic nature of these activities means you are developing the physical abilities that will likely ONLY HELP DURING THE RACE START.  Yes.  You read it right.  If you haven’t heard it before, allow me to bust a myth right now.  You don’t need big muscles to race well in the sport of dragon boat.

This is where the article comes full circle and I applaud you for making it this far.  Maximizing power output over events lasting greater than several seconds relies heavily on the athlete’s ability to utilize aerobic, NOT anaerobic, energy sources and metabolic systems.  Back to cycling, an olympic-level, male track cycling sprinter may weigh 200+ lbs and put out 2200+ watts for a handful of seconds because that’s what their event calls for.  Contrast that with a male pro road cyclist who weighs 150 lbs but is able to sustain 400+ watts for over an hour.  To put those watts into perspective, an average person would struggle to make even 800 watts for 1-2 seconds on the bike.  The ability to sustain high amounts of power for over several seconds is not developed by lifting weights or power lifting.  It’s by training longer duration efforts at the desired power output.

martin forstemann

What does that mean for best training carryover?  There’s no replacement for water time and aerobic training should be a priority for paddlers.

Disclaimer: This article isn’t about slamming weight lifting or power lifting or any other form of cross training or off-water exercise.  Anything that improves your fitness can help paddling performance.  The goal of the post is to explore the role of power as a tool for performance measurement and what training can translate to better power output on the water and biggest performance gains when racing.


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!


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!

 


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.


Body Lean

How far does a paddler need to lean forward with their trunk to get a long pull?  How much lean is needed for a strong pull?  Probably not as much as you’d think.

Why Armpit to Gunnel Doesn’t Help

What propels the boat?  The paddlers.

How do paddlers propel the boat?  They use their paddles.

Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the paddle blade is the business end.  Skillful paddlers can impart both great work and control to their paddle blade as it moves through the water.  Remember that work is defined as force over a distance.  Pulling the paddle faster through the water requires greater force.  The limits of human arthrokinematics and equipment leverage along with a paddlers physical strength determine some max value for work.  It probably looks like a bell-curve.  A paddler is only as strong as they are at that moment, but paddling technique has everything to do with paddling efficiency to reach the peak of that bell curve.

If you’re thinking of paddling from the perspective of how a paddle interacts with the water, the goal becomes how to move your body in a way that applies max leverage to the paddle through some optimum amount of paddle travel/displacement.  Several things happen when a paddler leans all the way down to the gunnel:

–  They lose reach at the paddle blade resulting in a shorter pull.  While it’s true that full lean to the gunnel may put the outside/bottom hand at its farthest forward distance from the bench, it doesn’t mean the same for the paddle blade (the business end).  Full lean takes away from our spinal mobility.  When your joints are taken to a maximum range in one direction, it becomes more and more difficult to move in other directions.  In this case, full trunk flexion takes away from rotation.  Try sitting in a chair, leaning forward and rotating your trunk to either side (don’t hurt yourself).  Now sit up straight and rotate in place.  You can probably rotate farther sitting up than curled over.  Decreased trunk rotation during the reach puts both hands at a similar distance from the bench, making a more vertical paddle angle on the entry, cutting actual reach at the paddle blade.

–  They have less strength.  Leaning forward fully during the reach puts most muscles used in paddling on full or very stretched position.  Glut max, hamstrings, lumbar extensors, lat dorsi, teres major, deltoids, rhomboids/mid and lower trapezei are out of their optimum zone for force production.  Your muscles are happiest and strongest in their mid-range.  For a simple example, think of curling a heavy weight.  It’s tough to start the lift from elbow fully extended and, when you’re fatigued, most folks struggle to get the weight all the way up to finish the rep (elbow fully flexed).  This is because 90 deg of elbow bend is about the middle of the elbow flexor muscle length (and coincidentally the joint angle of about the most mechanically efficient line of pull).

–  They are slower paddlers.  Sitting up from a fully reached position on a pull requires bringing up your whole trunk.  This takes a lot of time and energy because your trunk is a long lever arm.  Think of a long pendulum and how it swings slower than a short one (or takes much more force to swing faster than a short pendulum).  Slower movement sets paddling rate limitations.  When you’re racing fast, the water moves fast and you need to be able to move your paddle faster than the water to exert force on it.  Using a slow body movement like trunk flexion and extension will cap your ability to hold a faster rate to meet fast hull speeds.

LARD’s logo paddlers armpits look close to the gunnel, but don’t be fooled. Their racing technique is very crisp, constrained, efficient, and FAST!

How much lean is optimal?

The short answer is it depends.  The long answer is that there is no one answer and it depends.  (ha)

I am an advocate for a paddle stroke that has minimal trunk flexion/extension during the stroke and relatively more degrees of rotation.  My reason is that rotation allows for the paddle blade to get more positive on the catch and set the blade more forward than a negative/neutral angle, which increases the length of pull (possibly allowing more work to be performed).  Rotation is also mechanically more efficient for generating force to the paddle because the distance of your shoulders to your spine is less than the distance of your shoulders to your hips (shorter torque arm for rotation means less of a mechanical disadvantage compared to hip hinging alone).  One thing I am not a proponent of is sitting straight up and paddling.  It sets your shoulders way above the water line and, with it, your paddle resulting in less water contact and a shorter pull.  It also makes you work harder to resist the forces against the paddle (trunk as a long lever arm resisting paddle force at 90 degrees is the most mechanical disadvantage you can face).

I’ve never really paddled OC, but the stroke generally seems much more constrained than the typical dragon boat technique being used by local rec teams.  Part of the reason for less body excursion and more paddle movement is for energy conservation, which makes sense to me with OC’s racing for many miles.  I can see how allowing *some* increased trunk excursion may be desired in DB because the power gains may outweigh the need for energy conservation when you’re racing for sub 2 minutes or a 100-500 meter race.

On a side note, I think this is one of the reasons why senior/masters level teams can do as well/better than some youth teams is because masters paddlers may have 1) better water “feel” 2) physically less ability to flex their hips/spines so default to more rotation 3) better strength from a longer history of resistance training.


Putting Your Best Leg Forward

The debate rages on (not exactly raging, but it happens) as to what foot position is best for dragon boat paddling.  Some argue the inside leg should be forward, while others state the outside leg forward works best.  Others argue for both feet forward.  Ultimately, I agree with Steve Giles when he writes “get comfortable, keep the weight moving forward, put your feet wherever you want.”

Inside vs Outside Leg Forward

It’s the commonly accepted technique used by C1, C2, and C4 paddlers, so ’nuff said?

DB paddlers with inside leg forward

C1 canoe racing

My thoughts are that the inside leg forward is not easily transferable from canoe racing to dragon boat.  Not having any experience in C1, C2, or C4, I am speculating that putting the opposite leg forward in the canoe helps maintain balance in the boat during the pull.  The canoe is very narrow and does not appear to have very much lateral stability (certainly compared to a dragon boat where you can stand edge to edge and the boat won’t flip).  As I wrote here, paddling exerts a downward force on the boat, but what I didn’t write about initially is that it does depend on where that force is transferred to the boat.  In the case of the C1 canoe, the force exerted on the paddle is transferred to the boat primarily by the forward leg.  When the forward leg is opposite the paddle, it applies equal downforce across the boat midline, preventing an immediate tip-over.  The other aspect of the foot position is related to the half-kneel position of the C1 racer.  You can see in the pic that the paddler can swing their pelvis away from the paddle during the stroke to likely get more power, better balance, and more stroke length.   If anybody has canoe racing XP, please feel free to clarify if my thoughts are accurate.

In a dragon boat, if a pro paddler like Steve Giles felt uncomfortable with this position is that enough reason to avoid it?  My thoughts are that placing the inside leg forward makes your leg drive come from the inside.  If a large portion of stroke power comes from rotation/de-rotation, pushing with your inside leg during the pull phase will tend to push your inside hip back, rotating your pelvis to the INSIDE of the boat.  If you think about it, this is the opposite direction that you want to rotate during the pull phase.

Additionally, leg drive with the inside foot alone makes the paddler work against more torque, giving a mechanical disadvantage and robbing efficiency.  If you took a top-down view the paddle is pulling water a certain distance outside the boat, creating a torque moment.  The axis of rotation is the paddler’s outside ischial tuberosity (butt cheek).  Leg drive with the inside leg creates a torque moment that is farther away from the outside butt cheek, making the paddler work harder to transfer force to the boat.

Another potential reason the inside leg forward is not well applied to DB because the bench prevents the paddler from swinging the pelvis back during leg drive as is possible with kneeling in canoe racing.

No “best” foot forward?  Why not both forward?

Certainly another popular foot position to use in DB is both feet forward, similar to OC racing.  With larger OC craft being quite similar to DB in terms of paddler position relative to the water, I’d say the technique works better than the inside leg forward.  Folks have claimed that leg drive with both legs is stronger than one foot forward, but really?  Your trunk and upper body will always be much weaker than just one of your legs.  IMO, the main limitation to power in paddling is from core strength/stability than leg strength.  You are only as strong as your weakest link.

Both feet forward may reduce the paddler’s ability to rotate on the reach because it tends to lock the pelvis down both in terms of hamstring flexibility and ability to swivel.  If a paddler is able to put relatively more weight over their outside ischial tuberosity and unweight the inside leg slightly during reach, it may make a well-balance stroke….but if you’re already un-weighting the inside leg to get a good pull, why not just put the outside leg forward?


Foot Numbness

If you experience numbness or tingling in your outside/extended foot, you may be experiencing the effects of neural tension.

Background

Your nerves act as your body’s wiring system, carrying electrical impulses between your brain and parts of your body.  They extend from your spinal cord and progressively branch like tree roots as they extend to your fingers and toes.  The nervous system is also like a spider’s web in the sense that pulling/tugging in one area results in tension spread across the whole system.  In other words, there’s only so much “slack” the nervous system has.

When the nervous system is at rest, it functions normally.  When under tension or direct mechanical compression, the tiny blood vessels that sustain the nerve are choked off, resulting in feelings of numbness, tingling, or worse, weakness.

Common Neural Tension with Dragon Boat

In the common dragon boat stroke technique, the position of greatest neural tension to the sciatic nerve running down your leg is during initial entry after terminal recovery.  It is at this point that the paddler is maximally flexed at the hip and the thigh/knee is close to the paddler’s chest.  Some paddlers will have their ankles in dorsiflexion (toes pulled up) and outside knee near full extension (straight) which applies additional tension to the sciatic nerve.  Paddlers with poor technique will also flex their neck, bringing chin to chest or lose core stability and flex their spine (rounded back posture), which adds additional tension to the nervous system.

Slump Test: a common orthopedic assessment for neural tension as the cause for low back pain and leg numbness/tingling. Is this similar to your posture when you paddle?

Other causes for neural tension/compression in Dragon Boat

Other potential causes for neural tension during dragon boat paddling may involve (but is not limited to) ankle position, gunnel pressure against the outside leg, or bench pressure under the thigh/buttocks.  Positioning your outside leg forward with the bottom of your foot turned in to face the midline of the boat is ankle inversion and this may add tension to the peroneal nerve.  Direct pressure of the lower leg and outer knee to the gunnel may also compress the peroneal nerves running into your foot and lower leg.  Pressure of the forward lip of the bench against the bottom of the thigh may contribute to compression of the sciatic nerve.  This last cause may be more common with shorter paddlers due to having shorter legs.  I still intend to take metrics of the BuK boats we have and correlate this to paddler positioning/posture (stay tuned).

Seeking Help/Solutions

If numbness/tingling occurs during paddling but resolves as soon as you stop paddling, double check your technique or ask your coach to ensure you are not falling into the common pitfalls of neural tension described.  You may try a butt pad, reducing pressure/slamming of your outside knee against the gunnel, or keeping your ankle neutral against the footstop.

Certainly, if your symptoms do not resolve after cessation of paddling or you notice a sense of weakness or foot drop(!)  (the phenomenon where you cannot actively lift your toes or dorsiflex your ankle), you should seek medical attention asap as it could represent a variety of serious issues that your physician will assess.


Want more reach?

Stretch your LEGS!

The hamstring muscles (in the back of the thigh) are a common restriction to getting more effective reach.  Why?  Many paddlers adopt a single leg or double leg forward position in the boat.  This often requires straightening the knee to brace against the forward foot-stop (under the bench in front).  With the hip joint flexed at 90 degrees, this position begins to put tension on the hamstring muscle group.  Since the hamstrings originate from the pelvis, putting them under tension will tether the pelvis to resist what biomechanists call anterior pelvic tilt.  Since the pelvis is the base for your trunk and upper body, having tight hamstrings limits the amount of forward lean at the hip joint with the lumbar spine and pelvis in neutral posture.

What does all that mean?  If you have tight hamstrings (read below), this will limit the amount of reach you have as well as place increased stress on the low back because tight hamstrings will lock down the pelvis and hips, forcing a paddler to flex repeatedly and forcefully through their lumbar spine.

The hamstring’s connected to the…ischial tuberosity…the ischial tuberosity’s part of the…pelvis…the pelvis is connected to the…low back and that’s ana-tomy!

The Role of the Boat

Not all rows in the boat are created equal.  In the BuK models we use in the Bay Area, the gunnel and floor follow a parabolic curvature while the benches stay in-plane with the surface of the water.  What does this mean for a paddler?  The floor slopes down from row 10 to row 5 and then begins to slope upwards from row 5 to row 1.  The floor position (and relative height of the bench post) means that for one paddler to move row to row, there will be decreasing tension on the hamstring during reach from row 10 to row 5 and then increasing tension moving from row 5 to row 1.

The parabolic nature of the gunnel will also affect reach slightly because it will restrict or facilitate rotation, but since a majority of reach (but not necessarily power) is obtained from hip flexion this topic will be explored in another article.

A paddler’s dynamic ability to reach is affected by 3 things: core stability, flexibility, and position in the boat

How much flexibility is needed?

On average, males have tighter hamstrings than do females, regardless of age.  The measurement is typically performed laying flat on the back and passively raising the testing leg with knee straight until stopped by muscle tightness.  Average passive straight leg raise measures for males is 68.5 deg and for females is 76.3 deg (Youdas, et al).  Translated to a dragon boat environment, if a paddler were to sit straight up with excellent posture, one or both legs kept straight in front of them, men could only bend forward 68.5 deg while women can lean forward 76.3 deg before being stopped by hamstring tightness.  To think of it another way, few adults can (naturally) sit on one bench with their feet propped on the next bench up and hold an upright body position at 90 deg (like an L) due to hamstring tension.

Keep in mind that this measurement is performed with the knee fully straight.  In a dragon boat, I believe most adult paddlers of average leg length can sit on the bench and get the ball of their foot or heel on the forward foot-stop with some knee flexion (aka bend).  I intend to take some metrics of our BuK boats to point out any discrepancies row to row (but that will have to come later).  By having one or both knees flexed, this decreases tension on the hamstring(s) and potentially allows for a paddler to have more hip hinge before the low back begins to flex.

So in theory, a boat full of tall ballet dancers should have incredible reach!

A Word on Stability

Hip hinging forward with a straight back is not all about flexibility.  Paddlers will also need good core stability to keep the spine neutral.  If a paddler is found to be quite flexible but is seen to “hunch and crunch” during their stroke, it may be that they are lacking muscular stability to control their bodies through their range of motion.

Conclusion

Whether you’re interested in obtaining more reach or developing adequate flexibility to prevent injury, stretching your hamstrings dynamically prior to a workout and statically after a workout is an essential part of your dragon boat dry land training.

References:

Youdas JW, Krause DA, Hollman JH, Harmsen WS, Laskowski E.  “The influence of gender and age on hamstring muscle length in healthy adults.”  J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2005 Apr;35(4):246-52


Tips for Video Analysis of Paddling Technique

Whether you’ve seen and replayed dragon boat videos online a million times, have had somebody else film your technique, or have collected footage of other paddlers to analyze, you may be sitting at your computer screen saying, “Something could be better, but I’m not sure what.”  If you’re like most people, your eyes will flick around to various areas that catch your brain’s attention.  You see something happen in your periphery but by the time you look, the moment has passed.

In physical therapy, watching people and analyzing their movements for abnormal patterns or issues is a significant part of the practice.  It also takes just that…a lot of practice.  Whether you’re new or experienced at analyzing paddling footage, here are some tips that may improve your flow and consistency in watching technique.

1.  Stick to a System

Give yourself a step by step protocol to watching somebody paddle.  If you were looking at a photograph, your eyes will flick around the scene to areas of interest.  Now, if that picture is a movie, your eyes will move and follow many different areas without order…unless you take control.  Try starting somewhere specific, anywhere.  I usually start from the water and watch upwards.  I look at how the water moves, how the paddle interacts with the water, what the paddle is doing through the stroke(s), how the person interacts with the paddle, and finally how the person moves.  I don’t move my eyes to the next portion of the image or video clip until I am satisfied with the information I have observed.  I will also do multiple passes (more on this later).

Your system can be totally different but I highly recommend using one consistently.

2.  Get General Before Specific

Take notes on paper or get mental about things you see.  Don’t get hung up on tiny details until you get a good sense of the Big Picture.  Paddling technique is a sum of all parts and ultimately you are interested in that sum.  Complex movements are also, well, complex.  It helps to make things as simple as possible.

I will follow my system of watching a paddler from water to paddle to body in several “passes.”  With each pass I make note of more specific findings, observations, and hypotheses.  The Scientific Method.  To put it vaguely, I may look for “what” I see, then look for “how” things are happening to cause what I see, and then finally think about “why” things are happening in a certain way.  I take things from simple to complex because it’s very easy to get hung up on the details but not be able to see their relevance towards the Big Picture.  A paddler may drop their head through early to mid-pull.  So what?  What are the qualities of their overall stroke and how does this head bob possibly affect it?

It also helps to slow things down so see specifics.  Use a simple video editing program to slo-mo your stuff as best you can.

3.  Imagine Change

You’ve made a list of observations and hypotheses.  Now to test things out.  If you’re really good (or just experimental by nature) you may have several video clips of paddlers on the same day trying different techniques or changes on-the-fly to compare later on.  Ask yourself what makes sense to try and change in a paddler’s technique?  What are the costs and benefits of making such a change?  Is the change dependent on something fairly quick to change like paddler awareness or knowledge of results?  Does the change require something that takes longer to develop like “feel” for a solid catch at entry or plain physical power?  How will a change made in one part of the stroke affect other aspects?

4.  Make Change

Pick your battles and make a plan of attack that prioritizes your findings and interventions to yield the best results soonest while all good things come to those who wait (and work their @sses off).  Get more data so you  can retest your changes and see if your approach had the intended effect.

Try out your System in analyzing this paddler’s technique!