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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
If you experience numbness or tingling in your outside/extended foot, you may be experiencing the effects of neural tension.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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!
It’s race day. Waiting in the marshaling area, shoulder to shoulder with your closest competitors. This is the race that decides who takes the podium. Man, everybody looks big. That guy over there looks like he could lift the boat by himself. Get down to the water, load on the boat, take it lightly to the start line. The boat is so quiet before the horn that you could hear the drops of water falling from your paddle. Butterflies. You hear the call and the horn lets you know it’s time to f’in GO.
What happens mid-race is chaos. You hear folks shouting “Timing!” The video review post-race shows a massive caterpillar of paddles rushing the timing from the back to the front of the boat. The timing box is pretty pissed. Timing has been something your coach always talks about in practice. What happened?
I think there are many reasons for timing issues, but the caterpillar is specifically one phenomenon that does not seem to be a random occurrence. In fact, the very nature of the caterpillar is that the pull phase accelerates more and more as you move from row 2-10. Why does this happen? Here’s what I think contributes to this:
1. Excitement. Racing makes the adrenaline flow. You’ve got energy stores tapped and ready to go unlike a normal practice situation. You will perform better, stronger, faster than perhaps you realize. Your mental focus may not be 100% on timing, but other distractions. This can contribute to timing issues, but that doesn’t explain the pattern through the boat. There’s no reason the back of the boat is more excited than the front.
2. Physical trends. Many crews will organize bigger paddlers in the middle and rear of the boat. It’s possible a stronger paddler can pull and recover faster than a smaller paddler. This would start to match a trend from front to rear, but you rarely see the LARGEST paddlers in row 10.
3. Water quality. While in physics, the boat is moving at 1 velocity relative to the water, this doesn’t mean that the water is moving at the same velocity from front to rear of the boat. The front rows get water that is touched only by the bow of the boat. As more and more paddlers pull, exit, and enter the water down the rows, the water gets churned. It has vortexes, swells, and air bubbles. All these things make for water that is quicker to pull through. When the paddle moves quicker through the water, people will exit sooner and start recovery earlier. I believe this explains the caterpillar scenario best.
Ways to address this would be to set the expectation of the phenomenon. Next would be to have paddlers all learn to paddle cleanly and solidly, minimizing excess turbulence in the water. Next would be making sure folks in the engine and on back, know how to catch and pull solidly through turbulent water (since increased turbulence is somewhat inevitable).
One thing that I don’t think would work well would be to tell the back of the boat to “pull slower.” This will cut down on their power and possibly drag the boat to be SLOWER.
See if it works out how I anticipate!
Dragon boat is one of the few team sports that relies on so many individuals’ efforts to directly affect overall team performance. Snake boat might be the most extreme example. As coaches are familiar, teams get paddlers of all sorts. Some are new to the sport and have limited paddling experience. Some are former competitive paddlers with a unique sense of how to “correctly” paddle. That said, what is “correct” paddling? This is obviously quite subjective with every coach and paddler having a different concept of the advantages and disadvantages various stroke styles provide. Regardless of what stroke style a person favors, is it truly critical to adopt a uniform stroke style for a dragon boat team to be successful?
One of the most impressive sights in dragon boat is seeing tight paddling technique during a race. The precision, intensity, and (oddly enough) elegance of 20 paddlers crisply pulling the boat on its course is something that makes everyone think twice about racing such an apparently well-trained team. I use the word “apparently,” because looks can be deceiving. I honestly believe a team can look great but can still perform poorly. After all, there are so many other elements of performance that make or break a good race piece.
Does same = lame?
Sally is 5 feet tall and 100 lbs of petite ferocity. Robert is 6’2″ and 210 lbs of rippling muscle. Leonard is 5’9″ and jiggles like a bowl full o’ jelly. Welcome to the world of recreational dragon boat racing where folks of all backgrounds and physical attributes race and love doing it. To me, a world-class team should strive for uniformity, because it couldn’t hurt. I mean, come on! If you went through the trouble of holding try-outs and are good enough to compete on the international level, why not? At this level of competition, every effort to improve performance can and will pay off.
For the average recreational team, the story is different. Remember that average means “typical” as in accounting for the entire range but not representing everybody. If you were coaching Sally to race in her OC-1, you’d teach her a stroke that worked best for her. Likewise for Robert or Leonard. Some compromise is part of meshing well as a team, but if timing were to be perfect with every paddler using a technique that yielded their best power delivery, I think that’s really good.
Reasons to Spend Less Time on Teaching Uniform Stroke Technique
– Rec teams may practice 1-2x/week, limited time means limited opportunities to improve race performance. How much time will you spend on having everybody master the same stroke technique when you could be improving other parts of your race piece?
– Reduce paddler frustration. Guaranteed not everybody feels like your idea of a perfect stroke is perfect for them. New paddlers may find it too challenging/overwhelming. Experienced paddlers may find it very hard to overcome old habits they find gives them a performance edge.
– Reduce risk of injury. Technique and injury risk is intricately tied to physical ability and fitness. Forcing a technique on a body that isn’t physically prepped for it can result in serious injury. For a rec sport, is it worth it?
Reasons to Emphasize Uniform Technique
– Avoid a Glass Ceiling effect. Like I mentioned earlier, moving up in competition level means you have to eventually pull out all the stops in designing a training program. Lacking uniform technique can potentially mean performance losses that are unacceptable at higher levels of racing
Ultimately, I want to encourage coaches to rethink how important uniform stroke technique is for their specific team and the potential performance gains that it may or may not provide.
If you read this well-written article, you can start to wrap your brain around how these structures relate to paddling specifically. If you read it and are confused, don’t worry. In a nutshell, we have groups of muscles that run along the front and back of our bodies that run in a diagonal direction. Visualizing them on either side of midline, we can see an “X” pattern that forms across our front and back. Contracting different arms of the X’s allows us to flex, rotate, sidebend, and extend as well as resist external forces that would otherwise move us in those planes. This X-pattern has been referred to as an anatomical “sling” or sometimes as a power-sling.
Paddling, like all sports, is 3-dimensional. Taking a stroke involves muscle action and movement that is tri-planar. It can be reasoned that by contracting in various patterns, these slings work to stabilize and move our body in 3 dimensions. What this means is that training in a cross-pattern or diagonal/asymmetric fashion may be more functional and directly applicable to developing strength, performance, and stability in a 3-dimensional sport.
During the recovery phase of the dragon boat stroke, a paddler will flex forward at the trunk as they rotate to face inside the boat. The act of reaching during the recovery phase (in a left sided paddler) can be thought of as contracting the front sling running from left shoulder to right hip. Acting alone, this sling would cause the trunk to curl forward, drawing the left shoulder towards the right knee. To maximize reach by keeping the spine more neutral, the posterior (rear) sling running from right shoulder to left hip must contract to draw the right shoulder blade and top arm up and back (coincidentally establishing positive paddle angle on the reach) keeping the spine straight and long. The opposite set of slings work for a right-sided paddler.
During the pull phase, the slings quickly and powerfully switch actions. The front sling running from right shoulder to left hip contract to drive the blade down into the water, initiating the pull. The rear running from upper right to lower left contract to pull the trunk upright, preserving the rigid A-frame. Different stroke styles involve different coordination of these slings, but still rely on these slings for movement and stability.
If a paddler is deficient in strength of one or more of these slings, it’s simple to see how this can contribute to visibly faulty paddling technique or simply less power delivered into the water. Likewise, faulty technique as well as muscular imbalance and lack of stability can lead to an increased risk of injury.
In the future, I’ll be aiming to make some educational media about stretches and exercises to condition these slings.
Growing up, my parents always told me that hitting was a bad thing but science is showing some evidence that a little hit isn’t such a bad thing after all.
In case you were wondering, I’m not talking about actually striking somebody but rather the acronym HIT or High-intensity Interval Training. Athletes who train to race in any sport are well aware of interval training, which is a form of exercise involving a period of exertion followed by a period of rest. Interval workouts give variety and challenge to a training program, but are commonly associated with sprinting or mid-distance sports. Did you know that there is evidence that the integration of a HIT workout can result in better endurance when compared to an ordinary endurance training program?
Although the distance of dragon boat races could be considered sprint to mid-distance in most water sports, the physical demands of dragon boat paddling still favor the team with a good mix of power AND endurance. Many teams will train to develop power by power-lifting in the gym and doing starts on the water, with endurance training consisting of moderate to low-intensity, sustained paddling. With the lack of research being done on dragon boat itself, I found one, albeit older, study from Laursen et al titled “Interval training program optimization in highly trained endurance cyclists.”
Their results showed that workouts involving HIT resulted in better 40km time trial results in cyclists compared to those who only performed endurance training and did not perform HIT. More specifically, the treatment group that improved the most was subject to the following HIT parameters:
HIT workout 2x/wk
8 timed sets of 60% Time to Exhaustion (Tmax)
at VO2peak power output (Pmax)
1:2 exercise to rest ratio
Recovery period intensity at 65% max heart rate (HRmax)
4 weeks total with workload adjusted at 2 week reassesment
Getting some metrics for your paddlers is important but not necessarily essential to get HIT to work in your favor. The metrics will help you learn where certain people excel and where others need to improve. Since DB is a team sport, having some average race times before and after training under similar conditions would be good to have (or individual time trial data). For individual testing, a paddling erg would be useful.
How to do this Yourself The Meticulous Way
Unless you have access to a professional lab setup, you’ll have to estimate this by other means. The experiment calculated VO2 while exercising at certain workloads. For practical purposes, VO2max can be substituted and there are several calculators online, here is one.
Warmup for 5 minutes at a set, low intensity. After the warmup, immediately increase resistance to a higher level (the experiment increased wattage at warmup by 1.5x for the test portion). Measure the time it takes for the paddler to drop below a desired stroke rate. The time to cadence fatigue is Tmax.
After warming up 5 minutes at easy intensity, gradually increase resistance while paddling until the point of volitional fatigue, making note of the wattage just before point of fatigue. The experiment measured this in relation to VO2 measures, so again, this is an approximation.
Try this calculator to find your range of max heart rate by age, type of sport, and training level.
How to do this Yourself The Simple(r) Way
You could choose to omit things like VO2peak and Pmax. Get your crew warmed up properly. After this, run a sprint race piece and make note of when either stroke rate progressively drops or boat speed starts to decrease. You can film and count stroke rate later or use an accelerometer to figure this out.
For workouts, run 8 sets of similar intensity sprint pieces for 60% of the time until performance drop-off. Paddle easily at 1:2 time ratio through the whole workout.
For general health and performance reasons, your paddlers should be familiar with methods to monitor their heart rate in relation to workout intensity. Wear heart rate monitors or figure out max HR prior to working out and having folks measure their HR immediately after the set. With experience, folks can learn to associate HR with perceived level of exertion and use that as a general guide if they are not actively being measured by a device.
“Hey coach! Gimme a break!”
I’m sure it’s a thought that many competitive paddlers have had at some point during a hard practice. But who wants to be the whining wimp who complains that a set or drill is “too hard?” Part of being able to push yourself physically is being able to work through the agony of 100% sustained effort. With that kind of mentality, it’s no wonder most coaches won’t hear that kind of comment from their crews, but is that necessarily a good thing?
What is perfect performance?
Quite simply, performing optimally is a combination of elements essential to the sport. If a paddler has great conditioning, technique, concentration, and determination, then it should be expected that a melding of high amounts of each will result in great performance. Call it the best-case-scenario.
If a paddler falls short in any of those elements, performance will likely drop. It makes sense to want high marks of each element of performance at all times.
Practice makes perfect but perfect practice takes priority
Say that ten times fast without losing a letter and you’ll know what it means. Practice is about enhancing an athlete’s ability to perform by developing each element of performance either individually or as a group. The challenge for a coach comes from designing workouts that enhance these skill sets without being detrimental to others at the same time. For example, why train to paddle at 120 spm if your paddler technique falls apart and timing becomes garbage? You are training folks to move quickly but at the expense of 2 very important performance skills.
A team wiped out after hard racing. This kind of fatigue didn’t happen after crossing the finish line.
In the novice to recreational world of dragon boat, I see so many teams train to fail. Training to fail at this level is running a set or interval at a difficulty (either duration or intensity) that exceeds the athlete’s ability to keep good performance throughout. Anytime we practice with sloppy technique, our bodies adapt to make sloppy technique more natural. Just imagine if every stroke you took was perfect in delivery throughout practice! You’re training to paddle perfectly.
Michael Phelps with the energy to celebrate AFTER setting a world record. Perfect practice = perfect performance.
While encouraging good performance habits is a no-brainer, noticing form failure during a practice is essential information for any coach. Investigating where and why performance failure occurs during practice allows a coach to determine “the weakest link” in a crew or athlete’s training. Using this approach, a coach can gather vital information about their crew and areas needed to improve to address overall performance. There’s no reason to avoid failure while training, but it’s a mistake to train failure.
The Problem: a paddler’s timing degrades through a 250m sprint piece
Your Observation: Their head is dropping and they are out of breath
Potential Weakness: Inadequate endurance, inefficient stroke technique
Possible Solution(s): Allow for more rest between sets, decrease paddling intensity/effort pacing,
encourage paddler to improve attendance, address technique
So, the next time you run a practice, recognize when different aspects of performance are failing and adjust the workout as needed to keep your practices perfect!
Athletes have long noticed that bouncing helps increase power immediately before a power activity. Ever see somebody struggle to chest press too much weight? They may literally bounce the bar off their chest, which can fracture their ribs but also give what’s called an active, eccentric stretch to the pec major, triceps, and deltoid muscles; increasing their power output temporarily.
Try this: get a chair and squat down to lightly touch your bottom to the seat. Then, try to jump as high as you can (ideally you’d have a marker to know how high you jumped). Now, try removing the chair and squatting down to the same height, allowing your hips to quickly dip down into the squat right before the jump (an ordinary, stationary squat jump). You should notice that you can jump higher when you take the chair away.
Notice how those tasty frog legs move slightly before the body starts to move in the leap
You are giving your leg muscles a quick stretch prior to the jump, which increases the power and thus the height of your jump.
This phenomenon should happen in our arm and trunk muscles as well.
One might wonder, if you could coordinate an entire boat of 20 paddlers bouncing slightly before the first stroke of a start, you could get a significant increase in power on the first stroke!
This may already happen instinctively in the form of “The Trunk Bob” immediately leading up to the first stroke. What this does is bring the trunk downwards while the arms ever-so-briefly stay stationary, stretching the mighty latissimus dorsi muscle before it contracts and pulls through the first stroke.
Check out The Trunk Bob
Will a slight bounce help make a more powerful first stroke? How much does the first stroke REALLY matter if everything counts in a race?
Nobody knows for sure, but it sure does make me wonder.
I’m always jealous of other sports with the resources to conduct actual scientific research on the physics of performance. Crew and sculling are among those sports. The R&D is aimed to investigate and optimize every possible aspect of performance to hopefully yield multiple avenues for improvement. Perhaps we will never see full carbon-Kevlar dragon boats weighing less than 250 lbs, but I love reading this stuff because it makes my wheels turn in hopes that some trickle-down truth can help us in our traditionalist sport. After all, each of our sports utilize glorified sticks to push water in order to propel a hollowed-out log carrying people.
There are many potential areas where energy can be wasted, starting from the very chemistry that powers our cells into performing work. This particular article takes a stab at investigating what factors signficantly influence rowing efficiency.
At one point in my life, the mathematics presented would have made much more sense and I may have had more thoughts on this, but for now, I’ll just say “duh” and move on.
Interestingly, the study found that blade efficiency increased as boat speed increased. Based on the curves in Figure 2a, it would seem that there would be some point at which efficiency plateaus or perhaps even decreases as boat speed continues to climb. I always felt that in dragon boat, getting “good pulls” in dragon boat was affected by boat speed. When the boat is at a full stop, the water feels thick and I feel like I can apply a great amount of force to the water. As the boat starts to pick up, those heavy pulls become lighter and lighter still, which would seem to me that my strokes are not as efficient at those higher hull speeds. I would speculate that having better stroke technique designed for higher boat speed is important for improving blade efficiency.
Interestingly, Dr. Kleshnev notes a decrease in boat efficiency as stroke rate increases. I thought this section was simply better written for my smooth brain to understand. Decreasing the “drive/stroke ratio” would mean either decreasing time spent in drive phase (period where blade is in the water) or increasing time spent on the stroke (entire time spent between drive and recovery). Decreasing drive time could mean exiting sooner, but that would also decrease total stroke time. “Fast through the water” is another way to think about it and would be assisted by higher boat speed. Increasing the time spent out of the water could also work to increase stroke time, but while it may be beneficial to “let the boat glide” spending an extreme amount of time not propelling the boat allows the boat to slow down between strokes.
Combining his 2 findings on boat efficiency, one might speculate that (at least in rowing) increasing stroke rate lead to a increase in drive/stroke ratio. At higher rates, I’d think stroke time must decrease in order to fit in more strokes per minute. If recovery were quickened to fit in a higher rate but boat speed did not allow for drive time to decrease (leaving a long drive time due to slow water), the ratio would be increased. Indeed, the conclusive statements suggest shortening drive time as a way to increase efficiency at higher stroke rates.
Application to Dragon Boat Paddling (to be continued)
The questions are: why is rotation important and how much should be emphasized?
IF: Rotate + Reach + Dig + Pull + Exit = Paddling
THEN: Rotation is a critical component to paddling technique!
Rotation is a natural part of reaching your hand towards something. It’s how we get our hand closer to the prize. Back when we were apes, rotation was critical to reaching the next branch to escape predators. As evolving hunter gatherers, rotation was critical for reaching that high branch of fruit. Nowadays, it may seem that reach/rotation is largely tied with grabbing the TV remote control while sitting on the couch, but it also serves a critical role in dragon boat paddling. Rotation is, quite simply, intended to extend the length of your reach and thus, length of your stroke. With the increase in stroke length, there is the potential for greater power transmission to the water.
The Hand Bone’s Connected to The…
Your arm is connected to your trunk by the shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle is comprised of your shoulder blade and collar bone. The shoulder girdle sits in contact with your rib cage and sternum, which provide the foundation for shoulder movement. The shoulder blade is free to slide up, down, side to side, tip, and rotate along your barrel-shaped rib cage. Since your rib cage is attached to your spine, its shape and position is altered depending on your posture. At rest, the shoulder blade and the glenohumeral joint (ball/socket) face 30 degrees forward (more on this later).
If reaching effectively depends on max forward displacement of the hand, then we should try to make sure our shoulder blade positions our arm in a position of max reach. Think about your wingspan. How do you stretch your arms as wide as possible? Out to the side.
“Twist until your chest faces your partner”
How many coaches use this as a verbal cue? How much rotation is really needed to get good reach? Building from the above, if you are sitting on a boat with your arms stretched out to the sides like a “T,” you would have to twist your trunk close to 80 degrees to reach your hand forward. Pushing that kind of rotation range stresses your spine and, especially in sitting, your intervertebral discs. Minimizing spinal stress while still getting reach is a compromise.
Earlier, I wrote that the shoulder blade and glenohumeral joint already face 30 degrees forwards. This sets up what is called “scapular plane.” Raising our arm to the side 90 degrees and then moving it forwards at shoulder height by ~30 degrees will put your hand in scapular plane. Now we need to get the hand up front and your trunk rotation can make up the difference. Keep your arm 30 degrees forwards in relation to your body at shoulder height, now twist at the waist to bring the hand to proper reach position (depending on where you sit on the boat, how the gunnel flares, where your coach wants you to reach). Instead of rotating 80 degrees at the waist, now you only need to rotate 40-50 degrees, causing less stress to your spine and still giving you good reach.
More On Reach
Of course, leaning forward at the trunk is another method to increase reach, but ultimately a paddler who performs well has an efficient stroke length, which depends on the geometry of the paddle and paddler in relation to the water and boat. I’d recommend incorporating this notion of rotation with those topics written earlier here.
Did you know that slouching causes you to have decreased shoulder flexibility? Try slumping in your chair and raising your arm overhead. How far can you reach up? Now sit up tall and raise your arm. There you go!
Not only does slouching alter your shoulder’s ability to move through its potential range, but can also cause a decrease in muscle strength and increase in stress and risk of injury to sensitive tissues. Part of efficient reaching and power delivery comes from trying to keep a neutral spine during the stroke. For this topic, I’d recommend reading this previous article.
A quick search online will reveal several published resources making general recommendations for choosing a paddle length. These resources often quote paddler height, level of experience, or bench placement in guiding buyers towards choosing a paddle size. While these rationales are reasonable, there are several factors in choosing a paddle size that, when thoroughly understood, can help determine how to find a paddle that works best for you.
The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) has established a general schematic for all dragon boat paddles approved for use in IDBF competitions world wide. This helps minimize any disparities between teams racing in an IDBF event due to equipment considerations. The current standard is known as Specification 202a, which specifies that paddle length (from blade tip to top of handle) is between 105cm and 130cm. Dealer websites may measure this in terms of inches, but the standards are the same.
The Business End
What part of the paddle matters the most? The blade. It’s the part of the paddle that serves as the interface between you and the water. When choosing a paddle length, the ultimate goal is to get the blade into the water where it works best. Generally, this means AT LEAST submerged below the surface of the water.
Shaft, can you dig it?
Since Spec 202a paddles all have specific dimensions for the blade, the one effective variable in paddle itself is the shaft length (spanning between the top of the blade and the handle). This makes choosing a paddle length about facilitating the best leverage for a paddler to apply force to a fully buried blade.
Triangles are an efficient shape for transferring force. By this rationale, our bodies will theoretically transfer force efficiently to the paddle and water when our back and outside arm are straight. Different paddling styles aside, after burying the blade, the goal becomes pulling the blade back (or yourself up to an “anchored” blade) while it is at a set depth. This means that as we pull back, our outside hand remains at a somewhat consistent distance to the water’s surface. This creates a triangle between our body and the plane of the water. This triangle is our foundation, the basic requirement to getting the blade buried during our reach. Paddle length has little to nothing to do with this triangle as it depends primarily on the physical size of the paddler.
Adding the top arm and paddle shaft into the picture, we see an upper triangle formed. The efficiency of this triangle is highly dependent upon paddle length and paddler technique. In Figure 2, increasing trunk rotation on the reach has the functional effect of lengthening our outer arm and shortening our top arm. This affects angle of paddle at entry, influencing the vectors (direction) of force applied by the paddle to the water. It also serves to increase the horizontal displacement of our paddle during the pull, which is a good thing!
In Figure 3 B) and C), we see how increasing paddle length affects our body position and efficiency. Leaving the bottom hand the same in B), a longer shaft forces our top arm higher which can cause more strain to our top shoulder’s joint and potentially lead to increased risk of rotator cuff or labral injuries. Choking up at the bottom hand in C) to preserve top arm angle forces the paddler to bury the blade deeper in the water. Because the blade is farther from the bottom hand, the force of the water against the blade (or vice versa depending on the relative physics) is applied farther away from the bottom hand. This increases the torque that a paddler fights during the pull, making each stroke feel more difficult despite the same amount of power being put into the water. In other words, choking up due to a paddle being too long puts the paddler at a mechanical disadvantage, wasting energy.
Having an excessively long paddle also forces you to compensate during recovery just to clear the blade from the water. Having an excessively short paddle will decrease the horizontal displacement of your blade during the pull, which decreases paddling efficiency. A short paddle may also force you to flex more at the trunk during the reach to get the blade buried, which compromises 1 side of the Lower Triangle and may increase your risk for spine injuries (not pictured).
Choosing the “Right” Length
After all that theory and physics, it requires trial/error and close assessment with your coach to determine the paddle size that gives you the best fit. Depending on how skilled you are with paddling, your fitness level, where you sit, and how your coach would like you to paddle, you should choose a paddle length that allows you to get the blade fully buried while allowing you to pull with an Upper and Lower Triangle that is most efficient for you.
1. Continuously refine your paddling technique.
2. Get regular 1 on 1 feedback from your coach about your paddling technique.
3. Try a variety of paddle sizes from teammates to see how it meshes with your paddling technique.
4. Consider changing your paddle length if your technique is strongly compromised, it forces you to work beyond your level of fitness, or you have noticed it contribute to painful symptoms.
I remember taking a mandatory safety class through the CDBA as a requirement to sit for the steering certification test and there was a topic that came up on what to do should your dragon boat start to take on water (eg sink) while you are away from dry land. The official recommendation (and subsequently the correct answer on the exam, ahem) was to have several paddlers bail water, have other paddlers paddling back to shore ASAP, and have another group of paddlers jump overboard and hang on to reduce the amount of weight in the boat. It was clarified that, to be fair, those people who jumped in could rotate in/out of the water with other paddlers if the journey to shore would be too long for comfort.
Yea, that clip pretty much sums up my feelings, so here we go!
Top 3 Reasons Why That Plan Sucks:
1. The boat is sinking but not sunk yet, you have some time before it ceases to become water-worthy and your crew is effectively stranded off shore. Thus, it behooves everyone to get to shore as fast is flippin’ possible. Faster travel requires more paddlers. Why on Earth would you drag people through the water? Ever pulled a tire behind the boat, it’s hard right? Pulling a tire doesn’t allow much speed even with a crew of buff paddlers, right? Losing able bodied paddlers while dragging them through the water will slow your return to shore. I will say having folks stop paddling occasionally to bail could be helpful if water is rushing in quickly.
2. The additional weight of having 2 paddlers in the boat will not affect the rate of sinking very much compared to the time lost from the effects in #1.
3. The water’s probably going to be colder than the human body. Hypothermia is a life threatening condition that you’re actually considering having people volunteer for when they don’t need to? Having paddlers rotate being in/out of the water is even more dumb. Hypothermia can still occur after you get out of the water. Plus, you now have 2 freezing people back in the boat and 2 people about to freeze in the water. Nice going. Did I mention that freezing people don’t paddle very fast?
Just don’t make that question the one that causes you to fail the test, ok? Also, after passing the test, please don’t kill people unnecessarily by actually following the recommended answer you used to pass the test. Thanks.
A boat in good working condition, in flat water, floats totally still. A boat filled with people who aren’t paddling and not moving around also should sit still. Once people start paddling, sometimes the boat can start to rock side to side. Why does this happen? How do you limit this to create a smoother running boat?
As discussed earlier, paddlers exert a same-sided, downward force on the boat when they paddle. If you have a keen eye, or better yet some video equipment to do slow motion, take a look at when the rocking occurs as the crew paddles. Boat rocking can indicate that, on average, one side of the crew is stroking just ahead of the other side, reflecting a timing issue. Try having more communication between your strokes to synch things up between them and use any tools you find helpful to encourage the rest of the crew to synch up with their other side as you move back.
If timing looks perfect but the boat continues to rock, it may reflect a difference in power between left and right side paddlers. Stronger paddlers exert more force to the paddle which translates to more force transferred to the boat. More relative force transferred to the boat than the other side can cause the boat to rock towards the stronger side during the pull phase. It’s difficult to tell athletes in a race situation to try less hard, so it may be helpful to train paddlers on the weaker side to be stronger, or perhaps teach people to be more ambidextrous so in a practice situation the coach may tinker with what seating line up gives the best timing and power distribution throughout the boat between left and right.
It’s a common notion that paddlers can, through good paddling technique, actually “lift” the boat so that it sits higher on the water. This feeds into the notion that the boat becomes “lighter” to the water than when it sits at a standstill, decreasing water drag, and increasing the potential for speed.
It’s complicated and there aren’t any studies that I’m aware of looking at this phenomenon with dragon boats specifically, but based on existing science of water craft physics, it doesn’t appear that paddlers can actually lift the boat when paddling as generally thought. I’ve got some reasons for thinking this, but perhaps the Mythbusters can put this to the test.
Reason 1: Paddlers can’t directly exert an upward force on the boat by paddling. When the paddle “anchors” in the water and the paddler pulls, they transfer this force to the hull through their butt and foot to propel the boat forwards. In transferring this force, paddlers actually push the boat downwards into the water on the side they sit. At practice, try having several rows paddle on one side of the boat. The boat will dip to that side during the pull phase and rock to the opposite side during recovery.
Reason 2: Boat lift is generally attributed to either hydrostatic (buoyant) lift or hydrodynamic lift. Hydrostatic lift is the phenomenon that allows boats to float because the hull displaces an equal mass in water volume as the craft and all its cargo weigh, which is why dragon boats and those like it are said to have displacement hulls. At a standstill, boats float by hydrostatic lift. Once the boat starts to move, some lift is gained by hydrodynamic lift where the water is pushing the boat upwards vs being pushed out of the way by the hull. At a certain speed, the boat’s hydrodynamic lift will exceed the hydrostatic lift and the vessel begins to plane across the water. This requires a very high amount of power to achieve. Think of trying to walk on water. Unless you’re especially holy, you’ll likely sink the moment you step foot on the surface. Now, if you get tossed out of a speed boat going 200 mph, you’ll painfully skip and bounce off the surface of the water because hydrodynamic lift is keeping you from sinking. It would take a very strong motor to get a dragon boat even close to planing speed. IMO, paddlers can’t put out enough power to make hydrodynamic lift that effective.
Reason 3: Like I wrote above, paddlers will have a very hard time reaching planing speed because of the physics of displacement hull speed. Displacement hulls are subject to something called wave making resistance which occurs when waves made from pushing water off the front combine with waves made in the wake. This combination of the waves at either end cause a rapid climb in water drag. This point is called hull speed. It is a calculation based on the length of the water line of the hull as it sits in the water. A fully loaded dragon boat has a a certain measurable length of water that contacts the hull which is measured as the water line length. A larger waterline actually makes for a higher hull speed value! Lifting the boat out of the water becomes less desirable in this regard. Certain boats are designed to allow the athlete(s)/motors to exceed calculated hull speed without planing, which THEN causes a strong decrease in drag. Essentially, water drag increases as hull speed is met, a boat with a larger water line length has a higher hull speed, lifting the boat decreases the water line length and decreases hull speed causing earlier rise in water drag as speed increases.
These Chinese teams show some kick ass control over their boat and crew. I’m sure they’d have no problem lining up at the start line on a windy day at TI.