I’ve suffered from depression all of my adult life. A few days ago, I felt sadness, pain, and worthlessness unlike anything in recent memory. I wanted to end my life and was the closest I’ve been to ever following through. Fortunately, I did not.
Depression is a serious and rising global problem with 264 million people of all ages suffering from it and 800,000 people dying from suicide each year (World Health Organization, 2020). To me, 264 million people out of the world’s 7.8 billion seems insignificant, but we should realize that the statistics will only count actual diagnosed cases (those created through an organized, reporting health care system) and not people who remain undiagnosed or who take their lives before being diagnosed.
Regardless of what the statistics say, my point in writing this is to spread awareness for a mental health disorder that is often mischaracterized, misunderstood, and often invisible to everybody except the person suffering from it. As dragon boat is a team sport involving relatively large groups of people, chances are extremely high that multiple members of YOUR team suffer from depression and that fellow paddlers may not even be aware.
“How are you?”
“Good and you?”
How many of you bust out this script multiple times on a daily basis? I know I will say these words as automatically as smiling, shaking a hand or giving a friendly hug whenever seeing friends, acquaintances, or even family. Even if I’m hurting on the inside, I hate the idea of sharing that pain with others who appear so…normal on the outside. Even if they are also hiding depressive symptoms, it hurts me to think about pushing the weight of my sorrows upon them. This is, as I’ve come to realize, a common challenge with depression. That being said, this realization doesn’t help my ability to overcome my reservations with casually sharing my true feelings at any given time.
The same phenomenon would happen all the time when I was a paddler. I’d be surrounded by 19+ other people I loved and cared for. I knew they ALL cared for me but through all the meals, jokes, blood, sweat, and tears we shared, I never once let on that I could be feeling symptoms of depression. Conversely, I never saw anybody else showing signs of depression and felt like I must be the only person on the team grappling with those feelings.
When I was coaching, things become so much worse for me internally. I felt like the role of “coach” required me to insulate myself somewhat from the rest of the team; as if I was a leader who needed a level of inaccessibility from those I lead in order to maintain authority, impartiality, respect, and an air of professionalism. Stress was a daily opponent. Stress over meeting weekly performance goals, recruitment strategies, moderating team dynamics, creating workouts, race day planning, and the self-doubt and frustration that came with any perceived shortcomings or apparent failures ate away at my soul without anybody (I think) ever seeing it. I wore a good mask, a good smile, and used an encouraging voice every practice and race that I attended. When I finally gave up the coaching role and simply paddled for a season, I was almost happy to hear and see my replacement’s stress and frustration with the new role. To think of somebody suddenly be acutely aware of my own struggles was oddly fulfilling (sorry Huy).
Dragon boat is a sport that is accessible to all sorts of people at every level of fitness. It can offer incredible amounts of camaraderie, love, and support between all members and all teams. To be a dragon boat paddler is to be part of a global community. One of the greatest strengths of dragon boat is also its greatest weakness. Teams are just SO large with gatherings so loud, boisterous, action-packed, and “happy” that they often don’t provide a comfortable way for people to connect and share personal challenges.
Call to Action
As a dragon boat paddler, I challenge you to take the time this week to connect with a fellow teammate you don’t often talk with and offer the time and space to get past the usual pleasantries of the usual “Wassup.” You don’t have to pry, try to “fix” them, or give feedback, just actively listen.
For team leaders, I challenge you to plan a team event this month to break into small groups of 3-4 and give 5 minutes per person to voice their replies to general prompts like, “this week I struggled with…”, “something I felt good about today was…”, or “something I feel inside that nobody knows about is…”. Make rules that anything that is spoken about stays confidential, does not leave the small group it’s shared with, and isn’t brought up outside the event unless by the person who shared it. I think such an opportunity can provide teammates a safe space to relate to each other in ways not generally seen with team events and can really strengthen the bonds between everybody; helping team cohesion and maybe, just maybe, saving lives.
If you are considering suicide and reside in the US, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always ready to listen. Call them at 1-800-273-8255.
I want to live and I know you do too. You are not alone. I also want to hear from you directly, even though we may not have ever met in person. My number is 1-415-987-6328.
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.
As I woke up this morning, I felt like my legs were made of lead and my back like an iron rod. I get cleaned up and then get ready for my day. I drag down my giant 4lb sack of MuscleMilk Gainer protein powder down from the shelf and begin to mix it up in a patented plastic bottle that I got roped into buying off Amazon out of sheer convenience of “nutrition.”
“Everyday gains” is what the protein powder sack reads. But really? What is it I would be gaining? Strength? Power? Better beach body looks? Weight? When I was working in outpatient orthopedic-focused PT clinics, I’d see three basic types of people: sedentary, weekend warriors, and committed athletes. The sedentary folks may have chronic pain issues that prevented them from being active at all. Whether the chicken or the egg came first, it no longer really mattered because they were where they were and needed to pull through chronic pain to be healthier. Their basic fitness could be so low that everyday function was a struggle. Weekend warriors might’ve been passionate about their hobbies and athletic pursuits but were always struggling with the compromises of real life. Put in a few miles per day of running after working a desk job and then limping across the marathon finish line to discover aching, swollen knees for weeks afterwards. They might’ve been fit enough to sprint for the bus to avoid being late to work but the tough compromises in time from a sedentary job and an “active” lifestyle outside of work created a hard balance for their bodies to cope with. Lastly, the committed athletes occupied another realm of issues that sometimes arose from their efforts to always push the upper extremes of performance. Stress fractures, early onset of arthritis, torn or degenerated tendons from high-repetition / high-load activities for years and years comes to mind. Sure, not everybody in the clinic fit into these generic boxes nor did their medical diagnoses always follow these patterns, but they certainly did so frequently.
When I think of athletes trying to progress in their sport, I think of the difficulties that people have in general with keeping a balanced lifestyle and balanced body. Let’s say you go to the gym and lift weights with a steady pattern over several months. If you are following a good program, you should be gaining strength and maybe power depending on the workouts you are doing. At the end of those several months, you have gained strength and power but have you improved performance? Say you have noticed better performance in the sport of your choosing because your program was well-tailored to be translatable. Are you then less likely to be injured pushing the upper limits of performance in that sport? If you can’t say yes to that question confidently, I’d venture to say your training made you gain in certain areas of fitness but did not make you become more balanced. By gaining in one/several areas of fitness (e.g. strength or power) you may have declined in flexibility, speed, or coordination.
A well-known, local orthopedist named Scott Dye has a phrase he calls the “envelope of function.” Basically, every organ in your body has an upper limit in its operation where it can function normally without being injured. Exceed the envelope and you overload the organ, causing reactive problems. I like to expand that concept into a whole-person perspective: gradually expand your limits through smart and comprehensive training to create a buffer between the minimum required fitness needed to avoid injury and operate in optimal performance.
It’s my personal opinion that athletes who experience nagging pains during and after their pursuits while calling it “all part of the game/sport” are in a degree of denial or possibly simple ignorance. From working with hundreds of people over the years, I can safely say that there is typically a way to help resolve or address pain arising from sport, often with rather simple concepts and changes. Often times athletes with that singular-drive mentality and obsession with one element of the sport have a hard time expanding their minds to accept the possibility and value of being a well-rounded individual while also being highly specialized.
The bottom line is that when you think about “bettering” yourself through training and sport, I encourage you to work towards gains in multiple areas of fitness so that as your fitness improves, you remain a well-balanced individual. Focusing upon one area of fitness and foregoing other elements of good health will end up biting you later on down the road. Our bodies are good at compromising in the face of unbalanced change. Don’t let the illusion of gains fool you into thinking you are actually a healthier athlete.
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!
In 2 years time, I’ve forgotten that I used to eat/sleep/breathe/read/write dragon boat blog material daily, what my password for the blog is, the password for the recovery email this blog is linked to, and (probably) how many sore muscles appear from resuming a sport you haven’t done in that amount of time!
What have I been doing all this time? Well, for starters, being as good a father as I can be! This is probably the number one reason I haven’t returned to the sport I still love so dearly. Without a doubt, there are thousands of great parents in the sport of dragon boat that balance family life with life on the water. It was my personal decision to take a leave from the water in order to work on being a new parent and I have no regrets. As for fitness, I’ve turned to riding road bicycles several times per week. It’s quicker to get in a workout than paddling (IMO) and just as fun while being supremely challenging.
This brings me to the main topic of FTP or Functional Threshold Power. It’s a term that has been tossed around greatly among cycling communities for its relevance to cycling performance and fitness; however, it is a relevant metric for any human-powered racing sport. Basically, it is a guide to how hard somebody can perform an exercise for 1 hour. It is a measurement that helps guide training and exertion during competition.
You might be saying that paddling hard for 1 hour takes completely different fitness than the ~2 minutes it takes for a 500 meter race and you’d be mostly correct. While different energy stores and muscle fiber types are emphasized depending on the event at hand, FTP has a wide application to athletic performance in a race. To quote Nate Wilson from the TrainingPeaks website:
“It might not seem like FTP has much bearing on ability to sprint, but it very much does. FTP almost can be thought of as a sponge. The higher this number is, the bigger [the athlete’s] sponge is, and the more efforts they can absorb. Every time a race goes hard, it will take less out of the athlete with the higher FTP, and in return they will have more energy left in the tank for a big selection or for the sprint at the end.”
In cycling, FTP is most accurately calculated using a power meter: a device that measures how many watts you are generating as you ride. To the best of my knowledge, the only power meter specifically for dragon boat paddlers is the Merlin Excalibur II. The last time I checked, the Excalibur “v1.0” cost over $1k. Considering how many paddlers there are in a dragon boat, the effectiveness of testing with a power meter quickly boils down to 1) how long can the team paddle hard together to get a good measure on 1-2 paddlers using the meter or 2) is the entire team willing to shell out the cash for 20 Excaliburs (never mind the issue of paddle lengths)? The other option is using an erg or similar setup. The one caveat I can think of is replicating how a full boat feels at race pace. There are likely coaches out there who know more about settings to use to achieve this than I.
As with cycling, the purchase of a power meter is not essential to proper training to improve FTP. FTP still exists even when it cannot be directly measured and calculated. A rough estimate can be made using a simple heart rate monitor. Here’s how:
30 Minute Threshold Heart Rate Test
Warmup 10-15 minutes with 2-4 x 30 sec hard intervals; hit “Lap” on the device
20 minute set at steady effort where:
– first 1/3 feels fairly easy, wait for effort to “come to you”
– second 1/3 lets you know if you can sustain to end
– last 1/3 feels VERY VERY hard to maintain power but you can to the end
Check your average heart rate for the last 20 minute of the set to estimate the Lactic Threshold Heart Rate. Using this number, calculate your heart rate zones using the “Bike Zones” table here. I am opting to utilize the bike zones over the run zones because biking presents greater resistance per “rep” if you will vs running, which may compare more closely the physicality of paddling. Please note that variables such as body temp, hydration, caffeine, humidity, altitude, and fatigue can influence HR measurements.
Once you have calculated your zones, you can get into Sweet Spot training, which is exercise somewhere between Zone 3-4. The benefits of Sweet Spot training have been shown to yield the greatest improvements in FTP over time aka bang for your buck.
What’s a Sweet Spot workout look like? I’ve read cycling coaches suggest 5-20 minute intervals separated by rest interval of 50% the length of the effort (e.g. for 10 min at effort, rest 5 min till the next set). Apparently the “gold standard” of FTP workouts is 2×20 min at Zone 4. As you would expect, beginners or novice athletes should start with shorter sets with fewer reps like 3 x 10 min, while elite paddlers may rep it out like crazy (2x60min!) so long as working in the correct zones.
These workouts can be followed all season long, but scaled to match the fitness and needs of the athletes/team. As with all types of physiological adaptation, FTP is something that changes slowly. At 1-2 FTP workouts per week, it can take weeks to months for your investment to see returns, but like strength and other power training, a benefit is a benefit and faster is faster.
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.
Right now in the Bay Area, most adult recreational dragon boat teams are winding down for their “off-season” due to local races stopping until around April. Many paddlers will decrease the frequency of water training (if not cutting it out entirely) over the next few months. If you are a recreational paddler who has practiced and raced from April to September this year, you may be excited to have all this free time to go on a week long vacation for once or sleep in on weekends without the guilt of missing water time with the team. Don’t get me wrong, the long gap between local races is a perfect time to enjoy yourself away from dragon boat, but consider how your time spent will affect your return to the next season.
I read a great article by a cycling coach detailing his views on this very subject. You can read it here.
Essentially, all Bay Area paddlers should recognize that we are not professional paddlers in any shape or form. It is highly unlikely you are overtraining for dragon boat specifically and, as such, don’t need the time to recover from the sport like pro athletes can. Realize also that if you decide to take a break from dragon boat this winter, will you inadvertently be taking a break from exercise in general? Doing this can mean that you will come back next season weaker and more prone to injury than you are right now.
With this understanding, I recommend that everyone enjoy their time outside of a dragon boat but still challenge yourselves to enhancing your fitness in ways you could/did not while during the dragon boat season. After all, being a recreational dragon boat paddler may mean you struggled to allocate a few hours per week for paddling alone, never mind time to cross train. Work on enhancing your core stability, losing weight, stretch your tight paddling muscles, cross train in another sport entirely! The possibilities are endless but all beneficial to keeping good fitness while paving the way to a better and healthier start of the next season.
How much paddling effort is optimal for different parts of the race? Certainly very few if any athletes can go 100% effort for 2 continuous minutes without fatigue affecting performance, so for a 500 meter race, it behooves the athlete and coach to know how effort can best be used to pace the race in order to get the best time.
Our muscles contain several different types of fibers, each with their own attributes that allow us a range of force-exerting capabilities from holding a baby kitten to performing a heavy dead lift. Motor control is a complex system within the brain but outside the spinal cord, things get simpler. This is what we can focus on for the scope of this post. Motor neurons of different sizes connect like wires to muscle fibers, stimulating them to twitch and eventually reach sustained contraction, or tetanus, with enough action potentials/electrical signal.
We can group motor neurons into 2 main groups, large and small. Likewise muscle fibers can be grouped into 2 main types, Type I and Type IIa/IIx. Small motor neurons recruit Type I muscle fibers, which are slow to contract, produce low force, but are very fatigue resistant. Think of the muscles that operate your eyelids. Unless you’re the average college student, those things stay open most of the day and possibly through late nights in places your mother shouldn’t know about. Similar muscle fibers operate even when you are walking. Most healthy individuals can walk and talk with minimal fatigue.
Large motor neurons carry fast electrical signals to your so-called “fast-twitch” muscle fibers. These fibers take relatively more signal to contract, but once they do, they produce high amounts of force in a short period of time. They also fatigue quickly. Going from a walk to a sprint or performing a box jump will fire these Type II muscle fibers.
Muscle Fibers in Paddling
Paddling is a mix of muscle fiber utilization, as many daily activities are as well. The start of the race is strenuous because the boat is at a standstill and the water feels very thick/heavy. Taking hard strokes through this situation will favor the Type II fibers. As the boat reaches race pace and the speed plateaus, less emphasis on power per stroke (and thus less fatigue per stroke) can be applied to simply maintain race pace and hull speed vs accelerate the boat. Have you ever been on a boat where the crew hits an overrate and keeps it there? I have (a few times) and it doesn’t end well. Rating down and reducing power per stroke results in a lower reliance upon Type II fibers for paddling and less fatigue.
Some teams may call powers or some equivalent bump in effort to strategically stay ahead of other racers or simply to fight a gradual decline in hull speed. Again, taking harder or faster strokes will result in more Type II fibers being recruited, which will contribute to fatigue.
For the finish, is it better to pull a hard and fast acceleration or a gradual one? It depends. Highly trained athletes with good conditioning will have a better ability to recruit Type II fibers with less fatigue, but you can’t fight the physiology of trying hard. Fatigue will hit and sap the performance of any and all who exert 100% effort. No team wants to be slowing down by the end of the race, after all. In this sense, a hard and fast finish will mean an athlete can exert themselves for a shorter amount of time before bonking out.
Assuming that your boat is dead-even with the competition, travelling at the same speed, and the other crew maintains the same speed through the finish line, your crew will need to accelerate to pass the other boat. This is where a “finish” is useful in the most basic sense.
Acceleration requires the application of more force and power to the water. This power ramp can be applied gradually over a period of time or more aggressively in a compressed time frame. It obviously takes more energy to accelerate quickly and it is relatively more difficult to accelerate a moving boat than it is a stopped one (really!).
A crew that takes a more gradual approach to the finish may reduce the fatigue associated with accelerating the boat but will need to avoid making the finish so long that fatigue causes hull speed to drop before the finish line. The competition also poses a variable for when and how to run a finish. Calling the finish after that of other nearby crews potentially demands your boat to accelerate in a shorter amount of time to avoid being passed. Being “forced” to finish on account of another teams potentially better race piece may result in excess fatigue for your crew and decreased performance.
Most coaches recommend racing your own race, which has plenty of wisdom to it, however when up against close competition the ability to adapt on the fly is very useful when winning is all that matters.
Reading through an edition of PTinMotion Magazine, I stumbled upon a quick article citing the findings and recommendations of a Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, MD of Loyola University Medical Center and his efforts to study risk factors of overuse injuries in young athletes ages 8-18. I haven’t read his actual study, but I’m assuming most of the subjects of the study were not participants of dragon boat paddling. Even if this were true, the repetitive and strenuous nature of paddling does present a risk for developing overuse injuries in youth and adult paddlers alike.
Dr. Jayanthi’s recommendations were as follows:
(Keep in mind these are angled towards athletes age 8-18)
– Athletes should not spend more hours per week than their age playing sports
– Athletes should not spend more than twice as much time playing organized sports as they spend in gym and unorganized play
– Athletes should not specialize in 1 sport before late adolescence
– Athletes should not play sports competitively year-round
– Athletes should take at least 1 day off per week from sports training
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Take Home Message for Paddlers
Youth paddling in the Bay Area and many other places around the world is fast becoming a popular practice. The teamwork, leadership, and athletic benefits of dragon boat as a sport are undeniable in promoting the present and future well being of young people. What generally concerns me is how far behind dragon boat coaching and training are to more established sports such as basketball, running, or crew just to name a few. Many coaches are qualified only by their passion and first-hand experience in the sport but not by their education in physical or sport training. There is also a lack of specific studies regarding the impact of long-term dragon boat paddling on developing and mature athletes. As a result, dragon boat paddlers and coaches will need to rely on the generalization of information found in studies like Dr. Jayanthi’s to help promote the longevity of their athletes in the sport.
Point by point, here are my recommendations based upon those from the study:
– Athletes should avoid paddling more than 18 hours per week.
Yeah, I know extrapolating the study recommendations would mean if you’re 40 years old you should be able to paddle up to 40 hours per week, but that’s literally like a full-time job! Paddling is not your job. 18 hours of paddling would be 2.5 hours per day, longer if you take a rest day (see below). I am not aware of any top team on the west coast that practices anywhere close to this amount and not still perform well on an international level. I believe teams can do more good for performance in far less amount of water time than this number.
– On-water training should not exceed twice the amount of time spent cross-training
This would often prove to be the strongest cap to on-water paddling time. For example, if you work out in the gym 1 hour daily, that’s 7 hours per week and your on-water time should not exceed 14 hours per week. What this allows paddlers to do is stay well-rounded. Varying activities helps to balance your strengths/weaknesses, rest your affected paddling anatomy, and give you a mental break as well to minimize overuse injuries and mental burnout.
– For young paddlers, stay active in at least one other sport or athletic endeavor
Again, varying activities not only reduces the risk of overuse injuries in the primary sport, but in growing athletes, helps to develop better kinesthetic skill and diverse interests for future health. I’m sure you’ve all known at least one person who was injured playing a sport growing up and has become a generally sedentary person ever since. Having other interests can help avoid this. There is also such a push to get kids “serious” about sports earlier and earlier that it’s really quite ridiculous. The promise of college scholarships, parent bragging rights, and shiny trophies are only part of the hysteria. This mentality has also lead to progressive rates in sport injuries among young athletes. With ZERO scholarships available for dragon boat paddlers, the danger of getting too serious, too fast still exists and is preventable.
– Paddlers, take some time off after the big race
Coaches, set your season goals and training plan around your chosen event and make sure the team gradually progresses towards peaking at that point. After the main event is completed, give yourself and your paddlers a break. Organizing long term training into progressive peaks and valleys helps reduce injury and allows for long term improvements to be made.
– Paddlers should avoid paddling more than 6 days per week
What more can I say about the importance of taking a break?
Use these tips to be a more well-rounded, healthier, and happier athlete!
There is some evidence suggesting that clenching your teeth may actually help you gain an ergogenic advantage in sport performance…at least in terms of strength and power development.
er·go·gen·ic: increasing capacity for bodily or mental labor especially by eliminating fatigue symptoms (merriam-webster)
This ergogenic effect is thought to occur via a complex and still-being-studied neurological phenomenon termed concurrent activation potentiation or CAP. For example, subjects clenching their jaws showed 12.1% higher rates of force development (RFD) and 15.1% improved results during grip strength testing and even continued to show short term improvements after relaxing their jaws compared to subjects tested without clenching. Another study showed improved RFD and time to peak force (TTPF) in subjects performing a jump in place.
What does this have to do with paddling?
To date, a quick search on Pubmed reveals there to be 28 studies relating to dragon boat and a majority of them are focusing on the benefits the sport holds for breast cancer survivors. It will probably be a while before the effects of CAP are studied in relation to dragon boat specifically, but at the cost of clenching vs not clenching your teeth, why not try it?
Imagine your paddlers being 15% stronger and 12% quicker at exerting force for those first few strokes off the line! If that’s not tapping hidden athletic potential without illegal drugs, I don’t know what is.
Power delivery is most easily applied and also critical to a race start situation. I say power delivery is “easier” during the start not because it takes less effort, but because the boat and water are relatively stationary to each other, which allows paddlers (both trained and untrained alike) to crank hard with decent efficiency. As boat speed increases, it takes a great deal more experience and training to efficiently put power into the water (one of the reasons why world-class teams finish races faster with fewer total strokes as novice crews). Although jaw clenching is probably a very common pre-sport action, dragon boat is a team sport that relies on the sum of its parts. Imagine your paddlers being 15% stronger and 12% quicker at exerting force for those first few strokes off the line! If that’s not tapping hidden athletic potential without illegal drugs, I don’t know what is.
The other reason why I propose the CAP effect may work best during the start is that there is currently no evidence that suggests the parameters of jaw clenching on prolonged athletic performance. So far, all the evidence shows only a concurrent or short term improvement in performance with jaw clenching. Plus, your masticators may be pretty tired after 2 minutes of continuous clenching.
Maybe jaw clenching is useless, maybe it’s something everybody already does, but it could also be one of the most overlooked areas of sport performance technique.
Of course, if clenching your jaw causes you pain, don’t do it! Sometimes you just have to use your brain and not your teeth to paddle better.