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Thank you

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

Power on readers, there’s more to come!


Physics of Acceleration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In the pursuit of gains

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

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

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

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

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

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


Long or short pull?

You can’t escape drag…

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

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

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

Pull and Recover

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

Style 1: Long Pullback

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

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

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

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

Style 2: Dippy Stroke

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

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

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

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

The Snail and Cheetah

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

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

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

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

Don’t forget what boat you’re in

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

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


Finding Your Torque: The Way of the Leopard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neck Crane Fault

Neck Crane Fault

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

Head Banger Fault

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

Drawbridge Fault

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

Roll Up Fault

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

Knock Knee Fault

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

Chicken Wing Fault

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

Choo Choo Fault

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

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

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

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

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


Turn On Your Off Season

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

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

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

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

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


Goooaaaallll!

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

1.  Know what the team wants

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

2.  Know what to do

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

3.  Know what you want

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

4.  Know how you are doing

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

5.  Put it all together

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


Avoiding Overuse Injuries

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

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

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

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

–  Athletes should not specialize in 1 sport before late adolescence

–  Athletes should not play sports competitively year-round

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

For more information click here

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!


Body Lean

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

Why Armpit to Gunnel Doesn’t Help

What propels the boat?  The paddlers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much lean is optimal?

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

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

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

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


Putting Your Best Leg Forward

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

Inside vs Outside Leg Forward

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

DB paddlers with inside leg forward

C1 canoe racing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tips for Video Analysis of Paddling Technique

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

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

1.  Stick to a System

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

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

2.  Get General Before Specific

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

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

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

3.  Imagine Change

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

4.  Make Change

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

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


Once you go black…

…you never go back (to a wood paddle, that is).

At least that’s been a common trend for paddlers following the rise in popularity of carbon fiber paddles hitting the market.  Paddlers will often find themselves in the dilemma of choosing an “advanced” paddle as soon as they feel they are getting “advanced” but what are the pros and cons of different paddle materials?

A dragon boat team using mixed paddles

Getting Woody

IMO, you can’t beat the look of a brand-new Grey Owl “high-performance” wood paddle is a thing of beauty.  Shiny lacquer over carefully joined pieces of ash and basswood give a great look that holds up to years of use.

Despite a claimed weight of 570g (at 51″), many top dragon boat teams and excellent athletes utilize this type of paddle with good results.  It’s also a steal at less than $60.

Wood paddles are generally the first type of paddle that dragon boaters utilize when learning the sport, because it’s so economical for clubs to stock them and they are VERY resilient to clacks/dings.

Essentially, a high performance wood paddle can be tough, cheap, and perform great.  If you’ve never tried a carbon paddle, you’ll never know how the wood paddle compares, so stop reading, buy a high performance paddle and be done with it.

Oh but whataboutacarbonpaddle?

The future is here!  No jet packs, but laminate paddles made of carbon fiber and occasionally Kevlar weave.  The IDBF regs allowing paddles “made from any materials” fitting the controlled dimensions and design restrictions is a real game-changer.

Despite the lack of objective 3rd party comparisons, all carbon paddle designs generally aim to cut weight and increase rigidity compared to the traditional wood design.  The “cutting edge” nature of composites (despite being around for almost 100 years) keeps prices significantly higher than wood paddles.

For a carbon paddle that can be 55% lighter, supposedly stiffer, and almost 5x more expensive than a wood paddle, is it worth it?  It’s all subjective, really.  Here are my thoughts.

Carbon paddles are often touted as being for the most hardcore of paddlers, but let’s compare this to the carbon bicycle market.  Sure, pro’s use carbon and other high-tech material bikes, but it’s the average Joe (who has $1-20k) that makes the market go round.  Same goes for dragon boat paddles.  Pro’s choose ’em, Joe’s use ’em.

I’ve heard folks mention a possible disadvantage to using a carbon paddle is that it is “too stiff” for a novice paddler and can result in increased risk of injury.  I personally don’t think this makes sense.  First, stiffness is the resistance of a material to deformation in response to an applied force.  It is the paddler that applies the force.  That force a paddler exerts doesn’t change based on what the paddle is made of.

Most injuries that are atraumatic (in large scale) occur from repetition of faulty mechanics.  A paddler that is not fit enough to paddle with good mechanics is likely to develop injuries regardless of their equipment.  Heck, it would probably happen if they air-paddled for hours on end without a paddle.

The advantages of a paddle that is stiffer is that there should be higher efficiency of force transmission to the water, meaning less energy is wasted flexing the paddle and more is put towards shoving the boat forward.  There should be a net energy savings for the paddler here.

A lighter paddle also means less energy spent through recovery and may reduce the strain associated with using a heavier paddle at the same given stroke rate for any length of time.

All together, I’d say using a carbon paddle is less likely to cause an injury than some may think.

Stiffness can most definitely affect “feel” and carbon paddles are also notorious for having wildly different weight distributions between blade, shaft, and handle brand to brand as compared to wood paddles.  Each of these aspects will affect how the paddle feels on recovery and through the pull.

For those who are on the fence about wood vs carbon, Kialoa makes a hybrid wood and carbon paddle so you can supposedly get the best of both ebony and ivory worlds.

The choice is yours!  Best of luck to making the change to carbon OR changing back.


Uniform Technique: How critical is it?

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?

Even clones don't guarantee uniform stroke technique

Even clones don’t guarantee uniform stroke technique

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.


Train to Fail

“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.

dbexhaustionA 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.

mphelps

Michael Phelps with the energy to celebrate AFTER setting a world record.  Perfect practice = perfect performance.

Coaching Recommendations

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.

For example:

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!


Musings: The Stretch/Shortening Cycle

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.


United We Stand

Congratulations to all paddlers for a fantastic race at Treasure Island this past weekend.  Huge thanks goes to those who helped us steer our heats so smoothly and precisely.

With this race concluding the season for our mixed crew, several things come to my mind.  First, we just completed what I believe to be our most challenging season ever.  From the strength and commitment of just a few paddlers at every practice, we’ve managed to pull together a solid crew for every race this season.  Though every team at some point faces the same challenges in keeping practices productive and seats filled, SFL has always seemingly managed to do more with less.  It’s a team trait that has made us great when rosters were full and kept us in competitive lanes this season.

Second, 2013 will mark SFL’s 10th anniversary.  With 2 paddlers remaining from this crew, SFL has clearly been through its fair share of member turnover through the years.  Be it for 1 race or 1 year on the team, every former member of SFL who has graced our boat is sorely missed.  I do find it satisfying to see that many former SFL paddlers become coaches and leaders on other Bay Area teams and valued members wherever they choose to find themselves in dragon boat.  As familiar faces leave the team, new faces present themselves every year; adding to the rich tapestry that is SFL.

As volatile as the roster has been over the years, the strength of the team comes from its strong bonds among teammates.  Our members don’t paddle for the flag we wave, the jersey colors we wear, or the medals to be won.  I would paddle my hands raw to get the team over the finish line because I know everybody on this team works just as hard alongside me.  We are eclectic in our backgrounds but united in our fighting spirit towards a common goal — doing our absolute best as SFL paddlers regardless of finishing place.

The end of this 2012 season will, undoubtedly, see some of our members to other teams or to time away from the sport in general.  As 2013 draws near, I am eager to greet new faces and meet new challenges as one team: united.

Until then, team.  10 years strong.  You make it happen.  We make it happen together.


Long Beach Debrief

Hey everybody,

Since I didn’t get around to debriefing you all after Sunday’s races, I figured I would post up here and let you all speed through it from the comfort of your own home/place of using a smart device.

First and foremost, I wanted to say thank you for putting in the time to practice, travel, and race with the team.  We made the decision as a group to do this months ago and we are sticking to it.  I personally thought we did very well the entire weekend.  Our gender races were aggressive and effective, especially for the women.  You ladies did an awesome job racing against the best teams in California!  It is my hope that we can organize several practices with Cal in the upcoming weeks to TI to further develop the performance and cohesion of the gender boats.

I thought our mixed races were a testament to our roots as a small, hardened group of paddlers.  We raced with heart and we gave all that we could until there was no more to give.  I only managed to snag the GPS on our semi-finals race and you can check it out here:

http://ridewithgps.com/trips/816646

Our consistency was good AND we managed to pick up the speed of the boat in the finish, which is always difficult.  We need to work on being more consistent mid-race to avoid the gradual decline in speed and power.  This will be our primary focus in the coming weeks on the lake. Finishing in 8th place might sound bad, but you should remember the teams that we raced against were at an advantage.  Having a full, well-trained crew with their own steersperson and drummer goes a long way towards better racing.  We were lucky to have Bob, Brian, Gary, Tom, and Audrey to help us out, but we cannot overcome their learning curve with being on a new boat.  You all remember how challenging it was to hop into the Cal boat and do their race piece for the first time.  Even in our own boat with a full crew, we generally take 1-2 heats to really figure out how best to race in the conditions that we are faced with.  This weekend’s racing was not our most consistent.

As for consistency regarding our sprint piece, I must apologize personally for how we performed.  You all know a team is made of individuals working behind a unified cause.  There are always different opinions among individuals, but being a team is about trusting your teammates to do their best in supporting that unified cause.  Our primary goal this year was to race as our own group regardless of what the results may be.  Individuals, including myself, always will wish for better performance or better attendance, but it is not our team’s primary goal this year.  We sprinted with a paddling rate that made sure we sapped every paddler in our boat to the absolute limit by, or even before (like me), the finish line.  If I had a time machine to go back and rate down the sprint, I would but I can’t.  If you’ve seen this before (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-6M5FukAoE), maybe Leonidas was thinking “Man, I should have accepted that crippled guy after all” or “I should have brought my Spear of Accuracy +2” but he lead himself and his brave, brawny men to the bitter end of a zillion arrows just to prove a bigger point.

Together we paddled harder and faster in that sprint than we ever have at practice or any other race we had ever done.  Even though our mixed crew did not come away with medals and bling, I chose to use the sprint race as a way to show us the limit.  Right now, there is no way we can paddle beyond that level of output, but we can certainly work to paddle right up to it.  If there’s anything I know as an athlete, it’s that knowing your absolute limit is critical to performing better.

We will be working very very hard in these coming weeks to continue our progress this season.  Now that you know your limit, I will push us to surpass it.

Thanks everybody and great job!

Geoff


Science Digest: Rowing Efficiency

 

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.

The Propulsive Efficiency of Rowing by Dr. Valery Kleshnev

The Digest

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)


Sprint Race 2012

Stay strong
Stay true
Stay passionate
Stay together.

Congratulations to a race well run, paddlers of SFL.  This is why I coach.


Sixth on the Fifth

May Race is over and with it, the official start of the mixed dragon boat team season in the Bay Area.  In a series of heats true to form, the SFL Dragon Boat Team once again demonstrated itself to be a team not to be ignored.  With a single crew comprised of 75% SFL paddlers and 25% Lightwave paddlers, the team managed some of the most competitive race starts in the field.  Credit goes to the Lightwave paddlers for quickly adapting to the SFL starting count with just a single practice start prior to the Seeding heat.  Our token Cardinal paddler, Brendan, also did a great job at meshing in with the crew for our later races and showed us how much more in shape we could be if we could only reverse the sands of time.

Special thanks goes out to Katherine, Jeannie, Rebecca, Ashes, and Hon for helping to carry the SFL crew into A-Division 6th place.

A big thank you also must go out to those SFL paddlers who made the commitment to keep the team racing this year at May Race: Huy, Erica, Cory, Megan, Christine, Marissa, Will Huang, Will Lam, Jerome, Henley, Jacky, Allen, Jon, Marissa, Solongo, Shelley, and Derek.  Thank you to short-haired Bonita for offering to paddle when we were in need.

The team of “Smooth Wind Dragons” breathes again!


Paddle Length and You

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.

Background

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.

Lower Triangle

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.

Fig 1

Upper Triangle

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).

Fig 2

Fig 3

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.

Recommendations

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.


What To Do If the Boat Starts to Sink

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.


Rock the Boat

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.


Why You Can’t Lift the Boat

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.