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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?