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Watt’s it all about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

martin forstemann

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

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


That lovin’ feelin’

“Whoaa that lovin’ feelin.”

When I wasn’t yet a coach, I remember ALWAYS being seated in rows 5-7.  I felt good because I felt like I was part of the engine room…you know, that part of a vehicle that makes it go?  It was like no other part of the boat mattered.  Power decided everything and power was what we had with a bunch of beefy dudes farting and smelling up the middle of the boat (sorry rows 8+).  We always were trying to bump the rate and just go faster.  At every rest break, we’d get yelled at by folks in rows 1-4.  It became bad for the team inter-personally and performance-wise to have such segregated sections of the crew; each with their own apparent roles and lack of empathy for each other.  At the time, all I thought was that the timing box was a place to chill out and just paddle easily in time like a drone, never changing, rigid and inflexible.  Rate nazis….

After becoming a coach, I suddenly had the whole crew looking to me to address things and the best way I could was to realize that, yes, certain areas of the boat had advantages and disadvantages to making the boat perform better.  I had to establish clear roles and responsibilities to sections of the crew while also giving the crew common goals and guidelines to being tighter as a whole.

This post is an ode to the timing box and what I feel it takes to create a good one.

What is the timing box?

It’s traditionally the front section of the boat involving rows 1-2 or even to row 4.  I always likened the section of the crew to the “brains” of the boat, not just because they were typically female paddlers (no offense fellas) but because there are several unique reasons why they control the way a boat races and runs while also having some unique limitations to how they cannot control the boat.

Generally speaking, the benches of the timing box are occupied by physically smaller and more experienced paddlers.  If you’ve never sat up there, try it some day at a practice as it can be eye-opening.  The gunnel curves inwards acutely as you get to row 1, forcing you to rotate your body WAY more to get good paddle attack angle.  The floor also slopes upwards slamming your thighs/knees into your chest, limiting your reach.  Smaller paddlers often can cope with the cramped space better with less compromise to their stroke technique.  Weight distribution of the boat fore/aft is also a consideration, especially when there may be a drummer basically sitting  on the very bow of the boat.  Too heavy up front and you might be taking on a bunch of water at speed due to the wake, too heavy in back and paddlers up front can’t even bury their blades in the water fully in addition to plowing the boat through the water like a swimmer with their feet low and head bobbling above the surface.

It’s a section of the boat where a paddler may only get visual feedback on timing from 1-3 paddlers, if at all.  Timing almost entirely becomes a task that falls upon inter-row communication and proprioceptive feel (your body sense).  Everybody behind the timing box sees what they do and any fluctuations in paddling rate or technique ripple backwards through the crew, causing either amplified chaos or unified modulations.  On race day, their connection to the drummer helps to further unify the boat based on the crew’s chain of command (hmm, future post maybe?).  Clearly, experience goes a long way in managing a group of 16 other paddlers through a crazy game of telephone.

Back when SFL was in its hey-day, crew rostering was always being tweaked from rows 3-10 but rarely in 1-2.  At practices, I’d always be chatting with the timing box during rest breaks between sets for feedback on how the boat felt to them, what they thought we could change, and how they felt we could execute those changes.  The reason for putting the timing box feedback first was that they knew when changes were happening in the boat without them initiating it.  Their feedback gave great insight into various cause/effect issues we’d run into (eg rushing, clean settle into race pace, acceleration on finish).  Our timing box was so used to being with each other, row 1 was even occupied by identical twins!  Now that takes being on the same page to a whole new level.  (I’m not saying you need identical twins on board just to make things work, but it certainly worked for us!).

An experienced timing box is like the carburetors or fuel injection system of your car.  They signal for more, the engine pours on the power.  They ease off, the engine eases off.  This is where experience and feel of the timing box make a huge difference in team performance.  The novice timing box is numb to how the boat is running, how the race conditions are, and what needs to be actually run to get max performance.  They will execute the pre-programmed rate jumps just as in practice (if you’re lucky).  Acceleration is notchy at best on the start because all they know is that they must get from 0 to race pace via X many total strokes and the rate changes every Y count.

Compare that to a great timing box that has 4 paddlers working as one mind to feel the race conditions and pace the start in a progressive way to accelerate smoothly and quickly to race pace.  Progressive is the key word.  Say the start is a simple 5-10-10.  The 25 strokes will feature variable stroke technique and variable rate changes between 1-5, 6-15, and 16-25 to drive the boat off the line.  In this level of crew, the start count is almost irrelevant besides the fact that counting for a short period helps unify the crew during a highly technical and highly important part of the race.  The reason why this scenario gives superior performance is that it relies upon the feeling and judgement of the timing box to avoid the crew wasting time, energy, and speed on paddling in a way that fails to accelerate smoothly to race pace.  The same can be said about the settle into race pace.  That rate drop should depend entirely upon the timing box’s decision on how the boat is running once the start count is completed.

Who can’t be in the timing box?

Nobody.  Like I said earlier, the demands of race day may dictate practice arrangements where the timing box is always kept intact and up front, but the front of the boat is a trippy place to be (trust me, I’ve fallen off the bow a handful of times to take a dunk or crowd surf).  Seriously, though, the experience that can be gained from being in rows 1-3 can really help ALL your paddlers develop better skills that can help the entire crew on race day.

Those skills are (in no particular order):

  • how to establish solid timing with less visual feedback
  • how to drive the boat for best performance
  • feel how the crew responds to changes you make (also how long does it take?  what is the limit to changes the crew will respond to?)
  • how to paddle well in water that is more “virgin” and undisturbed from others’ paddles
  • how to communicate with people behind you (without flatulence)

If you have the luxury of practice time to spare (what team actually does, I don’t know), try having all of your paddlers spend some minutes up there at some point during the season.  You will have a crew that understands each other as they never had before and your race results will show it.  Guaranteed or I’ll personally refund your blog view.


Rounding back? It may be your hips

The Problem

If you see folks who look like this picture below every time they reach, the causes could be multifactorial.  I’ve written about hamstring flexibility before and that can certainly be a contributing factor to losing low back stability on the reach.  Another cause that I haven’t written about is hip mobility and that’s what this post will focus on.

Drawbridge Fault

Because the low back is anchored to the pelvis and the pelvis connects to the hips, leaning forward on the reach involves flexing the hip and rocking the pelvis anteriorly (think of a ball rolling forward).  If all goes well, the low back can stay in a neutral position as if you were sitting bolt upright and simply tipped forward while reaching your arms out.  Now, if the hips stop early in flexion (think of stuffing a basketball under your shirt and bending forward), the pelvis stops and the low back must round for you to continue to reach.

The Solution

Now, while I’m a rehab professional who understands the body very well, I can’t claim to have come up with all the great solutions to helping it along.  For that, I look to those who have done the hard work already with good results.  Kelly Starrett is one of those PTs.  Here are 2 videos of him demonstrating methods to improving hip mobility.

As usual, feel free to leave me your questions and comments below!

 


FTP & Sweet Spot Training

In 2 years time, I’ve forgotten that I used to eat/sleep/breathe/read/write dragon boat blog material daily, what my password for the blog is, the password for the recovery email this blog is linked to, and (probably) how many sore muscles appear from resuming a sport you haven’t done in that amount of time!

What have I been doing all this time?  Well, for starters, being as good a father as I can be!  This is probably the number one reason I haven’t returned to the sport I still love so dearly.  Without a doubt, there are thousands of great parents in the sport of dragon boat  that balance family life with life on the water.  It was my personal decision to take a leave from the water in order to work on being a new parent and I have no regrets.  As for fitness, I’ve turned to riding road bicycles several times per week.  It’s quicker to get in a workout than paddling (IMO) and just as fun while being supremely challenging.

This brings me to the main topic of FTP or Functional Threshold Power.  It’s a term that has been tossed around greatly among cycling communities for its relevance to cycling performance and fitness; however, it is a relevant metric for any human-powered racing sport.  Basically, it is a guide to how hard somebody can perform an exercise for 1 hour.  It is a measurement that helps guide training and exertion during competition.

You might be saying that paddling hard for 1 hour takes completely different fitness than the ~2 minutes it takes for a 500 meter race and you’d be mostly correct.  While different energy stores and muscle fiber types are emphasized depending on the event at hand, FTP has a wide application to athletic performance in a race.  To quote Nate Wilson from the TrainingPeaks website:

It might not seem like FTP has much bearing on ability to sprint, but it very much does. FTP almost can be thought of as a sponge. The higher this number is, the bigger [the athlete’s] sponge is, and the more efforts they can absorb. Every time a race goes hard, it will take less out of the athlete with the higher FTP, and in return they will have more energy left in the tank for a big selection or for the sprint at the end.”

In cycling, FTP is most accurately calculated using a power meter: a device that measures how many watts you are generating as you ride.  To the best of my knowledge, the only power meter specifically for dragon boat paddlers is the Merlin Excalibur II.  The last time I checked, the Excalibur “v1.0” cost over $1k.  Considering how many paddlers there are in a dragon boat, the effectiveness of testing with a power meter quickly boils down to 1) how long can the team paddle hard together to get a good measure on 1-2 paddlers using the meter or 2) is the entire team willing to shell out the cash for 20 Excaliburs (never mind the issue of paddle lengths)?  The other option is using an erg or similar setup.  The one caveat I can think of is replicating how a full boat feels at race pace.  There are likely coaches out there who know more about settings to use to achieve this than I.

As with cycling, the purchase of a power meter is not essential to proper training to improve FTP.  FTP still exists even when it cannot be directly measured and calculated.  A rough estimate can be made using a simple heart rate monitor.  Here’s  how:

30 Minute Threshold Heart Rate Test
Warmup 10-15 minutes with 2-4 x 30 sec hard intervals; hit “Lap” on the device
20 minute set at steady effort where:
–  first 1/3 feels fairly easy, wait for effort to “come to you”
–  second 1/3 lets you know if you can sustain to end
–  last 1/3 feels VERY VERY hard to maintain power but you can to the end

Check your average heart rate for the last 20 minute of the set to estimate the Lactic Threshold Heart Rate.  Using this number, calculate your heart rate zones using the “Bike Zones” table here.  I am opting to utilize the bike zones over the run zones because biking presents greater resistance per “rep” if you will vs running, which may compare more closely the physicality of paddling.  Please note that variables such as body temp, hydration, caffeine, humidity, altitude, and fatigue can influence HR measurements.

Once you have calculated your zones, you can get into Sweet Spot training, which is exercise somewhere between Zone 3-4.  The benefits of Sweet Spot training have been shown to yield the greatest improvements in FTP over time aka bang for your buck.

What’s a Sweet Spot workout look like?  I’ve read cycling coaches suggest 5-20 minute intervals separated by rest interval of 50% the length of the effort (e.g. for 10 min at effort, rest 5 min till the next set).  Apparently the “gold standard” of FTP workouts is 2×20 min at Zone 4.  As you would expect, beginners or novice athletes should start with shorter sets with fewer reps like 3 x 10 min, while elite paddlers may rep it out like crazy (2x60min!) so long as working in the correct zones.

These workouts can be followed all season long, but scaled to match the fitness and needs of the athletes/team.  As with all types of physiological adaptation, FTP is something that changes slowly.  At 1-2 FTP workouts per week, it can take weeks to months for your investment to see returns, but like strength and other power training, a benefit is a benefit and faster is faster.


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.


A little about carbon fiber

Ever wondered how paddle manufacturers make paddles lighter and stiffer or why some manufacturers indicate certain degrees of fragility to their paddles?  Well, I’m still figuring this out as well, but in so doing, I found a good explanation from Calfee Design, a local business that specializes in carbon fiber repair work for bicycles.

Check it out here!


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!


2013 Dragon Boat Paddle Comparisons

It’s been 4 years

since my last survey of dragon boat paddles available to athletes the world round.  With the growing popularity of dragon boat, changes in IDBF paddle dimension allowances, and improvements in manufacturing processes, some brands have flourished and others have faded away.  New philosophies in paddling performance and function have lead to many innovative products.

I’ve scoured the internet to find published prices and updated information on each paddle model from the manufacturer whenever possible.  If there is a major brand I’ve left out, please let me know and I’ll look into it!

Without further ado, here is the 2013 Dragon Boat Paddle Comparison List!


Finish It…Slowly?

How much paddling effort is optimal for different parts of the race?  Certainly very few if any athletes can go 100% effort for 2 continuous minutes without fatigue affecting performance, so for a 500 meter race, it behooves the athlete and coach to know how effort can best be used to pace the race in order to get the best time.

Physiology review!

Our muscles contain several different types of fibers, each with their own attributes that allow us a range of force-exerting capabilities from holding a baby kitten to performing a heavy dead lift.  Motor control is a complex system within the brain but outside the spinal cord, things get simpler.  This is what we can focus on for the scope of this post.  Motor neurons of different sizes connect like wires to muscle fibers, stimulating them to twitch and eventually reach sustained contraction, or tetanus, with enough action potentials/electrical signal.

We can group motor neurons into 2 main groups, large and small.  Likewise muscle fibers can be grouped into 2 main types, Type I and Type IIa/IIx.  Small motor neurons recruit Type I muscle fibers, which are slow to contract, produce low force, but are very fatigue resistant.  Think of the muscles that operate your eyelids.  Unless you’re the average college student, those things stay open most of the day and possibly through late nights in places your mother shouldn’t know about.  Similar muscle fibers operate even when you are walking.  Most healthy individuals can walk and talk with minimal fatigue.

Large motor neurons carry fast electrical signals to your so-called “fast-twitch” muscle fibers.  These fibers take relatively more signal to contract, but once they do, they produce high amounts of force in a short period of time.  They also fatigue quickly.  Going from a walk to a sprint or performing a box jump will fire these Type II muscle fibers.

Muscle Fibers in Paddling

Paddling is a mix of muscle fiber utilization, as many daily activities are as well.  The start of the race is strenuous because the boat is at a standstill and the water feels very thick/heavy.  Taking hard strokes through this situation will favor the Type II fibers.  As the boat reaches race pace and the speed plateaus, less emphasis on power per stroke (and thus less fatigue per stroke) can be applied to simply maintain race pace and hull speed vs accelerate the boat.  Have you ever been on a boat where the crew hits an overrate and keeps it there?  I have (a few times) and it doesn’t end well.  Rating down and reducing power per stroke results in a lower reliance upon Type II fibers for paddling and less fatigue.

Some teams may call powers or some equivalent bump in effort to strategically stay ahead of other racers or simply to fight a gradual decline in hull speed.  Again, taking harder or faster strokes will result in more Type II fibers being recruited, which will contribute to fatigue.

For the finish, is it better to pull a hard and fast acceleration or a gradual one?  It depends.  Highly trained athletes with good conditioning will have a better ability to recruit Type II fibers with less fatigue, but you can’t fight the physiology of trying hard.  Fatigue will hit and sap the performance of any and all who exert 100% effort.  No team wants to be slowing down by the end of the race, after all.  In this sense, a hard and fast finish will mean an athlete can exert themselves for a shorter amount of time before bonking out.

Don’t Bonk!

Don’t Bonk!

Assuming that your boat is dead-even with the competition, travelling at the same speed, and the other crew maintains the same speed through the finish line, your crew will need to accelerate to pass the other boat.  This is where a “finish” is useful in the most basic sense.

Acceleration requires the application of more force and power to the water.  This power ramp can be applied gradually over a period of time or more aggressively in a compressed time frame.  It obviously takes more energy to accelerate quickly and it is relatively more difficult to accelerate a moving boat than it is a stopped one (really!).

A crew that takes a more gradual approach to the finish may reduce the fatigue associated with accelerating the boat but will need to avoid making the finish so long that fatigue causes hull speed to drop before the finish line.  The competition also poses a variable for when and how to run a finish.  Calling the finish after that of other nearby crews potentially demands your boat to accelerate in a shorter amount of time to avoid being passed.  Being “forced” to finish on account of another teams potentially better race piece may result in excess fatigue for your crew and decreased performance.

Most coaches recommend racing your own race, which has plenty of wisdom to it, however when up against close competition the ability to adapt on the fly is very useful when winning is all that matters.


Paddle Erg Setups

Paddle ergometers are increasingly popular among teams and paddlers looking for objective measures of paddling performance or perhaps dry land training alternatives.  While it’s my opinion that nothing absolutely replaces the training effects of actual water time, I don’t believe there is a single brand of paddling erg around that fails to claim it provides the most realistic dry land paddling experience out there.  The one thing you’ll notice about all paddling ergs is that…drum roll please….they don’t look like dragon boats.  You might say, “of course!  An erg isn’t a boat, my good sir!  A boat is a boat and an erg is an erg!” but when replication of the on-water experience is the goal, taking a look at how closely you can set up the erg to match your on-water setup becomes essential to realistic practice.

Below are the bench metrics I took of one of our local BuK boats, row by row, so that you may try to relate them to your erg setup by adjusting seat height and relative position of bench to the forward foot stop.

Row

A

B

1

11.25

27.75

2

12.5

28.5

3

13.3

29

4

14

29

5

14.25

29.25

6

14.25

29.5

7

13.75

29.25

8

13.1

29

9

12

29

10

11.25

29

A = Bench height over trough (the deepest portion of the hull, closest to the gunnel)

B = Distance of bench front to forward foot stop (linear parallel to long axis of hull, not diagonal from the gunnel)

Units = Inches

Using the 2 numbers you can potentially adjust the seat height and distance relative to the foot brace of the erg to replicate more closely the row that you normally paddle in.  One consideration I thought of for ergs that can replicate the bench to foot stop position is to avoid sitting so high relative to where the cable/rope feeds into the gyro that your “paddle” tip travels above the point during recovery, causing resistance onset to “lag” as one begins the pull phase.

Give it a try!