Yes, it’s been years since I’ve last written. No, I have NOT returned to paddling…but I have been interested in writing a short article about power, metering, and paddling for a while now. Since largely leaving the paddling “scene,” I’ve fallen (quite literally, at times) back on road cycling to maintain some semblance of physical fitness. For those of you looking for a great way to cross-train for aerobic fitness, I highly suggest it. Not only do you not need to wear a PFD, but you get to see the scenery actually change through the workout in a shorter period of time if, say, you rode at 16+mph for over an hour. But I digress. A few years ago I bought a time trial bicycle (you know those weird “triathlon” bikes with the T-shaped aero bars and the oh-so-awesome solid rear disc wheel?) and tried to work on getting better PR’s during a 10-mile oval ride. The bike was aero and fast but I found I had a hard time pacing such a longer event. The first 4 miles would be pretty good feeling, the second would be terrible, and I had a 50/50 chance of giving up during the last 2 miles to the finish line. I ended up getting a pedal-based power meter that could show me my real-time power output. Not only was it helpful to know my performance in the moment, but also was a great tool to help me pace the event and develop a better internal “fuel gauge.”
My ride experience is explained by a term called Functional Threshold Power or FTP. FTP is defined as the average power (or work done over time) for an hour-long, best effort. The reason for this has been explained that above your FTP wattage, your muscles will start to accumulate more lactate than it can clear, resulting in progressively lower performance. At or below that FTP level, your muscle is utilizing oxygen as its main fuel source at least as much as anaerobic fuel sources, which means it’s more sustainably fueled. In cycling and other endurance sports where power meters are more normally implemented, FTP tests can be performed using hour-long or even 20 minute-long sessions. While most dragon boat races are a great deal shorter than an FTP test and rely more upon anaerobic energy sources, IMO FTP is still a relevant metric to know in terms of pacing an effort for sustained and consistent performance. It basically boils down to: paddling at your FTP will get you within PR territory for a 20 minute effort and going harder will mean you will fatigue sooner. As an experiment, I’ve tried multiple consecutive efforts on the same day with adequate rest between bouts using 1) a stepped, progressive power output in, say, 3 phases 2) just holding X% greater than my FTP for the whole thing and 3) going a bit too hard early on and then trying to hold out till the end. The results? I found that my average power output was about the same for each attempt and the finishing times were very close as well, despite very different power profiles. This may support what you may already understand as an athlete, that there is a give and take to your performance during a race event. Burn out early, finish weak. Ease up between start/power sets and have some in the tank for the finish.
How does paddler power output manifest in team performance? In sports where quick acceleration can mean the difference between winning/losing, power to weight ratios can be a priority, meaning high power and low weight is better. In a 500m race, the only critical point of acceleration is during the start as typically hull speed doesn’t vary that much for the remainder of the event. As dragon boats plus crew are generally heavy and water resistance is a major resistor to hull speed and acceleration, I’d say that power:weight is not a priority for dragon boat as it would be for, say, crew or OC. So what? It means that a crew that is heavier but who can pump out more watts during the first 30 or so strokes will likely beat the crew that is lighter and less watts. High power output is important for the start and in any phase of acceleration (ie power sets and finish, if your race strategy utilizes them).
How do you produce more power? Since power is defined as the work being done over a period of time, there are 3 immediate methods assuming your technique is efficient: paddle the same effort but at higher rate, paddle harder per stroke at the same rate, or paddle harder AND faster. This is primary explanation for when you see multiple boats with very different technique and/or paddling rates racing neck and neck. They are all travelling at about the same steady velocity, which requires approximately the same power output to overcome hull drag. The winning team presents, at some point during the race, a better average power output. This is where paddling fitness and efficiency come into play. You may make the right number of watts but have poor technique and or poor fitness which makes it unsustainable and lowers your average output over the race course. As far as which of the 3 methods to producing more power should be emphasized, I would say paddling harder at increased rate is the way to go. It’s probably what comes naturally anyway, but the pitfall is that amateur paddlers will decline in paddling efficiency/technique in this situation (how many racers look composed and efficient during the finish at YOUR club regattas?) likely resulting in less power boost than desired or even less power altogether.
Practical suggestions to developing this on the water would be to gradually bring the boat up to whatever effort/speed the crew feels to be a competitive race pace. Practice bumping the effort per stroke and allowing the rate to “naturally” build. Hopefully you are seeing the boat speed increase. You can explore the crew’s red line in the same manner by practicing a maximal (but best technique) effort with race pace as the starting point. At some point there will be a plateau in speed which reflects the crew’s fitness and technique limitations. These drills, along with how your crew feels during/after them and if they can actively recover while still holding race pace, can be a “match” you can decide to burn during a race. The more fit your crew is, the more matches they can afford to burn during the race as the situation calls for before overall performance drops.
As far as physical training and fitness goes, I still see many paddlers putting a lot of time in power lifting and into gaining muscle mass by lifting weights. Power lifting and hypertrophied muscles can help your power and strength, but the pure anaerobic nature of these activities means you are developing the physical abilities that will likely ONLY HELP DURING THE RACE START. Yes. You read it right. If you haven’t heard it before, allow me to bust a myth right now. You don’t need big muscles to race well in the sport of dragon boat.
This is where the article comes full circle and I applaud you for making it this far. Maximizing power output over events lasting greater than several seconds relies heavily on the athlete’s ability to utilize aerobic, NOT anaerobic, energy sources and metabolic systems. Back to cycling, an olympic-level, male track cycling sprinter may weigh 200+ lbs and put out 2200+ watts for a handful of seconds because that’s what their event calls for. Contrast that with a male pro road cyclist who weighs 150 lbs but is able to sustain 400+ watts for over an hour. To put those watts into perspective, an average person would struggle to make even 800 watts for 1-2 seconds on the bike. The ability to sustain high amounts of power for over several seconds is not developed by lifting weights or power lifting. It’s by training longer duration efforts at the desired power output.
What does that mean for best training carryover? There’s no replacement for water time and aerobic training should be a priority for paddlers.
Disclaimer: This article isn’t about slamming weight lifting or power lifting or any other form of cross training or off-water exercise. Anything that improves your fitness can help paddling performance. The goal of the post is to explore the role of power as a tool for performance measurement and what training can translate to better power output on the water and biggest performance gains when racing.
“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.
If you see folks who look like this picture below every time they reach, the causes could be multifactorial. I’ve written about hamstring flexibility before and that can certainly be a contributing factor to losing low back stability on the reach. Another cause that I haven’t written about is hip mobility and that’s what this post will focus on.
Because the low back is anchored to the pelvis and the pelvis connects to the hips, leaning forward on the reach involves flexing the hip and rocking the pelvis anteriorly (think of a ball rolling forward). If all goes well, the low back can stay in a neutral position as if you were sitting bolt upright and simply tipped forward while reaching your arms out. Now, if the hips stop early in flexion (think of stuffing a basketball under your shirt and bending forward), the pelvis stops and the low back must round for you to continue to reach.
Now, while I’m a rehab professional who understands the body very well, I can’t claim to have come up with all the great solutions to helping it along. For that, I look to those who have done the hard work already with good results. Kelly Starrett is one of those PTs. Here are 2 videos of him demonstrating methods to improving hip mobility.
As usual, feel free to leave me your questions and comments below!
In 2 years time, I’ve forgotten that I used to eat/sleep/breathe/read/write dragon boat blog material daily, what my password for the blog is, the password for the recovery email this blog is linked to, and (probably) how many sore muscles appear from resuming a sport you haven’t done in that amount of time!
What have I been doing all this time? Well, for starters, being as good a father as I can be! This is probably the number one reason I haven’t returned to the sport I still love so dearly. Without a doubt, there are thousands of great parents in the sport of dragon boat that balance family life with life on the water. It was my personal decision to take a leave from the water in order to work on being a new parent and I have no regrets. As for fitness, I’ve turned to riding road bicycles several times per week. It’s quicker to get in a workout than paddling (IMO) and just as fun while being supremely challenging.
This brings me to the main topic of FTP or Functional Threshold Power. It’s a term that has been tossed around greatly among cycling communities for its relevance to cycling performance and fitness; however, it is a relevant metric for any human-powered racing sport. Basically, it is a guide to how hard somebody can perform an exercise for 1 hour. It is a measurement that helps guide training and exertion during competition.
You might be saying that paddling hard for 1 hour takes completely different fitness than the ~2 minutes it takes for a 500 meter race and you’d be mostly correct. While different energy stores and muscle fiber types are emphasized depending on the event at hand, FTP has a wide application to athletic performance in a race. To quote Nate Wilson from the TrainingPeaks website:
“It might not seem like FTP has much bearing on ability to sprint, but it very much does. FTP almost can be thought of as a sponge. The higher this number is, the bigger [the athlete’s] sponge is, and the more efforts they can absorb. Every time a race goes hard, it will take less out of the athlete with the higher FTP, and in return they will have more energy left in the tank for a big selection or for the sprint at the end.”
In cycling, FTP is most accurately calculated using a power meter: a device that measures how many watts you are generating as you ride. To the best of my knowledge, the only power meter specifically for dragon boat paddlers is the Merlin Excalibur II. The last time I checked, the Excalibur “v1.0” cost over $1k. Considering how many paddlers there are in a dragon boat, the effectiveness of testing with a power meter quickly boils down to 1) how long can the team paddle hard together to get a good measure on 1-2 paddlers using the meter or 2) is the entire team willing to shell out the cash for 20 Excaliburs (never mind the issue of paddle lengths)? The other option is using an erg or similar setup. The one caveat I can think of is replicating how a full boat feels at race pace. There are likely coaches out there who know more about settings to use to achieve this than I.
As with cycling, the purchase of a power meter is not essential to proper training to improve FTP. FTP still exists even when it cannot be directly measured and calculated. A rough estimate can be made using a simple heart rate monitor. Here’s how:
30 Minute Threshold Heart Rate Test
Warmup 10-15 minutes with 2-4 x 30 sec hard intervals; hit “Lap” on the device
20 minute set at steady effort where:
– first 1/3 feels fairly easy, wait for effort to “come to you”
– second 1/3 lets you know if you can sustain to end
– last 1/3 feels VERY VERY hard to maintain power but you can to the end
Check your average heart rate for the last 20 minute of the set to estimate the Lactic Threshold Heart Rate. Using this number, calculate your heart rate zones using the “Bike Zones” table here. I am opting to utilize the bike zones over the run zones because biking presents greater resistance per “rep” if you will vs running, which may compare more closely the physicality of paddling. Please note that variables such as body temp, hydration, caffeine, humidity, altitude, and fatigue can influence HR measurements.
Once you have calculated your zones, you can get into Sweet Spot training, which is exercise somewhere between Zone 3-4. The benefits of Sweet Spot training have been shown to yield the greatest improvements in FTP over time aka bang for your buck.
What’s a Sweet Spot workout look like? I’ve read cycling coaches suggest 5-20 minute intervals separated by rest interval of 50% the length of the effort (e.g. for 10 min at effort, rest 5 min till the next set). Apparently the “gold standard” of FTP workouts is 2×20 min at Zone 4. As you would expect, beginners or novice athletes should start with shorter sets with fewer reps like 3 x 10 min, while elite paddlers may rep it out like crazy (2x60min!) so long as working in the correct zones.
These workouts can be followed all season long, but scaled to match the fitness and needs of the athletes/team. As with all types of physiological adaptation, FTP is something that changes slowly. At 1-2 FTP workouts per week, it can take weeks to months for your investment to see returns, but like strength and other power training, a benefit is a benefit and faster is faster.
Most folks know and understand what torque is. Just in case you don’t remember high school physics, torque is defined as “the cross product of the lever-arm distance and force, which tends to produce rotation” (good ‘ole wikipedia). When paddling, there are many aspects of basic stroke technique that involve torque. You exert torque through the paddle to the water, your body exerts some torsion force on the paddle and the boat itself, etc this much is intuitive. What may not be as intuitive is how an innate metric like torque may actually be missing from key aspects of your stroke technique, leading to diminished performance and even increased risk of injury.
To quote Dr. Kelly Starrett in his book Becoming a Supple Leopard, “A stable, well-organized spine is the key to moving safely and effectively and maximizing power output and force production…midline stabilization and torque are two parts of a unifying system that work in conjunction with each other.” What does this mean? In basic terms, he is saying coordination and stability are key to producing and transferring max force. You may think that this boils down further to say, “if you’re buff and experienced, you’re golden” right? Not entirely. Raw strength does not equate to stability and experience does not always equate to better technique. For example, you may be able to deadlift 1.5x your body weight but do it in a sloppy way. You may also be highly experienced at performing an exercise but do so with poor technique. Both situations increase your risk for injury and prove to be limiting factors to improved performance.
Now think of paddling. Say you compared 3 paddlers of equal experience: Paddler 1 is strong but muscle-bound to the point where they can only take a short stroke, Paddler 2 is very flexible and can reach way out for a super long stroke but resembles a wet noodle when paddling, Paddler 3 has the most picture-perfect technique you can imagine and uses it with a seemingly effortless appearance. From my choice in descriptors, you can probably assume that Paddler 3 would be the best in a time trial situation and if you had a full crew of paddlers just like this person, it would be a more powerful, efficient, and faster boat than the others. What makes this paddler so effective compared to the others, given the fact that they all have equal experience? This is where finding good torque steps in.
If you search Youtube for paddling clinics, just about every speaker and coach talks about setting the blade firmly in the water on the catch. Some liken the feeling of planting the blade to having it “stuck” in the water as if in instant-dry concrete. Once a solid catch is obtained, then power is applied to the paddle to pull yourself (and your craft) up to the anchored blade. While this perspective takes into account the paddle in relation to the water, it tends to overlook what the paddler is doing once a firm anchor is set. If you get the paddle in the water perfectly but fail to find good torque through your body either because of joint instability, impaired motor control, or lacking of range of motion, you will NOT be able to exert good torque on that paddle.
So how do you know you are giving good torque? As a coach, what can you look for to know if good torque is being applied by your paddlers? From the first-person perspective, applying good torque requires you to be stable in neutral (or as close to neutral) spinal posture and have your extremities set and stabilized prior to actually applying power. The first stroke of a race start is probably the easiest and most intuitive way to find optimal torque because slow movement is generally easier to coordinate. Anchoring your blade 100% and setting yourself up to have your back straight, shoulder blades set down/together, feet braced against the foot stops, thigh pressing into the gunnel, and hands “pre-loading” the paddle, gives you stability before the GO. In setting up this position and using your muscles to make yourself as rigid as possible, you are using muscular torque to compress and stabilize your joints while taking up slack along your body frame, in turn making them great conductors of force. You will have a stronger, quicker and more precise drive on that first stroke just by having that setup. After you start to pull, practice keeping a firm and rigid frame through the pull to ensure you are not losing torque along the way.
As a coach, you can watch for paddlers holding good posture throughout the stroke cycle. Assuming the paddler is coordinating their paddle to your ideal, look for signs that they may be losing torque along the way and try to troubleshoot why this is happening (is it from lack of stability, lack of coordination, or lack of flexibility?). Dr. Starrett refers to movement patterns that diminish torque to be “faults” and gives them clever and funny names such as the Stripper Fault (having your booty pop up before the bar lifts when doing a good morning squat). Here are some common “faults,” complete with funny names, that I see in paddlers losing torque:
1. Neck Crane Fault: cranking your head up to look forward (say at the timing box) while you flex your trunk forward on the reach diminishes the stability of your shoulder blades before the catch.
2. Head Banger Fault: after entry and anchoring the blade, some paddlers will throw their head down violently in attempt to get better drive. Instead you are committing your neck muscles and scapular stabilizers to decelerating your bowling ball-weighted head instead of applying force to the paddle.
3. Drawbridge Fault: during recovery and reaching forward, the paddler rounds their back either as if slumping in a chair or sidebending (due to rotation) resembling a curved bridge. This unlocks the connection between your hips, pelvis and spine while destabilizing your upper body to take a good pull.
4. Roll Up Fault: after initiating the pull, the paddler’s pelvis rocks backwards, rounding the low back, and this rounding curve rolls up the spine to the head like a sinus wave. This is a dynamic fault that destabilizes your whole system and can actually start as a result of the Drawbridge Fault.
5. Knock Knee Fault: the paddler draws their knees together during the pull phase instead of pressing the outside leg into the gunnel and foot against foot stop. This fault diminishes the connection between paddler and boat, decreases leg drive power, and destabilizes the pelvis leading to more instability up the chain.
6. Chicken Wing Fault: when anchoring the blade, the paddler’s elbows go from tipped up towards the sky to down to the water, giving the appearance like they are doing the funky chicken dance. The apparent movement at the elbow is actually from the paddler not being able to stabilize their shoulders against the increasing load at the paddle while anchoring. This diminishes how quickly they can anchor the paddle and delays the point where they can produce force during the drive.
7. Choo Choo Fault: when pulling, the paddler breaks at the outside elbow, bending it and drawing it back making them appear like the crank of a locomotive as the wheels spin. Bending the bottom elbow during the pull prior to initiating recovery diminishes torque because there is movement occurring along what should be a solid frame.
(I’m sure I can think up many more faults, but I’m all out of zany nicknames right now)
When practicing finding torque, I wrote earlier that going slow is key. In the basic sense it’s easier to coordinate your body. When the rate increases, most paddlers’ mental focus goes from ensuring good pulls and form to just staying in time. I recommend drills that focus on strokes from dead stop or pause-type drills at a low rate to learn how to find torque.
Master torque application and you may yet become a supple water leopard! Rawr!
Sidenote: I am in no way affiliated with Dr. Starrett except in being a fellow physical therapist. I believe his book is a terrific guide to what physical therapists try to get their patients to understand everyday. If you get a chance to read the book, you’ll be miles ahead of the average athlete in terms of knowing how to minimize your risk for injury and improve your potential for improved performance.
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!
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!
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!
How much paddling effort is optimal for different parts of the race? Certainly very few if any athletes can go 100% effort for 2 continuous minutes without fatigue affecting performance, so for a 500 meter race, it behooves the athlete and coach to know how effort can best be used to pace the race in order to get the best time.
Our muscles contain several different types of fibers, each with their own attributes that allow us a range of force-exerting capabilities from holding a baby kitten to performing a heavy dead lift. Motor control is a complex system within the brain but outside the spinal cord, things get simpler. This is what we can focus on for the scope of this post. Motor neurons of different sizes connect like wires to muscle fibers, stimulating them to twitch and eventually reach sustained contraction, or tetanus, with enough action potentials/electrical signal.
We can group motor neurons into 2 main groups, large and small. Likewise muscle fibers can be grouped into 2 main types, Type I and Type IIa/IIx. Small motor neurons recruit Type I muscle fibers, which are slow to contract, produce low force, but are very fatigue resistant. Think of the muscles that operate your eyelids. Unless you’re the average college student, those things stay open most of the day and possibly through late nights in places your mother shouldn’t know about. Similar muscle fibers operate even when you are walking. Most healthy individuals can walk and talk with minimal fatigue.
Large motor neurons carry fast electrical signals to your so-called “fast-twitch” muscle fibers. These fibers take relatively more signal to contract, but once they do, they produce high amounts of force in a short period of time. They also fatigue quickly. Going from a walk to a sprint or performing a box jump will fire these Type II muscle fibers.
Muscle Fibers in Paddling
Paddling is a mix of muscle fiber utilization, as many daily activities are as well. The start of the race is strenuous because the boat is at a standstill and the water feels very thick/heavy. Taking hard strokes through this situation will favor the Type II fibers. As the boat reaches race pace and the speed plateaus, less emphasis on power per stroke (and thus less fatigue per stroke) can be applied to simply maintain race pace and hull speed vs accelerate the boat. Have you ever been on a boat where the crew hits an overrate and keeps it there? I have (a few times) and it doesn’t end well. Rating down and reducing power per stroke results in a lower reliance upon Type II fibers for paddling and less fatigue.
Some teams may call powers or some equivalent bump in effort to strategically stay ahead of other racers or simply to fight a gradual decline in hull speed. Again, taking harder or faster strokes will result in more Type II fibers being recruited, which will contribute to fatigue.
For the finish, is it better to pull a hard and fast acceleration or a gradual one? It depends. Highly trained athletes with good conditioning will have a better ability to recruit Type II fibers with less fatigue, but you can’t fight the physiology of trying hard. Fatigue will hit and sap the performance of any and all who exert 100% effort. No team wants to be slowing down by the end of the race, after all. In this sense, a hard and fast finish will mean an athlete can exert themselves for a shorter amount of time before bonking out.
Assuming that your boat is dead-even with the competition, travelling at the same speed, and the other crew maintains the same speed through the finish line, your crew will need to accelerate to pass the other boat. This is where a “finish” is useful in the most basic sense.
Acceleration requires the application of more force and power to the water. This power ramp can be applied gradually over a period of time or more aggressively in a compressed time frame. It obviously takes more energy to accelerate quickly and it is relatively more difficult to accelerate a moving boat than it is a stopped one (really!).
A crew that takes a more gradual approach to the finish may reduce the fatigue associated with accelerating the boat but will need to avoid making the finish so long that fatigue causes hull speed to drop before the finish line. The competition also poses a variable for when and how to run a finish. Calling the finish after that of other nearby crews potentially demands your boat to accelerate in a shorter amount of time to avoid being passed. Being “forced” to finish on account of another teams potentially better race piece may result in excess fatigue for your crew and decreased performance.
Most coaches recommend racing your own race, which has plenty of wisdom to it, however when up against close competition the ability to adapt on the fly is very useful when winning is all that matters.
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.
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!
There is some evidence suggesting that clenching your teeth may actually help you gain an ergogenic advantage in sport performance…at least in terms of strength and power development.
er·go·gen·ic: increasing capacity for bodily or mental labor especially by eliminating fatigue symptoms (merriam-webster)
This ergogenic effect is thought to occur via a complex and still-being-studied neurological phenomenon termed concurrent activation potentiation or CAP. For example, subjects clenching their jaws showed 12.1% higher rates of force development (RFD) and 15.1% improved results during grip strength testing and even continued to show short term improvements after relaxing their jaws compared to subjects tested without clenching. Another study showed improved RFD and time to peak force (TTPF) in subjects performing a jump in place.
What does this have to do with paddling?
To date, a quick search on Pubmed reveals there to be 28 studies relating to dragon boat and a majority of them are focusing on the benefits the sport holds for breast cancer survivors. It will probably be a while before the effects of CAP are studied in relation to dragon boat specifically, but at the cost of clenching vs not clenching your teeth, why not try it?
Imagine your paddlers being 15% stronger and 12% quicker at exerting force for those first few strokes off the line! If that’s not tapping hidden athletic potential without illegal drugs, I don’t know what is.
Power delivery is most easily applied and also critical to a race start situation. I say power delivery is “easier” during the start not because it takes less effort, but because the boat and water are relatively stationary to each other, which allows paddlers (both trained and untrained alike) to crank hard with decent efficiency. As boat speed increases, it takes a great deal more experience and training to efficiently put power into the water (one of the reasons why world-class teams finish races faster with fewer total strokes as novice crews). Although jaw clenching is probably a very common pre-sport action, dragon boat is a team sport that relies on the sum of its parts. Imagine your paddlers being 15% stronger and 12% quicker at exerting force for those first few strokes off the line! If that’s not tapping hidden athletic potential without illegal drugs, I don’t know what is.
The other reason why I propose the CAP effect may work best during the start is that there is currently no evidence that suggests the parameters of jaw clenching on prolonged athletic performance. So far, all the evidence shows only a concurrent or short term improvement in performance with jaw clenching. Plus, your masticators may be pretty tired after 2 minutes of continuous clenching.
Maybe jaw clenching is useless, maybe it’s something everybody already does, but it could also be one of the most overlooked areas of sport performance technique.
Of course, if clenching your jaw causes you pain, don’t do it! Sometimes you just have to use your brain and not your teeth to paddle better.
I took some rough (tape measure) measurements of one of our local BuK boats row by row to learn if and what kind of trends existed in seat metrics. My thoughts are that while decisions on seating arrangements in the boat are widely multi-factorial, you can’t get around the fixed dimensions of the boat and this establishes a fixed equipment setup that may affect athletic performance, comfort, and health.
Amongst the various measures I made, the set that I thought was most related to paddler function on the boat was about the bench itself. Here are measures I took:
- Bench height above the “trough” (lowest point in the hull to front edge of bench)
- Bench height at midline (mid-hull to front edge of bench)
- Diagonal reach from front edge of bench at gunnel to corner of first foot stop
- Straight reach from front edge of bench to first foot stop
Results / Discussion
You can see the trend from the graphs that both bench height and effective leg room increase from Row 1 to 5 and then decrease from Row 6 to Row 10. What this means is that paddlers with longer legs will be more comfortable and, quite possibly more efficient, when sitting in the middle rows. With the importance of leg drive in paddling efficiency, it makes sense that paddlers who can set their feet in a stable position to transmit force to the boat will be reliant upon finding the correct bench setup that facilitates this.
Typically, crews place heavier and/or taller paddlers in the middle rows. While it makes sense most of the time that larger athletes may coincidentally have longer leg lengths, it is not always the case. Anthropomorphically, the ratio of leg length to overall bodily dimensions varies through the population. If you have a few hours, take this paper for a read! What this means is that paddlers who are shorter or taller don’t always have shorter or longer legs respectively.
Leg length may be a useful metric to have in setting up your crew through the boat for best results.
Stretch your LEGS!
The hamstring muscles (in the back of the thigh) are a common restriction to getting more effective reach. Why? Many paddlers adopt a single leg or double leg forward position in the boat. This often requires straightening the knee to brace against the forward foot-stop (under the bench in front). With the hip joint flexed at 90 degrees, this position begins to put tension on the hamstring muscle group. Since the hamstrings originate from the pelvis, putting them under tension will tether the pelvis to resist what biomechanists call anterior pelvic tilt. Since the pelvis is the base for your trunk and upper body, having tight hamstrings limits the amount of forward lean at the hip joint with the lumbar spine and pelvis in neutral posture.
What does all that mean? If you have tight hamstrings (read below), this will limit the amount of reach you have as well as place increased stress on the low back because tight hamstrings will lock down the pelvis and hips, forcing a paddler to flex repeatedly and forcefully through their lumbar spine.
The Role of the Boat
Not all rows in the boat are created equal. In the BuK models we use in the Bay Area, the gunnel and floor follow a parabolic curvature while the benches stay in-plane with the surface of the water. What does this mean for a paddler? The floor slopes down from row 10 to row 5 and then begins to slope upwards from row 5 to row 1. The floor position (and relative height of the bench post) means that for one paddler to move row to row, there will be decreasing tension on the hamstring during reach from row 10 to row 5 and then increasing tension moving from row 5 to row 1.
The parabolic nature of the gunnel will also affect reach slightly because it will restrict or facilitate rotation, but since a majority of reach (but not necessarily power) is obtained from hip flexion this topic will be explored in another article.
How much flexibility is needed?
On average, males have tighter hamstrings than do females, regardless of age. The measurement is typically performed laying flat on the back and passively raising the testing leg with knee straight until stopped by muscle tightness. Average passive straight leg raise measures for males is 68.5 deg and for females is 76.3 deg (Youdas, et al). Translated to a dragon boat environment, if a paddler were to sit straight up with excellent posture, one or both legs kept straight in front of them, men could only bend forward 68.5 deg while women can lean forward 76.3 deg before being stopped by hamstring tightness. To think of it another way, few adults can (naturally) sit on one bench with their feet propped on the next bench up and hold an upright body position at 90 deg (like an L) due to hamstring tension.
Keep in mind that this measurement is performed with the knee fully straight. In a dragon boat, I believe most adult paddlers of average leg length can sit on the bench and get the ball of their foot or heel on the forward foot-stop with some knee flexion (aka bend). I intend to take some metrics of our BuK boats to point out any discrepancies row to row (but that will have to come later). By having one or both knees flexed, this decreases tension on the hamstring(s) and potentially allows for a paddler to have more hip hinge before the low back begins to flex.
So in theory, a boat full of tall ballet dancers should have incredible reach!
A Word on Stability
Hip hinging forward with a straight back is not all about flexibility. Paddlers will also need good core stability to keep the spine neutral. If a paddler is found to be quite flexible but is seen to “hunch and crunch” during their stroke, it may be that they are lacking muscular stability to control their bodies through their range of motion.
Whether you’re interested in obtaining more reach or developing adequate flexibility to prevent injury, stretching your hamstrings dynamically prior to a workout and statically after a workout is an essential part of your dragon boat dry land training.
Youdas JW, Krause DA, Hollman JH, Harmsen WS, Laskowski E. “The influence of gender and age on hamstring muscle length in healthy adults.” J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2005 Apr;35(4):246-52
Whether you’ve seen and replayed dragon boat videos online a million times, have had somebody else film your technique, or have collected footage of other paddlers to analyze, you may be sitting at your computer screen saying, “Something could be better, but I’m not sure what.” If you’re like most people, your eyes will flick around to various areas that catch your brain’s attention. You see something happen in your periphery but by the time you look, the moment has passed.
In physical therapy, watching people and analyzing their movements for abnormal patterns or issues is a significant part of the practice. It also takes just that…a lot of practice. Whether you’re new or experienced at analyzing paddling footage, here are some tips that may improve your flow and consistency in watching technique.
1. Stick to a System
Give yourself a step by step protocol to watching somebody paddle. If you were looking at a photograph, your eyes will flick around the scene to areas of interest. Now, if that picture is a movie, your eyes will move and follow many different areas without order…unless you take control. Try starting somewhere specific, anywhere. I usually start from the water and watch upwards. I look at how the water moves, how the paddle interacts with the water, what the paddle is doing through the stroke(s), how the person interacts with the paddle, and finally how the person moves. I don’t move my eyes to the next portion of the image or video clip until I am satisfied with the information I have observed. I will also do multiple passes (more on this later).
Your system can be totally different but I highly recommend using one consistently.
2. Get General Before Specific
Take notes on paper or get mental about things you see. Don’t get hung up on tiny details until you get a good sense of the Big Picture. Paddling technique is a sum of all parts and ultimately you are interested in that sum. Complex movements are also, well, complex. It helps to make things as simple as possible.
I will follow my system of watching a paddler from water to paddle to body in several “passes.” With each pass I make note of more specific findings, observations, and hypotheses. The Scientific Method. To put it vaguely, I may look for “what” I see, then look for “how” things are happening to cause what I see, and then finally think about “why” things are happening in a certain way. I take things from simple to complex because it’s very easy to get hung up on the details but not be able to see their relevance towards the Big Picture. A paddler may drop their head through early to mid-pull. So what? What are the qualities of their overall stroke and how does this head bob possibly affect it?
It also helps to slow things down so see specifics. Use a simple video editing program to slo-mo your stuff as best you can.
3. Imagine Change
You’ve made a list of observations and hypotheses. Now to test things out. If you’re really good (or just experimental by nature) you may have several video clips of paddlers on the same day trying different techniques or changes on-the-fly to compare later on. Ask yourself what makes sense to try and change in a paddler’s technique? What are the costs and benefits of making such a change? Is the change dependent on something fairly quick to change like paddler awareness or knowledge of results? Does the change require something that takes longer to develop like “feel” for a solid catch at entry or plain physical power? How will a change made in one part of the stroke affect other aspects?
4. Make Change
Pick your battles and make a plan of attack that prioritizes your findings and interventions to yield the best results soonest while all good things come to those who wait (and work their @sses off). Get more data so you can retest your changes and see if your approach had the intended effect.
Try out your System in analyzing this paddler’s technique!
If you read this well-written article, you can start to wrap your brain around how these structures relate to paddling specifically. If you read it and are confused, don’t worry. In a nutshell, we have groups of muscles that run along the front and back of our bodies that run in a diagonal direction. Visualizing them on either side of midline, we can see an “X” pattern that forms across our front and back. Contracting different arms of the X’s allows us to flex, rotate, sidebend, and extend as well as resist external forces that would otherwise move us in those planes. This X-pattern has been referred to as an anatomical “sling” or sometimes as a power-sling.
Paddling, like all sports, is 3-dimensional. Taking a stroke involves muscle action and movement that is tri-planar. It can be reasoned that by contracting in various patterns, these slings work to stabilize and move our body in 3 dimensions. What this means is that training in a cross-pattern or diagonal/asymmetric fashion may be more functional and directly applicable to developing strength, performance, and stability in a 3-dimensional sport.
During the recovery phase of the dragon boat stroke, a paddler will flex forward at the trunk as they rotate to face inside the boat. The act of reaching during the recovery phase (in a left sided paddler) can be thought of as contracting the front sling running from left shoulder to right hip. Acting alone, this sling would cause the trunk to curl forward, drawing the left shoulder towards the right knee. To maximize reach by keeping the spine more neutral, the posterior (rear) sling running from right shoulder to left hip must contract to draw the right shoulder blade and top arm up and back (coincidentally establishing positive paddle angle on the reach) keeping the spine straight and long. The opposite set of slings work for a right-sided paddler.
During the pull phase, the slings quickly and powerfully switch actions. The front sling running from right shoulder to left hip contract to drive the blade down into the water, initiating the pull. The rear running from upper right to lower left contract to pull the trunk upright, preserving the rigid A-frame. Different stroke styles involve different coordination of these slings, but still rely on these slings for movement and stability.
If a paddler is deficient in strength of one or more of these slings, it’s simple to see how this can contribute to visibly faulty paddling technique or simply less power delivered into the water. Likewise, faulty technique as well as muscular imbalance and lack of stability can lead to an increased risk of injury.
In the future, I’ll be aiming to make some educational media about stretches and exercises to condition these slings.
Looking to understand your functional anatomy a little better? Read this article!
For awhile now, we’ve been delineating hand to foot continuities that run throughout the body, providing strength, flexibility and a more developed sense of one’s body in space as they unfold. These patterns of uninterrupted flow, created by sequences of muscle, tendon, fascia and bone, come and go with movement.
We saw, last time, how motion of the hands helps create lines of pull that travel by various routes up into the torso. Our task today is to look for some of the strings that will convey these impulses from the torso down into the pelvis, legs and feet.
Back of the torso
A good place to start is at the back of the trunk. Remember that you can enlarge an image simply by clicking on it.
The next two drawings provide an overview of what Myers calls the Back Functional Line. Both illustrations reveal the same continuous line of pull running…
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Growing up, my parents always told me that hitting was a bad thing but science is showing some evidence that a little hit isn’t such a bad thing after all.
In case you were wondering, I’m not talking about actually striking somebody but rather the acronym HIT or High-intensity Interval Training. Athletes who train to race in any sport are well aware of interval training, which is a form of exercise involving a period of exertion followed by a period of rest. Interval workouts give variety and challenge to a training program, but are commonly associated with sprinting or mid-distance sports. Did you know that there is evidence that the integration of a HIT workout can result in better endurance when compared to an ordinary endurance training program?
Although the distance of dragon boat races could be considered sprint to mid-distance in most water sports, the physical demands of dragon boat paddling still favor the team with a good mix of power AND endurance. Many teams will train to develop power by power-lifting in the gym and doing starts on the water, with endurance training consisting of moderate to low-intensity, sustained paddling. With the lack of research being done on dragon boat itself, I found one, albeit older, study from Laursen et al titled “Interval training program optimization in highly trained endurance cyclists.”
Their results showed that workouts involving HIT resulted in better 40km time trial results in cyclists compared to those who only performed endurance training and did not perform HIT. More specifically, the treatment group that improved the most was subject to the following HIT parameters:
HIT workout 2x/wk
8 timed sets of 60% Time to Exhaustion (Tmax)
at VO2peak power output (Pmax)
1:2 exercise to rest ratio
Recovery period intensity at 65% max heart rate (HRmax)
4 weeks total with workload adjusted at 2 week reassesment
Getting some metrics for your paddlers is important but not necessarily essential to get HIT to work in your favor. The metrics will help you learn where certain people excel and where others need to improve. Since DB is a team sport, having some average race times before and after training under similar conditions would be good to have (or individual time trial data). For individual testing, a paddling erg would be useful.
How to do this Yourself The Meticulous Way
Unless you have access to a professional lab setup, you’ll have to estimate this by other means. The experiment calculated VO2 while exercising at certain workloads. For practical purposes, VO2max can be substituted and there are several calculators online, here is one.
Warmup for 5 minutes at a set, low intensity. After the warmup, immediately increase resistance to a higher level (the experiment increased wattage at warmup by 1.5x for the test portion). Measure the time it takes for the paddler to drop below a desired stroke rate. The time to cadence fatigue is Tmax.
After warming up 5 minutes at easy intensity, gradually increase resistance while paddling until the point of volitional fatigue, making note of the wattage just before point of fatigue. The experiment measured this in relation to VO2 measures, so again, this is an approximation.
Try this calculator to find your range of max heart rate by age, type of sport, and training level.
How to do this Yourself The Simple(r) Way
You could choose to omit things like VO2peak and Pmax. Get your crew warmed up properly. After this, run a sprint race piece and make note of when either stroke rate progressively drops or boat speed starts to decrease. You can film and count stroke rate later or use an accelerometer to figure this out.
For workouts, run 8 sets of similar intensity sprint pieces for 60% of the time until performance drop-off. Paddle easily at 1:2 time ratio through the whole workout.
For general health and performance reasons, your paddlers should be familiar with methods to monitor their heart rate in relation to workout intensity. Wear heart rate monitors or figure out max HR prior to working out and having folks measure their HR immediately after the set. With experience, folks can learn to associate HR with perceived level of exertion and use that as a general guide if they are not actively being measured by a device.
I’m always jealous of other sports with the resources to conduct actual scientific research on the physics of performance. Crew and sculling are among those sports. The R&D is aimed to investigate and optimize every possible aspect of performance to hopefully yield multiple avenues for improvement. Perhaps we will never see full carbon-Kevlar dragon boats weighing less than 250 lbs, but I love reading this stuff because it makes my wheels turn in hopes that some trickle-down truth can help us in our traditionalist sport. After all, each of our sports utilize glorified sticks to push water in order to propel a hollowed-out log carrying people.
There are many potential areas where energy can be wasted, starting from the very chemistry that powers our cells into performing work. This particular article takes a stab at investigating what factors signficantly influence rowing efficiency.
At one point in my life, the mathematics presented would have made much more sense and I may have had more thoughts on this, but for now, I’ll just say “duh” and move on.
Interestingly, the study found that blade efficiency increased as boat speed increased. Based on the curves in Figure 2a, it would seem that there would be some point at which efficiency plateaus or perhaps even decreases as boat speed continues to climb. I always felt that in dragon boat, getting “good pulls” in dragon boat was affected by boat speed. When the boat is at a full stop, the water feels thick and I feel like I can apply a great amount of force to the water. As the boat starts to pick up, those heavy pulls become lighter and lighter still, which would seem to me that my strokes are not as efficient at those higher hull speeds. I would speculate that having better stroke technique designed for higher boat speed is important for improving blade efficiency.
Interestingly, Dr. Kleshnev notes a decrease in boat efficiency as stroke rate increases. I thought this section was simply better written for my smooth brain to understand. Decreasing the “drive/stroke ratio” would mean either decreasing time spent in drive phase (period where blade is in the water) or increasing time spent on the stroke (entire time spent between drive and recovery). Decreasing drive time could mean exiting sooner, but that would also decrease total stroke time. “Fast through the water” is another way to think about it and would be assisted by higher boat speed. Increasing the time spent out of the water could also work to increase stroke time, but while it may be beneficial to “let the boat glide” spending an extreme amount of time not propelling the boat allows the boat to slow down between strokes.
Combining his 2 findings on boat efficiency, one might speculate that (at least in rowing) increasing stroke rate lead to a increase in drive/stroke ratio. At higher rates, I’d think stroke time must decrease in order to fit in more strokes per minute. If recovery were quickened to fit in a higher rate but boat speed did not allow for drive time to decrease (leaving a long drive time due to slow water), the ratio would be increased. Indeed, the conclusive statements suggest shortening drive time as a way to increase efficiency at higher stroke rates.
Application to Dragon Boat Paddling (to be continued)
The questions are: why is rotation important and how much should be emphasized?
IF: Rotate + Reach + Dig + Pull + Exit = Paddling
THEN: Rotation is a critical component to paddling technique!
Rotation is a natural part of reaching your hand towards something. It’s how we get our hand closer to the prize. Back when we were apes, rotation was critical to reaching the next branch to escape predators. As evolving hunter gatherers, rotation was critical for reaching that high branch of fruit. Nowadays, it may seem that reach/rotation is largely tied with grabbing the TV remote control while sitting on the couch, but it also serves a critical role in dragon boat paddling. Rotation is, quite simply, intended to extend the length of your reach and thus, length of your stroke. With the increase in stroke length, there is the potential for greater power transmission to the water.
The Hand Bone’s Connected to The…
Your arm is connected to your trunk by the shoulder girdle. The shoulder girdle is comprised of your shoulder blade and collar bone. The shoulder girdle sits in contact with your rib cage and sternum, which provide the foundation for shoulder movement. The shoulder blade is free to slide up, down, side to side, tip, and rotate along your barrel-shaped rib cage. Since your rib cage is attached to your spine, its shape and position is altered depending on your posture. At rest, the shoulder blade and the glenohumeral joint (ball/socket) face 30 degrees forward (more on this later).
If reaching effectively depends on max forward displacement of the hand, then we should try to make sure our shoulder blade positions our arm in a position of max reach. Think about your wingspan. How do you stretch your arms as wide as possible? Out to the side.
“Twist until your chest faces your partner”
How many coaches use this as a verbal cue? How much rotation is really needed to get good reach? Building from the above, if you are sitting on a boat with your arms stretched out to the sides like a “T,” you would have to twist your trunk close to 80 degrees to reach your hand forward. Pushing that kind of rotation range stresses your spine and, especially in sitting, your intervertebral discs. Minimizing spinal stress while still getting reach is a compromise.
Earlier, I wrote that the shoulder blade and glenohumeral joint already face 30 degrees forwards. This sets up what is called “scapular plane.” Raising our arm to the side 90 degrees and then moving it forwards at shoulder height by ~30 degrees will put your hand in scapular plane. Now we need to get the hand up front and your trunk rotation can make up the difference. Keep your arm 30 degrees forwards in relation to your body at shoulder height, now twist at the waist to bring the hand to proper reach position (depending on where you sit on the boat, how the gunnel flares, where your coach wants you to reach). Instead of rotating 80 degrees at the waist, now you only need to rotate 40-50 degrees, causing less stress to your spine and still giving you good reach.
More On Reach
Of course, leaning forward at the trunk is another method to increase reach, but ultimately a paddler who performs well has an efficient stroke length, which depends on the geometry of the paddle and paddler in relation to the water and boat. I’d recommend incorporating this notion of rotation with those topics written earlier here.
Did you know that slouching causes you to have decreased shoulder flexibility? Try slumping in your chair and raising your arm overhead. How far can you reach up? Now sit up tall and raise your arm. There you go!
Not only does slouching alter your shoulder’s ability to move through its potential range, but can also cause a decrease in muscle strength and increase in stress and risk of injury to sensitive tissues. Part of efficient reaching and power delivery comes from trying to keep a neutral spine during the stroke. For this topic, I’d recommend reading this previous article.
A quick search online will reveal several published resources making general recommendations for choosing a paddle length. These resources often quote paddler height, level of experience, or bench placement in guiding buyers towards choosing a paddle size. While these rationales are reasonable, there are several factors in choosing a paddle size that, when thoroughly understood, can help determine how to find a paddle that works best for you.
The International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) has established a general schematic for all dragon boat paddles approved for use in IDBF competitions world wide. This helps minimize any disparities between teams racing in an IDBF event due to equipment considerations. The current standard is known as Specification 202a, which specifies that paddle length (from blade tip to top of handle) is between 105cm and 130cm. Dealer websites may measure this in terms of inches, but the standards are the same.
The Business End
What part of the paddle matters the most? The blade. It’s the part of the paddle that serves as the interface between you and the water. When choosing a paddle length, the ultimate goal is to get the blade into the water where it works best. Generally, this means AT LEAST submerged below the surface of the water.
Shaft, can you dig it?
Since Spec 202a paddles all have specific dimensions for the blade, the one effective variable in paddle itself is the shaft length (spanning between the top of the blade and the handle). This makes choosing a paddle length about facilitating the best leverage for a paddler to apply force to a fully buried blade.
Triangles are an efficient shape for transferring force. By this rationale, our bodies will theoretically transfer force efficiently to the paddle and water when our back and outside arm are straight. Different paddling styles aside, after burying the blade, the goal becomes pulling the blade back (or yourself up to an “anchored” blade) while it is at a set depth. This means that as we pull back, our outside hand remains at a somewhat consistent distance to the water’s surface. This creates a triangle between our body and the plane of the water. This triangle is our foundation, the basic requirement to getting the blade buried during our reach. Paddle length has little to nothing to do with this triangle as it depends primarily on the physical size of the paddler.
Adding the top arm and paddle shaft into the picture, we see an upper triangle formed. The efficiency of this triangle is highly dependent upon paddle length and paddler technique. In Figure 2, increasing trunk rotation on the reach has the functional effect of lengthening our outer arm and shortening our top arm. This affects angle of paddle at entry, influencing the vectors (direction) of force applied by the paddle to the water. It also serves to increase the horizontal displacement of our paddle during the pull, which is a good thing!
In Figure 3 B) and C), we see how increasing paddle length affects our body position and efficiency. Leaving the bottom hand the same in B), a longer shaft forces our top arm higher which can cause more strain to our top shoulder’s joint and potentially lead to increased risk of rotator cuff or labral injuries. Choking up at the bottom hand in C) to preserve top arm angle forces the paddler to bury the blade deeper in the water. Because the blade is farther from the bottom hand, the force of the water against the blade (or vice versa depending on the relative physics) is applied farther away from the bottom hand. This increases the torque that a paddler fights during the pull, making each stroke feel more difficult despite the same amount of power being put into the water. In other words, choking up due to a paddle being too long puts the paddler at a mechanical disadvantage, wasting energy.
Having an excessively long paddle also forces you to compensate during recovery just to clear the blade from the water. Having an excessively short paddle will decrease the horizontal displacement of your blade during the pull, which decreases paddling efficiency. A short paddle may also force you to flex more at the trunk during the reach to get the blade buried, which compromises 1 side of the Lower Triangle and may increase your risk for spine injuries (not pictured).
Choosing the “Right” Length
After all that theory and physics, it requires trial/error and close assessment with your coach to determine the paddle size that gives you the best fit. Depending on how skilled you are with paddling, your fitness level, where you sit, and how your coach would like you to paddle, you should choose a paddle length that allows you to get the blade fully buried while allowing you to pull with an Upper and Lower Triangle that is most efficient for you.
1. Continuously refine your paddling technique.
2. Get regular 1 on 1 feedback from your coach about your paddling technique.
3. Try a variety of paddle sizes from teammates to see how it meshes with your paddling technique.
4. Consider changing your paddle length if your technique is strongly compromised, it forces you to work beyond your level of fitness, or you have noticed it contribute to painful symptoms.
Part of any racing sport involves efficiency. Efficiency means you spend as little energy as possible in accomplishing the same goal. Take a Prius vs a dragster, for example. If both cars rolled 1/4 mile at 35 mph, the Prius would probably expend less gasoline getting there than the dragster. The Prius is obviously the more efficient car, right? Now, have both cars complete the 1/4 mile in as little time as possible. The dragster takes 5+ seconds while the Prius finishes in 15+ seconds. Which car was most fuel efficient? The Prius was of course. Who cares? Nobody cares, because the Prius lost the race. Which car was more efficient at winning? The dragster was.
In a competitive sprint sport such as dragon boat, it shouldn’t matter if your team can handle a 2:30 split time for 10,000 meters. 2:30 in a 500 meter race will put you at a recreational team level. In this case, the judicious use of extra energy is warranted to boost performance. That’s not to say that losing all focus and coordination in exchange for high stroke effort is worth it, it just means that racing should never be paced easily to be competitive. The big question is, how do you apply energy to the water efficiently to give you the highest performance possible?
There are many ways to be a more efficient paddler, but today this post is about selectively making your body rigid during the pull phase.
Why be rigid?
Rigid structures transmit force efficiently, ideally to where that force can be applied for the greatest power and work. Flexible structures do not efficiently transmit force because of their tendency to deform in response those forces. Think about the dragon boat paddle itself. Why not make a paddle out of yarn? It’d be pretty light, but it’s so damn flexible you can wrap it around your neck as a scarf! You can try to paddle with it till your workaholic significant other comes home and it still won’t get you far. Now, wood and carbon fiber paddles are very stiff and deform very little when you apply force to it. This allows the paddle to transmit force to the water, which by action/reaction, provides a force back on the paddle. Thus, current IDBF spec 202a paddles are much more efficient than a yarn paddle. Who would have thought?
To bring this back on track, let’s apply that concept of rigidity to your body movements during paddling. Collapsing top arms, bending bottom elbows, and slouching spines all contribute to lost paddling efficiency. Theoretically, because rigid structures transmit force better than less rigid structures, the less rigid structures in a system are more likely to deform in response, which can coincidentally increase the risk of injury to those body parts. Back to the yarn paddle example (last time I swear), your body is hopefully more rigid than the yarn and so the force you put into the yarn paddle is poorly transmitted to the water. The opposite can be the case for a wood/carbon paddle. The paddle may be much more efficient than you are at transmitting force.
Example of how less rigid structures are poor transmitters of force
Notice how that kid’s butt is moving more than the weight he is lifting? His crappy technique and weak back are not enough to lift the weight efficiently. The same thing can happen if you slouch or crunch your torso when paddling. Instead of pushing the boat forward through your feet (your firm connection point to the boat), the water is bending your back into a U, as if it were some kind of…yarn spine. Hardly efficient.
The Mt. Home Canoe Club has published some articles that refer to multiple “Power Circles.” I prefer to summarize the concepts through the transmission of force from the water, through the paddle, through your body, to the boat. The ultimate goal is to turn 100% of that water force into a force to move the boat.
1. Assuming you have the skill to apply effective force to the paddle without “ripping the water”, we’ll assume the water pushes back on the paddle with equal force (untrue since the paddle itself is not 100% efficient).
2. The water’s force is transmitted through the paddle to your arms, shoulders and torso. Here’s where it’s important to maintain that A-frame in which the relative position of your shoulders and hands don’t change during the pull. A collapsed A-frame decreases efficiency.
3. By keeping your spine as rigid in neutral as possible (the position it would have as if you were standing up tall) the force can be transmitted from your upper body to your lower body. Slouching, crunching during the pull, or doing the “roll up” as you pull, decreases efficiency.
4. Firmly planting your hip, outer leg against the gunnel and wedging your heel against the seat stop ahead of you anchors you firmly to the boat. This allows for efficient transmission of the water’s force to the hull. Have you ever tried paddling with your legs held off the floor of the boat? Try it, see what happens. Did you move the boat at all or did the water end up moving just you instead? Making yourself as much of a solid, attached part of the boat as possible improves efficiency of force transmission.
5. Force applied to the hull is expressed in terms of the wonderful F=ma and the boat is accelerated in accordance to how little force was wasted along the way from the water to the hull.
This detailed schematic basically sums it up
There’s the magic effect of improved paddling efficiency! If you can increase your paddle power by 10% in a few minutes of changing how you transfer force, that’s a much better deal than trying to get 10% physically stronger, which can take 6-8 weeks of working out!
So as you paddle, try to think about how to hold yourself selectively rigid from the tips above to avoid losing paddling power.
You’re out on the water for practice, it’s a beautiful day, and your coach is making you paddle a combination of high-intensity interval sprints mixed with long distance sustained paddling. Ten minutes into the workout and you are feeling great. Thirty minutes go by and while you feel like the workout is kicking your butt, you also feel a nagging pain under your butt cheek(s). Does this sound familiar?
A couple things could be going on.
Pain in the Butt No. 1: Pressure and Chaffing
Since dragon boat is a fast-paced, seated sport with a lot of rotation in addition to forward/backward movements, your rearend is likely to be a point of friction. Friction over time can lead to skin chaffing, which can cause pain (and searing agony once you hit the shower). Sometimes wearing compression shorts under your normal board shorts or pants can reduce friction against the skin. Other times, a cushioned bench pad can help. Prolonged, sustained pressure against soft tissue and skin can cause soreness because you are preventing blood from flowing into the tissue. Common areas for pressure soreness and chaffing are under the “sit bones” of your butt aka ischial tuberosities. Shifting your weight during rest intervals or using a bench pad can help promote perfusion of blood to pressured tissues. More importantly, you should get your technique checked carefully by your coach. Faulty stroke technique can result in excess energy being spent drilling your booty into the bench when more power and body weight could be applied to the water.
Pain in the Butt No. 2: Muscle Strain
Back to the heavy emphasis on rotation during paddling, your legs serve to anchor you to your seat and transfer stroke power to the boat. If you’re taking full strokes, you’ll probably notice that your legs will swing and swivel depending on how you like to brace your feet against the floor. When the rate gets faster, this swing and swivel is a very active movement and while it’s not directly related to your racing fitness, having weak gluteal muscles can develop painful symptoms when fatigued. Areas for gluteal soreness can be felt in a variety of areas due to extensive number of gluteal and hip rotator muscles present. Commonly soreness is felt spanning between the side of your tailbone (sacrum) and side of your hip (greater trochanter). Occasionally, hamstring tightness can cause a pulling sensation at the ischial tuberosity where they insert in which case improving your flexibility can help (see link). If pressure to the muscle is causing the pain, you can try using a bench pad as with No. 1. If gluteal muscle soreness, tightness, or fatigue are the reasons, then self-massage, stretching, and strengthening are a good idea (check the video links).
Pain in the Butt No.3: Discs, Nerves, Joints Oh My
Occasionally painful symptoms in the buttocks region can be caused by a phenomenon called pain referral. Referred pain essentially means that the cause for pain may not necessarily be where you feel it. Our nerves and brain have millions of sensory connections. We have a very specific map for light touch but not always for pain. For example, a fly may land on the back of your neck and you know exactly where to reach back and crush it (or shoo it away for you kindly folks). Compare this with banging your kneecap against a table. You only hit perhaps a 1 cm area of your kneecap, but your whole knee can ache/throb like nobody’s business. Sometimes if we have a low back injury, pain can be referred and felt in the buttocks region. Injuries sustained to joints in the hip or pelvis can also cause pain in the buttocks region. If you have a previous history of issues involving your discs, nerves, or joints, getting specific advice from a medical practitioner who has evaluated your issue in relation to dragon boat paddling is key.
If your pain is severe or not improving, you experience changes in bowel/bladder function such as incontinence, you have leg numbness/weakness/clumsiness, or numbness in your saddle region, you need to get this checked out with your doctor or emergency services as these could be very serious if not emergent issues.
season, I was thinking that keeping yourself healthy through nutrition
is just as important as staying active.
Some weeks ago, I went to 24 Hour Fitness dressed for cold weather.
However once I started exercising, I was getting hot fast and started
to sweat a lot. I failed to account for the fact that I was going to
be inside and that the heaters were probably on. Since I was taking a
nutrition class, I thought this would be important to share:
Staying hydrated is very important. Drink ¾-1 ½ cups (4-8oz) of fluids
for every 15-20 minutes of activity. Another thing to be aware of is
water intoxication, which is consuming too much water alone. Too much
water dilutes the blood electrolytes, therefore be sure to consume
liquids that also replace your electrolytes. Be sure to drink before
you start working out and during your workout. And drink before you
feel thirsty because it may be too late.
Now that it is wintertime, we need to adjust for the cold weather. It
is harder to gauge dehydration; most water loss is through
A rule of thumb is: Drink early and drink often. Be sure to drink cold
liquids because it empties from the stomach faster and therefore
absorbed more quickly.
For training that may last for more than an hour, consider a pre-
exercise meal high in carbohydrates. Foods that are an immediate
source of energy and easy to digest include bread, oatmeal, pasta,
rice, potatoes, banana, cereal, or an energy bar.
During endurance exercising (lasting longer than 60 minutes), be sure
to consume foods or drinks with carbohydrates (such as Gatorade or
Powerade; however these drinks also have calories.) It will help
maintain blood glucose and glycogen levels. It will also replace
fluids and electrolytes lost through sweating. Consuming enough
carbohydrates allows you to exercise longer and faster.
For post-exercise recovery: Consume foods which are high-sugar
carbohydrates (plain bagel, carrot, muffins, potatoes, or rice) or
drinks (sports drinks, fruit juice, lemonade; 1g carbohydrate/1 kg of
body weight) within 15-20 minutes of finishing. Have a complex
carbohydrate meal with adequate protein within ½-2 hours of finishing,
like whole wheat spaghetti and meatballs, and a salad with Italian
Protein is not a source of energy during a workout; it is used for
muscle maintenance among other things. People usually consume more
than enough protein in their regular diet, therefore supplements are
Another thing the book suggested for strength training: do 8-10
exercises, hitting all major muscle groups. Do 1-3 sets with 8-12
repetitions or 10-15 repetitions, two to three times a week. Be sure
to incorporate stretching to prevent injury and soreness, 15-30
seconds, repeated two to four times, alternating sides. And warm up
Hewlings, S.J., & Mederios, D.M., 2009 Nutrition: Real people, real
choices. Pearson Education, Inc. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey