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Body Lean

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

Why Armpit to Gunnel Doesn’t Help

What propels the boat?  The paddlers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much lean is optimal?

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

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

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

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

Putting Your Best Leg Forward

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

Inside vs Outside Leg Forward

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

DB paddlers with inside leg forward

C1 canoe racing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foot Numbness

If you experience numbness or tingling in your outside/extended foot, you may be experiencing the effects of neural tension.

Background

Your nerves act as your body’s wiring system, carrying electrical impulses between your brain and parts of your body.  They extend from your spinal cord and progressively branch like tree roots as they extend to your fingers and toes.  The nervous system is also like a spider’s web in the sense that pulling/tugging in one area results in tension spread across the whole system.  In other words, there’s only so much “slack” the nervous system has.

When the nervous system is at rest, it functions normally.  When under tension or direct mechanical compression, the tiny blood vessels that sustain the nerve are choked off, resulting in feelings of numbness, tingling, or worse, weakness.

Common Neural Tension with Dragon Boat

In the common dragon boat stroke technique, the position of greatest neural tension to the sciatic nerve running down your leg is during initial entry after terminal recovery.  It is at this point that the paddler is maximally flexed at the hip and the thigh/knee is close to the paddler’s chest.  Some paddlers will have their ankles in dorsiflexion (toes pulled up) and outside knee near full extension (straight) which applies additional tension to the sciatic nerve.  Paddlers with poor technique will also flex their neck, bringing chin to chest or lose core stability and flex their spine (rounded back posture), which adds additional tension to the nervous system.

Slump Test: a common orthopedic assessment for neural tension as the cause for low back pain and leg numbness/tingling. Is this similar to your posture when you paddle?

Other causes for neural tension/compression in Dragon Boat

Other potential causes for neural tension during dragon boat paddling may involve (but is not limited to) ankle position, gunnel pressure against the outside leg, or bench pressure under the thigh/buttocks.  Positioning your outside leg forward with the bottom of your foot turned in to face the midline of the boat is ankle inversion and this may add tension to the peroneal nerve.  Direct pressure of the lower leg and outer knee to the gunnel may also compress the peroneal nerves running into your foot and lower leg.  Pressure of the forward lip of the bench against the bottom of the thigh may contribute to compression of the sciatic nerve.  This last cause may be more common with shorter paddlers due to having shorter legs.  I still intend to take metrics of the BuK boats we have and correlate this to paddler positioning/posture (stay tuned).

Seeking Help/Solutions

If numbness/tingling occurs during paddling but resolves as soon as you stop paddling, double check your technique or ask your coach to ensure you are not falling into the common pitfalls of neural tension described.  You may try a butt pad, reducing pressure/slamming of your outside knee against the gunnel, or keeping your ankle neutral against the footstop.

Certainly, if your symptoms do not resolve after cessation of paddling or you notice a sense of weakness or foot drop(!)  (the phenomenon where you cannot actively lift your toes or dorsiflex your ankle), you should seek medical attention asap as it could represent a variety of serious issues that your physician will assess.

Sacrifice for Success

Best motivation I heard all month

is an excerpt from the video “How Bad Do You Want It.”  Here it is below:

And I’m here to tell you, number one, is that most of you say you want to be successful, but you don’t want it bad.  You just kinda want it.  You don’t want it badder than you want to party.  You don’t want it as much as you want to be cool.  Most of you don’t want success as much as you want to sleep.  Some of you love sleep more than you love success and I’m here to tell you that if you’re going to be successful  you’ve gotta be willing to give up sleep…Don’t call it quits.  You’re already in pain, you’re already hurt.  Get a reward from it.  Don’t go to sleep until you succeed.

So go get some!  Don’t sit around waiting for something to happen.  Good things happening to you starts with just you.

Want more reach?

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 hamstring’s connected to the…ischial tuberosity…the ischial tuberosity’s part of the…pelvis…the pelvis is connected to the…low back and that’s ana-tomy!

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.

A paddler’s dynamic ability to reach is affected by 3 things: core stability, flexibility, and position in the boat

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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

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

Tips for Video Analysis of Paddling Technique

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

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

1.  Stick to a System

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

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

2.  Get General Before Specific

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

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

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

3.  Imagine Change

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

4.  Make Change

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

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

Feeling the Rush

It’s race day.  Waiting in the marshaling area, shoulder to shoulder with your closest competitors.  This is the race that decides who takes the podium.  Man, everybody looks big.  That guy over there looks like he could lift the boat by himself.  Get down to the water, load on the boat, take it lightly to the start line.  The boat is so quiet before the horn that you could hear the drops of water falling from your paddle.  Butterflies.  You hear the call and the horn lets you know it’s time to f’in GO.

What happens mid-race is chaos.  You hear folks shouting “Timing!”  The video review post-race shows a massive caterpillar of paddles rushing the timing from the back to the front of the boat.  The timing box is pretty pissed.  Timing has been something your coach always talks about in practice.  What happened?

I think there are many reasons for timing issues, but the caterpillar is specifically one phenomenon that does not seem to be a random occurrence.  In fact, the very nature of the caterpillar is that the pull phase accelerates more and more as you move from row 2-10.  Why does this happen?  Here’s what I think contributes to this:

1.  Excitement.  Racing makes the adrenaline flow.  You’ve got energy stores tapped and ready to go unlike a normal practice situation.  You will perform better, stronger, faster than perhaps you realize.  Your mental focus may not be 100% on timing, but other distractions.  This can contribute to timing issues, but that doesn’t explain the pattern through the boat.  There’s no reason the back of the boat is more excited than the front.

2.  Physical trends.  Many crews will organize bigger paddlers in the middle and rear of the boat.  It’s possible a stronger paddler can pull and recover faster than a smaller paddler.  This would start to match a trend from front to rear, but you rarely see the LARGEST paddlers in row 10.

3.  Water quality.  While in physics, the boat is moving at 1 velocity relative to the water, this doesn’t mean that the water is moving at the same velocity from front to rear of the boat.  The front rows get water that is touched only by the bow of the boat.  As more and more paddlers pull, exit, and enter the water down the rows, the water gets churned.  It has vortexes, swells, and air bubbles.  All these things make for water that is quicker to pull through.  When the paddle moves quicker through the water, people will exit sooner and start recovery earlier.  I believe this explains the caterpillar scenario best.

Ways to address this would be to set the expectation of the phenomenon.  Next would be to have paddlers all learn to paddle cleanly and solidly, minimizing excess turbulence in the water.  Next would be making sure folks in the engine and on back, know how to catch and pull solidly through turbulent water (since increased turbulence is somewhat inevitable).

One thing that I don’t think would work well would be to tell the back of the boat to “pull slower.”  This will cut down on their power and possibly drag the boat to be SLOWER.

See if it works out how I anticipate!

Video

The 10th Campaign: 2013 Season Trailer

Join the resistance and our team for the 2013 season

Once you go black…

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

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

A dragon boat team using mixed paddles

Getting Woody

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

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

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

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

Oh but whataboutacarbonpaddle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uniform Technique: How critical is it?

Dragon boat is one of the few team sports that relies on so many individuals’ efforts to directly affect overall team performance.  Snake boat might be the most extreme example.  As coaches are familiar, teams get paddlers of all sorts.  Some are new to the sport and have limited paddling experience.  Some are former competitive paddlers with a unique sense of how to “correctly” paddle.  That said, what is “correct” paddling?  This is obviously quite subjective with every coach and paddler having a different concept of the advantages and disadvantages various stroke styles provide.  Regardless of what stroke style a person favors, is it truly critical to adopt a uniform stroke style for a dragon boat team to be successful?

Even clones don't guarantee uniform stroke technique

Even clones don’t guarantee uniform stroke technique

One of the most impressive sights in dragon boat is seeing tight paddling technique during a race.  The precision, intensity, and (oddly enough) elegance of 20 paddlers crisply pulling the boat on its course is something that makes everyone think twice about racing such an apparently well-trained team.  I use the word “apparently,” because looks can be deceiving.  I honestly believe a team can look great but can still perform poorly.  After all, there are so many other elements of performance that make or break a good race piece.

Does same = lame?

Sally is 5 feet tall and 100 lbs of petite ferocity.  Robert is 6’2″ and 210 lbs of rippling muscle.  Leonard is 5’9″ and jiggles like a bowl full o’ jelly.  Welcome to the world of recreational dragon boat racing where folks of all backgrounds and physical attributes race and love doing it.  To me, a world-class team should strive for uniformity, because it couldn’t hurt.  I mean, come on!  If you went through the trouble of holding try-outs and are good enough to compete on the international level, why not?  At this level of competition, every effort to improve performance can and will pay off.

For the average recreational team, the story is different.  Remember that average means “typical” as in accounting for the entire range but not representing everybody.  If you were coaching Sally to race in her OC-1, you’d teach her a stroke that worked best for her.  Likewise for Robert or Leonard.  Some compromise is part of meshing well as a team, but if timing were to be perfect with every paddler using a technique that yielded their best power delivery, I think that’s really good.

Reasons to Spend Less Time on Teaching Uniform Stroke Technique

–  Rec teams may practice 1-2x/week, limited time means limited opportunities to improve race performance.  How much time will you spend on having everybody master the same stroke technique when you could be improving other parts of your race piece?

–  Reduce paddler frustration.  Guaranteed not everybody feels like your idea of a perfect stroke is perfect for them.  New paddlers may find it too challenging/overwhelming.  Experienced paddlers may find it very hard to overcome old habits they find gives them a performance edge.

–  Reduce risk of injury.  Technique and injury risk is intricately tied to physical ability and fitness.  Forcing a technique on a body that isn’t physically prepped for it can result in serious injury.  For a rec sport, is it worth it?

Reasons to Emphasize Uniform Technique

–  Avoid a Glass Ceiling effect.  Like I mentioned earlier, moving up in competition level means you have to eventually pull out all the stops in designing a training program.  Lacking uniform technique can potentially mean performance losses that are unacceptable at higher levels of racing

Ultimately, I want to encourage coaches to rethink how important uniform stroke technique is for their specific team and the potential performance gains that it may or may not provide.