Posts tagged “dragon boat

That lovin’ feelin’

“Whoaa that lovin’ feelin.”

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

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

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

What is the timing box?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who can’t be in the timing box?

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

Those skills are (in no particular order):

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

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


Long or short pull?

You can’t escape drag…

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

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

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

Pull and Recover

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

Style 1: Long Pullback

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

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

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

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

Style 2: Dippy Stroke

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

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

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

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

The Snail and Cheetah

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

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

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

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

Don’t forget what boat you’re in

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

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


Finding Your Torque: The Way of the Leopard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neck Crane Fault

Neck Crane Fault

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

Head Banger Fault

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

Drawbridge Fault

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

Roll Up Fault

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

Knock Knee Fault

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

Chicken Wing Fault

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

Choo Choo Fault

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

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

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

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

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


Goooaaaallll!

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

1.  Know what the team wants

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

2.  Know what to do

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

3.  Know what you want

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

4.  Know how you are doing

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

5.  Put it all together

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


2013 Dragon Boat Paddle Comparisons

It’s been 4 years

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

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

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


Finish It…Slowly?

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

Physiology review!

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

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

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

Muscle Fibers in Paddling

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

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

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

Don’t Bonk!

Don’t Bonk!

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

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

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

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


Avoiding Overuse Injuries

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

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

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

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

–  Athletes should not specialize in 1 sport before late adolescence

–  Athletes should not play sports competitively year-round

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

For more information click here

Take Home Message for Paddlers

Youth paddling in the Bay Area and many other places around the world is fast becoming a popular practice.  The teamwork, leadership, and athletic benefits of dragon boat as a sport are undeniable in promoting the present and future well being of young people.  What generally concerns me is how far behind dragon boat coaching and training are to more established sports such as basketball, running, or crew just to name a few.  Many coaches are qualified only by their passion and first-hand experience in the sport but not by their education in physical or sport training.  There is also a lack of specific studies regarding the impact of long-term dragon boat paddling on developing and mature athletes.  As a result, dragon boat paddlers and coaches will need to rely on the generalization of information found in studies like Dr. Jayanthi’s to help promote the longevity of their athletes in the sport.

Point by point, here are my recommendations based upon those from the study:

–  Athletes should avoid paddling more than 18 hours per week.  

Yeah, I know extrapolating the study recommendations would mean if you’re 40 years old you should be able to paddle up to 40 hours per week, but that’s literally like a full-time job!  Paddling is not your job.  18 hours of paddling would be 2.5 hours per day, longer if you take a rest day (see below).  I am not aware of any top team on the west coast that practices anywhere close to this amount and not still perform well on an international level.  I believe teams can do more good for performance in far less amount of water time than this number.

–  On-water training should not exceed twice the amount of time spent cross-training

This would often prove to be the strongest cap to on-water paddling time.  For example, if you work out in the gym 1 hour daily, that’s 7 hours per week and your on-water time should not exceed 14 hours per week.  What this allows paddlers to do is stay well-rounded.  Varying activities helps to balance your strengths/weaknesses, rest your affected paddling anatomy, and give you a mental break as well to minimize overuse injuries and mental burnout.

–  For young paddlers, stay active in at least one other sport or athletic endeavor

Again, varying activities not only reduces the risk of overuse injuries in the primary sport, but in growing athletes, helps to develop better kinesthetic skill and diverse interests for future health.  I’m sure you’ve all known at least one person who was injured playing a sport growing up and has become a generally sedentary person  ever since.  Having other interests can help avoid this.  There is also such a push to get kids “serious” about sports earlier and earlier that it’s really quite ridiculous.  The promise of college scholarships, parent bragging rights, and shiny trophies are only part of the hysteria.  This mentality has also lead to progressive rates in sport injuries among young athletes.  With ZERO scholarships available for dragon boat paddlers, the danger of getting too serious, too fast still exists and is preventable.

–  Paddlers, take some time off after the big race

Coaches, set your season goals and training plan around your chosen event and make sure the team gradually progresses towards peaking at that point.  After the main event is completed, give yourself and your paddlers a break.  Organizing long term training into progressive peaks and valleys helps reduce injury and allows for long term improvements to be made.

–  Paddlers should avoid paddling more than 6 days per week

What more can I say about the importance of taking a break?

Use these tips to be a more well-rounded, healthier, and happier athlete!


Paddle Erg Setups

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

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

Row

A

B

1

11.25

27.75

2

12.5

28.5

3

13.3

29

4

14

29

5

14.25

29.25

6

14.25

29.5

7

13.75

29.25

8

13.1

29

9

12

29

10

11.25

29

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

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

Units = Inches

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

Give it a try!


Get Ergogenic and Get your CAP on!

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.

Hulk strong! Hulk clench teeth!

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.


Leg Length: An Overlooked Measurement?

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
Measures taken in a BuK boat rows 1-10

Measures taken in a BuK boat rows 1-10

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.

So…

Leg length may be a useful metric to have in setting up your crew through the boat for best results.


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.


Power Slings

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.

Power slings run across our front and back to provide strength and stability

Power slings run across our front and back to provide both strength and stability.  Adamantium provides the rest.

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.


HIT Yourself!

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 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

Measuring VO2peak:
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.

Measuring Tmax:
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.

Measuring Pmax:
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.

Measuring HRmax:
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.

rdln


Train to Fail

“Hey coach!  Gimme a break!”

I’m sure it’s a thought that many competitive paddlers have had at some point during a hard practice.  But who wants to be the whining wimp who complains that a set or drill is “too hard?”  Part of being able to push yourself physically is being able to work through the agony of 100% sustained effort.  With that kind of mentality, it’s no wonder most coaches won’t hear that kind of comment from their crews, but is that necessarily a good thing?

What is perfect performance?

Quite simply, performing optimally is a combination of elements essential to the sport.  If a paddler has great conditioning, technique, concentration, and determination, then it should be expected that a melding of high amounts of each will result in great performance.  Call it the best-case-scenario.

If a paddler falls short in any of those elements, performance will likely drop.  It makes sense to want high marks of each element of performance at all times.

Practice makes perfect but perfect practice takes priority

Say that ten times fast without losing a letter and you’ll know what it means.  Practice is about enhancing an athlete’s ability to perform by developing each element of performance either individually or as a group.  The challenge for a coach comes from designing workouts that enhance these skill sets without being detrimental to others at the same time.  For example, why train to paddle at 120 spm if your paddler technique falls apart and timing becomes garbage?  You are training folks to move quickly but at the expense of 2 very important performance skills.

dbexhaustionA team wiped out after hard racing.  This kind of fatigue didn’t happen after crossing the finish line.

In the novice to recreational world of dragon boat, I see so many teams train to fail.  Training to fail at this level is running a set or interval at a difficulty (either duration or intensity) that exceeds the athlete’s ability to keep good performance throughout.  Anytime we practice with sloppy technique, our bodies adapt to make sloppy technique more natural.  Just imagine if every stroke you took was perfect in delivery throughout practice!  You’re training to paddle perfectly.

mphelps

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

Coaching Recommendations

While encouraging good performance habits is a no-brainer, noticing form failure during a practice is essential information for any coach.  Investigating where and why performance failure occurs during practice allows a coach to determine “the weakest link” in a crew or athlete’s training.  Using this approach, a coach can gather vital information about their crew and areas needed to improve to address overall performance.  There’s no reason to avoid failure while training, but it’s a mistake to train failure.

For example:

The Problem: a paddler’s timing degrades through a 250m sprint piece

Your Observation: Their head is dropping and they are out of breath

Potential Weakness: Inadequate endurance, inefficient stroke technique

Possible Solution(s): Allow for more rest between sets, decrease paddling intensity/effort pacing,
encourage paddler to improve attendance, address technique

 So, the next time you run a practice, recognize when different aspects of performance are failing and adjust the workout as needed to keep your practices perfect!


Circuit Training

High-intensity Interval Training (awesomely abbreviated HIT) has been shown to be an effective way to improve strength and endurance when combined with other, perhaps more traditional, training methods.  Plus, it’s a fun and entirely self-paced activity good for groups of people.  Here is just an intro of what the team has been working on over the past several weeks.