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!
There is some evidence suggesting that clenching your teeth may actually help you gain an ergogenic advantage in sport performance…at least in terms of strength and power development.
er·go·gen·ic: increasing capacity for bodily or mental labor especially by eliminating fatigue symptoms (merriam-webster)
This ergogenic effect is thought to occur via a complex and still-being-studied neurological phenomenon termed concurrent activation potentiation or CAP. For example, subjects clenching their jaws showed 12.1% higher rates of force development (RFD) and 15.1% improved results during grip strength testing and even continued to show short term improvements after relaxing their jaws compared to subjects tested without clenching. Another study showed improved RFD and time to peak force (TTPF) in subjects performing a jump in place.
What does this have to do with paddling?
To date, a quick search on Pubmed reveals there to be 28 studies relating to dragon boat and a majority of them are focusing on the benefits the sport holds for breast cancer survivors. It will probably be a while before the effects of CAP are studied in relation to dragon boat specifically, but at the cost of clenching vs not clenching your teeth, why not try it?
Imagine your paddlers being 15% stronger and 12% quicker at exerting force for those first few strokes off the line! If that’s not tapping hidden athletic potential without illegal drugs, I don’t know what is.
Power delivery is most easily applied and also critical to a race start situation. I say power delivery is “easier” during the start not because it takes less effort, but because the boat and water are relatively stationary to each other, which allows paddlers (both trained and untrained alike) to crank hard with decent efficiency. As boat speed increases, it takes a great deal more experience and training to efficiently put power into the water (one of the reasons why world-class teams finish races faster with fewer total strokes as novice crews). Although jaw clenching is probably a very common pre-sport action, dragon boat is a team sport that relies on the sum of its parts. Imagine your paddlers being 15% stronger and 12% quicker at exerting force for those first few strokes off the line! If that’s not tapping hidden athletic potential without illegal drugs, I don’t know what is.
The other reason why I propose the CAP effect may work best during the start is that there is currently no evidence that suggests the parameters of jaw clenching on prolonged athletic performance. So far, all the evidence shows only a concurrent or short term improvement in performance with jaw clenching. Plus, your masticators may be pretty tired after 2 minutes of continuous clenching.
Maybe jaw clenching is useless, maybe it’s something everybody already does, but it could also be one of the most overlooked areas of sport performance technique.
Of course, if clenching your jaw causes you pain, don’t do it! Sometimes you just have to use your brain and not your teeth to paddle better.
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.
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.
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?
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?
If you experience numbness or tingling in your outside/extended foot, you may be experiencing the effects of neural tension.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
If you read this well-written article, you can start to wrap your brain around how these structures relate to paddling specifically. If you read it and are confused, don’t worry. In a nutshell, we have groups of muscles that run along the front and back of our bodies that run in a diagonal direction. Visualizing them on either side of midline, we can see an “X” pattern that forms across our front and back. Contracting different arms of the X’s allows us to flex, rotate, sidebend, and extend as well as resist external forces that would otherwise move us in those planes. This X-pattern has been referred to as an anatomical “sling” or sometimes as a power-sling.
Paddling, like all sports, is 3-dimensional. Taking a stroke involves muscle action and movement that is tri-planar. It can be reasoned that by contracting in various patterns, these slings work to stabilize and move our body in 3 dimensions. What this means is that training in a cross-pattern or diagonal/asymmetric fashion may be more functional and directly applicable to developing strength, performance, and stability in a 3-dimensional sport.
During the recovery phase of the dragon boat stroke, a paddler will flex forward at the trunk as they rotate to face inside the boat. The act of reaching during the recovery phase (in a left sided paddler) can be thought of as contracting the front sling running from left shoulder to right hip. Acting alone, this sling would cause the trunk to curl forward, drawing the left shoulder towards the right knee. To maximize reach by keeping the spine more neutral, the posterior (rear) sling running from right shoulder to left hip must contract to draw the right shoulder blade and top arm up and back (coincidentally establishing positive paddle angle on the reach) keeping the spine straight and long. The opposite set of slings work for a right-sided paddler.
During the pull phase, the slings quickly and powerfully switch actions. The front sling running from right shoulder to left hip contract to drive the blade down into the water, initiating the pull. The rear running from upper right to lower left contract to pull the trunk upright, preserving the rigid A-frame. Different stroke styles involve different coordination of these slings, but still rely on these slings for movement and stability.
If a paddler is deficient in strength of one or more of these slings, it’s simple to see how this can contribute to visibly faulty paddling technique or simply less power delivered into the water. Likewise, faulty technique as well as muscular imbalance and lack of stability can lead to an increased risk of injury.
In the future, I’ll be aiming to make some educational media about stretches and exercises to condition these slings.