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Stretch your LEGS!
The hamstring muscles (in the back of the thigh) are a common restriction to getting more effective reach. Why? Many paddlers adopt a single leg or double leg forward position in the boat. This often requires straightening the knee to brace against the forward foot-stop (under the bench in front). With the hip joint flexed at 90 degrees, this position begins to put tension on the hamstring muscle group. Since the hamstrings originate from the pelvis, putting them under tension will tether the pelvis to resist what biomechanists call anterior pelvic tilt. Since the pelvis is the base for your trunk and upper body, having tight hamstrings limits the amount of forward lean at the hip joint with the lumbar spine and pelvis in neutral posture.
What does all that mean? If you have tight hamstrings (read below), this will limit the amount of reach you have as well as place increased stress on the low back because tight hamstrings will lock down the pelvis and hips, forcing a paddler to flex repeatedly and forcefully through their lumbar spine.
The Role of the Boat
Not all rows in the boat are created equal. In the BuK models we use in the Bay Area, the gunnel and floor follow a parabolic curvature while the benches stay in-plane with the surface of the water. What does this mean for a paddler? The floor slopes down from row 10 to row 5 and then begins to slope upwards from row 5 to row 1. The floor position (and relative height of the bench post) means that for one paddler to move row to row, there will be decreasing tension on the hamstring during reach from row 10 to row 5 and then increasing tension moving from row 5 to row 1.
The parabolic nature of the gunnel will also affect reach slightly because it will restrict or facilitate rotation, but since a majority of reach (but not necessarily power) is obtained from hip flexion this topic will be explored in another article.
How much flexibility is needed?
On average, males have tighter hamstrings than do females, regardless of age. The measurement is typically performed laying flat on the back and passively raising the testing leg with knee straight until stopped by muscle tightness. Average passive straight leg raise measures for males is 68.5 deg and for females is 76.3 deg (Youdas, et al). Translated to a dragon boat environment, if a paddler were to sit straight up with excellent posture, one or both legs kept straight in front of them, men could only bend forward 68.5 deg while women can lean forward 76.3 deg before being stopped by hamstring tightness. To think of it another way, few adults can (naturally) sit on one bench with their feet propped on the next bench up and hold an upright body position at 90 deg (like an L) due to hamstring tension.
Keep in mind that this measurement is performed with the knee fully straight. In a dragon boat, I believe most adult paddlers of average leg length can sit on the bench and get the ball of their foot or heel on the forward foot-stop with some knee flexion (aka bend). I intend to take some metrics of our BuK boats to point out any discrepancies row to row (but that will have to come later). By having one or both knees flexed, this decreases tension on the hamstring(s) and potentially allows for a paddler to have more hip hinge before the low back begins to flex.
So in theory, a boat full of tall ballet dancers should have incredible reach!
A Word on Stability
Hip hinging forward with a straight back is not all about flexibility. Paddlers will also need good core stability to keep the spine neutral. If a paddler is found to be quite flexible but is seen to “hunch and crunch” during their stroke, it may be that they are lacking muscular stability to control their bodies through their range of motion.
Whether you’re interested in obtaining more reach or developing adequate flexibility to prevent injury, stretching your hamstrings dynamically prior to a workout and statically after a workout is an essential part of your dragon boat dry land training.
Youdas JW, Krause DA, Hollman JH, Harmsen WS, Laskowski E. “The influence of gender and age on hamstring muscle length in healthy adults.” J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2005 Apr;35(4):246-52
Whether you’ve seen and replayed dragon boat videos online a million times, have had somebody else film your technique, or have collected footage of other paddlers to analyze, you may be sitting at your computer screen saying, “Something could be better, but I’m not sure what.” If you’re like most people, your eyes will flick around to various areas that catch your brain’s attention. You see something happen in your periphery but by the time you look, the moment has passed.
In physical therapy, watching people and analyzing their movements for abnormal patterns or issues is a significant part of the practice. It also takes just that…a lot of practice. Whether you’re new or experienced at analyzing paddling footage, here are some tips that may improve your flow and consistency in watching technique.
1. Stick to a System
Give yourself a step by step protocol to watching somebody paddle. If you were looking at a photograph, your eyes will flick around the scene to areas of interest. Now, if that picture is a movie, your eyes will move and follow many different areas without order…unless you take control. Try starting somewhere specific, anywhere. I usually start from the water and watch upwards. I look at how the water moves, how the paddle interacts with the water, what the paddle is doing through the stroke(s), how the person interacts with the paddle, and finally how the person moves. I don’t move my eyes to the next portion of the image or video clip until I am satisfied with the information I have observed. I will also do multiple passes (more on this later).
Your system can be totally different but I highly recommend using one consistently.
2. Get General Before Specific
Take notes on paper or get mental about things you see. Don’t get hung up on tiny details until you get a good sense of the Big Picture. Paddling technique is a sum of all parts and ultimately you are interested in that sum. Complex movements are also, well, complex. It helps to make things as simple as possible.
I will follow my system of watching a paddler from water to paddle to body in several “passes.” With each pass I make note of more specific findings, observations, and hypotheses. The Scientific Method. To put it vaguely, I may look for “what” I see, then look for “how” things are happening to cause what I see, and then finally think about “why” things are happening in a certain way. I take things from simple to complex because it’s very easy to get hung up on the details but not be able to see their relevance towards the Big Picture. A paddler may drop their head through early to mid-pull. So what? What are the qualities of their overall stroke and how does this head bob possibly affect it?
It also helps to slow things down so see specifics. Use a simple video editing program to slo-mo your stuff as best you can.
3. Imagine Change
You’ve made a list of observations and hypotheses. Now to test things out. If you’re really good (or just experimental by nature) you may have several video clips of paddlers on the same day trying different techniques or changes on-the-fly to compare later on. Ask yourself what makes sense to try and change in a paddler’s technique? What are the costs and benefits of making such a change? Is the change dependent on something fairly quick to change like paddler awareness or knowledge of results? Does the change require something that takes longer to develop like “feel” for a solid catch at entry or plain physical power? How will a change made in one part of the stroke affect other aspects?
4. Make Change
Pick your battles and make a plan of attack that prioritizes your findings and interventions to yield the best results soonest while all good things come to those who wait (and work their @sses off). Get more data so you can retest your changes and see if your approach had the intended effect.
Try out your System in analyzing this paddler’s technique!
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!
…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?
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.
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.
Growing up, my parents always told me that hitting was a bad thing but science is showing some evidence that a little hit isn’t such a bad thing after all.
In case you were wondering, I’m not talking about actually striking somebody but rather the acronym HIT or High-intensity Interval Training. Athletes who train to race in any sport are well aware of interval training, which is a form of exercise involving a period of exertion followed by a period of rest. Interval workouts give variety and challenge to a training program, but are commonly associated with sprinting or mid-distance sports. Did you know that there is evidence that the integration of a HIT workout can result in better endurance when compared to an ordinary endurance training program?
Although the distance of dragon boat races could be considered sprint to mid-distance in most water sports, the physical demands of dragon boat paddling still favor the team with a good mix of power AND endurance. Many teams will train to develop power by power-lifting in the gym and doing starts on the water, with endurance training consisting of moderate to low-intensity, sustained paddling. With the lack of research being done on dragon boat itself, I found one, albeit older, study from Laursen et al titled “Interval training program optimization in highly trained endurance cyclists.”
Their results showed that workouts involving HIT resulted in better 40km time trial results in cyclists compared to those who only performed endurance training and did not perform HIT. More specifically, the treatment group that improved the most was subject to the following HIT parameters:
HIT workout 2x/wk
8 timed sets of 60% Time to Exhaustion (Tmax)
at VO2peak power output (Pmax)
1:2 exercise to rest ratio
Recovery period intensity at 65% max heart rate (HRmax)
4 weeks total with workload adjusted at 2 week reassesment
Getting some metrics for your paddlers is important but not necessarily essential to get HIT to work in your favor. The metrics will help you learn where certain people excel and where others need to improve. Since DB is a team sport, having some average race times before and after training under similar conditions would be good to have (or individual time trial data). For individual testing, a paddling erg would be useful.
How to do this Yourself The Meticulous Way
Unless you have access to a professional lab setup, you’ll have to estimate this by other means. The experiment calculated VO2 while exercising at certain workloads. For practical purposes, VO2max can be substituted and there are several calculators online, here is one.
Warmup for 5 minutes at a set, low intensity. After the warmup, immediately increase resistance to a higher level (the experiment increased wattage at warmup by 1.5x for the test portion). Measure the time it takes for the paddler to drop below a desired stroke rate. The time to cadence fatigue is Tmax.
After warming up 5 minutes at easy intensity, gradually increase resistance while paddling until the point of volitional fatigue, making note of the wattage just before point of fatigue. The experiment measured this in relation to VO2 measures, so again, this is an approximation.
Try this calculator to find your range of max heart rate by age, type of sport, and training level.
How to do this Yourself The Simple(r) Way
You could choose to omit things like VO2peak and Pmax. Get your crew warmed up properly. After this, run a sprint race piece and make note of when either stroke rate progressively drops or boat speed starts to decrease. You can film and count stroke rate later or use an accelerometer to figure this out.
For workouts, run 8 sets of similar intensity sprint pieces for 60% of the time until performance drop-off. Paddle easily at 1:2 time ratio through the whole workout.
For general health and performance reasons, your paddlers should be familiar with methods to monitor their heart rate in relation to workout intensity. Wear heart rate monitors or figure out max HR prior to working out and having folks measure their HR immediately after the set. With experience, folks can learn to associate HR with perceived level of exertion and use that as a general guide if they are not actively being measured by a device.
Congratulations to all paddlers for a fantastic race at Treasure Island this past weekend. Huge thanks goes to those who helped us steer our heats so smoothly and precisely.
With this race concluding the season for our mixed crew, several things come to my mind. First, we just completed what I believe to be our most challenging season ever. From the strength and commitment of just a few paddlers at every practice, we’ve managed to pull together a solid crew for every race this season. Though every team at some point faces the same challenges in keeping practices productive and seats filled, SFL has always seemingly managed to do more with less. It’s a team trait that has made us great when rosters were full and kept us in competitive lanes this season.
Second, 2013 will mark SFL’s 10th anniversary. With 2 paddlers remaining from this crew, SFL has clearly been through its fair share of member turnover through the years. Be it for 1 race or 1 year on the team, every former member of SFL who has graced our boat is sorely missed. I do find it satisfying to see that many former SFL paddlers become coaches and leaders on other Bay Area teams and valued members wherever they choose to find themselves in dragon boat. As familiar faces leave the team, new faces present themselves every year; adding to the rich tapestry that is SFL.
As volatile as the roster has been over the years, the strength of the team comes from its strong bonds among teammates. Our members don’t paddle for the flag we wave, the jersey colors we wear, or the medals to be won. I would paddle my hands raw to get the team over the finish line because I know everybody on this team works just as hard alongside me. We are eclectic in our backgrounds but united in our fighting spirit towards a common goal — doing our absolute best as SFL paddlers regardless of finishing place.
The end of this 2012 season will, undoubtedly, see some of our members to other teams or to time away from the sport in general. As 2013 draws near, I am eager to greet new faces and meet new challenges as one team: united.
Until then, team. 10 years strong. You make it happen. We make it happen together.