“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.
I took some rough (tape measure) measurements of one of our local BuK boats row by row to learn if and what kind of trends existed in seat metrics. My thoughts are that while decisions on seating arrangements in the boat are widely multi-factorial, you can’t get around the fixed dimensions of the boat and this establishes a fixed equipment setup that may affect athletic performance, comfort, and health.
Amongst the various measures I made, the set that I thought was most related to paddler function on the boat was about the bench itself. Here are measures I took:
- Bench height above the “trough” (lowest point in the hull to front edge of bench)
- Bench height at midline (mid-hull to front edge of bench)
- Diagonal reach from front edge of bench at gunnel to corner of first foot stop
- Straight reach from front edge of bench to first foot stop
Results / Discussion
You can see the trend from the graphs that both bench height and effective leg room increase from Row 1 to 5 and then decrease from Row 6 to Row 10. What this means is that paddlers with longer legs will be more comfortable and, quite possibly more efficient, when sitting in the middle rows. With the importance of leg drive in paddling efficiency, it makes sense that paddlers who can set their feet in a stable position to transmit force to the boat will be reliant upon finding the correct bench setup that facilitates this.
Typically, crews place heavier and/or taller paddlers in the middle rows. While it makes sense most of the time that larger athletes may coincidentally have longer leg lengths, it is not always the case. Anthropomorphically, the ratio of leg length to overall bodily dimensions varies through the population. If you have a few hours, take this paper for a read! What this means is that paddlers who are shorter or taller don’t always have shorter or longer legs respectively.
Leg length may be a useful metric to have in setting up your crew through the boat for best results.
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.
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
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.
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.
Athletes have long noticed that bouncing helps increase power immediately before a power activity. Ever see somebody struggle to chest press too much weight? They may literally bounce the bar off their chest, which can fracture their ribs but also give what’s called an active, eccentric stretch to the pec major, triceps, and deltoid muscles; increasing their power output temporarily.
Try this: get a chair and squat down to lightly touch your bottom to the seat. Then, try to jump as high as you can (ideally you’d have a marker to know how high you jumped). Now, try removing the chair and squatting down to the same height, allowing your hips to quickly dip down into the squat right before the jump (an ordinary, stationary squat jump). You should notice that you can jump higher when you take the chair away.
Notice how those tasty frog legs move slightly before the body starts to move in the leap
You are giving your leg muscles a quick stretch prior to the jump, which increases the power and thus the height of your jump.
This phenomenon should happen in our arm and trunk muscles as well.
One might wonder, if you could coordinate an entire boat of 20 paddlers bouncing slightly before the first stroke of a start, you could get a significant increase in power on the first stroke!
This may already happen instinctively in the form of “The Trunk Bob” immediately leading up to the first stroke. What this does is bring the trunk downwards while the arms ever-so-briefly stay stationary, stretching the mighty latissimus dorsi muscle before it contracts and pulls through the first stroke.
Check out The Trunk Bob
Will a slight bounce help make a more powerful first stroke? How much does the first stroke REALLY matter if everything counts in a race?
Nobody knows for sure, but it sure does make me wonder.
It’s a very common belief that stretching to reduce muscle tightness is positively linked to performance, however evidence shows that some forms of stretching may actually be bad for performance.
When it comes to dragon boat, is it a good thing to stretch?
Will it help or hurt your paddling performance?
Let’s look at key features of different types of stretching.
This is a slow and constant stretch performed either actively (under your own power) or passively (with some help from another person or object), held at an end position typically for 30 seconds or longer.
Static stretching is a simple method to increase range of motion (aka flexibility) with potentially decreased risk of injury during the stretch. If you’re a paddler who can’t paddle with good form despite having good water experience because of muscle tightness, then this method may be of benefit to you to improve flexibility between practices.
Studies show that static stretching has a negative impact on a muscle’s ability to produce peak force and power. In terms of sprinters and weight lifters, sprint times and one-rep max values were made worse immediately following a prolonged, static stretch to the muscles being used. Why does this happen? Our muscles have different sensory receptors within them that help us produce force quickly (creating power) and static stretching is thought to reduce the activity of these receptors.
Static stretching also causes muscles to decrease in temperature due to not actively contracting them. This means you may lose the benefits of doing a warm-up if you statically stretch muscles for several minutes.
Doing static stretching prior to races or at the start line? Evidence may suggest you’ll have a lower ability to exert power during your paddling.
This is an active effort using bouncing-type movements where the end position of the stretch is occupied only briefly.
Unfortunately, there is not very much evidence at all that says ballistic stretching has any clear benefit to athletic performance (so far). This means that ballistic stretching is not a dependable way to improve performance.
There is evidence (1) that says ballistic stretching may actually increase risk of injury to affected muscle groups, especially if these muscles have been injured in the past. Remember those stretch receptors mentioned earlier? Their job is to contract a muscle in the event that extra force is suddenly detected (eg you are holding an empty catcher’s mitt in front of you with your eyes closed and somebody drops a softball into it. Your hand doesn’t fall because your muscles contract to keep the mitt in place). Ballistic stretching exerts tension on a muscle in a quick manner that activates these same receptors, causing muscles to tense up at the end of the ballistic movement, defeating the purpose of the stretch.
This form of stretching can be defined as a “functionally based stretching exercise that uses sport-specific movements to prepare the body for activity” (2). They are active movements made within the range of motion required for a sport, ideally in directions that mimic the sport itself.
Dynamic stretching is a more controlled, gentle method for stretching and in this regard, minimizes the risks present with ballistic methods. Dynamic stretching can gradually increase tissue temperature, which improves the ability for tissue to accept loads safely.
There aren’t very many “bad” aspects of dynamic stretching, but this method of stretching has not been found as effective at increasing static range of motion (3).
HOW do you put it all together?
A good series of dynamic stretches as a warm up for dragon boat involves closely mimicking the movements performed in the actual sport. These movements should be kept non-ballistic without bouncing in/out of the end range of your joints and tissues. For example, you could perform “air” paddling on land with your hands and no paddle, working on gradually progressive reach, rotation, and leg drive an even number of times per side. As you continue, try to gradually increase the speed of movement (rate it up!) to increase your body temperature by getting your blood pumping! “Air” paddling is just one idea for a dynamic warm-up. You could gradually move your arms, legs, and trunk in sport-similar movements to similar results.
After the race is over, feel free to statically stretch as a cool down by holding your stretches for ~30 seconds within a comfortable amount of tension to maintain range of motion and reduce post-exercise tightness.
In any stretching routine, you should never push into feeling pain as this may mean you are exceeding the capacity of your tissues and possibly causing injury.
Keep it dynamic everyone!
1. Clarkson, P., and I. Tremblay. “Exercise-induced muscle damage, repair, and adaptation in humans.” J Appl Physiol. Jul;65(1):1-6.1988
2. Mann, D.P., and M.T. Jones. Guidelines to the implementation of a dynamic stretching program. Strength Cond J. 21(6):53-55. 1999
3. Bandy, W.D., J.M. Irion, and M. Briggler. The effect of time on static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 27(4): 295-300. 1998
4. Baechle, T.R., and R.W. Earle. Essentials of strength training and conditioning; 3rd edition. National strength and conditioning association. 2008