If you see folks who look like this picture below every time they reach, the causes could be multifactorial. I’ve written about hamstring flexibility before and that can certainly be a contributing factor to losing low back stability on the reach. Another cause that I haven’t written about is hip mobility and that’s what this post will focus on.
Because the low back is anchored to the pelvis and the pelvis connects to the hips, leaning forward on the reach involves flexing the hip and rocking the pelvis anteriorly (think of a ball rolling forward). If all goes well, the low back can stay in a neutral position as if you were sitting bolt upright and simply tipped forward while reaching your arms out. Now, if the hips stop early in flexion (think of stuffing a basketball under your shirt and bending forward), the pelvis stops and the low back must round for you to continue to reach.
Now, while I’m a rehab professional who understands the body very well, I can’t claim to have come up with all the great solutions to helping it along. For that, I look to those who have done the hard work already with good results. Kelly Starrett is one of those PTs. Here are 2 videos of him demonstrating methods to improving hip mobility.
As usual, feel free to leave me your questions and comments below!
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.
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!
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.
“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.
A 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.
Michael Phelps with the energy to celebrate AFTER setting a world record. Perfect practice = perfect performance.
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.
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!