As I woke up this morning, I felt like my legs were made of lead and my back like an iron rod. I get cleaned up and then get ready for my day. I drag down my giant 4lb sack of MuscleMilk Gainer protein powder down from the shelf and begin to mix it up in a patented plastic bottle that I got roped into buying off Amazon out of sheer convenience of “nutrition.”
“Everyday gains” is what the protein powder sack reads. But really? What is it I would be gaining? Strength? Power? Better beach body looks? Weight? When I was working in outpatient orthopedic-focused PT clinics, I’d see three basic types of people: sedentary, weekend warriors, and committed athletes. The sedentary folks may have chronic pain issues that prevented them from being active at all. Whether the chicken or the egg came first, it no longer really mattered because they were where they were and needed to pull through chronic pain to be healthier. Their basic fitness could be so low that everyday function was a struggle. Weekend warriors might’ve been passionate about their hobbies and athletic pursuits but were always struggling with the compromises of real life. Put in a few miles per day of running after working a desk job and then limping across the marathon finish line to discover aching, swollen knees for weeks afterwards. They might’ve been fit enough to sprint for the bus to avoid being late to work but the tough compromises in time from a sedentary job and an “active” lifestyle outside of work created a hard balance for their bodies to cope with. Lastly, the committed athletes occupied another realm of issues that sometimes arose from their efforts to always push the upper extremes of performance. Stress fractures, early onset of arthritis, torn or degenerated tendons from high-repetition / high-load activities for years and years comes to mind. Sure, not everybody in the clinic fit into these generic boxes nor did their medical diagnoses always follow these patterns, but they certainly did so frequently.
When I think of athletes trying to progress in their sport, I think of the difficulties that people have in general with keeping a balanced lifestyle and balanced body. Let’s say you go to the gym and lift weights with a steady pattern over several months. If you are following a good program, you should be gaining strength and maybe power depending on the workouts you are doing. At the end of those several months, you have gained strength and power but have you improved performance? Say you have noticed better performance in the sport of your choosing because your program was well-tailored to be translatable. Are you then less likely to be injured pushing the upper limits of performance in that sport? If you can’t say yes to that question confidently, I’d venture to say your training made you gain in certain areas of fitness but did not make you become more balanced. By gaining in one/several areas of fitness (e.g. strength or power) you may have declined in flexibility, speed, or coordination.
A well-known, local orthopedist named Scott Dye has a phrase he calls the “envelope of function.” Basically, every organ in your body has an upper limit in its operation where it can function normally without being injured. Exceed the envelope and you overload the organ, causing reactive problems. I like to expand that concept into a whole-person perspective: gradually expand your limits through smart and comprehensive training to create a buffer between the minimum required fitness needed to avoid injury and operate in optimal performance.
It’s my personal opinion that athletes who experience nagging pains during and after their pursuits while calling it “all part of the game/sport” are in a degree of denial or possibly simple ignorance. From working with hundreds of people over the years, I can safely say that there is typically a way to help resolve or address pain arising from sport, often with rather simple concepts and changes. Often times athletes with that singular-drive mentality and obsession with one element of the sport have a hard time expanding their minds to accept the possibility and value of being a well-rounded individual while also being highly specialized.
The bottom line is that when you think about “bettering” yourself through training and sport, I encourage you to work towards gains in multiple areas of fitness so that as your fitness improves, you remain a well-balanced individual. Focusing upon one area of fitness and foregoing other elements of good health will end up biting you later on down the road. Our bodies are good at compromising in the face of unbalanced change. Don’t let the illusion of gains fool you into thinking you are actually a healthier athlete.
It’s that great feeling when you set out to accomplish something and through a combination of blood, sweat, and tears that you see that goal met. Being a coach is being a leader. This is somebody who formulates a strong plan and sets goals and methods to lead the team to success by the season’s end. I previously wrote this article on goal setting and, over my later years of coaching, have found several key points that I’ve found essential to include.
1. Know what the team wants
I came to a point in my coaching career where I thought I knew myself and where I wanted to be, but that place was not necessarily where the team wanted to go. As a leader, I made the mistake of assuming that the goals I set were shared among everybody. Of course, those goals failed and it’s no mystery why! The saying “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” sums up the need for a coach to fit themselves into the team’s unified goal. In elite sports, what team plans to NOT make it to the championship? None. On recreational teams, such as with dragon boat, the team’s vision of meeting a goal may not be to win, but merely to participate and spend time with other teammates. Trying to push a recreational team towards a singular goal of winning a championship is as inappropriate as setting a competitive team towards a specific goal of finishing last. A coach can suggest goals but cannot force a team to adopt them.
2. Know what to do
After a team accepts the goals a coach suggests, a plan must be established. Imagine an olympic weight lifter whose training for the games was decided randomly by rolling a die of random activities. One day, the athlete lifts heavy weights and the next day lifts weights as quickly as possible. The next day the athlete tries to lift half the weight, twice as many times and then doubles the weight to lift half the reps, etc. Without a logical progression in specific training or a rationale as to why to choose certain activities, there can be no consistent progress towards any goal. Random practice results in random results and is not a good way to meet a specific goal. I recommend writing out a specific plan to get your team from where it starts the season to where it needs to be.
3. Know what you want
As a coach, you are a person with a certain background and certain biases. You have feelings and desires, strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself, what do you want to accomplish for yourself as a coach and why are you coaching in the first place? Knowing yourself and understanding your reasons for making decisions is essential for your personal longevity as coach and success in leading the team effectively.
4. Know how you are doing
The ability to test and re-test is a critical skill to use mid-season. As you follow your plan, you need to know one thing: is it working? What lets you know you are headed in the right direction? Finding a reliable test, be it team fitness challenges, time trials, mid-season race results, etc, provides you with a compass throughout the season that can guide you to sticking to the plan or modifying it along the way.
5. Put it all together
A team is a collection of individuals. Get each individual to accept the goal and the path to meeting that goal. Have them commit to what you say it will take to meet that goal. Follow the plan to get where you need to be. Adapt your plan as needed to address unforeseen challenges. Make sure YOU are not contributing to the team falling short of its goal. Don’t forget, have fun!
How much paddling effort is optimal for different parts of the race? Certainly very few if any athletes can go 100% effort for 2 continuous minutes without fatigue affecting performance, so for a 500 meter race, it behooves the athlete and coach to know how effort can best be used to pace the race in order to get the best time.
Our muscles contain several different types of fibers, each with their own attributes that allow us a range of force-exerting capabilities from holding a baby kitten to performing a heavy dead lift. Motor control is a complex system within the brain but outside the spinal cord, things get simpler. This is what we can focus on for the scope of this post. Motor neurons of different sizes connect like wires to muscle fibers, stimulating them to twitch and eventually reach sustained contraction, or tetanus, with enough action potentials/electrical signal.
We can group motor neurons into 2 main groups, large and small. Likewise muscle fibers can be grouped into 2 main types, Type I and Type IIa/IIx. Small motor neurons recruit Type I muscle fibers, which are slow to contract, produce low force, but are very fatigue resistant. Think of the muscles that operate your eyelids. Unless you’re the average college student, those things stay open most of the day and possibly through late nights in places your mother shouldn’t know about. Similar muscle fibers operate even when you are walking. Most healthy individuals can walk and talk with minimal fatigue.
Large motor neurons carry fast electrical signals to your so-called “fast-twitch” muscle fibers. These fibers take relatively more signal to contract, but once they do, they produce high amounts of force in a short period of time. They also fatigue quickly. Going from a walk to a sprint or performing a box jump will fire these Type II muscle fibers.
Muscle Fibers in Paddling
Paddling is a mix of muscle fiber utilization, as many daily activities are as well. The start of the race is strenuous because the boat is at a standstill and the water feels very thick/heavy. Taking hard strokes through this situation will favor the Type II fibers. As the boat reaches race pace and the speed plateaus, less emphasis on power per stroke (and thus less fatigue per stroke) can be applied to simply maintain race pace and hull speed vs accelerate the boat. Have you ever been on a boat where the crew hits an overrate and keeps it there? I have (a few times) and it doesn’t end well. Rating down and reducing power per stroke results in a lower reliance upon Type II fibers for paddling and less fatigue.
Some teams may call powers or some equivalent bump in effort to strategically stay ahead of other racers or simply to fight a gradual decline in hull speed. Again, taking harder or faster strokes will result in more Type II fibers being recruited, which will contribute to fatigue.
For the finish, is it better to pull a hard and fast acceleration or a gradual one? It depends. Highly trained athletes with good conditioning will have a better ability to recruit Type II fibers with less fatigue, but you can’t fight the physiology of trying hard. Fatigue will hit and sap the performance of any and all who exert 100% effort. No team wants to be slowing down by the end of the race, after all. In this sense, a hard and fast finish will mean an athlete can exert themselves for a shorter amount of time before bonking out.
Assuming that your boat is dead-even with the competition, travelling at the same speed, and the other crew maintains the same speed through the finish line, your crew will need to accelerate to pass the other boat. This is where a “finish” is useful in the most basic sense.
Acceleration requires the application of more force and power to the water. This power ramp can be applied gradually over a period of time or more aggressively in a compressed time frame. It obviously takes more energy to accelerate quickly and it is relatively more difficult to accelerate a moving boat than it is a stopped one (really!).
A crew that takes a more gradual approach to the finish may reduce the fatigue associated with accelerating the boat but will need to avoid making the finish so long that fatigue causes hull speed to drop before the finish line. The competition also poses a variable for when and how to run a finish. Calling the finish after that of other nearby crews potentially demands your boat to accelerate in a shorter amount of time to avoid being passed. Being “forced” to finish on account of another teams potentially better race piece may result in excess fatigue for your crew and decreased performance.
Most coaches recommend racing your own race, which has plenty of wisdom to it, however when up against close competition the ability to adapt on the fly is very useful when winning is all that matters.
“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!
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.
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