The biggest challenge of dragon boat racing is managing synchrony. Since there is no gym exercise for building synchrony, teams that spend more time practicing on water tend to have an advantage.
Some teams that emphasize stroke rate might put their strongest members in the front to set the stroke rate for the team. Some others that emphasize the mechanical science of propulsion put their strongest members in the back to deal with water resistance. There are also those who theorise on the centre of gravity of the boat and the best lineup to lower the centre of gravity. Whatever the lineup, there is a rationale for it. Yet, basic execution, including flawless strokes and synchrony, is the most important part of competitive dragon boating. No amount of alignment experimentation will help the team if its members fail on the basics.
There are four (4) basic phases of paddling:
1. “Catch” as you lean forward, turn your body slightly toward you partner and submerge your paddle in the water. Make sure that the full blade catches water.
2. “Pull” as you lean back to pull water. Propulsion of the boat is based on countering that water resistance you feel. Therefore the boat experiences maximum propulsion as the full blades of all 20 paddlers catch and pull at the same time.
3. “Finish” as you pull the blade out of the water. This phase signals the completion of your first stroke and preparation for the next stroke.
4. “Reach” as you lean forward again to prepare for the “Catch” phase of your next stroke.
The “finish” and “reach” phases are sometimes known as “ready-and-reach”. Together, they are also addressed as the “recovery” phase.
In the “catch” phase, how far should you lean and how much body turning should you have? If you are a beginner, imagine doing that again and again until you finish a race course of 500 metres or longer. Don’t freak out as “practice makes perfect”. Perfect execution requires physical conditioning outside of dragon boating. In the ”catch” phase, your abdominals and shoulders matter most. Regular crunches and shoulder lifts using dumbbells will condition these body parts.
It is a good idea to sit in front of someone taller than you as you train on water. The reason being your taller teammate behind you naturally has a longer reach than you do, thus forcing you to lean forward more. Be careful-do this only if you have sufficiently conditioned your abdominals and back muscles. Otherwise, you will likely suffer endless swearing from behind.
Sitting in the back of the boat will give you more effective resistance training overall. The reason is that you are “eating” the wakes created by everyone in front of you. If you are sitting in the front, a good way to practice resistance is asking your teammates behind you to create a drag by putting their paddles in water but not paddling. This will require coordination by your coach.
Training on One Side-versus-Switching Sides
Some dragon boat teams finish a practice round without allowing paddlers to switch sides or some dragon boaters prefer to train only on their stronger side. Prolonged training on only one side of your body is not healthy for your spine, posture and overall balance. A healthier way of training is switching sides midway through the round, one row at a time. The drawback, of course, is slowing down during switching. Another method is keeping track of which side you paddle each week and making sure you switch every week. Finally, if you really prefer to paddle on one side in order to say, become a “left side expert” for racing, compensate by doing more conditioning exercises for muscles on the other side.
Keeping your paddle vertical against the side of the dragon boat (i.e. the gunwale), enhances speed of the “recovery” phase and hence the stroke rate. Verticality also makes full submission of the blades easier and thus enhances the propulsion of the boat. However, the biggest drawback of keeping the paddle vertical is its impact on your shoulders as your stroke, particularly if you stroke fast. If you use this technique, it is crucial to perform shoulder conditioning exercises to build up your shoulder muscles and protect your shoulder joints. Leaning out of the gunwale will make it easier for you to accomplish verticality, however that will require strong oblique abdominals as well as switching sides to protect your spine.
If you team’s paddling style is tilting the paddles, you might protect your shoulders and spine more but the drawback is a slower “recovery” phase. To enhance the “recovery” phase, you will need to reduce the air drag (air resistance) by turning the paddle so that the blade is horizontal to the water and “slicing” the air as you reach forward. This requires frequent wrist turning, particularly if you stroke fast. If you use this technique, you need to build up your wrist strength to prevent injuries. When you do the conditioning exercises, include wrist curls and using light weight dumbbells. You will find it convenient to incorporate wrist curls in between sets as you do bicep curls.
Conditioning Exercises to Get Ready for Races
How much endurance and strength you and your teammates have is a key factor determining whether your team can sustain multiple heats and beat a close rival at the right moment ..the final race. This is where physical conditioning plays a role in addition to on-water practice.
The best conditioning exercises are tailored to your team’s stroke strategy. Carefully designed, conditioning exercises not only build your strength and cardiovascular capacity but also stimulate the muscle movements, breathing pattern and heart rates during a race.