Moving forward: Plans for the Bay Area’s new OC1 center

We need your help this weekend, Sat 21, in the morning! Please contact me or Sue!

I’ve previously talked about the benefits of a center with affordable access to small boats outside of the outrigger club system.

Thanks to the help of a number of people in the community, this is going to happen over coming months. Right now, I’m looking to discuss the center with the people and groups who would be using the center.

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A proposal: The Bay Area needs an accessible high-performance training facility

Athlete development is essential to sport

The idea of competitive sport holds certain core values: personal challenge, dedication, progress and accomplishment. Athlete development programs offer motivated individuals the freedom to pursue their passions to the fullest extent. Dragon boat, like any sport, benefits from the existence of such programs.

Dragon boat is the most accessible canoeing discipline. It turns formerly unsporting people into competitive athletes. It provides the already-athletic a challenge outside the norm. It serves as a gateway sport to lifelong athletic involvement. A successful dragon boat community is especially dependent on athlete development.

The Bay Area is among the world’s greatest sources of potential talent

I began paddling in Vancouver. I raced for my high school’s small dragon boat team, and I admired the size and depth of the high school programs in the Bay Area.

SF’s Lowell High School has a program roughly as large as all the Vancouver city high school crews, combined. Excluding flatwater canoeists, I have seen more promising young athletes come out of SF’s Galileo High School than any other school in North America.

For the visually inclined, below is a comparison of last year’s 12 best high school teams of the greater Vancouver and greater SF areas, respectively.

Comparative Speeds

San Francisco high schools train vast numbers of novice paddlers to competitive levels. The Bay Area’s college programs do the same. These beginning athletes are the enthusiastic young talent which feeds the community.

And they’re not just numerous and enthusiastic: college-age paddlers in California are fit. Many of California U23 fitness test scores are competitive with Canada’s premier team.

California, the Bay Area in particular, should be proud to consistently produce an exceptional base of potential talent.

These experienced, strong and competitive young paddlers build a strong base for the sport in the Bay Area. I would argue that dragon boat’s strongest North American foundations are in California. So why are the most competitive college and adult dragon boat paddlers in Philadelphia, in New York, in Tampa, in Montreal, in Toronto and in Vancouver, but not in California?

Lack of resources currently impedes athlete development in California

The needs of developing athletes

I don’t mean that the quality of paddling ability in California is poor. But I argue that, beyond high school, developing athletes lack opportunities and resources.

College paddlers and developing adult paddlers lack a training environment which appropriate for their competitive needs.

The beginning paddler needs a network of experienced mentors and a competitive team environment.  The recreational paddler needs a welcoming community. Here, the Bay Area excels. But in California, the motivated competitive dragon boat paddler does not have the freedom to pursue excellence in the sport.

We’re all familiar with other team sports: let’s use basketball as our example since it’s popular in California. Like dragon boat, basketball is a team sport. But I challenge you to find me a star professional player who does not practice their skills on their own.

Imagine a world in which basketball players could only train a few days per week and scrimmages were the only form of training. Imagine that no player had the freedom to do drills or even to practice their shot in their driveway. Imagine that they could never practice or be coached on their own skills.

Young players wouldn’t be able to improve. Today’s stars would never have been able to grow to professional levels. Even the casual amateur player would never be able to reach their current competitive level. At all levels of the sport, no motivated athlete would ever be able to improve their abilities for the benefit of their team. Without the freedom for individual training competitive success in—or even enjoyment of—the sport would be impossible.

But this is the current state of dragon boat in California. Paddlers can only train in the big boat with the whole team. The analogue of basketball drills and skill training is small boat work, paddle pool work and paddling ergometer work.

The motivated paddler can only improve their paddling abilities when their whole team is able to train. They can’t put in extra hours unless everyone is involved. And they can never really directly train their personal technique and fitness.

The costs of not filling these needs

In the Bay Area, I have seen countless strong paddlers leave the sport prematurely. The community loses their talent and their mentorship, and they lose a chance at what could have been a long rewarding career in the sport.

The work that our young paddlers do in the gym proves that they are willing to train hard. Programs like California U23 show that the community is willing to coach, support and mentor developing athletes. But without the freedom to train harder, the motivated athlete will continually experience failure which they do not deserve, or they will quit the sport.

In 2011, California college paddlers, mostly born of SF’s powerhouse high school programs met those who had floundered in Vancouver’s relatively weak high school scene. But the Vancouver-based cohort won by a large margin. If the two groups meet again in 2013, I guarantee a similar result.

Comparative Speeds U23

I have trained with the paddlers on both boats. Those on the USA boat are as motivated, hard-working, fit, and full of potential as the Canadians. They are not inferior athletes: with the same paddlers, three years earlier in high school, the USA would have demolished the Canadian crew.

But the difference came of what happened in the years since. The difference is that the Canadian crew has had the resources and the opportunities to develop from their comparatively humble beginnings into world-class athletes. They had equipment, opportunities and support which have not been made available to young paddlers in California.

And this is a shame.

Community investment in resources for high performance training could transform the sport

Vancouver has FCRCC where budding athletes and national team members alike, in exchange for a reasonable user fee, share open access to small-boat training.

This is what freedom to pursue excellence in the sport looks like:

This Is False Creek 1

This Is False Creek 1

This Is False Creek 1

FCRCC is an excellent example of what the community can achieve with the right resources. It is why Vancouver is able to turn paddlers from some of North American’s weaker high school programs into the strongest college-age paddlers on the continent.

Every other city with a diverse, healthy and competitive dragon boat community has a similar facility.

Pemberton (Laoyam Eagles) has integrated high performance outrigger and flatwater canoe training programs. So does almost every single program in Europe. So does Toronto. Montreal has Canal Fitness, dragon boat ergometer and paddle pool facilities.

These allow athletes to train hard on their own paddling, and bring this benefit back their teams. These allow athletes freedom and control over their training. It allows them to explore the sport and have fun.

The San Francisco Bay Area has nothing.

The average Californian dragon boat paddler is not as rich as the average Canadian. But individual training is only within their reach if they have an outrigger canoe ($1200-4000+), flatwater canoe ($1200-4000+) or paddling erg ($2300). Of the hundreds of young dragon boat paddlers in the Bay Area almost none have access to these resources.
Unlike in every other “paddling city” in North America, there is no Bay Area facility which makes these resources available to the community’s motivated paddlers. And so it is simply impossible to train efficiently towards higher success or enjoyment in the sport.

Here’s my idea:

What if we could build a facility in the Bay Area where its many motivated paddlers could train?

Where our strong high school programs could actually grow into a thriving community of highly competitive adult athletes? Where our college-aged paddlers could turn their hard work into hard and effective work, and achieve the success they deserve? Where future leaders and mentors and coaches could be forged within the local dragonboat community, instead of depending on coaches from other countries and other canoeing disciplines to develop the sport? Where California could create the elite athletes to give the State the representation it deserves on the senior national team?

We don’t need an Olympic-quality paddle pool. We don’t need twenty outrigger canoes. Other cities’ resources are currently out of reach and we don’t need them.

But a small starting facility could completely change the sport.

How it might work:

What boats?

Obtain four or five OC2s. OC2s are small and light enough to work on individual technique and provide feedback. Better for coaching and better stability than OC1s. Two seats for not much more than the price of an OC1.

Eight to ten seats is enough for the core of a team to train together in a competitive environment, while keeping costs manageable.

Where would be get them?

A) Donations and used boats. This is the cheaper option. There are potentially enough OC2s on the used market on the West Coast to build the program. This would be the far cheaper option. (~$6-12k?) If clubs or individuals were generous enough to donate their older boats, this would help greatly.

B) Matched sets of new boats in an inexpensive and durable fibreglass layup would be easier to maintain. Huki OC2s are locally built in Sacramento and would cost $14k for five.

Who would run the program?

It would probably be best for the program to run the program independently of other organizations streamline its administration.

There are issues with insurance, conflicts in priorities and autonomy if we were to partner directly with any existing paddling organization.

It could conceivably be run by a team of one or two younger paddlers, who would need to oversee management of the boats, insurance, etc. as well as maintain the boats in working order and do repairs if necessary. This would probably be a commitment of a couple hours per week, depending on use.

I know college paddlers who have expressed interest in volunteering in a management role to help the paddling community, but who don’t want to take on the larger responsibilities of a CDBA board position.

Where?

There could be a number of options, with their own benefits and drawbacks.

A) Lake Merritt. I have dealt with this City of Oakland-managed facility in the past, and they have a large dock space, lots of storage space and are themselves looking to expand as a centre for dragon boat training. This is a safe flatwater facility, which is close to public transportation and also offers enough water for serious training. The administration is very enthusiastic and helpful and would likely support a small boat training facility for dragon boat. However, being in the East Bay, it is not a particularly accessible site for many teams.

B) Lake Merced. This is the traditional centre for dragon boating in San Francisco, and where most teams already practice, which is a large advantage. However, it does not have shed or dock space, is a poor environment for boat maintenance, and is a smaller and busier site than Lake Merritt.

C) An existing outrigger club.  Hui Wa’a and O Kalani both have some ties to the dragon boat community. These would have the storage facilities, dock space and maintenance knowledge to keep a fleet of small boats. However, the missions of these organizations are not necessarily aligned with providing a facility for high-performance training in dragon boat.

Accessibility?

For my vision of this project, accessibility is the main objective.

Reasonable user fees would be necessary to maintain the facility. An initial facility would probably have to be restricted to a single site: either in SF, Oakland or the South Bay. This would mean that some sub-population of the Bay Area would not find the facility accessible, wherever we put it.

The point is not to cater only to the already highly competitive paddler. A lot of these paddlers have joined outrigger clubs and are willing to juggle fees and commitments to multiple organizations, or have made extremely large financial investments in the sport.

The point is to allow any motivated paddler at any current experience and commitment level to discover training at a high competitive level. Many of FCRCC’s top athletes did not discover their passion for the sport until after they had begun small-boat training at the club. The point of the facility is to remove the barrier that currently exists to higher level training.

How do we make this facility accessible enough that the motivated paddlers on college, adult competitive and even adult recreational teams would find it a reasonable option to supplement their training?

Allow paddlers to try it out before committing? What’s a reasonable user fee which would be low enough for most paddlers but high enough to maintain the facility? How do we make this facility as equally accessible to as many teams as possible?

Initial cost?

This is the major barrier. Even a basic set of boats plus storage facility could easily cost $10-15k.

Grants, either from local government, or from a program like Chase Community giving would make this easy. A few years ago the City of Oakland spent roughly $12000 on brand new dragon boats, without actually having a firm market for them. Would they be interested in funding a facility which would actually be heavily used and also position them as an important training centre? Maybe. If we could obtain nonprofit organization status, we could probably raise enough support to secure a Chase grant which would easily cover the whole project.

Failing grants, donations could turn high performance paddling the bay area from a dream into a reality. If we could get either OC1s OR OC2, of any age or quality donated, this would bypass the issue of raising money.

Fundraising might be the best short-term option to start the project. If the college teams and competitive adult and high school teams which would benefit most directly from the project were to pool their resources, basic team fundraising could probably fundraise enough within a year to make a start on this project.

With basic donations and fundraising, even a basic pilot project with one or two boats could demonstrate the feasibility and benefit of a training facility.

How we might get started

I’m going to keep the discussion here for at least a few more days to help me nail down specific, reasonable plans.

I would love for as much input as possible before I start pitching this to key people in the community.

I think the next step goes in a few directions:

1) Figure out if the community is on board with this project, or feels they would benefit from it. Coaches: is this something that you think your team would benefit from? Paddlers: would you be interested in accessible small boat training? What else do you all feel needs to be considered?

2) Identify potential sites, sponsors and administrative partners. My best idea right now is Lake Merritt… is there a better one?

3) Get people high up interested: the CDBA, the PDBA, the Cities of Oakland and San Francisco, outrigger clubs who might be willing to help, etc.

Fitting the Stroke to the Team: Analysis, and a New Stroke (3/5)

Analysis: Considerations in Choosing a Stroke for Cal

Outline:

With three options in mind, we arrived at the question of what stroke is best for Cal.

It came down to identifying the team’s strengths, weaknesses and constraints in training.

Things to Consider

Weaknesses

1. Lower technical ability, which impeded force transfer with the current stroke.
2. Insufficient fitness to sustain an explosive stroke.
3. Low muscular endurance in general.

Strengths

1. 2010’s Cal was a physically large and strong team.
2. Mentally able to stay in control of difficult races and practices.
3. The team was very eager to put in sustained effort in order to improve.

Training Constraints

1. Maximum 2-3 days per week on the water.
2. Many paddlers could only attend less than this.

There was muscle on the boat. But many paddlers couldn’t use the current stroke to move the boat efficiently. Would a new stroke be able to take advantage of the team’s strengths, and compensate for its weaknesses? I thought so.

Criteria for a New Stroke

Limited water time:  There is no point in using a difficult stroke without time to learn it. Limited water time also ensures low endurance, so they would remain a ‘strength-based’ team.

We needed a stroke which wasn’t challenging, which didn’t depend on muscular endurance, but which took used physical power. Ideally, this stroke would be ‘novice-proof: maybe less efficient, but hard to get wrong.

The Stroke

Fig 4. Cal’s new stroke, side view, does not show hip movement:
Pull is extended to the hip. NB Top arm leads recovery.

Restructuring the Hip Rotation

The paddlers were not experienced enough to have intuition for how body motions move the boat.

Rotation is an important part of the stroke. However, many paddlers rotate without it doing anything useful.

How this can happen:

-Paddlers rotate with the shoulders only—not much muscle behind it.
-Rotation follows the motion of the blade instead of leading it.

To prevent these: emphasize the use of the hips, engaging larger muscles in the rotation.

Keep hips as free to rotate as possible. So I opted for bringing the inside leg, or both legs forward (cf. high-kneel canoe, kayak, resp.). This releases body weight off the inside hip, making rotation easier.

It also makes forward rotation a position of “tension.” With the inside leg back, outside leg forward, as the team used to do, the most neutral position for the hips is to stay rotated forward.

This can trap an inexperienced padder in an “always-forward” position. The other way around, the hips are set-up at the catch to encourage a strong rotation to return them to neutral.

Cleaning up the Exit

Slow exits are bad.

Having the blade (partially) submerged without pulling on it will slow the boat. Spending too much time and effort on the exit leaves little for the recovery.

Cal struggled with exits already. And a very long stroke (see below) would increase risks of slow exits.

An exit initiated by breaking the bottom arm will become, in the hands of a novice,a strange movement in which the tension in the bottom arm is released well before extraction: the opposite of what a long stroke aims to achieve.

Therefore, we adopted a top arm-initiated exit. The top thumb pulls up as the stroke is ending, cleanly extracting the blade without involving the bottom arm.

Demerit: this is actually a very difficult movement for people with poor shoulder endurance. Advantage: it allows the rest of the body to relax a lot more.

Pulling to the Hip

The most major change I made caused a lot of controversy. I decided to opt for the Ontario-style pull to the hip.

Why? Because it was very well suited to a team with big physical strength, and relatively low endurance, and because it provided a large window in which to generate power.

The traditionalist’s misguided opposition to this stroke:

  • Once the blade goes negative and passes mid-thigh, the pull stops being efficient so you should exit the water.
    Or, a more extreme misstatement: pulling past mid thigh decelerates the boat.
  • Or, a negative blade pulls the boat down and stops it from planing.

The Facts:

True, pulling beyond mid-thigh exits the normal stroke’s strongest powerband. But for a team with more muscle than endurance and quickness, this doesn’t actually matter.

I’ll support this position with a weightlifting analogy.

Suppose that you’re an olympic lifter trying to hit a new PR on your clean. Are you going to do a hang clean, or are you going to do a full clean off the floor?

To say that you should exit at mid-thigh else you’ll slow the boat is as silly as saying that you’ll clean more from a hang or off blocks than off the floor.

In a clean, the second pull is much more powerful than the first. (As much as double.) But the first pull imparts momentum in the bar which allows a heavier weight to be lifted.

Similarly, you do generate more power pulling the blade from full extension to mid-thigh than from mid-thigh to the hip. But you generate the most power putting them together.

If you’re going for an explosive, high rate style of paddling, then yes, you do want to pull out earlier since a long pull will limit your stroke rate.

Likewise, if you’re a crossfit-er cleaning sub-maximal weight for 21 reps as fast as possible, you’ll probably want to hang clean it. But as Cal has been a physically strong, slow rate team, and not a high-rate team ‘slapping at the water,’ going for the longest possible stroke and moving through as large a volume of water as possible makes sense.

The second point is a load of bullshit, which is well-addressed by Geoff Fong.

If you’re a rower (at least with UK-style technique, or with an  “erg technique” high pull) you’ll also know that the finish isn’t the strongest part of the stroke, but you know that it’s damn well essential.

Discussion

For Cal, this stroke made sense didactically and technically.

It’s pretty hard not to generate good power when the idea of the stroke is “put the blade in the water, and use as much of your body as possible to pull the blade as far back as possible.”

If the power comes on at different times, not a problem. If the blade angle slips, not a problem: the pull’s long enough that you’ll still get a good pull in somewhere in the stroke at an effective angle. If the catch is sloppy, again, not a problem, you’ve only missed 20% of the stroke. No matter what the paddler does, this approach will pull a lot of water.

Is it the best stroke? Maybe not. Is it the best approach for a physically strong but inexperienced team? I think so.

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Fitting the Stroke to the Team: Canadian Influences (2/5)

Background: Two Canadian Stroke Styles

Outline

Prior to Cal, I trained with two internationally successful clubs in Canada, one in Vancouver and one in Toronto. These taught a forward stroke both unlike anything in California, and unlike the other.

Each provided a method of paddling which might better suit a team like Cal than the standard Californian technique. I detail both below.

The Strokes

1. Vancouver

Fig 2. A rough sketch of a certain Vancouver team’s stroke.
NB lower arm leads recovery.

This was a major club in Vancouver, which, at the time, dominated the sport in North America. They used compact and dynamic stroke which was powerful and efficient, especially over sprints and long distances.

Their Stroke’s Characteristics:

-Large forward extension/hinge.
-Dynamic hinge up on pull.
-Early vertical exit, led by top hand.
-Linear pull*, compact linear recovery.

I’ll explain what I mean by this soon.

The key to this stroke is that it eliminates unnecessary motions and relies on paddlers’ ability to deliver massive power extremely quickly during a very short pull. It is an ideal of efficiency.

It is not a realistic stroke for a team like Cal—it’s very technically demanding and is best suited to experienced athletes with excellent coaching. It is often imitated, but seldom with even the slightest success.

But there is a lot to learn from it:

  • The approach to the ‘hinge’ is extremely different from the ‘California stroke,’ and a lot more efficient/powerful.

Californian teams tend treat the downward hinge as the only real source of power phase in the stroke. The upper body is thrown forward and down onto the blade. This takes a lot of energy yet does not contribute much to the boat’s forward momentum. In general, the body remains in this compromised hinged-down position through the pull, hampering an efficient pull. See esp. Lincoln, Lowell.

The approach here is subtly different: the downward hinge does produce a lot of power by transfer of body weight onto the blade. But it also sets up for a subsequent powerful pull. The moment blade is buried, the hinge down ceases, and the body swings back up as part of the pull. The hinge forward extends the stroke’s range of motion forward, and the hinge up keeps the body in a strong pulling position until the exit.

  • The approach to rotation eliminates unnecessary movements and increases the recruited muscles.

California: “rotate your chest to your partner.” Generally, teams are only going through the motions of rotating without it producing any power. They rotate forward from the shoulders, but the way they set up their rotation does not actually lend itself making the rotation a strong part of the pull. The inside leg, elbow and other body parts swing around wildly as part of this rotation, using energy without contributing to the boat’s motion.

Instead, rotation is something that comes from the motion of the hips. The pulling arm tracks linearly to follow this rotation, ensuring that the rotational motion gets converted into a linear pull.

  • The linear and compact recovery requires a lot of shoulder flexibility and stability to accomplish. However the fast exit is easy and broadly applicable.

A disadvantage of ‘Californian strokes,’ and a barrier to successful use of long strokes with the ‘Californian exit’ is that extracting the blade with the bottom arm is, in general, quite slow and can be easily confounded with the pulling motion.

If, rather than the bottom arm, the top arm leads the recovery, a much faster exit is possible, and the extraction motion does not interfere with the pulling motion. This is similar to the independent roles of the two hands in sweep rowing.

I note here that some SoCal teams, including Will Lin’s U23 program address the last two issues in a very different, but equally attractive manner. I will not discuss this in detail.

2. Ontario

Fig 3. A rough sketch of a certain Ontario team’s stroke.
NB pull to hip.

The previous summer, I’d trained and raced briefly under coaches from Pickering, Ontario. Their stroke drew on an influence absent in all but the best West-Coast clubs: flatwater canoe.

They produced fast high school and college-age paddlers despite not having year-round access to unfrozen water to train on. For a relatively inexperienced west-coaster like myself, their stroke made it easy to generate huge amounts of power and go fast.

Their Stroke’s Characteristics:

-Pull to the hip.1
-Rotation from hips. Inside leg forward, gunwale leg back. Inside leg pushes to lead recovery.2
-Dynamic hinge up on pull.
-Muscles used through as close as possible to their full range of motion.

This stroke contradicts most of what was taught in California.

In particular 1 contradicts what is generally said about early exits and avoiding negative angles, and 2 contradicts what is said about using leg drive in the stroke.

But for the big young kid with lots of muscle, and limited water time and finesse, it is a very attractive stroke.

Translating These Strokes to Cal

I will hold off further comparison of the “Ontario” to the “California” stroke, since it forms the basis of Cal’s 2010 technique revision. Discussion follows in the next post.

Fitting the Stroke to the Team (1/5)

Abstract

Paddling technique varies significantly worldwide, yet in general, technique is regionally homogenous. While no major stroke style is fundamentally superior to another, it is useful to recognize that a team with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses might benefit from very different technique than its neighbors.

I have previously alluded to the idea that teams’ strengths and weaknesses often vary enough that paddling technique should be fit to a team. In the following three posts, I demonstrate how I drew upon influences from outside California fit a stroke to Cal’s physical and technical abilities. The result is a long stroke with a late exit, aimed to benefit the team’s high fitness and low experience. This contradicts local preferences and demonstrates that individual groups of athletes may benefit from technique outside the regional norm. In Cal’s case, I will outline the logic behind my choices.

Background: Traditional Californian Technique and Cal’s Roots

Outline

Most dragon boat teams in California use remarkably similar paddling technique, which I outline below:

  • Large rotation from the chest/shoulders.
  • Forward extension and anchor*
  • Leg drive with the gunwale leg.
  • Exit by mid-thigh.

* which has often been incorrectly taught as a frightening and ineffective downward drive with the body onto the catch.

This is the stroke which Cal had used prior to 2010.

WestCoastBig
Fig 1. A rough sketch of a standard Californian stroke showing active downward hinge,
rotation from upper trunk. NB lower arm leads recovery.

In theory this is a solid stroke with a firm logical basis.

Up to minor differences, the 2011 Canadian U23 crew used this stroke to shock the American college athletes they raced at Worlds. It is the stroke which my principal coach taught. One West continues with a similar stroke. BAD and DW have had great success with a similar stroke.

Is this the best choice for Cal?

In practice it isn’t for everyone. It requires a lot of endurance and a lot of technical ability if you want to use it go fast.

Regional homogeneity in technique among teams is not a bad thing. I see no reason why a recreational team should aim for anything different. Using a locally well-known stroke style makes finding qualified coaches easy. If a team’s primary goal is not to maximize the benefit of their training and win races, then there adopting something unusual is not an efficient use of time.

For Cal, I don’t think it was ideal:

  • Doing the stroke effectively requires getting a firm connection to the water very early and generating within a short, early window.

Most college paddlers have not developed the explosiveness and blade control generate power effectively within this window.

  • Getting the recovery right is hard, both physically and technically: the bodies don’t swing together in a way that allows the body to relax between strokes.

If a team’s primary weakness is endurance, it is essential that the recovery not be tiring.

  • The hinge up during the pull is not a long enough or big enough motion to stop new paddlers from getting “stuck” in a collapsed position throughout the stroke.

Poor body positioning can very easily kill boat speed, so a stroke which minimizes the potential for this is desirable for a more novice team.

Technology and Understanding Intensity

Geoff Fong and Michael Wu both bring up important points in response to my post regarding choosing volume and intensity of training.

Geoff:

“I think a critical portion of any program design is athlete exertion and knowing intensity (being different than pace). [ … ] For example, I don’t foresee the ability to walk/hike 12 miles leading to improved 800 meter run times. I fully expect and assume that your paddlers are in a zone of intensity that keeps the endurance piece beneficial, but I’ve seen teams practice at such low intensity that the benefits of “long distance” don’t add up to better performance.

I think that Geoff is right that interval work holds an important place in a training program, but I do argue that a fair amount of basework is needed to beable to do the intervals correctly. He’s very right to point out that, compared to interval training, where you just “go hard” for a short period of time, it’s very hard for paddlers to hit the right intensities for high-volume, low-intensity work.

Mike:

“This is actually one of the things I like most about working with the paddle erg : now that people have objective numbers to work with, I can ask for exact intensities [ … ] Whereas in the boat, it can be tough to notice that you’re letting go of the gas when your contribution is masked by everybody else’s efforts.”

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Understanding vs. Following

I have always tried to base my personal training and my coaching around this principle:

If you want to really learn something, and do well at it, you need to understand it. If an athlete hopes to master a sport—which, on Cal, ought to be the goal—understanding is a key part of training. Blind imitation will not produce an effective athlete.

The Coach is only a Guide for the paddler’s self-improvement.

I loved Will Lin’s U23 program because it focused building understanding. He realized that his talent pool was a group of motivated, jacked college kids who had never really learned how paddling works. He used classroom instruction, lecture slides, mathematical data  and all, to really get athletes to understand, and “own,” not just copy, their training and their technique.

And, back on Cal, I had thought of the idea of running a regular lecture component to training. I recognized that not everyone learns well in this environment, and so I never did, but I think that a bigger focus on thinking about paddling would have helped my team. If you understand why you’re supposed to do some part of the technique, or how certain motions move the boat, you’re going to put yourself in control of your progress on the water. If you understand why training is structured a certain way, you’ll be more motivated to complete it, and maybe more motivated to push yourself further.

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For the athlete: fundamental principles of training

I’m going to open these entries up for everyone to see in the next couple of days. As such most of the readership will probably shift to being members of college teams. I have some things to say specifically to athletes, and luckily they’ve mostly been said already by rowing coach Mike Caviston.

Before you read further: go read the introduction to this document. http://www.concept2.com/files/pdf/us/training/Training_WolverinePlan.pdf

The coach sets out some good principles for training which I think are all too often forgotten:

1) “The Overload Principle — an athlete must challenge herself to stimulate further physiological adaptation.”

2) “The Specificity Principle — an athlete must perform the greatest portion of her training doing the actual activity in which she competes.”

“. . .While occasional workouts doing cardiovascular activities such as running . . . can supplement your basic training . . . we must recognize the limitations of cross-training.

3) “The Reversibility Principle. — This means that training gains are not permanent. The outstanding performances of last year cannot be duplicated or improved without continued effort this year. Athletes who stop training lose fitness, regardless of the reason (poor motivation, injury or illness, lack of time, etc.) How much and how fast varies depending on circumstances, but any reduction in training could make the crucial difference between winning and losing for the elite athlete.”

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The Start

Preface

If there’s one thing that I’m qualified to talk about it’s the start. Even if I have a lot of work to do overall speed (especially this past year since I’ve taken a break from high-level competition) the start is somewhere where I always aim to be untouchable.

The 6-16 start, and its derivatives were developed back when dragon boats were extremely heavy teak boats and needed a long start sequence to get them up to speed. The 6-16, at least in the sense in which it is commonly interpreted, is, in my opinion, no longer ideal for modern dragon boat racing.

Qualities of an effective start:

The start essentially serves one purpose: to minimize the time it takes to complete the race, given that the boat starts from a dead stop.

To achieve this, ideally, a start will:

  • Get the boat up to speed as quickly as possible in order to maximize the boat’s average speed
  • Set the boat/crew up to settle to a strong race pace
  • Not take away from performance in the rest of the race

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Individual speed: Why are we hitting an artificial limit?

A Strange Distribution of Speeds

Within my first year of coaching, I noticed an odd phenomenon: there seemed to be some sort of upper limit to the performance of “traditionally trained” paddlers. This was especially apparent among men. I sadly don’t have good enough data for the women to tell me much.

In general, experienced paddlers have much better adaptability, control and technical proficiency, and their improvement over the years allows them to make serious contributions to the boat’s performance in races. What I note however is that their individual “paddle fitness” seems to plateau very early, and a roughly uniform level.

The overall performance of the team as a whole has always been the first priority, and so, given limited coaching resources, improving individual athletes’ performance at the top end has not been as important as getting the slower athletes up to speed. (This in of itself gives some explanation for why paddle fitness plateaus: after a while, the program makes big improvements in the way that the top guys work with the boat, but does not emphasize increasing their paddle fitness in the same way that it does the less experienced people.)

Data taken from three OC1/OC2 time trial sessions. Times for A boat paddlers only. My own times are omitted since they aren’t comparable. Black-blue-purple graphs show the progress of athletes who tested at multiple trials.

All the same: Where are the times in the sub-1:43 range?

Times are of course not consistent between trials, they are corrected relative to my own time, which I keep good track of. The important piece of result is not affected by this uncertainty in comparing trials: that Cal paddlers can often reach a very respectable level of performance within a year of training, but there seems to be an upper limit to the speed experienced athletes attain!

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