Paddling Perfection: Dragon Boat Basics

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If you are interested in dragon boating, learn what paddling perfection, team spirit, and a workout all have in common with a dragon boat paddle.

If you are looking for a good workout, fast friends and fun then the international sport of dragon boating is for you! All you need is a paddle, a life vest, a powerful core, and no sense of personal space and you will become a paddler for life.

Dragon boat festivals and races take place all over the world, from China to Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Wherever there is water, you will find dragon boating. If you are interested in learning how to paddle, the internet is an excellent resource for finding a local team to join. Just type in "dragon boat" with the name of your city, state or nearby body of water. You should be shocked if you don't get any hits.

Three things stand out to this writer who is an avid dragon boat team member: The power and force that occurs when one paddle combines in perfect unison with 21 others; the intimacy required amongst the team in the close quarters of the dragon boat; and the incredible, total body fitness routine of paddling.

The paddle stroke required to propel a dragon boat forward from a complete stand-still at the start of a race takes practice and perfection. It's more than dipping an oar into the water and swinging it around again. The perfect paddle stroke requires upper and lower body coordination, driving off the outside gunnel leg while rotating the torso. It requires shoving downward with the top arm while guiding carefully with the lower arm.

Your spine will be tested at every practice as you lean and reach, pull and stretch. Common injuries occur due to the immense torsion placed on the lumbar spine as a triangle pose is formed while rotating and leaning forward to start the stroke. Some bodies simple cannot handle that kind of torture.

A dragon boat is literally set up to accommodate more powerful and less flexible people in the back, so smaller people with the best "lean" and the best rotation can keep the front of the boat moving fast and up out of the water.

If you aren't as flexible as your teammates, you'll find out when you start feeling a paddle on your back. It's important to find your sweet spot in the boat, because if the team cannot stay synchronized, a caterpillar-effect occurs. This slows down the boat.

With 22 paddlers, a tiller and a caller, everyone depends on the front bench's lead stroke. They set the pace and the stroke example for the rest of the team. If just one person in the line falls out of time, the resulting ripple can be seen like dominoes falling as other paddlers lose their rhythm.

Little room exists for error, and the traditional 500-meter races are full of set faces, deep breathing and serious grunting and roaring as 24 people focus on being the first across the buoys. Races last slightly less than two minutes for elite teams and up to 3 minutes for newer, slower teams.

This is an anaerobic sport at the race, but practices vary in style for training purposes. As a dragon boat team approaches a race, more time will be given to race pieces and practicing stops and starts. In the off-season, more attention is given to maintaining strength and endurance, honing paddling technique and training new tillers and callers.

Look for a team that is holding a clinic. If you are new the sport, you might have an easier time in a more recreational team that is less competitive while you learn the nuances of paddling. It's perfectly okay to switch teams if the need arises, but make sure you leave on a good note. The friendships and team spirit born on the boat never die.


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Stacy Calvert
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Posted on May 23, 2010
Val Mills
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Posted on May 21, 2010

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Bethany Learn

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