Training Regime

The Paddling Programme

The number of factors to be considered in developing a Dragon Boat Training Programme is immense. Obviously the more  time a team spends practicing, the greater the difference in performance. The amount of training an athlete must undergo within a season depends greatly on the goals and objectives set out early on in the year. For example, to obtain
high performance challenging world record achievements, an athlete today must expect to commit 1,000-1,500 hours of training time a year (that’s 3-4 hours a day!); at a national level one could expect 600-800 hours (1 1/2 - 2 hours per day); while at a local level one should realize that a minimum of 300-400 hours of training is required if you want to be successful competitively, which translates to 1 1/2 - 2 hours 3 to 4 times a week, year round.

The formula for high performance, however, demands quality time and the winning team is not always the one which practices the most. Training time must be carefully managed in a ‘Training Programme’ to facilitate development of the different aspects of an athletes’ physical potential, such as Strength, Endurance, Technique and Speed which all have quite different training requirements. The ideal programme will maximize an athletes output from
a minimum amount of training that focuses these specific aspects, and allows an adequate time for his/her body to adapt and recover from the stress brought on by exertion. The independent variables of training programme, therefore, are VOLUME, INTENSITY and DENSITY.

Training VOLUME (the amount of work time) is certainly adjustable, though it is effected by the INTENSITY of work (how hard you work) and the DENSITY of practices (the number of practice sessions related to rest periods within a given time). To put it simply, for a low INTENSITY work-out such as a long trip in an outrigger, the VOLUME of work can increase, which is good for aerobic Endurance training, though you need a long time to recover so
that the DENSITY of a work-out schedule must be kept low.

On the other hand, a high INTENSITY workout such as sprint interval training is good for Speed and Strength development, though the VOLUME of work must be low since our bodies cannot handle extreme exertion for long or without greater rest periods between each piece of work. DENSITY, however, can be increased by adding more practices of shorter duration throughout the week.

The key to an effective training program is to find the right balance of VOLUME, INTENSITY and DENSITY which best suits the goals and time commitments of a team. A training season should begin with a large VOLUME of work at low INTENSITY and gradually increase the INTENSITY of practice sessions closer to the target competition date, decreasing the VOLUME. It is important to understand that by varying the degree of VOLUME and INTENSITY an athlete changes different aspects of his/her metabolism and physical structure to ultimately result in higher performance.

Our paddling season has been further broken down into separate phases to allow for progressive development and transition from one level of performance to the next. The type and intensity of work we do changes as our bodies adapt to progressively increasing demands. Macro-cycles refer to the largest organizational block grouping work of similar nature. Micro-cycles refer to the weekly pattern of activities which support the objectives of the macro-cycle.

The basic concept is that a weekly micro-cycle varies intensity from one day to the next allowing us to balance hard work with recovery time. Macro-cycles prescribe increasing levels of intensity week to week in order to achieve specific performance goals within a 4-8 week period. Our bodies tend to respond best when stressed and then are allowed to heal. The healing process is what makes us perform better in the next cycle.

The three main Macro-cycles are:

  • General Fitness Preparation
  • Strength and Endurance Development
  • Speed Development and Race Preparation

General Fitness Preparation (4-8 weeks)

The objective of this Macro-cycle is to create a performance base. Development is to be more general allowing for a broad range of distances and variety in exercises during this phase. Work should never-the-less be more specific than in the off-season and focus of paddling related activity to build up local muscle endurance ie. the muscle groups which will be used for racing.

a) General Aerobic Conditioning

Work in the boat will focus on low intensity,
larger volume exercises such as steady state intensive paddling sessions mixed
with longer extensive sessions if training seeks to develop marathon abilities.
Work should be comfortable but strong earlier in the cycle but should progress
to uncomfortable and fast paddling. The cycle will end with a level of intensity
which borders in painful ie. Maximal Aerobic work.

There are two objectives for this Cycle. To improve our the general cardio-vascular potential such as cardiac stroke volume, VO2 max. etc. and to increase capillary density in our paddling muscles. This will provide the staying power for races even as short as 500m.

Alternative sessions to the boat would be running, swimming, kayaking or rowing (boat or ergometer) as long as it’s working to the same level of intensity and duration. Effort should be made to raise anaerobic threshold levels and to achieve maximum aerobic functioning.

b) Base Strength Development

Muscle mass should increase (hypertrophy) and base strength should be developed in the gym for all muscle groups (see section 2.2 for dryland strength development — Hypertrophy Phase). Even a simple routine of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and dips at home can go a long way in developing a base strength that can contribute to better paddling performance.

A small amount of resistance training in the boat is good at this stage as long as the resistance level is also low eg. dragging a tire or having 1/2 of the boat paddling for 50-60 strokes.

Strength and Endurance Development (2 cycles @ 4 weeks each)

This Cycle seeks to make improvements to paddling strength and specific race endurance. Neuromuscular recruitment is important, so effort both in the boat and during dryland training should be intense striving to ‘feel’ for maximum resistance during a paddle stroke. Speed work should begin in the later stages of the cycle.

The Paddling Programme includes two Strength and Endurance Macro-cycles allowing for a period of transition. The second Cycle starts from a lower level of intensity builds to a higher level much faster that the first Cycle. The purpose for this is achieve a better balance between aerobic and anaerobic conditioning exercises which are taken to greater extremes in the second Cycle.

a) Aerobic/Anaerobic Endurance Training

The range of work should begin with Anaerobic Threshold training and advance to Lactic Tolerance training later in the Cycle. The emphasis is on intense interval sessions at least once a week alternating with intensive steady state paddling on other days in the week. Close attention should be paid to heartrates during activity to ensure that work is targeting
the appropriate intensity. This is air-sucking, heart-pounding, rubber-leg kind of work, so don’t expect improvement if your going for an easy jog.

b) Maximal Strength Development

The initial Cycle should accompany the dryland Strength Phase (see section 2.2) and the latter Cycle should correspond to the Maximum Strength Phase of the Dryland Weight Training Programme. The level of resistance in the boat should also be increased during resistance training sessions. Care should be taken to avoid back to back strength training sessions ensuring that proper recovery time is allocated.

Race Preparation (4 weeks)

This is the Cycle where speed becomes
the main feature, converting the strength gains which were made in the earlier
Cycles to power. Maximal intensities will be stressed with a duration of work
which is closer to the actual race. Race rehearsals will be conducted where all
of the trained aspects will be put together for a specific target performance.
Smoothing out the transitions from utilization of one energy system to the next
is the goal in discovering the optimum racing pace.

a) Race Specific Aerobic/Anaerobic Conditioning

Maintenance of aerobic conditioning is important in this Cycle both in the boat and on land. Longer distance steady state paddling sessions will provide recovery activity for extreme lactic tolerance training. Specific endurance for the sprint race distances is the goal to the
extent that there may be some decrease in long distance endurance.

Interval training on land should continue to stress improvement to VO2 max. and anaerobic thresholds.

b) Development of Power

Strength work should focus on converting absolute strength to power. Fast contractions and less load should replace maximum loads early in the Cycle (see section 2.2 - Power Phase). Acceleration drills and maximum speed exercises will be carried out in the boat the stress maximum application of power throughout the race distance. Endurance of strength is important and is best to be improved in the boat, paddling.

The Taper

Critical to top performance is tapering down activity to limit damage to muscles and let our bodies recovery for a race event. It does not mean that work stops all together, particularly for sprint races. Generally the density of practices is reduced, but is replaced by extremely
high intensity work for short duration to maintain speed. Alactic activity is stressed, limiting extreme work to 15-20 seconds in order to prevent accumulation of toxins. Low volume is also a must to avoid over-stressing central energy stores.

The duration of the Taper Cycle if difficult to determine. Where the density of training high ie. 10 to 12 sessions per week then typically the taper is longer, perhaps 2-3 weeks. For a lower density training of 3-4 sessions per week, the taper probably needs only 1 week.

Combined with proper nutritional preparation, the end result is a performance peak.


Warm-up before practices should be done not only to get blood into your muscles but also to prevent the tearing, ripping, straining and spraining, not to mention the multitude of other gruesome things that can happen to your body.

WARM-UP IS VERY IMPORTANT... and while a practice session may incorporate a warm-up component it is vital for people who come late to be sufficiently prepared before they are
committed to heavy work.

On the water, 5 minutes easy paddling followed by 5 minutes of medium effort work will be adequate, though everyone should have worked up a good sweat before turning up the intensity.

Land warm-up exercises are good including everything from push- ups and jumping jacks to a 10 minute jog, which should PRECEDE STRETCHING EXERCISES!... (stretching a muscle which has not warmed up is like pulling on a frozen rubber band). A stretching regime is a generally a good habit even in the middle of a practice, though exercises should not incorporate bouncing which promotes hyper-extension


“No pain, no gain” is no longer a smart or responsible attitude to training. Pain generally is an indication that something is wrong and it is advisable the athletes learn to listen very carefully to their bodies to avoid injury or prevent smaller injuries from growing bigger.
All pain represents a potential for something bad and knowing what minor pain
means can allow an athlete continue training without causing greater damage.

Most commonly experienced are the effects of a very intense training session which can result in microscopic tears in muscle fibre and over stretched tendons among others. This can result in a general muscular pain and swelling that is most intense 36 hours after the workout, known as DOMS (Delayed-onset of Muscle Soreness) and can last up to 5-10 days. Convention wisdom of the past prescribed working DOMS out your body by hitting it hard the next day, though this may only result in breaking the muscle down further, and while
not causing a serious injury, will impair training. At its mildest, DOMS is the muscular stiffness and discomfort experienced after a workout; at its worst, the effected area will be red and swollen, feel hot, and hurt like hell. Encouraging blood flow to the effected area through a mild workout, massage or cross training activities is the current treatment for DOMS.

With a proper warm-up and stretch before and after a training session, as covered in Section 3, injuries can be minimized. It is important to remember that the duration of warm-up depends greatly on the ambient air temperature. The colder it is outside, the longer the warm-up and vice versus. Warm-down is vital since muscles and tendons often experience motion which is limited to some degree during a workout and need to be stretched out to full length again to avoid strain once they ‘cool down’.

Lack of spinal flexibility, particularly in the Thoracic region, can also result in damage to trapizius and rotator cuff muscles and even deltoids, as they all work together as a correlated system. Nagging neck pain or uncomfortable stiffness in the middle back is more than often the result of limited movement between joints in the spinal column. Stretching exercises, therapeutic massage and spinal manipulation goes a long way in treating a problem which have developed. More importantly, however, it¡¯s worth considering such therapy for injury prevention or improved performance as much as for rehabilitation.

Injury can result from factors other than a lack of sufficient warm-up, however, and it is important to be aware of what these may be and what to do if an injury is sustained.

Improper technique, for instance, is the usual cause of injury by unduly stressing joints, tendons and muscles. Sudden damage occurs when a tendon, cartilage or a muscle is torn, but more often injury in dragonboating is the result of improper technique due to small amounts of stress adding up over time to adversely affect the body. Other injuries result from simply over use of a joint, muscle or tendon.

a) Shoulders

Shoulders are the usual areas subject to injury caused by excessive movement which goes beyond the natural range of motion (if there ever is such a thing in this sport). For example, there is a tendency to over reach and apply power to the stroke without first stabilizing
the shoulder with the adductor muscles around the shoulder blade (scapula), particularly
when a paddler gets tired at the end of a session. Or on the recovery, if the upper shoulder ‘hunches up’ too high rather than staying ‘locked down’ by the scapula abductors, it can cause an impingement problem and pain.

Most problems associated with shoulders, in fact, are usually related to rotator cuff and subacromial bursa impingement. This can happen either in the boat or most commonly in the weight room. Bench Press and Military Presses are the worse offenders particularly when the shoulder muscles ‘bunch’ up at the top end of a repetition.

b) Wrists and Forearms

Pain in both upper and lower wrists usually results from cocking the wrist one direction or another during the power phase or recovery of the stroke. This practice can add tremendous strain on forearm flexors causing inflammation of tendons particularly close to the elbow not unlike tennis elbow. Tunnel carpal syndrome can also develop causing a numbness to fingers.

The best way to alleviate these problems is to develop a ‘softer’ grip on the paddle with your lower hand and to minimize wrist movement during the stroke.

c) Lower Back

Herniated disks or strained muscles can result from improper technique of inadequate stretching, particularly as we grow older. The principle means to mitigate lower back pain or injury is to develop a strict exercise regime that target strengthening back muscles and provides for flexibility.

More often than not, lower back pain results from a strength imbalance where for example the abdominals may be stronger than the erectors; or perhaps where the lower abdominals are not as developed as the upper abdominal muscles. Other stabilizing muscles should not be overlooked in training such as the Gluteus maximus, hamstrings and Quadriceps. Weakness or lack of flexibility here can result in back pain as well. But take care! Doing sit-ups while holding weighs is a sure way to invite injury.

d) Knees

Strangely enough paddlers often have knee problems associated with over-development of the Quadriceps or off centre loading. The intense isometric load on the quads when paddling combined with dryland training such as squats, rowing machines or running can create an imbalance between the Quads and the Hamstrings at the back of the thigh. This can result in excessive wear on the cartilage as the kneecap is pulled upward due to a weak resistance
from the opposite direction. Hamstring curls to strengthen the back of the leg will alleviate the problem in a short time.

e) Chest

Intense deep pain in the lungs sometime occurs when your not getting enough oxygen and can be expected if your pushing the limits of performance, however, it can also be a symptom underlying heart disease. Peer pressure in a dragonboat can be intense, so before pushing it to extremes, individuals should know whether their bodies are capable of such work. Similar pain can result from strain to the tendons connecting the sternum to the
pectoral muscles. The bottom line is that if you are experiencing chest pains of any sort, its worth having it checked out by an physician immediately. Be aware that during a workout is not the best time to assess a pain or injury since the body naturally manufactures
endorphins which can block even severe pain during exercise.

The following is a description of common injuries to paddling and the associated care for rehabilitation:


Tendinitis is the inflammation of tendons which connect muscles to bone, and is usually the result of overuse of an extremity. Generalized nagging pain is experienced rather than pain in a specific location and is often associated with light swelling. Pain is most intense after exercise.

The problem with this injury is that continued use of the extremity will aggravate the injury further, therefore total rest is the key. Starting back into training too soon will only prolong healing. Vigilant rest, ice and sometimes anti-inflamatories or aspirin will help the recovery.


Strains result from a stretched or torn muscle or tendon. Generalized pain, mild swelling and occasional bruising are the symptoms. Given the complex nature of shoulders, the actual location of pain may in fact not be the source of the problem. Rest, ice, compression and elevation are the best forms of treatment followed by easy exercise within a week or two. It is important to work such an injury back in slowly rather than leaving it alone
totally to avoid excess build up of scar tissue and potential restriction of movement.


The infamous ‘POP’ sometimes heard at the moment of an injury is the rupture of a ligament which connects one bone to another, resulting in a sprain. Sprains are rare in dragonboating due to a restricted range of motion, but have very similar symptoms to a sprain, ie. generalized pain, mild swelling and possible bruising.


There is a fluid-filled sac in the shoulder which separates muscles and tendons from bone that can become inflamed causing acute pain, or can become completely deflated causing chronic pain. Pain will be point specific centred around the joint and will often flare up after activity. Acute bursitis can be treated with rest, ice and anti-inflammatories, while chronic
bursitis is much more severe and may require more drastic treatment such as fluid
injections etc. Rest is advised.

Shoulder Dislocation:

Rare, but when it happens you’ll know it! Paddlers have been known to pop their shoulder back into place and keep on paddling. This is not advisable. Light traction is used to ‘relocate’ the shoulder joint and then the arm should be put in a sling. With rest paddling can resume in a short time. Chronic dislocation may need surgery to correct.

In summary some basic rules should be applied to avoid injury:

  • keep movements strict either in the boat or in dryland training by constantly evaluating technique and adhering to prescribed movement patterns;
  • never work through pain in the joints, rather ease off or rest and stretch until the pain subsides and it is comfortable  to paddle;
  • try to develop muscles opposite of those use to paddle in order to balance strength and ability; 
  • never overload your body beyond its ability;
  • build up ‘strength’ gradually, in controlled phases to avoid over-reaching; 
  • restrict ‘strength’ training to pre-race or earlier stages of a training programme to provide a solid ‘base’ and minimize risk of injury effecting race preparation;
  • be disciplined in ‘stretching down’ after practice or warming up before;
  • seek sports massage or manipulation therapy as a preventative measure;cross-train to develop muscles for a broader range of physical activity.

If an injury is sustained;

  • apply ice to the affected area immediately to reduce possible swelling, prevent further damage, and promote blood flow;
  • see a physiotherapist to determine exactly what is wrong;
  • rest the injured area or exercise it in accordance with the advice of the physiotherapist;
  • work an injured area back into your training programme easily, with minimal loading to start, gradually bringing back to full strength;
  • BE PATIENT; it does no good to get back into action too early and undo all of the repair.

Lastly, it is important to understand the effects of intense training on a body also go beyond physical damage. As an athlete becomes more fit and fat levels decrease, the risk of infection and illness caused by exposure to viruses becomes greater due to a weaker immune system. Good nutrition and adequate rest are fundamental to good health particularly as the athlete approaches peaks stages of conditioning. A simple cold can spread like wild fire through a team working together in such close proximity, so its worth
a little extra care, and a few more vitamins.