Training Parameters (part 1)


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by Dan Fedoruk

To achieve your desired level of performance, nothing can replace hard work, but it is important to structure that work in a way which will achieve the best results in the shortest time; QUALITY time.

A chain is only as good as it's weakest link' and on the training front it is crucial to address all aspects of performance independently and seek to develop each to it's maximum. There is nothing more frustrating to a 'buffed' up team with a high level of muscular strength finding themselves quickly falling behind in a race due to a weakness in technique, under-developed lactic tolerance for speed or even an over-zealous ambition to win.

It is not enough to get out on the water and repeat the target race distance over and over again until your times improve as the team will quickly reach a 'performance plateau' beyond which only minimal gains can be made. The physiological components to performance such as cardiac capacity, anaerobic threshold, aerobic capacity, rate of lactic acid removal etc. will only incur minor improvements unless each is stressed to its maximum limit, requiring a specific type of work at a specific intensity. And these will only be effective if the technical aspects of paddling are understood in order to maximize the bio-mechanical potential of pulling a boat through the water in a group effort.

This Section will review performance more specifically as a function of Endurance, Strength, Speed, Psychology and Technique and seek to identify specific training parameters which will contribute to optimum paddling performance.


Early development of 'General Endurance' for long duration activities is necessary to allow us to train more efficiently, overcome fatigue during long competitions and to improve recovery time. This is why a pre-season low intensity AEROBIC fitness regime is so important. It is also important slow down and maintain 'General Endurance' levels during off season by cross-training so that the body can recover from the extremes of race season exertion.

In preparing for a race, however, work must focus on a more 'Specific Anaerobic Endurance' of medium duration, which resists the onset of Oxygen debt experienced in a Dragon Boat race; where the oxygen supply cannot totally meet the demands of the paddler. For this reason both AEROBIC and ANAEROBIC conditioning is of paramount importance to the Training Programme.

Specific Power Endurance is also partly related to high strength development which will be discussed further in the section covering Strength.
Speed Endurance relating to our ability to overcome fatigue under conditions of maximal intensity will also be discussed further in the section covering Speed

Other factors which normally effect endurance are the Central Nervous System (CNS) conditioning, athletic willpower and development of the Speed Reserve.

Aerobic Capacity

Aerobic Capacity effects the amount of oxygen transported to the muscles which controls how much energy is available during a race and how quickly you can recover from work in a training session. The oxygen demand of the upper body and arms when paddling is only about 85% of that for the legs when the same athlete is running. This suggests that good cardio-vascular base can be provided by off-season running, rowing or swimming since these forms of exercise will build up heart and lung capacity faster and more efficiently than paddling. The focus of a water training programme should be more on Specific Muscle Endurance related to local muscle Aerobic Capacity. This will relate to how much oxygen the specific muscles can actually utilize when working by training to increase blood capillary density and as well as the number of local mitochondrial enzymes which are necessary to transfer oxygen into the energy making processes.

Normally a training programme should develop Aerobic Capacity early on in the training season and gradually replace these workouts with higher intensity Anaerobic activities. One should be careful, however, that too much emphasis on maximal intensity stressful work may reduce consistency of Anaerobic performance from one day to the next. This will impacting the stability of an athlete's capacity for speed and will ultimately reduce Aerobic Endurance due to the damaging effects of high levels of lactic acid on muscle cells. It is good practice that an Aerobic training component of varying intensities alternate with periods of high intensity Anaerobic in weekly micro-cycles to allow muscles to regenerate and increase the durability of Anaerobic Power.

a) Long Interval Training (Maximal Aerobic)

A good exercise to perfect Aerobic Endurance early in the training season are long repetitions of work for 3-10 minutes when oxygen consumption is maximal ie. at the Anaerobic Threshold. Intervals of this duration will make improvements to cardiac output, the control of blood distribution and the control of the rate of glycogen mobilization in the muscle. Long intervals should be performed as fast as possible without causing total exhaustion so that several repetitions are possible ie. high heart rate but no burn.

Intensity of work for long intervals should result in lactate concentrations just over 4mM/l where heart rates will typically measure between 150-164 bpm. Be aware that as fatigue sets in, an athlete's heart rate will increase, even though the intensity of the work-out does not change. The work-out should cease if heart rates reaches 180 bpm.

The rest period between intervals should involve low intensity muscle movement, at about 50% capacity, to stimulate biological recuperation and be sufficiently long to flush out any lactic acid. A rest period longer than 3-4 minutes will begin to effect the quality of work in the next interval since the blood capillaries will begin to shrink.

This type of training is extremely beneficial to making improvements in performance for longer distance races and marathons by ultimately raising Threshold heartrate levels. In many respects long intervals could form the basis of a marathon distance training programme such as for outriggers, relying on longer distance workouts to improve energy management aspects.

b) Short Interval Training (Lactic Tolerance/Maximal Aerobic)

Surprisingly very short interval training aimed at developing 'Anaerobic Capacity' plays an important role in building up 'Aerobic Capacity' since it appears the greatest improvement to the aerobic system is achieved when muscles are used close to their maximal aerobic limit. Even work intervals as short as 15-20 seconds with a 30 second rest will improve 'Aerobic Capacity' if performed at a blood pumping, aerobically fast pace, but just below lactate generating intensities. The levels of oxygen consumption will be very high, forcing the body to adapt by improving oxidative pathways in the muscle structure.

Longer 'short' intervals of 60-90 seconds will stress the oxygen supply system to the muscles increasing capillary density and increasing blood flow to the muscles effecting the rate at which lactic acid is dissipated. At this intensity of work, a degree of anaerobic metabolism is affected and an exercise will inevitably become impaired due to lactic acid intolerance. The importance of the 'Interval' rest is vital where continuous muscle movement with 50% effort assists in flushing out lactic acid to prepare for the next interval.

These interval training sessions may last for 1-2 hours and appear to have the greatest beneficial effect on 'Anaerobic Threshold'.

c) Steady State Paddling (Anaerobic Threshold)

Longer training distances of 15 min. to 1 hour steady state paddling performed at 'Anaerobic Threshold' intensity will train factors related to the removal of lactic acid from the blood and ultimately increase the Threshold level. These sessions must be performed at lactate concentration levels of 2-3 mM/l corresponding to a heartrate of 130-145 bpm and will improve the integration of all aerobic processes. Training intensity should be uncomfortably hard work but sustainable.......barely.

Very long distance training would be required in preparation for dragon boat marathon races, where steady state training sessions reach a duration of 3-4 hours and are performed once every two weeks. The training effect of these distances is to induce Central Fatigue or 'Hitting-the-Wall' by depleting glycogen stores and forcing the body to mobilize fatty acids as a source of energy. Extra long distance training will help to stabilize the biochemical processes associated reliance on fat as an energy source and avoid a rapid onset of fatigue caused by a system which is unfamiliar to such demands. Careful management of diet is an important factor when training to this volume. Some athletes will keep their carbohydrate intake low before a long training session in order to induce Central Fatigue earlier and reduce their volume of work.

When paddling, proper breathing is also important where an athlete should make an effort to sit upright allowing full expansion of their lungs. One should learn to forcefully exhale all used air out the lungs to increase the quantity of oxygen rich air which can be inhaled. It is even suggested that hyper-ventilation just before the beginning of a race will significantly increase the amount of oxygen available in the blood earlier.

Again, one of the major benefits of a high Aerobic Capacity is to affect a high Anaerobic Capacity by providing a more efficient system flushing out Lactic Acid build-up faster and allow muscles to function longer at high intensity.

d) Fartlek

Fartlek training is similar to interval training, without a prescribed duration of work or rest, and the intensity of work reaches much higher levels, but only for a brief moment. The athlete or team must progressively build up intensity to reach an absolute maximum and then quickly reduce effort to 50 or 40% intensity until heart rates drop to about 130 bpm and its comfortable to begin work again. Several surges should be executed over a 1 to 1 1/2 hour training session. This will push heartrate levels higher than in intervals to stress the limits of the AEROBIC system, but will not induce excessively high lactate levels. The intended result is to raise the Anaerobic Threshold and to become intimate with the full range of intensity potential.

The Anaerobic Capacity

The main effect of training Anaerobic Capacity is to increase an athlete's Lactic Tolerance where higher levels of lactate concentrations can be experienced for longer periods of time. Anaerobic Capacity is best improved by cyclical short interval training where the intensity of work is to such an extreme the paddler can no longer continue to go beyond a short duration. A work interval of anywhere from 5-120 seconds is adequate depending on whether the level of intensity is super-maximal (100-98%), maximal (90-95%) or sub-maximal (80-85% capacity), though each repetition is 'pushed to failure' Too long a duration of work at high intensity or too many intervals can exceed the limits of lactic acid tolerance which will reduce boat speed and result in dominance of the aerobic system, which will not benefit anaerobic training. This will depend on the overall capacity of the team.

Workouts should be grouped into interval sets of 4 to 6 with 30 seconds to 2 minutes of easy paddling of 50% intensity between work periods. A full recovery of up to 10 minutes between sets is necessary to allow the build-up of lactic acid to oxidize and fully dissipate.

Two approaches to Lactic Tolerance training are beneficial. Lactic Tolerance 'B' intervals are structured so that the rest interval is short, about 1/2 the duration of the work interval. The athlete will experience a constantly rising level of lactate concentration, while being forced to sustain high intensity work under increasing conditions of fatigue. This will take a tremendous amount of mental concentration and will-power to overcome the desire to stop or ease off the intensity.

Lactic Tolerance 'A' training on the other hand allows an athlete to experience even higher levels of intensity by increasing the rest period to twice that of the work period. This type of training will maximize boat speed and allow an athlete to develop their application of power with quick muscle movement. The emphasis should be to achieve extreme levels of lactate concentration of 12-13mM/l, also pushing an athlete's heartrate to their maximum levels.

Very short intervals of 10-15 seconds flat out work will increase the rate of glycolosis 1000% above that in a long distance run and will help to recruit muscle fibre, increasing strength. The down side, however, is that very short intervals will over time tend to decrease the number or capillaries bringing blood into the muscle, reducing aerobic conditioning.

Slightly longer intervals of 15-20 seconds will improve the use of phosphocreatine (PC) as an energy source to be used gradually over the duration of the race ie. enabling the power normally reserved for the 'start' or end 'kick' to provide a small but continuous contribution. It is important that the rest interval be kept long, close to 2 minutes, so that the work interval is kept alactic and sufficient time is provided to build-up PC stores. It only takes about 22 seconds to replenish 1/2 of PC stores and 44 seconds to replenish 3/4 total capacity. Work must be to absolute intensity so that the training effects will be confined to expenditure of PC and not glycogen. This type of training is ideal the week prior to race day since it avoids the longer term effects of fatigue.

Intervals of 60-90 seconds result in an increase in the amount of glycolytic enzymes improving the rate of glycogen mobilization and the muscles ability to tolerate the products of anaerobic metabolism. This duration of work interval will also help to smooth out the edges between the effects of different shorter distance training.

In Anaerobic training you must realize that the greatest improvement is made if you push each exercise piece to failure since it is at this point the body forced to adapt (No pain - No gain)
to combat Lactic Acid fatigue you must train hard, really hard which is a painful process (if it didn't hurt so much more people would be doing it - you need discipline to go beyond the pain).

As previously mentioned, too much stressful work can impair performance and can reduce Aerobic Endurance. It is therefore critical to organize a training programme to include longer Aerobic workouts within an Anaerobic training regime

Resistance training such as seat pulls or dragging tyres is also often used for anaerobic conditioning, however, it has been suggested that this is often associates with drawbacks to speed development and can create risk of injury.

The Central Nervous System

The Central Nervous System (CNS) effects muscle coordination and a breakdown of the working capacity of this system is a principle cause of fatigue resulting in loss of concentration and coordination, sloppy stroke technique etc.

The body as an organism is endowed with certain defense mechanisms which are activated if there is an apparent threat to its functioning. For example, fatigue brought on by the anaerobic metabolism is necessary since if the muscle were to keep on working at a maximal intensity, levels of lactic acid would increase to the point that it would become fatal to living cells. The CNS will also limit the amount of force muscles are able to exert in order to protect ligaments, tendons and the muscles themselves from damage.

Continuously stressing the body with heavy loads will allow the CNS to become more confident and correspondingly lower this 'margin of safety'. Regular repetition of a specific movement pattern under load also builds up the neurological pathways between muscles and brain thereby developing coordination and turning stroke technique into a motion which is second nature.

Training with uniform work of moderate intensity will improve the Central Nervous Systems' working capacity and improve the nervous connections required for coordinated function of organs and systems. Intense training will also teach your body to redistribute blood supplies efficiently from the stomach and intestines when there is a greater demand on specific muscles.

Waiting a good 2 to 3 hours after a meal will assist in training this aspect and will help to avoid the indigestion and nausea associated with training 'on a full stomach' when the digestive system is forced to shut down due to a lower blood supply.


"Strength is defined as the neuro-muscular capability to overcome an external and internal resistance." The bio-mechanics and physiological characteristics of 'Strength' are extremely complicated, though following some basic principles of strength training will help to improve performance dramatically. This is particularly relevant as we age, since strength begins to diminish after we reach 35 years old, unless we make an effort to maintain it. It is quite easy to reach a performance plateau early in the season without a good strength base to enhance improvements.

For the purposes of paddling, strength is required for powerful acceleration and maintenance of speed throughout a race. To develop strength for paddling we will need to focus on selected muscle groups which are utilized in the paddling stroke.

It is normally more effective to increase strength with resistance exercises such as weight lifting, pull-ups/push-ups etc. and fixed resistance ie. isometric contractions. These are better and more efficient means to improving strength than resistance exercises conducted on the water.

Resistance paddling, such as pulling tires or seat races etc. have value as a specific application of strength, however they should be carefully be mixed up with speed exercises to prevent crews from getting in the habit of paddling slowly. In the event that paddlers cannot commit to a dryland weights training regime, resistance work on the water would be critical.

Strength training involves more than just hitting the gym and pumping a bit of iron. It must be planned out as carefully as a paddling programme. It is necessary to begin with a less specific level of general strength development and physical fitness as a starting point. For this reason 'pre-season' or 'off-season' training is vital to provide a good fitness base and maintain the gains made during 'race season' Sport specific training is not necessary in the 'off-season' in fact cross-training activities such as swimming, running, windsurfing etc., can be very beneficial to a competitive training regime. Non-specific muscles often get neglected towards the competitive phase of a paddling programme and can use a little work.

Strength Training Periodization 

A strength development programme should be structured work together with a paddling programme. The effects of a maximum strength training regime can have adverse effects on specific endurance or speed, resulting in frustration and a premature notion to scrap strength training all together. The final product of a properly structured strength programme, however is 'power' and not 'strength' alone.Power will make us paddle fast, but strength will not. Power is converted from strength though a carefully arranged process.

Typically there are four phases to a strength programme, namely:

1. Hypertrophy (4-10 weeks);

2. Strength (4-6 weeks);

3. Maximum Strength (2-3 weeks); and

4. Power (3-4 weeks)

a) Hypertrophy

Hypertrophy refers to building muscle mass. This is done with small loads of about 50-60% maximum capacity (1rm) repeated to failure, which should occur between 10-15 repetitions. For example if you can lift 100kg only once, then you should be able to lift 50 to 60kg 10 to 15 times in this phase until you can lift anymore. This is referred to as a set.

Repetitions should take 4 seconds with a 2 count lifting and a 2 count lowering weights. Care should be taken when lowering weights as this is often where many of the injuries occur. Rest periods between sets in this phase need only be 1 minute. It is also important in this phase to develop good technique to isolate the specific muscle exercised. If exercises do not adhere to strict technique, you can easily sustain an injury.

b) Strength

Strength results from recruitment of muscle motor units ie. muscle fibres and their associated nerves. This is done by increasing work intensity by adding weight and increasing rest periods. Weights in this phase should be about 80% 1rm so that failure is achieved in 6-8 repetitions, again at a rate of about 4 seconds per rep. Technique should be very strict to avoid injury. Rest periods should be 2 minutes between sets.

c) Maximum Strength

Maximum 'Strength' results from training at extremely high loads reaching 100% 1rm capacity with very few repetitions of 1-3, performed slowly. Maximum fibre recruitment is achieved in this phase, thereby affecting maximum strength.

Great care should be taken in this phase, with adequate warm-up precautions and warm-down to follow. It's best to focus on the primary muscle groups namely the Pectorals, Quadriceps and Latissimus Dorsi. Work on the secondary muscle groups such as the Deltoids, Trapezius, Biceps and Triceps etc. should continue with higher repetitions and lower weigh. Rest periods should be up to 3 minutes between sets.

Strict technique is an absolute must. Most shoulder injuries sustained by paddlers result from training with excessively heavy weights. Unless there is a real need for maximum strength, it is advisable to forego this phase and opt for more specific resistance work in the boat.

d) Power 

Muscular 'Power' results from exercises that include a load which is about 30-50% capacity with 8-10 repetitions where contractions are performed at an explosively high speed. Care should be take when the muscle is extended ie. lowering the weight and a long rest interval of up to 5 minutes with relaxation exercises are advised.

This is the phase which ultimately converts strength to power by adding the speed component. Strength has no value in paddling unless it can generate force quickly. The result from this phase will be a slight loss in maximum strength, however the contribution to boat speed will be noticeable.

Endurance of power results from a high number of repetitions at a load of 40-50% capacity performed to failure (30-50 repetitions) at medium to fast speed with a 30-45 second rest interval.