What Does a Dragon Boat Training Cycle Look Like?

As a paddler in South Florida, I thought I was in heaven because I could paddle year-round. From January through December, we were out on the water. As awesome as it is to be able to paddle every day, I have since learned that this is not necessarily optimum for overall muscle development or paddling performance. Instead, it often causes injury and/or paddler burnout. But at the time, I thought that I had it made because I could be out on the water all the time.

Last fall I attended one of Canada’s Level 2 coaching courses led by Jim Farintosh. He mapped out what a paddling year would ideally look like for a competitive team such as the team he coaches in Toronto. He outlined the progression of strength, technique, cardio, goal setting and even rest. This was definitely something I hadn’t really understood while I was paddling in Florida because there our thoughts were, “Hey, it’s warm out, let’s hit the water!” Therefore many of us paddled year-round without much consideration to any type of progression in our overall paddling and strength development.

So, with Jim’s permission, I wanted to share it with you because I feel it is incredibly helpful, especially for those teams wanting to become more competitive. You will notice there is some overlap within months. For example, March involves both testing and indoor paddling. And it is important to note that this training plan should be modified for your team’s needs, ability, and paddling season. For example, your team may not be physically able to do hill runs, but would benefit from working in the gym to rebalance those muscles that get so lopsided during racing season.

And just to translate the graph above:

November to mid-December (6 weeks): hill runs or balance work
December through March (16 weeks) transitioning to strength and on to power with weights/erg/running/swimming
Mid-January through March (10 weeks): paddle erg/paddle pool working on technique and paddle-specific muscles
March: testing
April: spring training camps in Florida or other warm climates
May to mid-June (6 weeks): pre-competition
Mid-June through September (16 weeks): competition
Late September to mid-October: post competition
Mid-September through October: feedback, goal setting, planning for upcoming paddle year
October: rest, recovery, physiotherapy if needed.

Breaking down each part of the training cycle:

What’s beneficial about hill runs?

Training on hills increases the strength in your leg muscles, which improves your leg drive. It also simultaneously helps develop and strengthen your cardiovascular system, which is always helpful in paddling. Research conducted by Dr. Bengt Saltin indicated that runners who trained on hills had higher concentrations of aerobic enzymes, which are chemicals that allow your muscles to function at high intensity for long periods without becoming fatigued. What paddler doesn’t need that? In addition, hill running will increase your VO2max and lactate threshold.

Photo: http://brewstersrunning.com/the-hills-are-alive/

Why should I do balance work?

If you’ve spent the summer paddling mainly on one side, you might have started to look a bit like a land crab. Doing balance work at the beginning of your new paddling year will help renew the equilibrium your body needs to have comprehensive strength. One way to help rectify an imbalance created during the season is to use dumbbells instead of a barbell during your gym workouts. With a barbell, your weaker side can go along for the ride, so-to-speak. Dumbbells force each side of your upper body work independent of the other side. If you are still able to get on the water, paddling an OC or a standup paddleboard (SUP) will ensure that both sides get a workout. You can also work both sides in the paddle pool or on a paddle erg. The key is to force yourself to not favor your strong side during this time.

What’s the point of weights/erg/running/swimming?

Weight training should be fairly self-explanatory. Simply put, lifting heavy things (properly) makes you stronger. The stronger you are, the more likely you are to move that boat quickly through the water, and the less likely you are to experience early muscle fatigue. Using the rowing erg, running, or swimming all help develop your muscles as well as your cardiovascular system. Swimming has the added benefit of increasing your connection with the water. As the racing season gets closer, focus should be on speed and muscle endurance.

Would you believe this is me? It was taken over 20 years ago. Photo: Greg Huglin

How might the paddle erg and the paddle pool help?

I had never experienced the paddle pool until recently and I can tell you that it is an incredible teaching tool, if you have access to it. Depending on the format of the paddle pool, the fact that your coach can walk around and have relatively easy access to all paddlers while you are paddling, makes it a far better coaching tool than the dragon boat. On the boat, especially when it is full, it isn’t easy for a coach to give much one-on-one time and to physically move a paddler’s body the way that it should move during the stroke. But in the paddle pool, the coach can come right up next to a paddler and help them feel what the stroke should feel like at various points in the stroke. In addition, mirrors are positioned so that you can see yourself in a mirror, and understand what good or poor form looks like. Plus, you have the option to easily film paddlers for a video review of their stroke, which makes this an invaluable piece for training.

The Hammerheads training at the Mississauga Canoe Club in Mississauga, Ontario. Photo: Scott Gabdulin

I had never really experienced the paddle erg before until recently, either. Having proper paddling instruction on a paddle erg is amazing. It is a useful tool to develop and sustain muscle memory through dry land training in the winter months or to maintain in-between days on the water. In most paddle erg gyms the setup allows for mirrors to be placed directly in front of the erg making it is easy to watch yourself during training; you are able to see if your body is doing what your coach is asking you to do. It is also fairly simple to film yourself on the erg for technical review. Like a rowing erg, the paddle erg can help to build and tone your muscles, strengthen your cardiovascular function and increase your overall physical stamina, but it has the added bonus of simulating the paddle stroke. It is a very effective way to measure performance during a training session (the display indicates time, rate, and distance, among other things).

Hammerheads training at P3 Paddle Zone in Pickering, Ontario. Photo provided by Andy Lee

What is the value in testing?

Very few paddlers truly enjoy fitness testing. In fact, most of us dread it. But it is actually a wonderful way to track your own progress as you develop strength and improve your cardio. Different teams use different testing methods, and quite often testing is used to determine the race crew, but it should also be used to show development and growth. Throughout the course of a year, you will hopefully become faster and stronger. Testing can also be a great motivator to stay on course with your training. If you know you will be tested, you are less likely to slack off. So, instead of dreading it, why not embrace it and think of it as a way to show everyone your wonderful gains?

The Outer Harbour Senior Women testing at the Mississauga Canoe Club. Photo provided by: Dianne Mowat

Why attend a training camp?

Training camps are a great way to get back on the water a bit earlier than you might otherwise be able to do in colder climates. Most camps take place in early spring in warmer climates such as Florida and Southern California and are a typically a week long. Camps can no doubt be grueling and tough, but they are a great way for a team to come together as a group on the water and to have some fun throughout the week as well. Read all about what it’s like to attend a dragon boat camp here.

Bow Wave camp in Melbourne, Florida. Photo: Jan Oakley


Races will typically take place from late spring until early autumn. This is what you have trained so hard for! Throughout the course of a race season, your team should identify which races are top priority (such as Nationals, or a Club Crew race). Target these races as your time to peak: as the competition draws closer, the training becomes more specific and intense. Peaking is followed by tapering: a period of rest prior to the racing to ensure proper recovery and a feeling of strength for the races. This rest period is crucial. You can’t gain fitness in the last few days, and attempting to do so will only wear you down. A light maintenance workout or paddling session is much more effective just to keep the body and mind sharp.

Keep in mind that every team’s needs are different and each club has its own perks and challenges in terms of climate and availability of training equipment. But every team needs some type of a training cycle to take them safely and effectively through the paddling year. What will your team do to monitor your progression of strength, technique, cardio, goal setting and recovery to get the most out of your season?

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2 Discussion to this post

  1. L. Anthony Scott says:

    Kristin, i always find something i can use from your articles.

    Nice photo from Jim’s camp (Bow Wave), i can see myself paddling on my left side.

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