Back to the main page Aoraki Dragon Boat
Association (Inc)
Christchurch, NZ

Click these tabs for training tips.

Some teams only practice a few times before the race day. Some train all year round. It all depends how involved you want to get. That’s the great thing about this sport... you can just compete in the local regatta, or you can venture up to Wellington or Auckland or Tauranga or... any of the other centres starting regattas. Then if you are really keen, you could head for the AusDBF AusChamps, or World Champs...

Off-season training

The end of March spells the finish on the Southern season, so Winter training typically runs from April to October:

  • Weight training and cardio conditioning can continue through the year.
  • Some teams use aqua-jogging in the pool to loosen up muscle groups that have "had the winter off".
  • Pool paddling sessions can also be useful to hone technique and conditioning. Pool paddling consists of having the paddlers sit along side the pool with slimmed down paddles. However beware that paddlers are not generally able to sit in their natural postion, so the stroke is somewhat 'contrived'. Always follow these up with in-the-boat training.

Practices should always start with stretches, then three to five minute paddling warm-up. For the first half of the practice, work on specific drills to improve various parts of the stroke technique. The second half of the practice is the work-out portion where the team will paddle as a group for 20-30 minutes. 


If possible, the coach should video tape each paddler once per month and analysis their performance. Slow the video down to check the various positions like:

  • paddle angle of entry, 
  • setup position and 
  • body rotation, 
  • catch and exit paddle position. 

Analyse the three motions or phases; entry, pull, and recovery. This can be useful in the off-season pool work, as well as in the on-the water training.

Training Tips 1 - The Stroke

There are several components to a dragon boat (or outrigger) stroke. Broadly, these are the "catch", the "pull", and the "release" stage. Each of these components of the stroke are equally important and must be done in synchronization with the paddle across and in front. If done correctly, all paddles will be in time with the lead strokes.

The Stroke

The above stages are further broken into six key parts of the dragon boat stroke. When done properly, a boat flies; executed improperly, the boat will feel sluggish and heavy. The first three components set up the stroke, while the last three are considered to be the work-phase part of the stroke. The components are called: rotation, reach/extension, catch, pull, exit, and recovery.


The image some coaches use to help paddlers picture rotation is that a pole is inserted through the head, along the spine, and then anchored to the dragon boat seat. Another way of achieving full rotation is to have your chest facing your partner - that is, look under your top arm and across the boat to your "buddy". Full rotation, or twist as it is sometimes called, allows for maximum reach/extension.


This position in the stroke is crucial in maximizing the length of the stroke. The position of the outside paddling arm is equivalent to pulling a bow and arrow. The outside shoulder should be dropped slightly and also extended forward. The torso leans forward for additional extension.

A proper reach position is the foundation of a proper dragon boat stroke. The reach position is the extended position with the paddle a few inches above the water before the driving it into the water. This reach position determines the length of a stroke and a long stroke means more water is pulled. The reach position is the end point of the Recovery phase, but is the beginning of a new stroke cycle.

The reach position determines the rotation of the torso. If the torso is "rotated" forward upon the paddle entering the water, the torso will naturally want to "de-rotate" back to the normal seated upright seated position.

As mentioned previously, the lower arm position is similar to drawing a bow and arrow. The bottom arm is extended straight forward parallel to the water. The lower shoulder is dropped and is extended forward and therefore the shoulder on the top hand side comes back and up. In the Reach position, these four points on the body should be lined up in a vertical plane: (a) top hand, (b) head, (c) lower shoulder and (d) lower hand.

From the side view there should a straight line from the top hand, head and hip. The torso rotation, extension of both arms and the forward lean are important aspects of the stroke.  The upper arm coming over the head. The lower arm is fully extended and is almost locked at the elbow. The lower hand grip should be relaxed and not grip the paddle too hard. The paddle flips forward into the reach position where it is at its highest potential energy level. From this position, the potential energy will be used to submerge the paddles as the stroke progress.


The catch phase is the most critical to the speed of the boat. The "catch" is the moment the paddle blade first bites into the water, at the front of the 60 degree negative angle. It allows the paddler to bury the blade deep in the water. The top hand is held over the water, then drives down on the paddle with the outside arm relaxed and fully extended.


Once the paddle is fully submerged or "buried", the next component of the stroke is the pull phase, which generates the power to move the boat, most often by using the strong muscles of the back to propel the boat beyond the paddle. The paddles should pull back directly parallel with the boat. The top hand stabilizes the paddle as the bottom arm and back muscles pull back. To use the back muscles effectively, the paddler sits up while pulling and continues to drive the paddle downward with the top hand. Maximum power and endurance will come from using the larger muscles of the back, shoulder and trunk rather than relying on the smaller arm muscles.


At the end of the stroke the paddle should exit the water at the hip in the "return" stage of the stroke. To release, the outside arm should slightly bend and the blade should release to the top of the stroke. It is important for the blade to return as vertically as possible, with the top hand staying outside the boat. Allowing the stroke to go past the hip results in the paddling blade being at an angle that would slow down the boat. The phrase "out at the hip" is often used to correct a stroke that is too long. The outside arm blends slightly to allow the paddler to clear the water and then it is pushed or snapped forward.


This part of the stroke is the rest phase when the muscles are not working as hard; recovery speed plays a large role in determining the stroke rate. During recovery, the torso starts rotating and leaning forward to setup for another cycle of the stroke.

Training Tips 2 - Crew Positions in the Boat

The boat crew is broken into three sections;

  • the front (the first six paddlers, ie 3 rows), 
  • the engine room (the middle eight paddlers) and 
  • the back (the last six paddlers). 

Weight of the paddlers must be taken into consideration when setting up the boat. Any serious weight distribution problems will adversely affect how the boat tracks for steering. The biggest paddlers are placed in the middle or engine room and lighter paddlers at the front and back sections.

Positions in a boat

The front six paddlers set the pace and should be reserved for paddlers with good long paddling strokes. The rest of the boat needs something visual to follow. The rest of the boat will have short choppy stroke if the front has short choppy strokes.

The middle eight or the "engine room" is usually reserved for the heavier, stronger paddlers. During the middle of the race the engine room dictates the pace. The stroke rate of the crew is usually determine by the engine room. The stroke rate is not too fast as long as the big engine room paddlers can twist and reach. Once the engine room paddlers start shortening up on their stroke, you know the pace is getting too fast.

The back six paddlers of the boat should have the strongest people in the boat. It is not uncommon for a novice crew to setup the boat with weaker paddlers who get out of stroke. For an intermediate crew or an advanced crew this would be a missed opportunity. A series which is a sequence of more powerful strokes meant to advance the boat and is initiated by the back six paddlers and ripples to the front of the boat.

Side to side and front to back weight distribution must be taken into consideration when setting up the boat. The sweep must have the knowledge of how to move paddlers around to improve the balance of the boat. Having the boat off balance can seriously affect how the boat tracks. The sweep is 100% responsible for the safety of the crew. The sweep has the best view of any obstructions on the water and must make the required commands to the crew to maneuver the boat. In race situations the sweep must also be able to read wind and be knowledgeable of how the boat reacts in certain conditions. It is not good enough that the sweep can just keep the boat straight, he or she must be able to bring the boat to the line in whatever wind conditions and make the maneuvers or commands to hold the boat on the line.


Training Tips 3 - Race Phases

Racing can be broken down in to smaller elements: pre-race, start, middle, finish, post-race.

Pre-Race- Includes on-land stretches, positioning of paddlers in boat, warm-up to the start line that should include one practice start.

Start Sequence - The start that is taught to novice teams is "5 and 10" meaning five deep long strokes to get the boat moving from a stationary position followed by 10 sprint strokes that accelerate the boat to top speed. A series of transition strokes follow to bring the stroke rate down to allow the stronger and longer "power strokes".

Middle - For the purpose of advancing race positions, teams often include one or more "series". A series is a set 10 or more strokes that are harder and sometimes faster to help the boat speed up. Please note that the paddlers must still hit in-stroke, must not shorten up on the stroke reach for a series to be effective.

Finish - The last 20-30 strokes on a race has its own elements. At this point in the race the objective is to bring the boat up in speed for that last finishing kick. It is similar to the "10" strokes of the start. The paddlers are leaning forward and using their arms only to accelerate the boat. Paddling with arms is quicker than paddling using your back although paddling with the back is much more powerful.

Post-Race - Analyze what went right, what went wrong. Make the adjustments for the next race.

Training Tips 4 - General Training Tips

Many competitive paddlers keep a detailed training log to records their training activities: on-water, weight training, pool etc. Usually a little booklet showing the date, work-out (ex: 3 sets x 1.5 km paddling @ 60%, 2 min rest between), and how they felt about it.

Body weight and basal or morning heart rate is also sometimes included. Training logs will help you in the long term. If you have a bad racing year, you can look back at previous years logs and find out how hard you trained and felt in previous years. Good paddling years are usually a result of how well you have trained.

Coaches should also keep a log the team training from year to year. You can draw from this data base of work-outs each year and adjust accordingly.


Typically three times a week with at least a day of rest between workouts

Start with 5-10 minute warmup

Use machines or free weights. Free weights are not generally advised for beginners as they require correct techniques for safety and maximum benefit

Work larger muscles before smaller muscles.

Always work opposing muscle groups. For example, chest & back, biceps & triceps.

To help avoid muscle pain:

  • cool down properly, move the muscles after exercises
  • drink water to flush system

If some people haven’t used those particular muscles in their personal training, after paddling you still might feel new muscle pains even if we do a good cool down.

Importance of exercise

  • Cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility
  • Improved performance in sport
  • Improved capability for functional activities
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Increased metabolism
  • Decreased risk of osteoporosis
  • Sense of well being

Importance of doing a warm up

  • A rehearsal of the activity to be performed
  • Increased respiration and heart rate
  • Increased oxygen delivery to cells
  • Increased temperature of muscle tissue
  • Prepares joints for movement
  • Reduced risk of injury

Cardiovascular exercise

  • 3-5 times a week, minimum 30 minutes duration
  • start with 5-10 minute warm up including dynamic stretches
  • Use the ‘Talk test’ – you should be able to talk out loud. If you can’t speak normally while you are exercising you are working too hard.
  • Activities can include: walking, cycling, skating, skiing, swimming, racquet sports, jogging, running, aerobics classes, dancing …
  • Drink plenty of water.

Finish with 5-10 minute cool down to lower heart rate and respiration

  • Stretching (static) – hold stretches for 30 to 60 seconds
  • Muscular strength and endurance

It is important for beginners to get a proper orientation to a gym facility by a trainer or experienced partner

Suggested beginner routine (8 to 10 exercises):

  • Chest (pectorals) – chest press
  • Back (latissimus dorsi) - lat pull down
  • Back (trapezius/rhomboids) – seated row or one arm row
  • Legs (quadriceps) – leg press or squat or lunge
  • Legs (hamstrings) – leg curl or lunge
  • Shoulders – side, anterior (front) or posterior (back) shoulder raises, shrugs
  • Arms (biceps) – bicep curls
  • Arms (triceps) – tricep kickbacks
  • Core – oblique abdominal crunches, back extensions

Start with 2 sets of 12 repetitions with a 60 second rest between sets. Gradually increase to 3 sets of 15 reps. Then gradually increase weights. Keep a log of weights used and reps.

End weight training with stretching of muscles worked. Hold stretches for 30-60 seconds

Static Stretching

  • Performed after cardio or weight training workout.
  • Hold stretches for 30 – 60 seconds
  • Static only – no bouncing
  • You should feel a mild tension, no pain or discomfort
  • Elongates muscle tissue
  • Gives greater flexibility and range of motion
  • Reduces risk of injury
  • Enhances performance
  • Reduces build up of lactic acid, reduces muscle soreness
  • Feels good
  • Wall Stretches

Too Much Training?

Overtraining can result in sudden loss in body weight and increase in morning heart rate.

Training becomes flat. Body becomes susceptible to injury and illness. Good habit is to check your pulse before getting out of bed in the morning. If the heart rate suddenly goes up more than six beats over the usual rate, you are probably over-training. The body has been overloaded and the heart is working extra hard to compensate - it may be time to reduce overall activities and allow more recovery time.

See also Water Safety and Training tips

Affiliated to NZDBA updated: 19-Dec-2016 :: (c) Noel Anderton