Dragonboating: Injury Prevention

Over 200 dragonboat teams with about 5,000 paddlers annually participate in the dragonboat festival at Vancouver’s False Creek. The festival attracts a raft of corporate and charitable organization teams, motivated by team-building or fund raising opportunities. However, many paddlers and coaches are inexperienced which, combined with the popularity of dragonboat racing, inevitably means more injuries for paddlers. “The incidence for musculoskeletal problems has soared over the last five years,” says Dr. Don McKenzie, founder of the Abreast in a Boat team and a long-time Olympic kayaking team physician. “ I think there is a good reason for that: it’s a relatively short race, and I think a lot of people think they can get away without doing a whole lot of training because they are only on the water for two or three minutes. So it’s not like they are going to be running for 40 minutes, and they fool themselves into thinking that training may not be as important as it is for other activities.”

Alan Carlsson, head coach of the False Creek Racing Canoe Club, where 50 dragonboat teams are based, agrees. He says a 50% turnover of paddlers in a season because of injury is common. “It’s very serious, and the numbers of people who get these injuries treated is probably quite low, because they think this is a normal part of being involved in sport. If we want dragonboating to continue to be a way for people to get some physical activity, the injury rate will need dealing with very quickly – otherwise we are going to start losing paddlers and the sport will be known as a place to go to get injured. Or, in 10 years we might find we have so many people who have developed chronic injuries, their quality of life will be severely compromised.”

“A lot of people who come into dragonboating have next to no fitness or very little athletic background. It’s equivalent to the softball leagues of the paddling world, where people come out to do it for fun, but they might not have the physical attributes to back it up,” says Alan Carlsson. These recreational dragonboaters usually hang up their paddles after the annual festival until the following spring. Dr. McKenzie listed the top five musculoskeletal injuries in dragonboating as follows:

Top 5 Musculoskeletal Injuries:

Low Back Strain: The sacroiliac joints and lower lumbar region is the commonest injury site.

Shoulder: An impingement syndrome is common. This is a combination of tendinitis and bursitis in the rotator cuff muscles.

Hand: A forearm tendinitis results from holding paddles too tightly.

Wrist: Carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms: hand numbness and weakness.

Hand abrasions from banging on the boat.

” These are all overuse injuries, resulting from poor conditioning, the rapid demands of the sport and the unusual technical component with its bizarre positioning,” explains Dr. McKenzie. In athletes without predisposing conditions, symptoms settle down well with physiotherapy and training modifications and do not usually become chronic, he says.


Strength training is the most important preventive measure against dragonboat injuries, says Dr. McKenzie. “Because it’s an upper body sport, a lot of people don’t do any upper body conditioning. People will sit on a bike and do those kinds of cardiovascular things, but they really need to do some upper body strengthening exercises. That means doing resistance training in the gym which tends to be one of the fundamental things that people overlook.” At least 6 weeks of this kind of conditioning training is necessary – 3 times weekly for an hour each time. Whole body stretching to maintain flexibility should be carried out at the same time as strength training says Dr. McKenzie. His breast cancer survivor paddlers carry out an extensive warm up before boarding the boats and stretch for 5 minutes at a time while they are on the water in between exercising. They end with a cool-down stretching session and more stretching at home.

Coaching Issues:

Many teams don’t begin training on the water until April, paddling twice a week for 10 weeks when, ideally they should start in January, six months before the event, says Dr. McKenzie. While the most competitive teams train year round, recreational team training is, however often limited by daylight hours for those paddlers who are limited to evening training. Concerns about coaching were on the agenda at the first dragon boat conference held by the False Creek Racing Canoe Club last February. There are no national standards for dragonboat coaching in Canada and volunteers often take on coaching without “knowing how to put a training program together,” explains Jackie Webber of SportMedBC who coaches seniors’ teams. “ A lot of coaches throw these people into training programs that are much too advanced for their level of fitness,” adds Alan Carlsson. The large numbers of paddlers in the boats also means that it is easy for some people’s needs to be ignored, he says.80 coaches from all over North America attended the conference, looking at questions like what is injury versus discomfort, and how much time should paddlers take off following an injury. Since the conference, Alan Carlsson and an experienced group of coaches have introduced the Western Region Dragonboat Coaching Certification program. Alan Carlsson says this is “ a big step forward for British Columbia,” and he and his colleagues are working on integrating the program into the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). Meanwhile the program has been field tested on over 60 North American teams.

The Western program covers beginner and higher skill levels:

Beginner level: The novice level concentrates on teaching proper positioning of paddlers in the boat and appropriate techniques. Paddling techniques are complex, involving a multi-dimensional movement of forward action combined with a lunging motion. Positioning is important to avoid back and shoulder injuries. A paddler on the right side of the boat should put their right leg forward and tuck their left leg back. When they rotate forward, they should push back with their inside leg and let their hips rotate to avoid torque in the spine, which can injure the back, explains Alan Carlsson. The key is achieving a balance between sitting rigidly and rotating the hips to move the paddle. The technique is very simple to teach, but the coach needs some knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics, he says.

Advanced levels: At advanced levels, more biomechanical and anatomical material is introduced to coaches, depending on the fitness level of the paddlers and their level of competition.

Copyright held by SportMedBC. For information contact info@sportmedbc.com.


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