During my first couple years of dragon boating I messed up. I would do the dry land warm up with the team and then hang around in marshalling until it was our time to go down to the boats. Then when we finally got on the water I would hold back the entire way to the start line. My thinking was that if I pushed too hard before the race I wouldn’t race as well.
This is a mentality that is common in many different sports. But it is one that is beginning to change based on well constructed research, none of which has focused on, or even included, dragon boating. So, I’m going to draw on another high intensity racing sport that takes a similar time to a 500 m dragon boat race, and there seems to be more research on: the 800 m run.
In a survey of runners, the Running Times magazine asked what was the hardest race. Although the answers differed depending on what the background of the runner was the 800 m featured at or near the top of the list. This matches what Adam van Koeverden talked about in relation to the 500 m kayak and the 1500 m long track speed skating on a CBC broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. These efforts are short enough to sprint but too long for your body to efficiently deal with all the lactic acid build up. In other words, your body is on the verge between using lactate fermentation to get energy from glucose, producing the by product lactic acid, and using aerobic respiration.
Here is a quick discussion of the two systems. Lactate fermentation happens when there is not enough oxygen present. Without oxygen, the body has to find a different substance to take the leftovers from the breakdown of glucose. This type of fermentation produces lactic acid as it harvests the energy from glucose. Lactic acid, as you have probably guessed is an acid. When your body produces it, your body also becomes more acidic. Your nervous system detects that this is a bad situation so it sends a message to your brain that your brain interprets as a need to slow down.
Aerobic respiration on the other hand, kicks in a tiny bit later in the effort but it uses oxygen to accept the final products as it breaks down glucose. This ends up producing water. This is why, if you live some place cold, your scarf gets all frosted when you breathe, you are breathing out the water you have produced. Water, generally speaking, is neutral. So no acid means no message to your brain that your body will die if it doesn’t stop.
So how does all of this connect? Well, regardless of what sport you are doing, when you try to do full out efforts for periods of 1:30 to 3:00 minutes your body, depending on its fitness and how you train, decides that it should switch from lactate fermentation to aerobic respiration somewhere in that time period, and that switch costs you speed. So instead we try to overcome it psychologically, assuring our brains that our bodies will not die if we continue for just a bit longer. As a consequence, during training you have to repeatedly hit this point and push past it so that your body learns that it can.
How does pushing hard in your warm up help with this? It goes back to the physical and starts to tell your body the level of effort that you are expecting from it. This allows your body to prepare, perhaps even drawing a little more on the aerobic system throughout the whole race, rather than having it kick in when you are trying to race for the finish. Aside from my own word that this has helped my races, a 2012 study of well trained 800 m runners showed that by doing a sustained high-intensity effort during the warm up, primarily a 200 m high intensity run at race pace, the runners showed a 1.2 s improvement in their race times.
From a dragon boat perspective I think there is an additional benefit, it allows your team to find its high-intensity race pace, before it has to do it surrounded by the noise and paces of other teams.
I remember the first race that I managed to convince myself that I should go full out on the way to the start line; it was also the first race that I crawled out of the boat knowing I had left everything in the boat. That is the feeling I hope every person in my boat can feel because psychologically it is very powerful to know that you truly gave it your all. So no holding back, power to that start line and leave it all on the water.