4 Principles to Have a Blazingly Fast Dragon Boat Start

In dragon boat racing, the start refers to the initial period of the race where teams sprint as fast as they can to get the boat up to speed.

This period usually lasts for around ~20 secs for all distances. Despite being such a relatively short part of the race, making sure you have a good start is crucial for the rest of the race.

If you're wondering how to get the best dragon boat start, you're in the right place!

We've studied the starts of some of the best dragon boat teams in the world, such as the Chinese national team, and distilled what we saw into 4 principles.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

Key Aspect Details
Duration of Start Approximately ~20 seconds for all distances.
Significance Critical for setting the tone and positioning for the rest of the race.

- Quick acceleration to race pace.

- Establish a good position early in the race.

Principle 1: Cutting Air Time Minimize time between strokes to prevent the boat from sinking and slowing down in the air.
Principle 2: Water Time Up Front Focus stroke power at the front, avoiding pulling too far back.
Principle 3: Maximum Pressure in Water Strong, deep strokes for better connection and propulsion.
Principle 4: Dynamic Body Movement Maintain full body motion for powerful strokes.
Start Phases

1. Set Up: Ready at command.

2. Initial Strokes: Strong and connected.

3. Accelerating: Increase rate with power.

4. Transition: Adjust pace for distance.

Final Emphasis Concentrate on power, not stroke rate, for effectiveness.

The Purpose of the Start

One of the greatest Canadian kayakers of all time, Adam van Koeverden, had this to say about the start:

“You can’t win off the start, but you can lose off the start."

Getting a good start is crucial to set your team in a good position for the rest of the race. Go out hard for too long, and you’ll slowly putter out by the time you reach the finish. Go out not hard enough, and you’ll find yourself too far behind the pack to have any chance of catching up later on.

Teams often have very different approaches when it comes to their start. Coaches must consider many factors when developing the optimal start for their team. Things like race experience, fitness level, and the type of boat they’re in all play a role in determining how the team will execute their start.

So with that in mind, the purpose of the start is twofold:

  1. Get the boat up to race pace as quickly as possible.
  2. Set the team up to be in a good position for the rest of the race.

If your team takes 30 seconds to get from a dead stop up to race pace, that’s simply too long and you’ll be left eating the wash of your competitors.

If you blast out of the hole, guns blazing, max stroke rate, for 30 seconds before transitioning to race pace, you may get up to race pace quickly but that’s not setting your team up to be in a good position for the rest of the race because you will begin to die shortly after.

A good start respects both of these rules. You always want to get up to race pace quickly, but for a longer distance such as a 2km, you may not need a very long start to get up to speed because the average speed is lower. You may find that cutting the start a bit shorter will help save energy for the remainder of the race.

By contrast, you may want to put your team in a leading position off the start of a 500m to gain a psychological edge, so perhaps a slightly longer start would be best (if your team can handle it).

A good coach will analyze the racing conditions, the competitors, and their own team’s physical ability to determine their team’s optimal start.

The Principles

#1: Cutting air time

This is the most important principle, which is why it is number one.

When we are paddling at race pace, the boat already has a lot of momentum—glide—between strokes. We’re trying to keep the momentum up rather than accelerate.

However that’s not the case when we are trying to accelerate up to speed. We want to maximize how much time we spend in the water accelerating the boat and minimize the amount of time we spend in the air not accelerating the boat.

This means we need to exit, recover, and catch right into the next stroke as fast as possible.

This video below demonstrates the lack of air time very well.

#2: Keep the water time up front

While pulling long is usually a good idea, you definitely do not want to over-emphasize the length during the start.

Paddling is all about give and take. While pulling longer will send the boat a further distance forward, it will increase the distance and the time it takes to return back to the next stroke, allowing the boat to sink back down into the water during the time when it has the least glide. There is also less leverage at the back of the stroke.

Keeping the stroke up front helps decrease the time spent in the air between strokes while focusing the paddlers’ efforts in the most efficient part of the stroke—the front.

It's important to note that keeping the stroke up front just means you want to exit earlier. It doesn't mean to keep your body up front! You still want to sit up almost fully and stay dynamic.

#3: Maximum pressure in the water

Finding connection during the start is crucial! Well, it is always crucial, but paddlers can often have a hard time finding it during the start.

Even though the water feels heavier for the first few strokes, many paddlers say they have trouble finding connection.

Top hand pressure is very important to keep the weight of the paddler out on the paddle and to keep the paddle buried. The paddler must also be sufficiently strong enough to keep a rigid frame in order to contain all of the connection they feel during those first few heavy strokes. It might be tempting to break the bottom arm and punch the top hand forward to release some of the pressure, but this will be at the cost of speed.

After the first few strokes, paddlers will often have a hard time finding connection as the rate goes up and up. Keeping dynamic body movement, as we will discuss below, is crucial when the rate is high in order to get deep enough to find connection. Maintaining optimal sequencing—hips, core, shoulders, then arms—will help the paddler find enough time to move dynamically even when the rate is high.

#4: Dynamic body movement

When trying to keep the water time up front, paddlers shouldn’t think about it as cutting the stroke short. This tends to cause people to have short, choppy strokes with minimal body movement.

Instead, think about keeping the same dynamic body movement as you would paddling normally but focusing the effort up front and getting the work done earlier.

Dynamic body movement is essential to generate the high amounts of force needed to accelerate the boat up to speed. It is also very important that the paddler is extending from the waist and getting low to get deep, connected strokes. Always use big muscles, even during the start.

It is all too uncommon for teams to start to sit up more and more and use their arms to paddle as the rate increases. I’ve even seen competitive coaches teaching their paddlers to stay forward during the start.

Not only does this shift the focus away to paddling with smaller muscles, it also makes the strokes shallower and less connected.

If the rate is too high, you may want to try lowering the rate and practice focusing on these four principles rather than jacking up the rate. Over time, the rate will naturally go up to where it needs to be, without forcing it.

In this video, we see the paddlers concentrating the effort at the front, while still getting good range of motion from their bodies.

How to Do a Fast Start: 4 Steps

Phase 1: Set Up

Setting up properly for the start greatly impacts how the start will go.

All the paddlers in the boat should be prepared to put their paddles into the water at the same time that the starter gives the command. If everyone sets up at different times, this will cause the boat to rock at the start.

When setting up for the first stroke, there is no need to do anything fancy. Over-extending in an attempt to get longer up front will put your body in a weaker position. Put the paddle in a comfortable place up front where you normally catch. Some coaches will advocate setting up with a bent bottom arm, but this too puts the paddler in a weaker position. No need to overthink it!

When the starter yells “attention please”, tighten your core and your grip, take a deep breath, and go on the first sound.

Phase 2: The First Few Strokes

The first few strokes are going to be heavy and slow, but you should be trying to get as much connection as possible and be explosive. It’s the same as trying to lift a maximum weight—you’re trying to lift as fast as possible but it’s the sheer load that makes moving the weight slow.

Exit, recover and begin the next stroke as fast as possible. Remember the proper sequence of movement—hips, core, shoulders, then arms—this will help make the recovery fast.

As mentioned above, paddlers will often have a hard time finding connection even when the load is high during the first few strokes.

Focus on that top hand pressure down the shaft, and maintain a rigid frame. Any breaks in the paddler’s frame are areas where power will be leaked.

In addition, focus on bottom hand pressure down the shaft. It is very common for paddlers who do not normally break their frame to break their bottom arm during the first few strokes because of the enormous inertia.

It will be hard to avoid ripping and splashing, so make sure to bury the paddle fast and deep to avoid this. That being said, there is a balance—sometimes a little splashing and ripping is unavoidable if you’re doing everything right. Don’t overthink it!

Phase 3: Accelerating the Boat Up to Speed

One common mistake we see is any sort of sudden jump or spike in the rate.

This is very common with teams that do a specific start sequence, such as the common 5-5-5-5, or the older 6-8-8. Paddlers are told that the first x strokes are heavy and slow, and then the rate suddenly jumps up in certain increments until the total is reached.

You don’t want to force anything or make any sudden jumps. It’s much better to let the rate naturally go up with power.

When you suddenly spike up the rate without adding power, something else has to go. That’s the principle of give and take for paddling. Usually what ends up being sacrificed is dynamic body movement and stroke length.

Teams that use a start sequence should take note to avoid any sudden jumps in the rate, and rather let the rate come up naturally. When the caller yells “up!” during the start, it should be more for motivation rather than actually spiking the rate up.

The rate should always be built up with power and connection. As the rate comes up, it is crucial that paddlers continue to move dynamically, extending forward from the waist and rotating, getting low enough to be able to bury deep and pressing the body all the way back up.

If the rate gets too high to the point where most of your paddlers can’t move dynamically and get good connection, the rate should be lowered.

See how this team gradually builds up the rate without any sudden jumps or spikes:

Phase 4: Transition

Once the boat is up to speed, the goal is now to maintain it. The pace is brought down to one that is sustainable for the rest of the race.

Now it becomes important to increase the time spent between strokes to allow the paddler to recover somewhat between strokes. Paddlers can accomplish this by slowing down the recovery and pulling a bit longer, increasing the distance travelled each stroke. This helps develop a rhythm.

If you are racing 100/200m, there might not be much of a transition at all. For 500/1000/2000m races, the transition will be very apparent.

When lowering the rate, it’s crucial not to think of it as taking a break and slowing down in the water. Focus instead on the rhythm by adjusting the speed of the recovery, the length of the pull, and the effort level in the water, keeping the catch and pull explosive.

Different coaches will advocate for an “immediate” transition, while others will teach a more gradual transition where the rhythm is adjusted continuously over 5-7 strokes.

Whatever the race plan is, the most important thing is that everyone needs to be on the same page to avoid timing issues. A messy transition will kill the boat speed built up over the start and will leave teams wondering why they get passed halfway through.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line for the start is: focus on power, not rate!

Focusing just on rate will have disastrous consequences for your timing, stroke length and technique.

However, the opposite is not true: focusing instead on power will lead to more speed (and a high rate, but you don't get bonus points for taking more strokes, so why worry about the rate!).


Q1: What is the ideal duration for a dragon boat race start?

A1: The ideal duration for a start varies depending on the race distance, but an average start will be around 20-25 strokes and last for around 15-20 seconds. For longer distances like 2km, a shorter start might be more efficient to conserve energy. In contrast, a slightly longer start for a 500m race can be beneficial for gaining an early advantage. The key is balancing quick acceleration to race pace without exhausting the team early in the race.

Q2: How can we efficiently accelerate the boat during the start?

A2: To efficiently accelerate, focus on minimizing air time between strokes and maximizing water time upfront. This involves quick exits, rapid recoveries, and immediate re-entry into the water. It's crucial to keep strokes focused at the front of the stroke path for efficiency and to apply maximum pressure in the water for strong, connected strokes.

Q3: What's the importance of dynamic body movement in a dragon boat start?

A3: Dynamic body movement is essential for generating the force needed to accelerate the boat. This involves extending from the waist for deep, connected strokes and using large muscle groups effectively. As the rate increases, maintaining this dynamic movement is crucial for sustaining power and connection.

Q4: How do we manage the transition from the start to race pace?

A4: The transition involves gradually lowering the stroke rate to a sustainable pace for the remainder of the race. This might involve slowing down the recovery and lengthening the pull for longer distances. The key is to maintain rhythm and ensure the entire team transitions smoothly to avoid timing issues and maintain boat speed.

Q5: What common mistakes should be avoided during the start phase?

A5: Avoid focusing solely on stroke rate, which can disrupt timing, stroke length, and technique. Sudden spikes in rate without corresponding power can also be detrimental. Instead, concentrate on building the rate naturally with power and maintaining connection. Ensuring the entire team is synchronized is crucial for an effective start.

Q6: What role does team experience play in determining the start strategy?

A6: Team experience and fitness level play a significant role in determining an effective start strategy. Experienced teams with higher fitness levels may opt for more aggressive starts, while less experienced teams might benefit from a more conservative approach to conserve energy for the race.

Q7: Can the boat type affect the start strategy?

A7: Yes, the type of dragon boat can influence the start strategy. Different boats have varying levels of responsiveness and glide, which can affect how quickly a team can bring the boat up to race pace and how they manage their stroke rate and power distribution during the start. Heavier boats may require a longer start to overcome the inertia.

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