Mastering Dragon Boat Technique: A Comprehensive Guide to Speed, Power, and Precision

Credit: Ed Nguyen Photography

If you're reading this, you're probably interested in upping your game, or perhaps you're a beginner looking to start on the right foot. Either way, you've come to the right place. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve deep into the art and science of dragon boat technique.

Why is technique so crucial in dragon boating, you may wonder? Simply put, better technique not only allows you to go faster, but it also helps prevent injuries. From the moment your paddle hits the water during the catch phase to the finesse with which you pull and exit, every movement counts.

So sit back (preferably on a comfortable seat pad), and let's take your dragon boating skills to the next level!

In this guide, you will learn about:

  • The Four Pillars of Dragon Boat Technique: Catch, Pull, Exit and Recovery
  • How to Refine Each Technique for Optimal Performance
  • Common Mistakes to Avoid

Table of Contents

The Four Pillars of Dragon Boat Technique

If you’ve ever marveled at a dragon boat team gliding seamlessly through the water, what you're witnessing is the culmination of four core phases: the Catch, the Pull, the Exit and the Recovery.

Understanding and mastering these four pillars are crucial to your development as a dragon boater and for your team's overall performance. Let's break down each of these core components to provide a foundation upon which you can build your skills.

Phase of Stroke

Brief Description


The catch is your paddle's first contact with the water and sets the stage for the entire stroke. A well-executed catch allows you to lock the blade in the water, allowing you to pivot yourself (and the boat) forward fast and smoothly. Key points include

  • Inside hip rotating back to aid upper body rotation
  • Bottom arm extending and reaching down into the water
  • Body hinges from the waist
  • Quick lunge forward; no lazy catches
  • Blade burying completely & at a positive angle for a clean entry


The pull phase is where you generate the real power to drive the boat forward. Your entire body, not just your arms, should be involved in this phase of the stroke. Important elements include: 

  • Keeping weight pressed down on the paddle
  • Gunwale leg driving into the boat
  • Inside hip aiding in de-rotation
  • No bending of the bottom arm
  • No punching of the top arm
  • Body de-rotates and sits up to generate power


The exit phase is essential for setting up your next stroke, minimizing drag, and maintaining boat speed. Key principles include:

  • The exit beginning when the bottom elbow hits the torso
  • Top hand finishing at chest level
  • Maintaining blade pressure to avoid drag


The recovery phase follows the exit and is your transition to the next stroke. It is an opportunity to prepare your body and paddle for the next catch, ensuring continuous and efficient paddling. Key principles include:

  • Quick exit to avoid dragging the boat speed down
  • Don't let the top hand drop too much
  • Relax and let the boat glide
  • Start moving forward right off the exit

You might be wondering: what about the set up? The set up is not actually a phase in your stroke, but rather a position you get into when your coach says "paddles up". Pausing for the set up at the front of your stroke is a big mistake that many paddlers do, which we will talk more about below.

Here is what dragon boat technique looks like at a high level:

Here's a breakdown of each phase in the stroke in video form:

Mastering the Catch: The First Step to Dragon Boat Speed

Mastering the catch is crucial to develop speed and power. In fact, some coaches argue that the catch is the most important part of the stroke. Let's dive deeper into the intricacies of achieving a flawless catch.

Key Principles

Understanding the key principles of the catch is vital for executing it correctly:

  • Inside Hip Rotates Back: This allows you to get full body rotation, pushing the bottom hand forward in front of the top hand, thus creating a positive angle as you enter the water.

dragon boat hip rotation

  • Hinge Forward from the Waist: While keeping an upright posture, bend forward from the hips, as if you’re bending over to pick something up off the ground with one hand.
  • Body Begins Moving Forward Before Arms: This ensures that you use the momentum of your entire body to initiate the catch, rather than just chopping the arms down into it. You’ll get a much longer and more powerful stroke this way.
  • Bottom Arm Extends Reaching Down to Water: Extending your bottom arm fully (with a slight bend in the elbow) allows you to get a deeper, more powerful catch.
  • No Pause—Quick Lunge Forward, Dynamic Catch: Some teams quickly snap forward and pause for a split second before they go in, but this kills the momentum into the catch. As the boat speed picks up, having a slow catch means that the water rushing by will push the blade back, thus sacrificing precious length upfront. A dynamic, explosive catch means there's no pause from the time you reach forward to the moment your paddle enters the water, making the catch quick and powerful.
  • Blade Buried Completely: This maximizes the surface area for pushing against the water, which in turn increases your pulling power.

dragon boat catch

  • Weight on Paddle: Having your weight on the paddle ensures that you are using your body’s momentum to aid in the stroke. It also counteracts the natural tendency for the paddle to want to move up and out of the water, making sure it stays buried and connected. You want to feel like your bodyweight is being supported by the pressure on the blade, and if it were to suddenly snap, you’d fall over.
  • Clean Entry: A clean entry means less water resistance and splash, making your stroke more efficient. Getting a clean entry is the result of good body mechanics, namely, entering at a positive angle and entering quickly.

Common Catch Mistakes and How to Correct Them

  • Head Not in Line with Spine: Some paddlers will crank their head up to look for the timing, or turn their head sideways thinking that this helps with rotation. This affects your posture and is a waste of energy. Keep your head aligned with your spine to maintain optimal posture and always look at the water in front of you.
  • Top Elbow Above Top Hand: Paddlers may crank their top elbow high in an effort to get more rotation. However, this is not only a weaker position to be in, but potentially dangerous for the shoulder joint. Ensure that your top elbow is below your top hand for a stronger and safer catch.
  • Overreaching: Many paddlers often try to reach too far forward to bury their paddle at the thigh of the person sitting in front of them. What they don’t realize is that you can reach way further in the air than you can bury effectively into the water. The problem is that if you hyperextend forward into the air, you’ll have no choice but to collapse your frame and your posture in order to get the blade into the water. Your actual stroke will start much further back, when your paddle will be buried at a negative angle. So ironically, reaching more will often result in you having less effective reach. The fix? Focus on burying at a comfortable spot every single stroke, somewhere around your feet. Think “reach down” instead of “reach forward”, so that you don’t waste any length reaching into the air. The aim should be to bury the blade completely in the water without sacrificing your good body positioning.

The Pull: Generating Power and Speed

The Pull is the meat of the dragon boat stroke. In this section, we'll explore the essential principles that make up an effective Pull, offer tips for improvement, and point out common pitfalls to avoid.

Key Principles

To perform an effective Pull, focus on the following key principles:

  • Gunwale Leg Drives into the Boat: Driving your gunwale-side leg into the boat adds stability and helps you get an explosive sit-up, making your pull more powerful. This is called leg drive.
  • Inside Hip Drives Forward Aiding De-rotation: Driving your inside hip forward aids in un-twisting your torso, thereby enhancing your stroke's effectiveness. Think about leading with that knee shooting forward to initiate the pull, sit-up and de-rotation.

  • Frame Stays Solid, No Punching or Bending: Your top and bottom hands both play a critical role in maintaining pressure and optimizing the stroke's leverage. Both arms should be flexed solid—no punching the top hand forward, and no pulling the bottom hand back—in order to allow the forces generated by the body to be funneled through the arms and into the paddle. Think of it this way: if your arms bend or punch, that is like having a leak in a pipe where not all the water goes through to the other side. Focus on directing pressure down the shaft, keeping it locked deep in the water while you leverage yourself forward. Despite it being called the “pull” phase, many paddlers find it helpful to think of this phase as more of a “push” or a “press”, rather than a true pull.
  • Maintain Top & Bottom Hand Pressure: Bodyweight needs to continue to be pressed down onto the paddle to keep it locked and producing high amounts of power.

Common Pull Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Here are some common mistakes and how to correct them:

  • Sitting Up As an Afterthought: After the catch, many paddlers begin de-rotating but find their body gets stuck at the front. It is only when the paddler reaches the end of their stroke do they suddenly sit back up. Instead, the paddler should start sitting up right away as soon as the blade is locked, ensuring that the pull phase is one smooth, uniform and connected movement. This technique fault is common while erging.

  • Avoiding the Back Half of the Stroke: There's a controversial belief circulating among some coaches and paddlers that the back half of the stroke slows down the boat (i.e. past the knee). They argue that because the paddle is at a negative angle, the paddler is somehow “pulling” the boat down into the water. There's substantial evidence to disprove this theory, which could be the topic for another article, but to summarize: take, for example, the stroke of Olympic sprint canoers. A close examination of their technique reveals that most of their stroke occurs at a negative angle. Notably, their boats not only maintain speed but also lift up and accelerate significantly at the back half of their strokes. So, don’t hesitate to pull long!

By focusing on these principles and avoiding common mistakes, you'll be able to generate more power and speed in the Pull phase of your dragon boat stroke.

Exit: The Finishing Touch

The Exit phase is crucial in dragon boating; it sets the stage for your next powerful stroke while maintaining the boat's speed and minimizing drag. Below, we outline key principles and common mistakes so that you can perfect your exit.

Key Principles

In a well-executed exit, you should adhere to the following principles:

  • Proper Exit Mechanics: Lead the exit with your top hand by pulling up and slightly inward and twist the t-grip clockwise (if on the left) or counter-clockwise (if on the right), much like unscrewing a jar lid. Your bottom arm can bend slightly to lift the blade out of the water cleanly.

  • Don’t Pull Too Far: Pull long, but not too long. Pulling past the hips sacrifices your leverage and can slow down the boat.
  • Top Hand Finishes at Chest Level: Your top hand should finish around chest level, preparing you for the next stroke cycle without dropping too low. If it finishes way below the chest, you may be punching your top hand forward, or your paddle may be simply too short.
  • Avoid Drag: Make sure to clear the water quickly, avoiding any dragging motions that could slow down the boat.
  • Go Forward Right Away: You should pull the paddle out and move forward right away with no delay.

Common Exit Mistakes and How to Rectify Them

Even seasoned paddlers can make mistakes during the exit phase. Here's how to correct them:

  • Slowing Down: Many paddlers slow down at the back of the stroke, or (even worse) pause before taking the paddle out. This will slow the boat down. Instead, imagine as if there is a trampoline at the back of your stroke right at your hips. Your goal should be to hit the trampoline as hard as you can, and bounce out of the water fast.
  • Messy Blade Exit: An unclean blade exit can create splashes and slow down the boat. This is often seen in paddlers who lift the blade up and back when they exit, shoveling water behind them. Focus on a quick, clean exit that is led by the top hand pulling the blade up and forward to maintain glide and avoid splashing.
  • Poor Posture: Not sitting tall at the end of your stroke can affect your posture and subsequent strokes. Maintaining an upright position is crucial for continued performance.
  • Tension in Arms and Hands: Many paddlers are scared to bend their bottom arms at the exit because their coach has told them so many times to not bend it during the pull. However, it’s important to release tension as you complete the exit phase. Otherwise, you will get a robotic-looking exit that is not efficient. Paddlers who do this tend to shrug their paddling-side shoulder up to lift the paddle out of the water, but this is not efficient. It's okay to slightly bend your bottom arm to relieve pressure off the blade. This will not only help prevent fatigue but also set you up for a dynamic next stroke.

Recovery: Resetting for the Next Stroke

The recovery phase in a dragon boat stroke is often overlooked, but it's a pivotal part of the process. The recovery sets the stage for the entire next stroke cycle, making it essential for both individual and team performance.

Key Principles

In the recovery phase, there are several key principles to keep in mind:

  • Lead with the Body: As soon as you start the recover, the body should start moving forward again for that next stroke, starting from the hips, then the torso, and lastly the arms extending and placing the paddle into the water.
  • Build Momentum into the Catch: At the back of the recovery, let yourself have a moment to slow down and breathe, letting the boat glide. Right after the exit is when the boat is moving the fastest, so don't waste your opportunity to slow down, recover a bit, and sync it up with your team! A mistake is snapping the arms forward too violently and then pausing right before the catch. Build up momentum again as you go forward, which will help you get a fast, dynamic catch.

  • Blade Height: Keep the blade a few inches above the water to prepare for the next stroke—no need to recover too high!
  • Posture: Maintain an upright posture and hinge from the hips, not the upper back.
  • Relaxed Grip: Release tension in your arms and hands, opting for a relaxed but controlled grip on the paddle.
  • Let the Boat Glide: Use this moment to allow the boat to glide on the water, showing patience before entering the next catch phase.
  • Timing and Coordination: Recovery is also a time to resynchronize with your team, ensuring everyone is ready for the next stroke cycle. While your body is upright, you can quickly scan your surroundings to make sure the timing is still on point.

Common Mistakes in Recovery and How to Rectify Them

  • Tension Not Released: Retaining tension in your arms and hands can lead to quicker fatigue. Practice relaxing your grip between strokes.
  • Incorrect Posture: Slouching or hunching can affect your next stroke. Maintain an upright posture for optimum performance.
  • Not Allowing the Boat to Glide: Rushing into the next stroke can disrupt the boat’s natural glide. Patience is key! Think about a 1-to-2 water time to air time ratio (i.e. for every 1 sec in the water, spend 2 secs in the air).

How to Take Your Technique to the Next Level

For those looking to refine their dragon boat technique further, here are some helpful tips:

  • Video Review: Use video analysis to study your recovery technique and make adjustments.
  • Insights from Professionals: Attend workshops or seek advice from experienced dragon boat coaches and athletes to get tailored advice on how to improve your stroke. We offer coaching and consulting services here if you'd like to get in touch.
  • Speak Up & Be Proactive: Your coach has a lot on their plate—between managing all 20 of your team’s paddlers, the workout, and a million other things, your coach may not give you feedback as often as you’d like. If you feel that way, it’s important to directly ask your coach to watch you during practice, or reach out to them afterwards for feedback.


Mastering dragon boat technique involves a thorough understanding of the Catch, Pull, Exit and Recovery phases. Each contributes uniquely to your overall performance and, when executed flawlessly, can make you an asset to your team.

As you continue your dragon boat journey, remember that technique refinement is a never-ending process. Always strive for improvement and never stop learning!

While you work on your technique, check out our Faler Carbon Fibre Dragon Boat Paddle.

Take a look at our article about dragon boat basics to learn about everything else that this sport has to offer!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

In this section, we'll address some of the most common questions about dragon boat techniques:

1. What's the most crucial phase of the dragon boat stroke?

A: All phases are important, but many experts argue that the Catch is the most important. This is because without a good Catch, the blade will not properly lock and form a pivot point in the water, which makes the rest of your stroke less effective.

2. How can I improve my technique?

A: Aside from regular practice, consider working with a coach and utilizing video review to analyze your technique.

3. How long does it take to master dragon boat technique?

A: The short answer is: it depends. Athletes from other canoeing backgrounds can pick up the sport fast, as well as those who have some previous athletic experience, particularly in swimming or gymnastics. Mastering dragon boat technique, however, can take years of consistent practice just like any other skill. Even then, you will always be learning and refining for as long as you continue with the sport.

4. Can I practice my technique off the water?

Absolutely, dry-land training methods like the paddle ergometer and the paddle pool allow you to train the dragon boat stroke movement without actually being on the water. However, nothing replaces actual on-water practice.

5. What's the importance of team synchronization?

Synchronization is crucial in dragon boat racing. Even if you have excellent individual technique, being out of sync with your team will affect overall performance.

6. Is torso rotation really necessary?

Yes, proper torso rotation is important for a number of reasons. It allows you to get a longer stroke, creates a positive angle of entry, and allows you to engage the muscles of your core and back during the Pull phase through explosive de-rotation.

7. Why do my arms get tired quickly?

Fatigue can occur if you rely too much on your arms. Improving your technique to engage the big muscles of your legs, hips, and torso, rather than your small arm muscles, will help alleviate arm fatigue. After a hard race, the muscles that should be hurting the most are the legs, hip, core, and lats.

8. What is the best paddle length for me?

A: Paddle length can depend on various factors like your height, arm length, and personal preference. It's best to consult with a coach to find the most suitable paddle length for you.

9. Should I be concerned about paddle angle?

A: Absolutely. The angle at which your paddle enters and exits the water can affect both the power and efficiency of your stroke. You want a slight positive angle at the catch, and throughout your pull phase the paddle should gradually progress from positive to neutral to negative, almost like a pendulum swing.

10. Does a seat pad improve technique?

A: It absolutely can. A seat cushion can help relieve painful pressure caused by sitting on the hard wooden dragon boat seats, allowing the paddlers to move better without worrying about being in pain.

11. How can I prevent hand blisters and improve grip?

A: Using grip tubing can prevent blisters and improve your hold on the paddle.

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