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The Science of Paddling

posted Jul 6, 2016, 1:35 PM by Hector Carranco   [ updated Jul 6, 2016, 1:38 PM ]
I’m sure you have noticed some people hanging around the regattas near the water holding a small object that looks at lot like a popsicle. These people are measuring the wind direction and strength during races. Josh Goreham and Will George of the Canadian Sport Institute explain what they are up to:

The ‘science service’ you might see at competitions is part of an Integrated Support Team provided by the Canadian Sports Institute network that provides support services of different expertise to Canadian sports. Those services could, for example, be Physiology, Psychology, or a number of others. But the staff  you likely see during competition are providing ‘Performance Analysis’ services.
Their task is to collect and provide objective and quantitative information that describes the performance of an athlete or crew in more detail than the coach might be able to see. They then make this information available in a useful format and explain it, to help the athlete and coach understand how the overall performance was achieved and how it could be improved next time.
In the case of Canoe and Kayak, key information collected include velocity, acceleration, stroke rate, distance per stroke, and more. This information is collected at high frequency, to build a detailed picture of performance.

Josh Goreham was at the recent OCSRA trials in Ottawa, where he was collecting performance related data for the athletes that competed at the event.  Here is his report:

Overall, it was a great weekend with lots of interesting races despite the unfavourable weather conditions.

As a sport scientist my primary job was to collect environmental data that would help the sport science staff correct race times based on the conditions the athletes faced during their event. If you were in Ottawa on the weekend you probably saw first hand the range of weather conditions on display. Saturday morning saw heavy rainfall mixed with a slight tail-wind, whereas Sunday was the complete opposite, a strong head-wind with a lot less rain. Noting the conditions allows us to add the all-important context to the results.

You may be wondering why tracking environmental data matters so much, and the short answer is it give us a reasonable indication of what the race time would have been in ideal conditions. Another reason to correct race times based on weather is it allows us to compare an athlete’s performance in two different races, or even compare the performances between two separate athletes that competed in different heats or finals. For example, consider a canoeist that wins a 1000 metre race in a direct headwind (3.0 metres per second wind their face) and achieves a time of 4:15.0. One month later the same canoeist paddles the same 1000 metre course in a time of 4:00.0 while cruising along with a 3.0 metres per second tail wind (wind at their back). The coach then asks “did the athlete getting better?”. One of the primary purposes of the sport scientist is to provide reasonable evidence to answer a coach’s question. Correcting race times helps us do this with more certainty than simply saying “of course the athlete is doing better, they dropped 15 seconds off their time”. In actuality the athlete had gotten slower based on corrected times (4:03.5 in the headwind vs. 4:05.5 in the tailwind); therefore, corrected race times is the first step in providing the coach with useful information.

This is not perfect science as of yet, but as data collection and analytics continue to advance our understanding we will see incremental progress.

I hope this helps with understanding one of the roles of the sport scientist!

Thanks, Josh and will, it certainly does! Now I’m waiting to see buoys scattered along the course continually measuring wind and waves and other environmental conditions in the air and water, and sensors on the paddles measuring force exerted during different parts of the stroke, and....well, what do you think should be measured?