The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

What’s Your Workout: Enter the Dragon Boat

by Christopher Shay

The Executive

Christine Ho had been practicing Thai boxing for five years when she hit a plateau and started “getting bored.” In search of a new physical challenge, the 39-year-old director of custom publishing at Hearst Magazines Hong Kong (and former editor-in-chief of Elle Hong Kong)  signed up for dragon boat racing, the ancient Chinese traditional sport. The native Hong Konger had watched Dragon Boat Festival races in the past and knew about the sport’s intensity.

“I’m fascinated by all things powerful,” she says.

Dragon boat races date back more than 2,000 years as a Chinese ceremony to celebrate the summer rice planting and to venerate the dragon water deity. In Chinese folklore, there’s another story: In 278 BC, during the Warring States period, popular statesman and poet Qu Yuan tied himself to a rock and walked into the Miluo River, in today’s Hunan province, to drown himself when he learned of an impending invasion. When the local villagers found out, they rushed to their fishing boats to save him while beating a drum to scare the fish away from his body. Every year since—or so the story goes—there’s been a Dragon Boat Festival to mark Qu Yuan’s death.

In 1976 the Hong Kong Tourist Association helped turn the practice of informal local races into the international modern sport it is today by holding the first-ever world dragon boat racing competition. Ten boats—nine from Hong Kong and one from Japan—competed. Over the past three decades, the sport has grown around the world. Hong Kong now boasts hundreds of teams, and more than 60 other countries host their own competitions. Even the newly anointed Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine Middleton, was a dragon boat racer in London until she had to leave her team in 2007 for security reasons.

Dragon boats are thin, long boats with a dragon’s head on the bow. Most of today’s boats in Hong Kong are still made of wood but some races use synthetic-fiber ones. The boats used in international competitions hold 22 people — 20 paddlers, one drummer and one helmsman — and races are usually 200 to 500 meters.

Ms. Ho says the team aspect of the sport pushes her to always put in extra effort. “You have the feeling that you can’t let your team down,” she says.

In a competition, she says one has to mentally control every aspect of the body. “As a control freak, I like that,” she says. “Your mind and body feel very connected.”

She says dragon boating has made her healthier. After three months of racing, Ms. Ho had her cholesterol checked. She says dragon boating was the only major lifestyle change she had made, and her level of low-density lipoprotein, or ”bad cholesterol,” had dropped by more than half. Dragon boating also helps clear her mind. When she returns to work—often immediately following an evening practice—she says she feels energized.

“The body is tired, but the mind is refreshed,” she says.

The Workout

Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated the fifth day of the fifth lunar month – this year it will be June 6. To gear up for the annual races, Ms. Ho’s team, the Buzz Dragon Boating Society, starts with land-based training in September. For four months, the team focuses on building up muscle strength and endurance. Training starts with a 1,500-meter run and then moves to a series of strength exercises. The team will do three sets of 10-15 reps of exercises that include squats, lunges and push-ups. The workout will also include three sets of 30 crunches and other core workouts. The team practices three times a week for one to one-and-a-half hours.

In January, when the weather starts to warm up, the team moves training to the water. They will start with 25 minutes of nonstop paddling as a cardio warm-up. “Twenty-five minutes is actually very long and exhausting,” Ms. Ho says.

Next they’ll focus on one technique or aspect of the race. For example, the team might practice the first 30 strokes of a race, 10 times in a row.

The types of strokes that teams use vary depending on where they are in the race. At the start, they’ll use short, quick strokes that use mostly arm strength to get the boat off to a fast start. After that, the paddlers will use a longer stroke that uses the whole body as leverage and dips the paddle deeper in the water.

Spectators may think dragon boat racing is all about using the arms and shoulders, but “the power stems from the legs and body,” Ms. Ho says. After practice, her sorest muscles are always in her legs.

The team competes in races about seven or eight times a year, and each competition usually has one or two heats that lead to semi-final and final.

Outside of dragon boating racing and practice, Ms. Ho goes to the gym at least once a week. She’ll run on a treadmill for 20 minutes and then move to weight lifting in which she completes three sets of 20 lifts. She focuses in particular on her shoulder and back muscles. For example, she’ll work her deltoids by standing with dumbbells at the sides of her legs and lifting them up until her arms are parallel with the ground. She’ll often end her gym workouts with core exercises that include crunches and plank holds.


Ms. Ho says she hasn’t changed her diet much since she switched from Thai boxing to dragon boating. She still focuses on making sure she gets enough protein to build muscles and has most of her calories early in the day. She often eats a big breakfast of cereal, a muffin, eggs and bacon. At work, she’ll often eat a second breakfast of a sausage roll. For lunch, she might have fried rice. Dinner will be light, often a grilled fish fillet with a light salad.

Two days before a race, Ms. Ho says she’ll increase her carbohydrate intake by eating more pastas and wild rice to maximize her energy.

Cost & Gear

Ms. Ho pays about 2,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$257) a year to be on her team, and the fee includes everything from boat maintenance to coaching. Other than the club fee, costs are minimal. She says normal work-out clothes are suitable for racing, but she bought a pair of padded rowing pants (HK$400) to make sitting in the boat more comfortable. She says some people also buy their own carbon fiber paddles, which are lighter than wooden ones. She bought one for less than HK$1,000. Ms. Ho pays HK$250 a month for her gym membership.

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