Indoor Training – The Erg

The erg (or ergo or rowing machine) is the next best thing to rowing a boat as far as training rowers is concerned – and arguably better than the boat for measuring a rower’s power output accurately and repeatably.  Sadly, for too many rowers, the erg is an instrument of torture to be avoided if at all possible.

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From the coach’s point of view, the erg is just too valuable to be left out of the training programme so it is part of our job to make it less intimidating to the less-than-elite rowers who make up the majority of most clubs.  I find the following approaches helpful:

  1. Coach your rowers on how to use the erg.  It is an ideal platform for rehearsing the shape and sequence of a correct rowing stroke.  A surprising number of rowers are self-taught on the erg and use very poor technique, so wasting hours of training which could have been used to build useful ‘muscle – memory’.
  2. Ask rowers to do their erg sessions in groups, ideally following ‘stroke’.  Just as marching makes walking long distances easier, rowing together makes a 30 minute piece easier.
  3. Make it a rule that rowers have a 2 minute rest off the erg to stretch and take a drink after a maximum of 30 minutes exercise.
  4. Have each rower keep a personal record of their erg performance so that they know exactly what level of performance they are aiming for on every erg session.
  5. Vary the erg programme with short sprints, long UT2 sessions, 1k, 2k and 5k pieces. Use the Concept 2 website occasionally for their ‘Workout of the Day’ (http://www.concept2.co.uk/indoor-rowers/training/wod).

Indoor training at most clubs is centred on the erg and as with so many other exercise options, frequency beats intensity.   It is an excellent route to fitness and deserves to be used to best effect.

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Boat Types – The Single Scull

I can’t imagine a rowing club without single sculls. If you join a rowing club as a junior (under 18) you will be using these boats almost immediately and generally speaking the most confident single scullers learned as juniors.

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As an athlete, the single sculler lives in a slightly different world from the crew rower. Whether in training or competition, they work alone, entirely dependent on their own resources and motivation. Single sculling has a lot in common with solo track events like running and cycling. Of course, most single scullers also happily scull or row in crew boats, but anyone who has sculled in a single knows that it offers a new dimension to the sport.

There are two slightly different styles of sculling, which if you look closely you’ll probably see examples of on a river or lake near you. Scullers who have learned as juniors often worry a lot less about the amount of roll (rotation around the long axis of the boat) they create. They simply absorb the rolling movement with their lower body while their upper body remains stable and gets on with the bladework. They look as as if they have a very sophisticated and responsive suspension system built into their hips – as in fact they do – which absorbs the rolling motion and isolates it from their upper bodies. People who have learned as adults tend to be stiffer and less relaxed about rolling. They use their core muscles to sit the boat level which produces a more elegant stroke – although they rarely look as carefree as the early learners.

As a coach, I personally think that the pursuit of elegance, while a good guide in 99% of rowing and sculling technique, has to take second place to the carefree, instinctive movement of a happy, relaxed single sculler. The amount of energy lost in the slightly untidy rolling motion they produce is tiny and there is a risk that coaching their flexibility out of them could do more harm than good. This can create issues however when a flexible single sculler sits in a double with a more conventional sculler who may not be happy with the same level of instability.

Adaptable as singe scullers often are, matching the sculler to the boat is important and it is a good idea to match the weight classification and rigging setup of the boat to suit the individual sculler as far as one can, even with club boats used by many different scullers.

Boat Types – The Pair

While undoubtedly one of the more demanding boat types, the pair deserves to get more use than it does at most clubs. It is an excellent learning environment for intermediate rowers, although having a change of kit ready is recommended for the first couple of outings.

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The pair can be an unforgiving boat to row, requiring good crew co-ordination from the outset. Its main benefit as a coaching platform is that every move the rowers make is reflected immediately in the performance of the boat. Hand heights, timing, stroke length and quality of bladework all have immediate and very clear effects. If you are new to rowing a pair, just getting the boat well-balanced and moving smoothly will teach you a lot about what you are doing wrong and how well you need to do it to get it right. Getting it right is always a rewarding experience in rowing – it is particularly so in a pair. The benefit to the rower lies in taking the improved technique and performance gained in the pair back to larger crew boats where you can now be a better and more adaptable rower.

Note to coaches: A pair is likely to feel heavy to rowers used to fours and eights, so it is probably a good idea to lower the gearing on the blades. 116cm inboard is a good starting point, but don’t hesitate to give a more inboard leverage if the height / fitness / skill of the crew makes it necessary. It may also be a good idea to move the foot-stretchers further toward the bow than the rower is used to, in order to move more of the work behind the pin.

Boat Types – The Double Scull

The double scull (or just ‘double’) is the most popular crew boat at most rowing clubs. While it offers an easily accessible and reasonably forgiving platform for novice scullers, it is also a class of boat represented in competitions at every level from local regattas and ‘small boats’ head races to elite FISA and Olympic competitions.

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The double is an ideal platform for one-on-one coaching, with the coach steering in the bow seat and the novice rower in the stroke seat. All club scullers from novice juniors to recreational members can make good use of doubles.

Technically the double is uncomplicated, responding predictably to the actions of the crew whether good or bad. It is slower off the catch than the quad and easy to steer with rudder or blades.

Coxed doubles are still made, but usually as ‘touring’ boats – broad beamed, stable, rowing boats rather than as racing shells or ‘fine’ boats. They are finding a new role in adaptive rowing, allowing disabled athletes to enjoy sculling a double under the guidance of a cox.

Boat Types – The Quad

The Quad is a sculling boat for four scullers with eight blades. For reasons of economy, most clubs will actually use a coxless four with sculling riggers rather than the lighter, purpose-built quad, as they then effectively get two boats for the price of one. Purpose built quads are less sturdy than fours as they are not subject to the asymmetric loads of sweep-oar rowing – so they can’t be rigged as fours.

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A sculler actually has more spoon area in the water during the stroke than a rower with a sweep oar. As a result, quads have a more rapid acceleration off the catch than other boats – even when using the heavier coxless four shell. For the crew, this can present some challenges, as the rapid acceleration of the boat after the catch can result in a loss of pressure toward the finish if the crews hands don’t maintain the acceleration from the leg drive. From the coach’s point of view a quad crew are effectively rowing a two-part ‘legs-hands’ stroke – both of which need to be powerful but need to connect smoothly together. People who have learned to row before they learn to scull will probably feel slightly rushed during the power phase of the stroke as the hands and arms have to accelerate into the finish in a way that is unlike sweep oar technique. Feathering is different too, with both wrists dropping sharply as the blades leave the water at the finish, with the handles held lightly in the crooked fingers well above the palm.

While the sculler at bow is in charge of steering and usually has a foot-operated rudder control, he or she will usually recruit the rest of the crew to help with steering. A boat as fast as a quad often needs more steering than can be managed via the rudder alone and a little more right or left hand pressure from the whole crew is the safest way to navigate a busy or bendy river.

Coxed quads are used for junior (11 – 18) scullers at most clubs and offer an excellent training environment for coxes who aspire to bigger, senior boats. While not as lively as the coxless quad, the coxed quad is also an excellent coaching environment for junior scullers, able to accommodate mixed ability crews quite safely.

Boat Types – The Coxless Four

The first thing you notice when you start rowing a coxless four is its lightness and acceleration as compared to the coxed four. The second thing you notice is that no-one wants the bow seat, because bow has to do the steering. If you have a straight, uncrowded river to row on, this may not be a big issue, but for most of us, the need to keep checking over your shoulder that you have the right line and that there is no traffic in the way is an obstacle to getting the best out of an outing.  However, the coxless four is used in elite competitions and if you want to compete in a four at elite level you have to master this type.

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Without a cox of course, the crew is also missing the cox’s contribution to their performance, so the crew have to cultivate their tactical awareness to a greater extent than in coxed boats. Luckily, the increased responsiveness of the coxless four means communication between the crew often needs no words.  You can feel even subtle changes in the performance of your crew through the sound and feel of the boat.

The coxless four is often the premier boat in clubs which don’t have the numbers for a regular eight. It will often be rigged as a quad for much of the time for the simple reason that the quad is easier to steer.

Boat Types – The Coxed Four

The coxed four is my favourite boat as a rower, although (probably because it is no longer used at the Olympics or FISA rowing competitions) it is less popular with more ambitious rowers.   It is more responsive than the eight, more forgiving than the pair and allows rowers to concentrate on rowing while they leave steering duties to the cox. Perhaps for this reason, the coxed four is in my view the best boat for coaching the technical aspects of sweep-oar rowing and the most satisfying to row with a good crew who can fine-tune its balance and handling characteristics.

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The term ‘coxed four’ covers two very different configurations.  The original configuration has the cox sitting in the stern (as with an eight).  A later adaptation is the ‘bow-loader’ in which the cox lies down inside the bow section of the boat.  Both types have their advantages and disadvantages.

The cox seated at the stern of a four has a wider field of view and can see (and talk with) the crew, see their blades and other boats around and even behind them. On the downside, a stern-coxed boat creates more wind-resistance and has a higher centre of gravity than a bow-loader.

By lying the cox down in bows of the boat, the bow-loader addresses the two main disadvantages of the stern-loader.  The additional weight in the bows of the boat also lessens the tendency of the bows to pitch up as the crew move up the slide into frontstops.  The tradeoff – and it is a significant one – is that the cox in a bowloader has a very limited field of view.  He/she can’t see the crew and can’t see behind the boat. This makes coxing a bow-loader safely a far more demanding job than coxing a stern-loader and in my view a role only for experienced coxes if you have to share your river with other boats.  An experienced cox can tell how the crew are moving from the sound and ‘feel’ of the boat but this is a skill which novice coxes can take a while to acquire.

From the cox’s point of view, as for the crew, the four offers more opportunity for fine control than the eight and more opportunity to understand individual crew members and the effects they have on the boat.