Coaching Crews for Competition – “Rowing the Rate”

Modern technology has given the solo sculler access to detailed performance information whether rowing on the river or on the erg.   He or she can see stroke by stroke feedback on split times, stroke rate and power output.

Crew-boat rowers face a much greater contrast between their indoor training and their outings.  On the erg, they can get detailed data on their performance.  On the river, unless they are in the stroke seat, the only feedback they get is from the ‘feel’ of the boat and from the coach.  On the erg, the focus is primarily on the ‘split’ the rower can sustain.  On the river, the focus is on rowing together, as a crew, following stroke.  In simple terms, their indoor training emphasises ‘rowing the split’ and their river training emphasises ‘rowing the rate’.

A good competitive crew will be expected to sustain a stroke rate above about 34spm, so it is important to get them used to rowing at higher rates as the regatta season approaches. As a coach, I try to prepare rowers training for competition to deliver stroke rates on the ergs which are similar to or higher than they will deliver on the water.  If they have trained effectively during the winter to build heart-lung capacity and muscle strength, then the emphasis on rowing the rate will help to build confidence in the crew that whatever rate the cox/stroke/coach asks for, they will be able to deliver.

An incidental benefit of the higher-rate work is that rowers start using higher rates on their 2k tests and this generally results in an improved time.

SAFETY NOTE:  High rate rowing is intensive exercise and will stress the rower’s physiology.  It should not be attempted by untrained beginners and even trained, fit rowers should prepare for these sessions with a thorough warm-up (at least 10 minutes continuous aerobic exercise). Commercial sports drinks rather than water are recommended for hydration and blood sugar maintenance during these sessions.  Rowers with known medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes or asthma should take advice from a medically qualified professional before undertaking high rate training.

High rate training sessions are intended to prepare a crew for competition and should explicitly relate to the tactical plan which the coach is working to.  My tactical plan emphasises high rate starts with reduced stroke length. These are in effect the ‘low gears’ of the boat, used to accelerate rapidly from a standing start.  The high rate training sessions aim to build confidence in the crew that they can sustain high rate work over longer distances than would actually be required in competition.  The programme is progressive, starting with free-rate 100m pieces and building up over a few sessions to extended fixed-rate pieces of up to 750 metres rowed first individually and then synchronised as a crew.  For example:

Session 1.  4 x 100m free rate followed by 4 x 1 minute free rate

Session 2.  3 x 250m free rate followed by 3 x 250m rowed following stroke @ 38 spm

Session 3.  4 x 500m @ 40 spm

Session 4.  4 x 500m @ 40 spm following stroke

Session 5. 4 x 750m @ 40 spm

Session 6. 4 x 750m @ 40spm following stroke

Each session should take no more than 60 minutes but note that this does NOT include warm-up time (at least 10 minutes).

Even experienced rowers can be surprised to discover that they can sustain 40spm for 750m when they focus on rowing the rate rather than rowing the split, and this is an enormous boost to their confidence on the start line.

These indoor training sessions should then be reflected in the outdoor training on the water.  As the regatta season approaches, more of each outing should be allocated to higher rate work.  Initially, the emphasis should be on getting the crew used to working with different slide lengths while keeping the boat moving at constant speed.  So for example, after warming up, the crew should be taken through repeated cycles of slide reductions (from full slide to 3/4, 1/2, 1/4 slide) and slide builds (from 1/4 slide through 1/2, 3/4 to full slide again).  

It is important to ensure that every member of the crew knows exactly what is needed when asked for each different slide length so for what it’s worth, here are the definitions I use:

3/4 slide:  Heels are kept down as the rower moves toward frontstops, shortening the stroke.

1/2 slide:   The move toward frontstops is halted when the knees make a  right-angle (90 degrees)

1/4 slide:   The move toward frontstops is halted after body-lean, just as the knees begin to rise.

A key coaching point is that if the slide has moved at all, the catch is taken with the legs, not the arms or body. Building the crew’s ability to work precisely at shorter length and high rates is critical to delivering a reliable fast start and a good start can be worth half a length over a less prepared crew.

No crew is likely to need the full repertoire of stroke lengths in competition – it is the coach’s job to select the best start sequence for his or her crew.  But knowing that the crew can work effectively at any stroke length gives the crew confidence and gives the coach a wide range of options to choose from.

Once the crew is confident with the chosen start sequence, work can begin on building the stroke rate, with the aim always of maximising acceleration off the start and sustained boat speed over the length of the course.  Most crews will probably see their stroke rate drop by 10 – 15% as they ‘change up’ from the short strokes at the start to full length for the main part of the course, so if the aim is to sustain (say) 36spm along the course, they will need to reach 40 to 42 spm off the start.

This is where the high-rate work on the rowing machine can be invaluable in shortening the learning curve on the water and a crew who know they have a reliable fast start have a valuable psychological advantage in any contest.

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