Taking the brakes off – five ways to speed up your boat

I’ve written previously about the innovative work done by the GB Cyling team on the importance of marginal gains and how this might begin to translate to rowing  (http://bit.ly/1ihUbYO) .  It is as true in rowing as in any other sport that important races are often won or lost by inches, so any legal change which offers even small improvements in performance is worth considering.

In this blog, I’m going to touch on four aspects of rowing technique or crew selection which any crew or coach can check on to make sure that they are getting the best boat speed they can for the effort they are putting in. Perhaps because it is easier to see these issues from outside the boat than inside it, or because crews can sometimes settle into a particular way of rowing to correct some other problem, these training points are by no means confined to beginners or novice boats.

  1. Blade depth.  Some crews aquire the habit of rowing ‘deep’, with both the spoon and a significant part of the loom below the surface of the water.  Each submerged loom creates a ‘bow-wave’ as it moves through the water and the drag caused by the bow wave acts as a brake on the boat. (See http://bit.ly/1huDCF5 for more detail).  The crew are therefore wasting precious energy on  making these waves rather than moving the boat.  Get the crew to understand that a) the blade naturally floats with its upper edge above the water b) they can reduce the depth of the blade during the drive phase if they focus on dropping the blade gently onto the water before they start the stroke c) if they pull through the drive phase with the blade floating at its natural depth the stroke feels much lighter, because the blade is being used more efficiently.
  2. Dragging blades.  Novice crews often aquire the habit of dragging their blades across the surface of the water from the finish back to the catch.  This helps stabilize the boat, reducing the amount of roll, which is reassuring for inexperienced rowers. However, the drag created by eight blades sliding across the water surface, while not as great as the bow-waves referred to above, is still hundreds of times greater than the drag created if they were in the air. [Hint to coaches: My experience is that asking the rower to lower his or her hands on the recovery doesn’t usually work when seeking to correct this error.  Telling them to lift the spoon off the water is far more effective.   As the Americans would say – “Go figure”].
  3. Speed into frontstops.  The dynamics of boat acceleration are complex and it is a fact that as the crew leaves backstops on the recovery, the boat actually accelerates as kinetic energy is transferred from rowers to boat.  However if the rowers hit frontstops hard – rather than decelerating into frontstops – boatspeed is checked, because the rowers (who weigh much more than the boat) are moving in the opposite direction to the boat.  A good cue for rowers is the sound made by the wheels of their seat.  If the sound is a rising note as they move through the recovery then they are accelerating into frontstops.  If the sound is a falling note then they are decelerating into frontstops.  A smooth deceleration into frontstops followed by the smallest instant of stillness as the catch is taken and the drive begins, is the most effective way to conserve boat speed.  This of course is much easier said than done when working at race pace.
  4.  Cox’s weight. I would advise all crews training for competition to train with as much weight in the boat as possible.  If this includes a coxwain who weighs 90 kilos or more then so be it.  For the races themselves, however, minimum weight in the boat has to be the rule.  Racing with a cox who weighs 20 kilos more than the coxes in the other boats cannot in my view be a competitive advantage, no matter how good a cox he or she may be.  Having a choice of competent coxes is of course a luxury unavailable to many crews, but if you do have a choice, use the lightweight cox for competitions.

There is a fifth issue affecting many club boats but which is not an aspect of rowing technique or crew selection – and this is hull blemishes.  I remember when I was being coached in sculling, my coach put a single bungee cord around the hull of my single scull.  I was shocked by force of the braking effect it produced, simply by disrupting the smooth flow of water over the hull.  If there are blemishes which you can feel on a hull when you run your hands along it, get them repaired and smoothed out before the regatta season gets under way.  They are costing you far more boat speed than you imagine.

Taken together, the marginal improvements in performance offered by each of these changes can add up to the difference between winning and losing.  If you want an introduction to the role of marginal gains here is a short video here: http://bit.ly/SrWeQy


Attention….Go! The Racing Start

The  racing start is one of those aspects of rowing on which there are almost as many opinions as there are rowers. The question of how to cover the first 200 metres of a race can produce answers which are not just different,  but contradictory.  One of my first coaches (a Nat Champs gold medallist – so I think she knew what she was talking about) insisted that the fastest starts she ever rowed were “full power, full length” from the go.  Some college crews I have coached in the past, have devised ‘start sequences’ of knitting pattern complexity.  My current coach has an exactly opposite view and teaches a very simple,  shortened stroke sequence, and this is in fact what I teach the crews I now coach.

So what is the best advice for rowers and coaches looking for the most effective start?

First and foremost, the fact that there are so many conflicting opinions on the best start is quite possibly an indication that there isn’t one, because if one particular sequence was clearly better than the others, we’d all be using it. Secondly, don’t get the search for the right start out of proportion.  Even the best start won’t win the race for you, although a bad start can certainly lose one.

My personal view is that an effective start sequence has three distinct functions:

  1. To provide a reliable and predictable series of strokes with which to accelerate the boat rapidly
  2. To minimise the risk of crew errors
  3. To set the boat up for race pace at the planned stroke rate

In terms of reliability and predictability, the start sequence is the only part of the race which is entirely under the crew’s control.  If the crew has been well trained, they know exactly what to do and what to expect during their start. Because they know exactly what is going to happen, the crew don’t have to follow stroke, they can row ‘with’ stroke.  This can be a difficult distinction to convey, but what I mean is that (for example) if the crew know how fast the rate is going to build and have rowed it repeatedly together, then the rower in the stroke seat doesn’t actually have to lead and the rest of the crew doesn’t have to follow. They all execute the same sequence together.  This gets the boat moving as a tightly co-ordinated unit, which is the ideal we are always striving for in crew boat racing.

Crew errors are of course the major hazard during a race.  If crews could always race without making errors, then the strongest, fittest crews would always win.  The fact that they don’t is due to the errors all crews make in turning the energy they apply during a race into sustained boat speed.  Here again, a well-rehearsed start sequence is an excellent way to reduce the risk of errors early in the race.  I coach my crews to treat the start sequence as a technical exercise rather than a brute force powerfest.  In coxed boats, this has the interesting consequence of reducing the noise level so often associated with starts, because the cox’s role is now to keep the crew calm while prompting them through the precise execution of the sequence.  They have to prevent the crew from ‘boiling over’ in the excitement of the moment.  This of course only applies for a few strokes while the crew accelerates the boat efficiently to race pace.  At that point coxes revert to their usual role of ‘motivating’ the crew loudly.

It almost goes without saying that the start sequence should be consistent with the race plan.  The start sequence for a sprint race should build from a standing start to a stroke rate and boat speed appropriate to a sprint.  The start sequence for a head race should build from (usually) a rolling start to a speed appropriate to the longer distance.

In simple terms, the real difference between a good start and a bad start, is that during a good start the whole crew is able to take every stroke together, whereas during a bad start, one or more members of the crew misses or mis-times a stroke.  I personally feel that this is a strong argument in favour of simple start sequences.  Others would of course argue otherwise.

To summarise then, best practice in racing starts is to:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Practice it as a crew until you can deliver it reliably without errors
  3. Make sure it fits seamlessly into the race plan

A good start is above all a morale-booster for the crew.  If they can take half a length out of the opposition while they do it, so much the better – but the minimum it should achieve is a smoothly synchronised, error-free acceleration to race pace.

Competitive Rowing – A quote

My Tumblr page brought this my way.  I can’t improve on it:

“Competitive Rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body. Rowing makes these muscular demands not at odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite. When you row, the major muscles in your arms, legs, and back do most of the grunt work, propelling, the boat forward against the unrelenting resistance of water and wind. At the same time, scores of smaller muscles in the neck, wrists, hands, and even feet continually fine-tune your efforts, holding the body in constant equipoise in order to maintain the exquisite balance necessary to keep a twenty four inch wide vessel – roughly the width of a mans waist – on an even keel. The result of all this muscular effort, on both the larger scale and the smaller, is that your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor. Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back to back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes. A well conditioned oarsman or oarswoman competing at the highest levels must be able to take in and consume as much as eight liters of oxygen per minute; an average male is capable of taking in roughly four to five liters at most. Pound for pound olympic oarsmen may take in and process as much oxygen as a thoroughbred race horse. While 75-80 percent of the energy a rower produces in a race is aerobic energy fueled by oxygen, races always begin an usually end with hard sprints. These sprints require levels of energy production that far exceed the body’s capacity to produce aerobic energy, regardless of oxygen intake. Instead the body must immediately produce anaerobic energy. This, in turn, produces large quantities of lactic acid, and that acid rapidly build up in the tissue of the muscles. The consequence is that the muscles often begin to scream in agony almost from the outset of a race and continue screaming until the very end. And it’s not only the muscles that scream. The skeletal system to which all those muscles are attached also undergoes tremendous amounts of strains and stresses. Without proper training and conditioning – and sometimes even with them – competitive rowers are apt to experience a wide variety of ills in the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, ribs, neck, and above all the spine. These injuries and complaints range from blisters to severe tendonitis, bursitis, slipped vertebrae, rotator cuff dysfunction and stress fractures. The common denominator in all these conditions is overwhelming pain. Pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.”

— Boys in the Boat