Are you concentrating? (Then we’ll begin). By Howard Aiken

525528_10150745894279500_555109499_9114315_349868421_n-300x200I occasionally have to remind my students that while rowing is not an intellectual sport, it does make quite extraordinary demands on their powers of concentration.  Very few beginners are in the habit (before they learn to row) of concentrating single-mindedly on how they are moving for an hour or more at a time.  The level of concentration required is probably the second-biggest challenge that novice rowers face when stepping up from beginner status to rowing in competitive boats – the first challenge of course, being the required level of fitness.

The special requirement for concentration derives from rowing’s status as the ultimate team sport. In this respect it has similarities with, for example, a corps de ballet – where the movements of each member of the corps have to reflect the movements of the leader.  In rowing, of course the range of movements required is much more limited, but on the other hand unlike a corps de ballet, a crew have to deal with the rapidly changing requirements of wind, water and potentially a race, rather than the fixed choreography of a staged performance.

There is a hierarchy of requirements which rowers have to concentrate on:

  1. Timing – the pre-requisite for almost every other aspect of rowing
  2. Balance – dependent on good timing but a pre-requisite for the efficient deployment of power
  3. Power – the final component of a competitive crew, but very little use without balance and timing

This hierarchy is quite real.  You can imagine an elite crew rowing and then take away their power, and you would still have a crew rowing well, but lightly. Take away both power and balance and they will still be moving the boat – but less efficiently. Take away their timing however and you really don’t have a crew.  You have two, four or eight individuals in a boat, working against each other as much as they are working together.  Anyone who has coached beginners in rowing will be able to visualize exactly what I mean.

Starting with the timing then, concentration on moving with the rower in the stroke seat is fundamental to rowing.  However, stroke does more than just set the rate.  Stroke also sets the ratio (the proportion of the stroke cycle spent on the drive phase versus the recovery phase), the hand heights and speeds, when to feather and square, when to catch and when to finish. Concentrating on moving with stroke throughout the full cycle from catch to finish and back again will require the full attention of any novice rower.

Balance similarly requires careful concentration.  There are dozens of sources of imbalance in the boat and a number of them will affect most crews at some point. Working together to diagnose causes of poor balance, to correct them and to maintain the correction requires the concentration of the whole crew.

Of the three elements in the rower’s hierarchy of needs, only power does not of itself require careful concentration. But it is entirely dependent on the other two elements in the hierarchy and so the thoughtful application of power consistent with timing and balance, will always beat the application of power without such consideration.

Teaching crews to concentrate, not just occasionally but for the duration of an outing, is one of the key challenges in coaching.  Learning to concentrate and to concentrate consistently on the right things is at the heart of becoming a good rower.

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Oars – They’re not sticks, they’re springs – by Howard Aiken

Most club rowers, quite rightly, will work with whatever equipment they are given, so we sometimes miss the subtleties of design in that equipment.  Take a modern sweep-oar for example. It is actually a highly-engineered precision instrument designed maximise the efficient transfer of mechanical energy from rower to boat, so to get the best out of them it helps if you understand its characteristics.bendy

In mechanical terms, each oar or blade on a moving boat is a second class lever with the fulcrum (centre of rotation) near the tip of the spoon.  However, while it is correctly described as a lever, a blade is not rigid. It is designed with a carefully calculated degree of flexibility.

From the rower’s point of view the importance of this flexibility is its relationship to the effort (energy) the rower is applying to the blade.  At the start of a stroke (the catch) the blade is subject to a bending force as the rower pulls the handle toward the bows.  The spoon remains almost stationary in the water, moving the boat forward by means of the force which is transferred to the boat at the pin.  As the blade bends it is in effect storing energy which will be released again as the blade unbends.  So the important question is – when does the blade unbend? There are only two options:

Option 1. The blade unbends as the spoon lifts out of the water.  In this situation the rower is pulling hard on the blade as her outside hand moves downward to extract the blade.  There is still pressure on the front face of the spoon as it leaves the water.  At its worst this is referred to as “washing out”, where the spoon doesn’t actually stay in the water for the full length of the drive phase but moves up and out of the water, creating a telltale “wash” of foam as it leaves the surface, rather than the puddle we should expect. In less severe cases it still produces a splash at the extraction – a sure sign that energy is being wasted in throwing water into the air rather than moving the boat.

Option 2. The blade unbends in the water.  In this situation the rower has slightly eased off the pressure on the handle at the finish.  As the blade unbends, the energy stored within it is transferred to the boat as forward motion. There will be little or no splash at the end of the stroke as the blade is extracted from the water because there is no pressure left on the front of the spoon to throw water into the air.

In practice there is only a small fraction of a second’s difference between option 1 and option 2, but that small fraction of a second can deliver a significant improvement in efficiency. Leaving the spoon in the river for that extra moment allows the rower to convert the energy stored in the blade into additional forward motion.  Over the duration of a race, that additional motion could be the difference between winning and losing.  In my experience, once rowers learn to think of the blade as a spring rather than a stick and to look critically at their extraction technique for signs of splash or wash, they can significantly improve the efficiency of their stroke, getting a little more boat speed for a little less effort by making better use of the flexibility that the designers of modern blades have gone to so much trouble to provide.

Incidentally, all of the above also applies to sculling, although being shorter in length, most sculling blades will not bend as visibly as a sweep blade during the stroke.

The Coach as Engineer

An analogy I sometimes use with my crews is that training them is like building an engine.  I usually mention this when crew members are getting their priorities wrong and attempting to apply power before they have the precision and balance required to handle it.  The engine analogy brings with it useful concepts such as efficiency and smoothness. Like most analogies it shouldn’t be pushed beyond its limits, but within those limits it can be useful.

An engineer building an engine knows that power is last thing to apply to his construction. First the moving parts have to be assembled so that they all move within finely controlled tolerances and exactly in time with each other. Only then is it able to withstand the strain of having power applied to it. Similarly, rowers, or rather their boats, have a heirarchy of needs.  First is timing, then balance and lastly, power. Getting these out of order is only ever going to be destructive – fortunately not as spectacularly destructive as it can be with a real engine but I’m sure many coaches have seen crews (particularly novice crews) ‘come apart’ as they attempt to apply more power than they can actually handle.

In an engine, force has to be carefully controlled in both its magnitude and direction, and forces acting in the wrong direction are very bad news and must be eliminated.  Similarly with rowing, the very worst fault a boat can suffer from is excessive force acting in the wrong direction.  Rowers who pull hard into their laps or who throw their body weight sideways during the stroke are exerting forces which absolutely must be corrected before there is any chance of creating an efficient engine.  An inefficient crew, however hard they work, never achieve the boat speed their efforts should produce because too much of their energy goes into producing a rolling, splashy, jerky movement of the boat.  Many novice rowers completely fail to understand the importance of their body weight and how it moves.   The engine analogy can be helpful in explaining to them that they need to be aware of the precision required in all of their movements if they are going to be part of an efficient crew.

As a coach riding the towpath I spend most of my time watching and listening to these rowing ‘engines’.  I run them first of all at low revs, maybe on just two or four of their eight cylinders, checking for instability and noise. When the engine seems to be running smoothly, I run them at gradually higher revs and higher power.

The engine analogy is of course incomplete in that a crew is much more than an engine.  They are also the ‘suspension’ of the boat, keeping it level, and the gearbox of the boat with a set of ‘gears’ ranging from full slide to hands-only. To all of these abilities they also bring (if you are lucky) intelligence and an ability to learn, so that they get better and better at fulfilling all of these roles as they gain more experience.

It is an immensely rewarding experience to see a crew gradually come together as a single working unit like a good engine, responsive and powerful yet also smooth and quiet.  To be part of such a crew is to experience rowing at its very best and a feeling of shared achievement which few other sports can offer.

‘All Eight’ Rowing – throwing away the training wheels.

A question for any coaches reading this.  Do your crews spend most of their time during8550138898_fe77423817_b outings rowing with all blades or do they spend much of every outing with at least two blades balancing the boat?  Particularly for those of us who spend most of our time training eights, is going ‘all eight’ something you do most of the time or is it the exception rather than the rule?

In my experience, the answer to this question reflects a tension in coaching between perfecting the technique of individual crew members and getting the crew rowing together as a competitive boat.  Beginners of course will spend most of their time with the boat being balanced by two or more of the crew.  However, in some cases (college rowing for example) where you have to fast-track your beginners into competition, even crews with very limited experience have to address the challenge of rowing ‘all eight’.

When coaching crew members as individuals, you need a controlled environment where they can concentrate on the basics.  A rowing tank is ideal for some of this work, but a rowing tank is only an imperfect simulation of a real boat. On the water, you’ll usually want to control the boat by having some of the rowers acting as ‘stabilizers’.  But how long should you leave these stabilizers on?  To put it another way, how soon is too soon to move to working “all eight” for the majority of the training and consigning the stabilizers to a few minutes of the warm-up?

In this post I’m arguing that adopting “all eight” as the standard for outings sooner rather than later is a better approach in training than keeping the crew working in fours or sixes while you iron out individual issues of technique.  There are two fundamental reason for this:

1) Many problems with technique only show up when working in an unstabilized boat

2) Much of any rower’s learning has less to do with listening to the coach and more to do with building unconscious reflex responses to the boat

Let me say again, just for clarity, that I am not disputing the importance of using a stabilized boat for basic training. What I’m arguing is that coaches should get their crew to tackle the challenge of rowing without stabilizers as early as possible and thereafter use the stabilized boat as the exception rather than the rule for training outings.

Thinking back to my own time as a novice rower, I can remember quite clearly the anxiety I felt when any crew I was in was asked to make the switch from rowing in sixes to rowing all eight.  The sudden lurch as the stabilizing blades were lifted off the water to join in the rowing was in all senses a ‘big thing’ and because it kept happening in outing after outing as our coach kept switching back and forth between rowing in eights, sixes and fours it remained a ‘big thing’ for longer than I think was necessary.  If our coach(es) had made us stick with the unstabilized boat once we had started rowing all eight we would (I think) have progressed faster.  Part of the problem was probably lack of a reliable and easily understood coaching technique for balancing the boat, which in those days was taught as a matter of hand and blade co-ordination rather than primarily to do with stabilised and controlled movement of body weight.  The wider appreciation of ‘core stability’ as an essential part of rowing training in recent years has clarified the nature of the challenge a crew faces in balancing a boat and (where it is used) has greatly shortened the time taken to achieve this.  For those who are interested there is a blog post devoted to this topic here: (https://therowingclub.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/balancing-the-boat).

Once coach and crew have a good grasp of what must be done to balance the boat, the crew need to make the technique an unconscious reflex rather than a deliberate action, because only as an unconscious reflex is it available as a platform for the rest of their rowing technique.  Like everyone else, rowers can only focus on a limited number of tasks at one time and if they have to focus on balancing the boat, then less of their attention is available to devote to other aspects of their rowing such as speed and power. In my view the best way to turn balance from deliberate technique to automatic reflex is relentless repetition – which is why I would argue that working all eight should be the rule for the vast majority of a crew’s time on the water.  The simple fact is that in competition they will have to row all eight so they need to build that basic competency as fast as possible. However elegantly they can execute drills and exercises while the boat is being balanced for them, that isn’t what is going to be asked of them in competition.

So what problems should a coach expect to face in moving up to an unstabilized boat sooner rather than later?  I divide these into three groups:

1) Defensive rowing.  I’ve mentioned unconscious reflexes as part of the learning process rowers go through.  Unfortunately, some rowers have unconscious reflexes which are very unhelpful.  They give rise to what I call ‘defensive rowing’, an unconscious response to rowing in an unstable boat.  Typically rowers suffering from this problem may be able to row with perfectly acceptable technique while the boat is being held stable by other crew members. However, when the stabilizers are removed they typically shorten their stroke, lean away from their rigger and pull each stroke down into their laps.  This of course increases the instability of the boat and (particularly in novice boats) can set up a vicious circle in which the boat quicky becomes  too unstable for most of the crew to row effectively.  Because the defensive rower may be unaware of what they are doing differently in the unstable boat, this can be hard error to fix.  First you have to improve the stability of the boat without going back to rowing in sixes.  I do this by getting the crew to focus on keeping their upper bodies completely still after they leave backstops and resisting the temptation to reach for extra length at frontstops.  Secondly you have to get the defensive rower(s) to ‘trust the boat’ – to visualise the stable boat in their imaginations and to believe it will remain stable if they continue to row correctly.  That way we set up a virtuous circle in which correct technique is rewarded with an increasingly stable boat.  Easier said than done, but it certainly can be done.

2) Inaccurate rowing.  One of the greatest challenges for the novice rower is to be both relaxed and accurate in their rowing. In particular, we really do need accuracy in the height at which each rower finishes their stroke ( the Reference Point) regardless of how lightly or firmly the crew is rowing. This is very easy to miss while rowing in a stabilized boat and rowers are often caught by surprise by the importance of accuracy when rowing all eight.  Again the blog referred to earlier (https://therowingclub.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/balancing-the-boat) gives more detail.

3) Mistimed rowing.  Most rowers appreciate the importance of catching with stroke. Sadly, many miss the importance of staying with stroke through the rest of the drive, the finish and the recovery.  Good timing requires that each rower’s head and hands move in time with stroke’s head and hands.  Again this is easy to miss in a stabilized boat and crews who don’t realise its importance tend to struggle with stability.

Clearly, coaches have some challenges to face in getting crews to row confidently and consistently with all blades, but in my view it is where the real training starts. Working in fours and sixes is the rowing equivalent of cycling with training wheels – which is not something you will see competent cyclists doing very often.

 

 

 

 

Interview with Mario Woldt, Sports Director at the German Rowing Federation – by Howard Aiken

Changing a winning team 

Mario Woldt - Sportdirektor, German Rowing Federation

Mario Woldt – Sportdirektor, German Rowing Federation

Life is tough at elite level in any sport, but it is particularly tough at the top of German rowing. In May 2012 at the World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, the German Women’s Quad (Julia Richter, Carina Baer, Tina Manker and Stephanie Schiller) set a new World Best Time of 6:09.38 in their heat. At the London Olympics just a couple of months later the German Women’s Quad won silver, but Manker and Schiller had been replaced by Britta Oppelt and Annekatrin Thiele.

The idea that you shouldn’t change a winning team is not widely held at the top of German rowing and according to Mario Woldt, Sports Director at the German Rowing Federation, that isn’t going to change. “Every rower in the national squad knows he or she has to compete for their position in any boat. We won’t even begin deciding on our Olympic crews until we see the results from the Rowing World Cup in Lucerne in 2015.” The German rowing squad has traditionally relied on an established and impressively executed strategy of strength in depth. Whether at Senior, Under-23 or Junior level, the German squad has for decades had a wealth of competitive talent available to it in all the Olympic rowing events. “Obviously our chances will be higher in some events than in others, depending on how other countries perform, but like the US and GB teams we will be competing in all 14 Olympic boat classes.”

It starts with the Juniors…

Underpinning the performance of their senior squad is a fiercely competitive and ambitious cohort of junior rowers. Germany’s junior squad had some truly spectacular successes in 2014. At the World Rowing Junior Championships in Hamburg in August, Germany was the only country to have boats in all 13 finals. At that event they also won more medals than any other country including seven gold medals (in the men’s and women’s eights, men’s and women’s single sculls, men’s four, men’s quadruple sculls and men’s double sculls). A performance like this does not happen by accident, and as Mario Woldt pointed out “What we saw in Hamburg was not new.” Germany’s junior rowers had also won impressively the previous year at Trakai in Lithuania, beating Romania, Italy, Australia and the United States and winning eight medals, including four golds.

With most of their Senior rowers still in their early to mid 20s and their Juniors about 5 years younger, German selectors look likely to have plenty of talent to choose from not just in 2016 but in 2020 also. Woldt is very much aware of the benefits a strong junior squad brings to German rowing. “We have a good age mix across the squad and while our juniors are not yet physically equal to our seniors, they have great potential”.

…and their clubs

The roots of German rowing success can be traced back to their local clubs. “We have a really well-developed club system, so we have a lot of rowers to choose from,” says Woldt. With some 600 clubs and over 82,000 members, the German Rowing Federation supports Touring, Masters, Club, League and High Performance Rowing and unlike some sports, rowing is still growing in Germany. In a virtuous circle of achievement, Germany’s ongoing record of success at national level in rowing has maintained a steady flow of new recruits into the sport at club level. From that pool of talent some 250 – 300 rowers are selected for the national squad. These rowers train with their home clubs for most of the time “But we also bring rowers together at our national training camps before the big Championship events.” The German Rowing Federation also holds several training weekends during the year to evaluate their athletes with the final selection for the World Rowing Junior Championships being made at the German National Championships.

Gold for the big boats

As reigning Olympic gold medallists in the men’s eight, it is not surprising that Mario Woldt describes the German squad as ‘big boat’ specialists and is clear that they fully intend to hold on to their gold medal position in 2016. That said, at the recent World Championships in Amsterdam, the German eight was narrowly beaten by the GB boat. The winning margin was just 0.66 sec and the German boat was gaining in the final 500 metres, but it may yet prove significant that the average age of the rowers in the German boat was almost 2 years younger (24 as compared to 26 in the GB boat).

Mario Woldt can’t yet say who will be in the German Olympic eight, but whoever they are, they’ll be the best his team can produce. With Rio now less than two years away and a cadre of hungry young sweep-oar rowers competing for a place in that eight, expect short odds on another German gold medal in M8+ at Rio.

Adaptive / Para – rowing

Para-rowing (what used to be called Adaptive rowing) is another growth area for the German rowing squad. The 2016 Paralympics will certainly be the biggest yet, 12% bigger in terms of the number of medal events than London 2012, but there will only be four rowing disciplines: Men’s single sculls AS (Arms and Shoulders), Women’s Single Sculls AS (Arms and Shoulders), Mixed Double Sculls TA (Trunk and Arms) and Mixed Coxed Four LTA (Legs, Trunk and Arms).  Given the complexities of athlete classification in Para-rowing (the FISA Para-rowing classification application form is a ten-page document on its own) selection is a complex and highly individualised process.

Building para-rowing as a sport is the priority for the German Rowing Federation at present. “We want to promote para-rowing and recruit more para-rowers to the squad which is currently quite small. The rules on who can compete in which boats and with which disabilities are complex but we are actively recruiting more adaptive rowers into the sport and look forward to fielding a very competitive squad”.

Is this a Golden Age for German Rowing?

With its current roster of athletes, German rowing is undoubtedly in as good a shape as ever for the next few years. Looking beyond 2020 however the picture is less certain. While club rowing is still growing in Germany, high performance rowing is expensive and clubs are beginning to find this a problem. At present there is no obvious solution to this cash shortage but unless one is found, the high performance ‘elevator’ which takes promising club rowers up into the national squad will get significantly smaller. In addition, secondary level education reforms in in Germany have resulted in changes to the traditional German school timetable. While the school day used to end in the early afternoon (and so left plenty of time for sports), it is being replaced by a more conventional working day (which does not). Other countries have of course learned to live with this tension between the demands of young people’s sport and schoolwork, but it is a new and unpredictable factor in the future of German sport.

It is possible therefore, that today we are looking at a Golden Age in German high performance rowing, a uniquely favourable alignment of funding, participation, expertise and success. Germany will remain hard to beat in 2016 and 2020, but their established formula for success may prove difficult to sustain into an increasingly competitive future.

This article was first pub lished in the November / December 2014 issue of Row360 Magazine (http://www.row-360.com)

Four rules for winter vacation training

With the winter vacation approaching for many college and school rowers in the northern hemisphere, I thought it might be useful to put together some guidelines for rowers who want to come back from the vacation fit rather than fat.

Rule 1.  Frequency beats intensity. Given that this is a rower’s blog, I put this rule as #1 because if you take only this one rule away from this blog it will have been worthwhile. Your current body shape and level of fitness is primarily the outcome of just two factors: 1) your genetic inheritance from your parents and 2) your lifestyle.  In the context of this blog your ‘lifestyle’ is your day-to-day activity pattern. If you have an active lifestyle your body shape will tend to show firmer muscle tone and better posture and your cardio-vascular system will tend to have an increased capacity for carrying oxygen. The reverse will be true if you have a sedentary lifestyle.  To be effective in terms of competitive performance, training must be part of your lifestyle. That means quite simply it should be something you do most days. If necessary, keep a diary and schedule regular times in it for your training. If your training is important to you then it will take priority over other activities and your friends and family will respect and adapt to your schedule. You can of course compensate to some extent for less frequent training by increasing the intensity of exercise when you do train, but to be a competitive rower even at club level you really have to be training most days, because it is the things you do most days that your body adapts to.

Rule 2.  Know your training programme.  Which specific exercises should you be doing and how should you be doing them? While it is true that to some extent all physical activity is ‘exercise’, not all exercise is training. Think for a moment about the metabolic requirements of a 100m sprint as compared to a 10k run. The 100m sprint requires a (primarily) anaerobic burst of energy and the metabolisation of nutrients already present in the muscles and bloodstream – not least because there simply isn’t time to transport them from elsewhere in the body. The 10k run on the other hand is an aerobic exercise which depends on the mobilization of the body’s carbohydrate and fat stores over an extended period of time. Unsurprisingly therefore, sprint training and endurance training are not the same and do not produce the same results. Rowers of course need both types of training and need to be aware of how much of each they are doing.  So a clear itemised programme which delivers a mix of aerobic and (some) anaerobic training, and a sufficient variety of exercises to stop you from getting bored is essential. In addition to training their metabolic systems, rowers also need to build muscular strength. More rowing is the best way to do this, but time spent on the ergometer comes a close second. In my opinion weight training comes third and training with heavy weights should only be done after an induction course with a competent instructor. After all, a training programme which puts an athlete out of action through injury is a waste of time and effort.

Rule 3.  Know your performance numbers.  Measure your performance every time you train and keep a careful record with dates and times. This is easiest to do on the erg, but can also be done for runs (when you know the distance or always run the same distance) and weight training. It is less easy on the river – an uncontrolled environment which is unlikely to be the same session to session – or when doing things like circuit training, so don’t get obsessive about this, but it is very motivating to see your performance improving over time.

Rule 4.  Aim for regular, incremental improvement.  If you are training regularly and effectively then this WILL happen.  As a coach I would much rather see regular incremental performance improvements – even small improvements, than inconsistent training delivering irregular highs and lows.

Finally, a hint. Do your first training session on the first day of your vacation. It gets you and the people around you used to your training schedule as quickly as possible and once it becomes part of your routine it becomes much easier to maintain. “Start as you mean to go on” is good advice on many levels.

Happy holidays.