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.

Are you a crew before you get out on the water?

I get to watch many squads of competitive rowers at regattas and other competitions and have concluded that you can tell a great deal about the competitive capabilities of crews long before they reach the start line.  Just watching how a crew carry their boat and put it on the water gives a good (not infallible) guide to their performance in the race.  Watching them manoeuvre their boat on the water gives more clues.  If one crew can spin their boat  while keeping it balanced and the other crew can’t spin their boat without putting at least one set of riggers underwater I know which crew I’d back to win.

Every rower should know that an outing starts when the cox calls “Hands on!” to get the crew to lift the boat off the rack or trestles. From that moment until the boat is back on the rack, they are a crew.  There are crews who will approach the apparently simple task of lifting the boat with their full attention.  They will work together, moving together, and when they lower the boat onto the water bows and stern will touch the water together.  Other crews will lift their boat as if it was luggage and are quite capable of having one end of the boat in the water while the other end is still being held at ‘waists’.  Even if such a crew begins to concentrate on working together once they are in the boat, the crew that began working together at the words ‘”Hands on!” is several minutes ahead of them in the process of establishing the level of shared concentration required to row well and win races.

From the coaching point of view, the challenge is to get your rowers to treat every part of the outing as part of their rowing, deserving the same concentration and attention to detail as a racing start or a balance drill.  This can be a hard message to get across, particularly if the crew has got into bad habits, so to be honest, I simply tell crews that this is how I want it done and I put them right if they do otherwise.  The cox has a key role in helping the crew raise this aspect of their game.  He or she is an important ally in creating and reinforcing awareness that there is a ‘right way’ to lift a boat, to put a boat on the water, to spin a boat at the end of a reach etc.  Good boat handling is more than just getting the boat to the water without breaking it or injuring bystanders (which I think everyone would agree is ‘bad’).

We know good performance when we see it.  It is the crew who lift and move their boat with a minimum of fuss or comment and keep it level through ‘Waists’, ‘Shoulders’ and ‘Heads’. They put it on the water in controlled way, keeping it level because they are moving together.  They will impress the competition (if the competition is watching) before they take a stroke.  They will be ‘in the zone’ and thinking about the race while their less well-drilled opponents are shouting advice to each other and waving to their girlfriends/boyfriends on their way to the water’s edge. Coaching to impress is not the objective – after all, if your competitors know what they are doing, their concentration is in their own boat and they aren’t watching you. The objective – as always – is to row well and win races, and good crew skills in the boathouse and on the landing stage are part of that training.

Some hints and tips:

  • Lifting a boat from rack or trestles:  at ‘hands on’, get the crew to turn their heads to look along the boat rather than across it.
  • Putting a boat on the water:  Get bow and stroke to watch the OTHER end of the boat and lower their end at the same time.
  • Spinning an eight or four: Get the crew to visualise a rail down the centre of the boat at the same hand height at which the boat is balanced and level.  Start from backstops or frontstops as appropriate and have both sides of the boat moving together throughout.  Move the hands backwards and forwards along the imaginary ‘rail’ with NO up and down movement.

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


Trusting the boat

I was struck recently by the difference stability makes to even some ‘intermediate’ rowers.  I was coaching an eight and had been trying to correct some points of technique with one particular rower.  I wasn’t making much progress until we rowed in sixes (ie with a pair of rowers keeping the boat level) when “miraculously”, the problem went away.  When we went back to rowing “all eight”, the problem came back.

Problems like this clearly stem not from ignorance of correct technique, but from an inability to apply correct technique under the ‘stress’ of an unstable boat.

Some rowers, quite unconciously, adopt what I can only describe as a ‘defensive’ rowing style when confronted with an unstable boat.  They will differ in detail, but this commonly involves leaning away from the water and shortening their stroke – which of course increases the instability of the boat.  The rower and indeed the entire crew, is then caught in a vicious circle in which this unconcious response feeds on itself and makes the boat more and more unstable. The defensive rower is of course unaware that he or she is actually causing the problem they are responding to.  The usually ‘feel’ that they are rowing exactly the same way whether all-eight or in sixes because their change in style is entirely unconcious, and this can make correcting the problem quite challenging.

The solution involves breaking the vicious circle in two places. Firstly, you have to improve the stability of the boat without using two rowers to stabilize it.  Then you have to stop the defensive response to instability.  Both of these changes can be difficult.

Improving the stability of the boat begins with improving the stability of the rowers themselves.  I have written previously about the importance of stillness in rowing (http://bit.ly/1nuV4k5) and stillness is key to this approach.  I get the rowers to focus on keeping their upper bodies perfectly still once they have reached the ‘lean forward’ position on the recovery.  Their progress toward frontstops from then on is just about pulling their feet gently toward their bodies while their arms follow the arc of the blade away.  I place special emphasis on not reaching forward for an extra inch or two of length at frontstops.

The ‘stillness’ of the crew as they move into frontstops helps to stabilize the boat, but that in itself is not enough.  We then have to prevent the defensive response from taking over when the boat does wobble (and I think I can guarantee that it will wobble at some point).  This is where ‘trusting the boat’ is important.  You have to convince the crew that if they trust the boat to remain balanced and row accordingly, then it will remain balanced.  And while it remains balanced, they in turn find it easier to remain ‘still’ on the recovery.  This virtuous circle is the most effective antidote to the vicious circle referred to earlier.

How do you get nervous rowers to ‘trust the boat’? They have to use their imaginations.  They have to remember how stable the boat felt while they were rowing in sixes and imagine that stability will still be there when they row ‘all eight’.  Their internal visualization of a stable boat helps to maintain their correct technique throughout the stroke – and their maintenance of correct technique turns the boat’s imagined stability into reality.

It is one of the most rewarding parts of the coaching experience to see a rower (and a boat) previously struggling with instability, make the transition to stability and to see the increase in confidence which comes with that transition.  It is never of course a 100% and one-time-only transition, but once a crew have grasped the importance of ‘trusting the boat’ they can avoid sliding back into the unhappy situation of forever fighting for control of a boat which seems to fight back.

The Preparation Trap

It is a common experience among coaches and rowers that an outing follows a predictable ‘quality curve’ , lowest during the first part of the outing and gradually rising – until toward the end of the outing the crew is (ideally) working together and the boat is moving well. From the crew’s point of view this can be satisfying.

From the coach’s point of view it is often frustrating to see a crew ending an outing at the point you hoped they would start from.  As the demands made on the crew increase with the progress of the training plan, the time taken for the crew to reach the required level of concentration and physical performance during the limited time available for an outing becomes a limiting factor on what they can achieve.  I call this the preparation trap because it holds the crew back from reaching their full potential.

There are both physical and mental obstacles to the quality of a crew’s performance early in an outing.

Physically, the crew have to ‘warm up’, bringing their hearts, lungs and muscles to the level of performance required.  The need for a warm-up will generally be greater for older rowers than for younger ones and ideally, any waiting time before an outing should be invested in warm up exercises, whether on the erg, in the gym or (if and when it is safe to do so) on the landing stage.

Mentally, the crew have to deliver the intense level of concentration required to co-ordinate their movement and effort with the precision required to move the boat in a smooth and balanced way. Concentration is an obstacle for many novice and intermediate crews.  In fact, it could be argued that the real difference between intermediate and elite crews is as much the intensity of their concentration as it is the intensity of their training.

Unfortunately the mental equivalents of the physical warm-up tend not to be widely taught to rowers at club level.  This is sad, because they are not difficult, complicated or scarily ‘alternative’  and they can give a real boost to the crew’s powers of concentration.  Even simple mental visualization of the techniques they will be employing in the boat could greatly reduce the time taken for a crew to reach their optimum performance level. There is some useful information on visualization (also known as ‘Imagery’) here: http://bit.ly/1fMSJJd and here: http://bit.ly/1hhOOUq.

If you want to get more out of your time on the water, both physical and mental warmups are a good idea.

Physical warmup:

5 minutes light erg @ 18spm followed by gentle stretching (hamstrings, then quads, then shoulders).

Mental warmup:

Body – Visualization of upright ”head up, shoulders down, stomach in” posture in the boat, first at hands away, then leaning forward at frontstops, then leaning back at backstops.

Blade – Visualization of correct blade depth with the top edge of the spoon at the surface of the water. Visualization of relaxed grip on blade handle, feathering with the inside hand (for sweep oar rowers), power from the legs via the back and the outside shoulder to the outside hand.

Stroke – Visualization of the correct stroke shape at the outside end of the handle, with the power phase ending at the correct reference height near the chest, the tap down before feathering, the recovery following parallel to the side of the boat to frontstops and the gentle rise to take the catch.

With a little practice, athletes can comfortably combine the physical and mental warmups, e.g. visualizing body posture while on the erg and reviewing blade work and stroke shape while stretching.  The total time taken before the outing could be as little as ten minutes. Both the mental and physical warmups continue in the boat, but the benefit is that the outing now starts from a higher state of preparedness and both physical performance and mental concentration improve faster and earlier.

At most clubs and for most crews, time on the water is a very precious and  limited resource.  A relatively small investment in preparation can help both coach and crew make best use of it.

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.