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.

Coaching the 2k Test

The 2k test is a standard performance metric across the rowing world. While its value is by no means endorsed by all coaches, it is a test likely to be faced by most rowers and so it is worth knowing something of the alternative approaches to getting a good result.

Have a plan

The worst possible approach for individual rowers is simply to get onto the erg and to row as hard and as fast as you can for 2000 metres.  Human physiology evolved to deliver sprint speed over short distances (to escape predators) and slower endurance speed over long distances (for hunting).  Neither of these capabilities is appropriate to the 2k test.  The 2k is in effect a long distance sprint – which is why it can be a painful experience and why a plan is required to execute it effectively.

Warm up first

The 2k test requires that your heart, lungs and muscles are working efficiently from start to finish, so you need to start with your body in an active state as opposed to a resting state. To get your body from ‘resting’ to ‘active’ requires at least 10 minutes of sustained exercise. During these ten minutes, the heart rate accelerates, breathing becomes deeper, blood vessels dilate and muscle temperature rises.  A good warm-up aims to take the body through the transition from resting to active gradually but as quickly as possible.  Proper hydration and food intake the day before your test is also important, but don’t eat in the three hours before the test.

Steady state plan

The simplest type of plan is based on an understanding of the 500m split time you need to deliver in order to achieve your target 2k time.  For example, to achieve a 7 minute 2k time a rower would need to average 1:45/500m.  In simple terms therefore, the rower would get to this split time as soon as possible and stay there for the duration of the test. This would mean that for the first part of the test the rower is working below maximum effort, while for the latter part of the test he or she would be working at or near maximum effort.  This is difficult for inexperienced rowers who find it hard to judge their endurance and test to over-exert themselves in the first half of the test and struggle to maintain performance during the second half.  Experienced rowers who have never used anything other than a steady state plan should at least experiment occasionally with variable state plans in pursuit of their optimum 2k performance.

Variable state plans

These plans attempt to shape the rowers performance so as to deliver different levels of performance during the 2k test which result in the best possible overall time.  The variable plan which I teach divides the 2k distance into 4 x 500m pieces at constant rate.  The first 500m piece is rowed at firm pressure, the second at light pressure,  then at increasing pressure during the third and fourth 500m pieces.  As with the steady state plan, there tends to be a temptation for inexperienced athletes to ‘overdo’ the second 500m sector. However, if this can be avoided, the second sector will take longest and provides recovery time during the test which allows the rower to deliver a much faster third and fourth sector and (ideally) a faster overall time than with a steady state plan.  I have seen rowers take over ten seconds off their 2k time by changing from a steady state to a variable state plan.

Rehearse

Whichever plan you use, performance will improve with practice.  For too many rowers the 2k test is an occasional trial of strength, unrelated to their other training, which they have to survive during winter training. The truth is that the 2k is like any other activity, it can be trained for and with practice, performance will improve.

Coaching use of the 2k

There is absolutely no reason why high-rate 2k pieces should not be a regular part of the training plan.  By building rowers’ familiarity with the exercise, it can be made less intimidating and a more accurate measure of performance.  The 2K test is most useful as a regular, routine component of the training cycle, as familiar to every rower as weight training or gym work.  Rather than making the 2k test into a twice-yearly initiation rite, make it a routine exercise to be practiced like any other.

First time in a boat – Coaching a first sculling session

My first water session for scullers tends to be very different from the first water session for rowers. Whereas the rower will have spent some time on the rowing machine and in a rowing tank to get used to the basic stroke sequence and body posture of rowing, the first – time sculler gets none of this preparation.  The reason for this is that in a single scull, learning to balance the boat (i.e. learning how to avoid capsizing) is such an overwhelming priority that everything else has to wait until this basic skill has been addressed.

The key message in the first and subsequent sculling sessions is: ‘keep your hands at the same height’.

In sequence, the techniques I coach are:

  1. Getting into the scull
  2. Sitting the scull level
  3. Body posture and core stability
  4. Slowly raising and lowering each hand to see the scull’s response
  5. Confidence-building exercises based on (3)
  6. Arms-only strokes (very light pressure)
  7. Spinning the scull (backing down / pulling on, first on one side then alternately).

This is usually quite enough for a first session of 60 – 90 minutes – possibly shorter for juniors.  The level of concentration required to stay upright in a single scull is a surprise to many new scullers and can be quite tiring. The good news is that confidence rises quickly as the sculler gets used to the feel of the boat and learns appropriate responses to it’s movements.

One of the most important lessons is to move SLOWLY, especially when the unexpected happens.  Rapid instinctive responses which are entirely appropriate on dry land are usually the quickest route to a capsize on the water.  In my view, a good coach will focus on building ‘attentive confidence’ first and range of movement second.

Blade depth

Whether you are sculling or rowing, your blade is your second point of contact with the river (the first of course being the boat). The purpose of this post is to highlight an aspect of blade design which seems to escape many newer rowers and scullers.  If you hold a blade horizontally over the water at about the height of your rigger and then lower it into the water you will notice that it floats.  If you square it, it will float with the top edge of the spoon just above the surface and the loom above the water.  This is not an accident.  Blades are designed to float at the correct rowing depth – the depth at which they are most efficient, supporting the pressure of the stroke in the water while minimising the amount of resistance offered to the forward motion of the boat.

This is important because many rowers develop a habit of burying the spoon and a good part of the loom into the water at every stroke.  This produces a heavy feeling in the drive phase of the stroke which they mistake for the weight of the boat.  Allowing the blade to float at its natural depth during the stroke makes the same stroke much lighter – the difference being the resistance of the ‘bow-wave’ raised by the loom in the water due to the forward movement of the boat.  The difference can be so marked that some rowers feel they are somehow “not working hard enough” when they first make the change to using the blade at the correct depth.  The truth is that they are actually working much more efficiently and more of the effort they are applying is moving the boat because the ‘drag’ exerted by the blade is greatly reduced.

That said, getting a rower to learn how to ‘float’ the blade can be time-consuming if they have developed a habit of ‘pulling deep’.  They have to re-learn taking the catch by letting the blade fall gently onto the water under its own weight and ‘locking’ the blade at the correct depth as they start their drive.  As so often in rowing, this means they have to take a step back to make a bigger step forward.  They need to break the catch into two parts, first feeling the buoyancy of the blade before beginning the drive from the legs.  It only takes a little practice for most rowers to master this technique if they concentrate on it during drills – although it can take longer to break the habit of pulling deep during normal rowing.

One of the benefits for rowers of correcting blade depth is an easier extraction and tap down,  resulting in better balance.  Scullers may not see this benefit if they are pulling deep with both blades and it is very noticeable that many elite scullers bury far more of the blade than good technique would dictate.  It may simply be that the force these scullers are capable applying makes the additional drag less significant, or that a deeper stroke is in less danger of an uncontrolled ‘rip through’ (where the blade loses its hydrodynamic stability in the water) at the pressures they are applying.  Any elite sculling coaches out there care to comment?

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.

quad01

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.

Safety

Safety tends not to be a topic of much interest to most rowers.  Most rowers have never been injured while rowing or involved in a serious accident.  Rowing is a safe sport and provided that rowers, coaches, their clubs and (in the UK) Regional Rowing Councils foster a culture of safe behaviour, it should remain that way.  For club rowers, that culture of safety means engaging with at least the following issues on every outing:

  1. River conditions.  River levels and rates of flow can vary even on managed waterways.  When carrying out a risk assessment before any outing on a faster than usual river, the relevant question is not ‘Could we row on that river?’ but ‘If we had an accident on that river, how confident are we that we could recover our boat and crew safely?’.
  2. Equipment checks.  Most equipment ‘failures’ are actually the result of inadequate inspection and testing before boating.  Discovering that a rudder isn’t working or having a swivel detach itself during an outing can be dangerous as well as inconvenient.
  3. People.  An outing accompanied by a coach or just a bank rider is safer than an outing consisting of only rowers and a boat.  It is safer still if the bank rider has a throwline and a mobile phone.

It is very much worth reviewing British Rowing’s Row Safe Guide:

http://www.britishrowing.org/taking-part/staying-safe/rowsafe

The key message is that safety is not someone else’s problem.  It is the responsibility of every club member and every rower.

Training Drills and Exercises

Drills and exercises are how rowers spend most of their time on the water.  With or without a coach, most crews will want to do more than simply row up and down their river or lake during an outing.  There’s a simple reason for this – the crew who can row perfectly has not yet been born and drills and exercises are the main route to better rowing. There are at least two contrasting approaches to drills and exercises followed by crews and coaches.

The first, used by some coaches and most crews rowing without a coach, is to coach the boat as a whole. Emphasis is on boat performance rather than individual technique and the exercises are selected accordingly.

The second, and my personal preference, is to coach the individual rowers first and THEN coach the boat.

The first approach works well with experienced crews who can feel the small changes in the movement of the boat as adjustments are made, The second approach depends on having a pair of eyes outside the boat, either on a launch or the towpath.  It works because – apart from some subtle variations in style, modern rowing technique is clearly defined and very consistent.   It can be applied with crews of any standard but is essential when working  with beginners and novice rowers who are still learning to read boat responses. An experienced coach can watch a crew rowing and spot the elements of their stroke which are ‘out of line’.  As each of these elements are corrected boat performance improves and exercises are used to  reinforce the change in technique by exaggerating it and / or repeating it,

A significant part of the coach’s job is to select the appropriate exercise to make the correction, to keep the crew interested while they do it and to ensure that the correction is incorporated into the crews rowing after the exercise stops.  Keeping the crew interested is important.  If they  get bored, they tend to stop trying and once that happens no further progress is likely. If it wasn’t so boring, square blade rowing (an excellent exercise for building confidence and balance) would be used more often and for much longer as an exercise than it is.

In building a programme a coach needs above all a good repertoire of drills from which to select those appropriate to the crew.  These can be Static drills, ‘freeze framing’ elements of the stroke cycle, Dynamic drills (e.g. half slide or one-armed rowing), or Sequential drills (e.g start sequence or push sequence).  Drills can also be varied by using higher or lower resistance and faster or slower speeds.  Recent work has highlighted the importance (for crews training to race) of executing drills at race pace. The biomechanics of rowing vary with stroke rate, pressure and boat speed. In addition, the importance and control of unconscious movement is completely different at race pace.  That said, all static drills and most dynamic drills are best rehearsed at low speed first.