Coaching “the Finish” – by Howard Aiken

(This is the third in a series of coaching notes and is probably best read with the preceding “Coaching the Drive”).

The Finish, like the catch, is a transition phase in the stroke cycle, this time from water to air, and like the catch, the quality of a rower’s finish is heavily dependent on the preceding phase of the stroke.  For the sake of brevity, most of the advice in this blog is aimed at rowers rather than scullers and at big boats rather than small ones.  However, the general principles apply to all boats.

Key attributes of a good finish:

  1. It doesn’t start until the drive is complete.  One of the common finish errors is to extract the blade from the water before the drive phase of the stroke is finished.  The finish, like the catch, should be rowed as part of the recovery, not as part of the drive.  The finish is not an opportunity to add more boat speed.  You are at the wrong end of the stroke for more power to have any beneficial effect so any attempt to accelerate the boat with the arms during the finish probably does more harm than good.  A good finish is about conserving the boat speed you have and precision is much more important than power.  An easy diagnostic indicator is splash at the finish.  A good finish is nearly splashless, leaving only a swirling puddle in the water.
  2. It should be nearly frictionless.  A modern rowing blade is a carefully balanced piece of technology.  Downward pressure on the end of the handle with a single finger is enough to lift a squared blade from the water. If it needs more pressure than that, it is either partly feathered (not vertical in the water) or submerged too deep.
  3. It should be quick.  The boat is moving at the end of the drive and the blade is still in the water.  It has to be raised out of the water quickly to avoid having it dragged by the forward motion of the boat, which will reduce your boat speed.
  4. It should be precise.  In a crew boat, the height at which the crew finishes each stroke dictates how level the boat is.  The finish needs to be at precisely the right height, every time.
  5. It should merge seamlessly into the recovery phase of the stroke.  The normal stroke cycle is a continuous flowing motion and there should be no pause or hesitation at the finish during normal rowing.  Some coaches do teach a pause just after the blade leaves the water, partly (I believe) to slow down the recovery, but this is taught as a drill, not as a technique to be used in normal rowing.

Let’s take look at the above attributes in more detail.

Finishing at the end of the drive.  In simple terms, boat speed is a function of the force applied during the drive and the length of that drive in the water. To maximise the length of the drive in the water, the finish must be delayed until the drive is complete, when the rower is at backstops and the hands have stopped moving toward the bow of the boat. Only at that point should the hands start moving downward to extract the blade from the water.  In practice of course, no rower is going to produce a perfect right-angle at the finish and their hands will actually move through a curve, but the essential part is that it should not shorten the drive and should lift the blade from the water without creating splash or wash.   Many rowers seem blissfully unaware of the amount of splash they create at the finish, particularly during a race, but once they have been coached to be aware of it and reduce it, their finish technique improves rapidly, with more energy being converted into boat speed and less lost in throwing water into the air.

This stick diagram illustrates (in red) the movement we are looking for:

finish

Figure 1 Diagram to show “tap-down” movement at the finish.

Keeping the finish frictionless and quick.  A square extraction meets virtually no resistance from the water and is therefore ‘light’, exerting only minimal downforce on the rigger. However, many experienced rowers get lazy with the “tap-down” –  the downward movement shown in Figure 1 above.  Instead, at the end of the drive, they leave the blade in the water and let the motion of the boat feather the blade.  Some will even let the spoon drag across the puddle. Perhaps this feels easier to the rower because the motion of the boat is doing the work, but precisely because of that fact, feathering in the water is a drag on the boat and decreases boat speed. If all crew members are doing the same the cumulative drag can be significant. If only part of the crew is doing it, it will unbalance the boat.  This type of finish is significantly heavier than a square finish and puts more downward pressure on the rigger. Coaching rowers out of this error can be challenging, not least because from the rower’s point of view, a clean, square tap-down feels like more work than just letting the boat pull the blade out. A couple of approaches which have worked for me include:

  • Intermittent square blade rowing. During normal rowing, ask the rower who is feathering in the water to row a few strokes with a square blade. With less weight on their rigger at each extraction, her/his side of the boat will rise.  This works well with more experienced crews who will have been compensating for the heavier extraction to keep the boat level.
  • “Showing the cox the spoon”. This feathered-blade rowing exercise keeps the blade square until the spoon is completely out of the water.  This tends to work best with beginners.

Finishing at a consistent height

Coaching rowers to finish their stroke at the correct height is a key challenge in the combination of awesome power with precise balance that good rowing requires.  There is no substitute for getting rowers to know their ‘reference point’.  The reference point is not a fixed point but varies with the height of the rower, the seat, the rigger and the weight of the crew.   It is the point on the rower’s body where the handle of the blade would come to rest at the end of the stroke if the rower simply let the squared bade float on the water at the end of the drive rather than lifting it out of the water.  For the average rower that point will be somewhere on the lower half of their ribcage. Shorter rowers will find the point higher on their bodies and taller rowers will find it lower.  Because of the variables mentioned above, the reference point can only be considered fixed for the duration of an outing (assuming the rower doesn’t change seats) and unless the same crew rows the same boat in the same seats with the same rigger heights it should be checked for every crew member on every outing.

If rowers know their reference points and pull through to them consistently the crew will be a big step closer to rowing a level, balanced boat.

Merging the finish into the recovery phase of the stroke

The finish and the recovery are phases of the stroke cycle during which the hands are moving in opposite directions, but how the two are joined together is important.  I ask rowers to focus on the semi-circular shape of the stroke between the finish and the recovery as illustrated above, encouraging them to make a clear downward movement with the outside hand and to push the handle away on the recovery a few centimetres closer to (and parallel with) the side of the boat.  I generally coach rowers to move their hands away at the same speed as they took the stroke, but there is no consensus on this and other coaches will differ. What I do insist on is that the hands never stop moving.

A good finish is undramatic, splashless and relatively quiet.  It should leave a distinct pattern of deep eddies in the water – a ‘puddle’ which remains visible for several seconds after the boat has passed. It should not disturb the balance of the boat or check its forward motion.  In short, a good finish is a good start for the next stroke.

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Coaching the Drive – by Howard Aiken

(This is the second in a series of coaching notes. You may find it helpful to read it with the preceding “Coaching the Catch”).

The “Drive” is the ‘working’ phase of the rowing stroke. If we consider the four phases of the stroke (catch, drive, finish, recovery), the drive differs from the others in that it is as much about power as technique.  The drive is the application of force to the handle of the blade to lever the boat past the spoon.  That said, the quality of a good drive in the boat depends on how it begins at the catch and ends at the finish, and there are several different opinions as to what should happen in between.

  1. The muscles powering the drive

The most important point to be made about the drive concerns the fundamental sources of its power.  These are your leg muscles, the same muscles you would use for jumping.  This is important, because rowers tend to be more aware of “effort” than “output” and so tend to see the power available from legs, body and arms as more evenly matched than they actually are.

Your leg muscles contain a high proportion of fast “twitch” fibres which can deliver the rapid acceleration required for running and jumping.  The simple fact that your leg muscles can be used to jump off the ground means that they are, on their own, able to accelerate however many tens of kilos your body weighs to over 9.8 metres per second per second (the acceleration due to gravity) – and they can do that even if you aren’t a trained athlete.

This is a huge amount of power and more to the point it is an amount of power that your back and arm muscles are completely incapable of delivering.  You could test this for yourself, although I would not recommend it, by attempting to “jump” your whole body into the air from a pull-up or by using your back muscles.  Arm muscles are fast, but lack the power of the legs.  Your back muscles are very strong but contain far fewer fast fibres and more slow fibres suited to maintaining body posture.

Leg power is therefore the foundation of a good drive.  There may be different opinions on how we build on that foundation, but all coaches will agree that without the legs there is no drive.

For those interested in the anatomical detail, there is a useful summary of the muscles used in jumping here:

https://www.reference.com/science/muscles-used-jumping-607a6a7a73ad634c#

When we jump, knee extension and hip extension occur simultaneously. We unbend (extend) knee and hip joints at the same time to launch ourselves into the air.  Similarly in rowing, the drive involves forcefully straightening the knees and opening the angle between the thighs and the trunk.  However, in rowing, while we are using mostly the same muscles, we differ in the sequence in which they are used.

The difference can perhaps be summed up best in the following diagrams, showing how both the knee angle (K) and the hip angle (H) open during the stroke:

Figure 1. Catch Position

In the catch position (Figure 1) the rower is compressed into frontstops with the legs flexed at the knees and the body flexed at the hips.  We have acute angles at both the knee (K) and hips (H) while the arms are at their longest (A).  In a normally rigged boat, the rower’s heels will be raised off the footplate to maximise the length of the stroke and the pressure on the footplate at the start of the drive will applied through the balls of the feet.

Figure 2. Drive Position

During the drive the rower executes a sequence of movements.  First, the knees extend, opening the angles at the knee (K1) and hip (H1). The arms remain extended, so their angle at the elbow (A) remains unchanged.  As the knees extend the heels come down onto the footplate to support the drive.

Figure 3. Finish Position

Next the rower leans back, opening the hip angle further (H2).  Lastly, the arms are used, drawing the stroke through to the chest and closing the angle at the elbow (A2).  At the finish position the knees are fully extended and hips partly extended (at full extension the rower would be lying down in the boat).

The sequence ‘legs, body, arms’ is fundamental, but there are different schools of thought as to how soon during the drive the body should be used.  I favour late use of the body, mainly because it helps rowers to focus their effort on maximising use of the legs and therefore of the exceptional power they provide to the stroke.

  1. Common errors during the drive

2.1 Early use of the back. A common novice error (particularly with older novices) is to combine the use of the legs and body, swinging the upper body back as soon as the catch is taken. This error synchronises the knee extension to the hip extension, very much as they synchronise when we jump.  The knees take longer to extend and the force applied to the blade – particularly in the early part of the drive – is therefore reduced.  Sometimes, when you ask such rowers to stop using their bodies and arms and row ‘legs only’, rather than driving the slide to backstops position, their leg drive stops after just a few centimetres at the point when they would start using their backs – showing that they are not making full use of their legs.

In my view, if as a coach you can get rowers to focus on delivering the full power of their legs for the full length of the slide you have a good basis on which to build a powerful stroke.

A rower’s back needs to be strong enough to transmit this power from the legs to the arms.  This is not always the case with younger rowers who sometimes have a tendency during the drive to let the legs push the slide back faster than their upper bodies.  Their hip angle tends not to open as the knee angle opens (an error we call “bum-shoving” in the UK).

This situation becomes reversed with older rowers, ex-rugby players and others whose upper-body strength is proportionally greater than that of their legs. They will tend to use their backs early in the stroke and will under-use their legs. That is not to say that they don’t get to backstops, but they lose the legs-body-arms sequence and use their backs rather than their legs as the main driver of their stroke.

2.2 Early use of the arms is another novice error. Novice rowers often focus on the movement of the blade rather than the movement of their bodies and in their anxiety to move the blade at the catch they use their arms to pull on it rather than pushing with their legs.  As was pointed out earlier, the arms can deliver only a fraction of the power available from the legs, so it is important to encourage these rowers to apply pressure on the footplate as the best way to move the boat.

While the arms are fully extended during most of the drive they are working under tension and their muscle strength is not a factor in the power of the first part of the stroke.  I often tell rowers to imagine their outside arm (the arm connecting the shoulder to the end of the handle) as a rope with a hook on the end.  Its muscles are not used until the legs and body have done most of the work.  Early use of the arms will actually reduce the amount of power applied to the handle in the first part of the stroke because the amount of weight (or pull) which can be supported by the flexed arm is limited by the strength of the flexing muscles – mainly the biceps, whereas the amount of weight which can be supported by the extended arm is limited by its tensile strength, which is far greater.

  1. Blade depth

While there is at least a partial consensus on the good and bad technique in terms of body position (more on this later) there are a variety of views on the most efficient use of the blade. My personal preference as a coach of club and college rowers, is to encourage them to use the carefully engineered buoyancy of the blade as their guide to blade depth during the drive.  In other words, I coach my rowers to let the squared blade float in the water at its ‘natural’ depth. Other coaches argue that more efficient transmission of force to the water is achieved by planting the spoon deeper so that its top edge is 4 to 5 centimetres below the surface during the drive.  This may well be effective for elite scullers, but I think the video evidence from our best rowers shows that they work with the buoyancy of the blade to set the correct depth.  Watch this video for example from 3:09 to 3:19 (unfortunately the IOC only allow us to watch this on YouTube).

  1. Washing out”

At the end of the drive as the rowers lean back and use the power of their arms to bring the handle toward their body, some rowers to pull the handle down into their laps or sometimes even to their upper thighs.  This has the effect of bringing the spoon up out of the water before the stroke is finished, producing a telltale “wash” of agitated water on the surface rather than a deep “puddle” of swirling water at the finish.  It also has the effect of lowering their rigger, upsetting the balance of the boat.  I will cover the finish in more detail in another blog, but for the purposes of coaching a good drive, the way to avoid this error is to ensure that the spoon remains floating at its designed depth until the handle is almost at the rower’s chest at which point the outside hand taps down to extract the blade cleanly (with a minimum of splash) from the water.

  1. Variations in drive technique

A comprehensive survey of the various techniques taught for the drive is beyond the scope of this blog, but luckily, for those who are interested, there are some useful summaries available online. This paper by Theo Körner:

http://www.worldrowing.com/uploads/files/3Chapter2.pdf

dates from the early 1990’s and compares what were then known as the GDR (East German) and the Adam (West German) style.  The Adam style dates from the 1960s and encourages rowers to use their backs earlier than we would today.  The GDR style is much closer to modern techniques and emphasises an early leg drive followed by later use of the back.

Another paper by Dr. Valery Kleshnev on the biomechanics of rowing outlines two further variations, the Rosenberg style (from the USA) and the Grinko style (from the former USSR)

http://www.biorow.com/Papers_files/2006%20Rowing%20Biomechanics.pdf

see his figure 11 on page 16 reproduced here:

Kleshnev analyses these four styles in terms of their relative emphasis on leg or trunk musculature and their tendency toward simultaneous or consequent timing.  He then shows typical power curves for each style – his figure 12 page 16 reproduced here:

He makes the following point which I find interesting: “Styles with the trunk emphasis (Rosenberg and DDR styles) produce more power because of better use of big muscle groups as the gluteus and longissimus muscles. However, these muscles are congenitally slow because they are intended to maintain body posture”

I don’t know how Kleshnev measured the different contributions of legs, arms and trunk but the overall shape of the Grinko style curve (d) in the figure above is closest to my view of the ideal for a well-trained rower.  Peak power is delivered early by the legs, with the trunk and arms becoming effective later in the drive.

The shaping of the power curve is of course best rehearsed on a rowing machine where the rower gets immediate visual feedback on its shape.

While as I have said, the drive phase of the rowing stroke is more about power than technique, it is not without its subtleties and coaches continue to experiment in pursuit of more efficiently applied effort and greater boat speed.

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.

Not just ‘With Stroke’ but ‘Like Stroke’

There is quite a long list of requirements for the rower in the stroke seat and in my view, technical consistency is close to the top of that list.  Those technical rowing skills must be supported by toughness of spirit, grace under pressure, and fully trained fitness.  If you can get those qualities into the stroke seat, it makes coaching the boat much easier, because if you can get the rest of the crew to row not just ‘with stroke’ but ‘like stroke’ you are most of the way to producing a fast, efficient crew.

‘Rowing like stroke’ can be as much a challenge for experienced rowers as it is for beginners. While beginners often lack the co-ordination to follow stroke accurately, experienced rowers sometimes have to overcome years of habit to change the way they row.  To give just one example, if they have the habit of rowing with a significant pause at the finish, it can be surprisingly difficult to get an experienced rower to get their hands away faster on the recovery.

Once you have coached a crew to row like stroke it follows that every time the occupant of the stroke seat changes, the whole crew has to adopt a slightly different style.  The effort, however, is worth it. There is a visible difference between a crew who are only in time at the catch and a crew who are in time throughout the entire stroke cycle.  If they are ‘rowing like stroke’, the hands, heads and slides will all be moving together and as a result the blades remain synchronised throughout the stroke and just as importantly, the movement of the crew’s body weight in the boat is controlled and the balance of the boat is improved.

If at all possible, you should have an alternative stroke person available in your squad in case your first choice stroke is unavailable. This will also give your first choice stroke the opportunity to row in another seat occasionally – ideally on bowside. Given the many benefits of rowing in the stroke seat I’m surprised by how reluctant many rowers are to try for the role, but it is worth the effort of living up to the ideal of coaching rowers to row in any seat.  Every so often you are rewarded by the discovery of  a previously hidden talent – a bonus for the coach, the rower and the boat as a whole.

While it is unlikely that you will find two candidates for the stroke seat who have exactly the same rowing style, it is virtually impossible that you will find two candidates with the same psychological attributes.  The “toughness of spirit” I mentioned earlier becomes more important in more experienced boats where the occupant of the stroke seat needs the ability to push themselves and their crew right to the edge of their capabilities while maintaining the consistency and discipline required to keep the boat working as an effective unit.  The other side of that coin is the “grace under pressure” required to deal with unexpected circumstances (particularly under race conditions) calmly and rationally rather than angrily or aggressively.  It is often the case that the kind of rower who regularly occupies the stroke seat a) has a high opinion of their own rowing and b) tends to hold (and express) strong opinions about the performance of the rest of the crew.  To some extent this is part of stroke’s role, but a certain amount of understanding and empathy is helpful and important too.

Lastly, fitness has to be one of stroke’s key characteristics.  He or she doesn’t have to be the strongest rower in the boat, but if stroke isn’t fit enough to push the performance of the rest of the crew close to their limits then they aren’t getting the best from the boat.

Given all of these requirements and issues it is not surprising that many coaches tend to stick with the same faces at stroke for months or indeed years at a time. However, in my view it is good for all concerned to have the courage to experiment and to try new options.  You have to expect that many of the experiments will fail, but experimenting is at the heart of effective coaching and without it we are limiting our own and our crews’ potential for success.

 

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.

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.