June Masters Feature
June 06, 2012
As the collegiate racing season winds down, the master’s racing season can’t be far behind, so time to start making the transition from steady state to power pieces. One of the main goals of steady state is to establish a good rhythm and flow that will carry you through the workout. It’s important to maintain this as the intensity increases. The biggest mistake rowers make as they try to bring up the speed of the boat is to make everything harder – the catch, the drive, the release, sometimes (somehow!), even the recovery. But all we really want and need to change is the drive. So let’s define the drive. Sit at the catch with the blades squared and buried and gently pull through till the hands reach the body and are approximately body width apart – stop there with the blades still buried. That’s the drive. It didn’t include the catch or the release.
Thinking back to steady state rowing, hopefully your catch was light, your grip was loose and there wasn’t too much water flying around at the catch or the release. The hands loose will make them better able to feel what the blade is doing and therefore make the correct transition from the recovery to the drive. The precise moment the bottom edge of the blade touches the water, at it’s furthest reach to the bow, the hands should both lift slightly and change direction so the blade both goes down into the water and starts toward the stern. This move needs to be done quickly, but at the same time, lightly, as there’s no easier mistake to make than over-burying the blade.
At the same time, we need to be aware of the pressure we’re applying to the foot stretchers. If the pressure comes on before a part of the blade is in the water, we will force the boat backwards, i.e. check the boat. To try to minimize check, we need to think of the catch as part of the recovery, staying patient on the slide and staying light on the toes as we approach the stern.
Once we have something to pull on, the drive begins. The trick is staying light, with loose hands, relaxed elbows and waiting until the blade has made the connection to the water before applying pressure and beginning the drive.
One drill, or practice, I try to instill is to get in the habit of starting from the catch whenever the boat is at a dead stop. This is where the drive begins. See how smooth the beginning of the drive can be when there’s no catch involved, but then try to make the next drive, moving into the catch, just as smooth.
We also want to keep the finishes smooth, slipping the blade out of the water rather than wrenching it out. Remember how I defined the drive and where it ended? The release was not included in the definition, so we don’t want to power the blade out of the water.
A fraction of a second before the release, cut the power and at the same time, apply a little downward pressure on the oar handle with the forearm, allowing the top edge of the blade and the shaft to come out of the water. Since you’ve stopped pulling, the oar should be coasting now with the pressure of the water off the face of the blade. Before the blade is fully out of the water and before the water pressure reaches the back of the blade, feather away. The top edge of the blade is already out and starts moving towards the bow with the bottom edge following.
If there is significant pressure on the blade, the shaft of the oar will literally bend around the pin. When the pressure is cut a split second before the release, the shaft will straighten back out, giving the end of the drive a little pop with no extra effort from the rower.
So the drive is what happens after the catch and before the release, but it’s not just about using your muscles to move the boat. It’s also about using your body mass to suspend horizontally against the oar. Too often we’re thinking about trying to pull the oar, but in reality, the oar is almost stationary in the water. We want to plant the blade at the catch and then move the boat past the anchored blade, sort of like playing tug of war – grab the rope, plant your feet and lean back. When rowing, it feels powerful to actively engage the arms and shoulders, but these muscles are relatively weak in comparison to the lats and glutes and quads.
Try to relax the elbows, keep them low, so that you can engage the lat muscles while you drive the legs and roll open the body in as horizontal a drive as possible. The drive will end with the lat muscle pulling the elbows all the way to the release.
Keep working on separating the drive from the recovery so that you don’t waste any power on those parts of the stroke, but instead save it all for the drive. The more weight you can put on the foot stretcher, the more bend you put in the oars. This will create more pressure on the oarlocks (or pin) to move the shell forward faster. Obviously, you’re trying to do what you can to make the boat go faster, but also think of it as doing everything you can not to slow the boat down.
Charlotte Hollings and her husband, John Dunn have spent more than 70 years immersed in the sport of rowing. Both have rowed on the U.S. National Team, winning several international medals. Charlotte’s coaching career has taken her west to Stanford University before heading back east to Boston University and then Cornell University. John remained close to home, coaching at his alma mater of Cornell University for 18 years, first as the frosh lightweight coach, then varsity lightweight and finally varsity women. In 2001, Hollings and Dunn started the sculling camp Calm Waters Rowing in Lancaster, Va. For more information, visit www.calmwatersrowing.com.