September Masters Feature
August 30, 2012
Summer is fading fast and fall is in the air! For those of you that race, this means that head season is just around the corner. A three-mile race presents many new challenges for the rower - steering the boat around corners while trying to maintain speed - yet in many ways, it may be an easier race for the beginner. There is no racing start to learn and you don’t have to worry about settling off that start to find an efficient base rate and pace. But efficiency is still and always of great importance to race well, or simply to row well.
To be more efficient in the boat, we have to get more for less. We sometimes call this lazy rowing. To achieve this, two main principles need to be applied (and you may have heard them from us before) - relaxation and horizontal.
While it will obviously take muscles to move the boat, it doesn’t take all of our muscles. Figure out which muscles are needed - quads, glutes, lats, core - and then relax the other muscles - jaw, traps, neck, forearms. Engage your large muscles groups on the drive and let them relax on the recovery. Use your small muscles on the recovery - the ones you need to help balance the boat - forearm pressure on the oar handles, toes maybe against the shoes - and the abs to help roll the body out of bow and up into the catch.
Two examples come to my mind when I talk relaxation. First are the track sprinters, particularly the 100-meter runners. They’re flying down the track so fast, their legs are a blur and yet if you look at their faces, their jowels are bouncing up and down because they have no tension in their face. Then there are the mogul skiers. Their legs are flashing up and down and side to side, yet their upper body is perfectly still. We are looking for that kind of control of our bodies, allowing some muscles to work to their limit, while relaxing others completely.
If your neck and upper shoulders are sore and tight after a row, that’s a sure sign that you’re using your traps too much, a very common mistake. These are relatively small muscles that make you feel like you’re really working, but unfortunately they don’t help to move the boat horizontally. When we engage the traps, we almost always end up lifting and throwing the head and shoulders to bow, creating an up and down motion, not a horizontal one. Which leads us to our next point.
While working on staying relaxed, we also want to keep the stroke as horizontal as possible. Water is flat and any up and down motion is wasted energy. If we were in a motorboat, it would be most efficient to get the boat up on top of the water. But unlike a motorboat, we can’t constantly be on the drive. Eventually the drive ends and if we’ve lifted the boat up, it will then sink back down on the recovery - bouncing the boat along, up/down, up/down. One way to stay horizontal is to think about how low you can stay in the boat. This will serve two concerns. How to balance the boat is important. Keeping your center of mass as low as you can relative to the center of ballast of the boat will help with the balance. You do not stand up in a canoe without feeling tippy. The other concern is trying to keep the power application close to the source of resistance, which is below the waterline. That is why the most important muscles are the low ones - the quads, hamstrings and glutes for the leg drive; glutes, abdominals and spinal erectus for the back, and outer and inner lats for the arms.
As adults, we row mostly for exercise. To this end, we think exercise should be hard, so we have a tendency to make rowing more difficult than it needs to be. One of the comments I often hear after rowers have adopted our style is, “It’s too easy!” But that’s exactly what we’re looking for. Work the drive, but efficiently, using only the muscles that will help propel the boat forward, and relax the recovery, doing as little as needed so you can rest the body as you prepare for the next drive.
This relaxed efficiency will serve you well for the longer fall head races. Good luck and have fun!
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, Virginia. For more information, visit www.calmwatersrowing.com.