“You can’t row and hope.” A great man once said.
I use this quote often with my athletes. Every time I use it, I ask them where it came from. I still have not gotten an answer.
Do you know? (Special prize to the first that emails me)
This quote carries a lot of meaning in the sport of rowing. Simply put – you can’t go out on the water hoping that you will win if you have not done all you possibly can.
I believe this quote applies to strength and conditioning and rowing. Rowers and scullers that refuse to train for strength will be at the mercy of the athlete who does train for strength.
One of my favorite quotes from one of my Masters athletes was, “What good is lifting weights when there is six miles of open water to row on…” Fine words from a fine athlete. However, this athlete no longer competes at a high level.
Rowing is an “Aerobic” Sport
My experience as a rower and sculler has taught me that you just cannot go fast if you never train fast. Athletes must follow an organized training program that will build their aerobic capacity and aerobic power over time to peak at their particular event. However, how do rowers and their coaches project speed if they have never physically raced at that speed?
Many young athletes begin with raw strength and power. There is a definitely a genetic advantage to the former football player that decides to pick up an oar and race against you. Give that athlete time to put in some aerobic capacity training and you might be in trouble.
I was at a disadvantage. I gravitated towards rowing because I came from another aerobic sport – cross-country running. I was blessed with the lungs and patience to race the full 2k distance multiple times, however if you put me on the rowing ergometer against some of my bigger, stronger teammates, I would usually lose. If a training session called for 6K test or Hour of Power then I usually could come out on top…
…but the Olympic racing distance is 2000 meters.
In 2005, I lost to my younger brother on a 90 second erg piece. He is 6’6” and can probably still dunk a basketball. As we began the ergometer piece, he went out way too fast. I purposely would bide my time, so I could level him with my sprint. As the clock ticked down, I realized I was going to run out of race course. He defeated me in my prime…
Did he go to the Olympic Trials? No, but I would never have the power that he had.
Unless I trained for it.
There is no time to lift weights
There is not enough focus on strength and conditioning in the United States specifically for rowing athletes. I am not writing about “CrossFit”. There is definitely a place for CrossFit in the world of fitness. Athletes like Erin Cafaro were successful with CrossFit because they found brilliant coaches like Kelly Starrett and Brian MacKenzie to train them individually and correctly.
Every collegiate athlete that I have ever worked with said that their rowing coach did not have time for lifting weights or did not “believe” in it. The strength and conditioning coach at their college or university did not understand the sport of rowing.
Is this really true?
There is no time to program strength and conditioning for your athletes?
I learned everything backwards. I was a competitive rower at the end of my rowing career that became a strength and conditioning coach. As a CSCS*D through the National Strength and Conditioning Association I have the ability to train athletes in any sport. I understand how the body moves and how weight lifting affects it. I do not claim to know more about football, basketball, baseball than people who play them competitively.
I do understand rowing.
I know that successful rowers are strong. Athletes like the Sinkovic brothers and Olena Buryak train for months to build large aerobic capacities to travel fast over 2000 meters. Multiple times. Do they also do strength training? If they do, you better get cracking…
Diagrams show that a rowing race is mostly aerobic.
That is true…provided that all the athletes in the race can produce the same speed and have similar aerobic capacities. An 2000 meter Olympic race is basically a “drag race” to see which athlete can maintain their racing speed and cadence and outlast the competition. That requires Aerobic Capacity and Aerobic Power.
However, when you watch a 2000 meter high school or collegiate race, it is more like watching a prize fight. Some boats start out fast, and some boats cannot even get off the line with everyone else. Usually a winning boat requires one or two “moves” to knock out other boats. That requires Peak Power and Anaerobic Power.
To improve Peak Power and Anaerobic Power you have to do strength training.
Mobility, stability, flexibility, and strength for rowers is just a “fad”
Rowers must be able to do three things:
- Start fast
- Finish Faster
Ed McNeely, who wrote a fantastic blog on Peak Power contributed the chapter on strength. It’s on page 87, Chapter 8:
It’s in the Second Edition (2011) as well! Chapter 12, page 163:
The data he provides is simple:
There are three lifts that each racing class must be proficient at – Deadlift, Bench Pull, and Squat. Basically a “Hinge”, “Pull”, and “Squat” exercise.
And for each lift he provides the recommended standards at each level.
Coaches may argue that athletes that they have trained as rowers were successful without having reached those physical goals.
That is wonderful…those athletes are the exception.
Whether I was an elite rowing coach or Masters coach, I would want make sure that my athletes had all the tools for competing in their racing class. Our athletes should be proficient in all of these lifts, and close to the recommended standards if they want to be successful in this sport.
It was true over 10 years ago, and it is still true today.
Get Screened or Get injured
Before putting weights in your athletes’ hands, have they been examined by a fitness professional or physical therapist to make sure there are no underling physical issues?
In November, I wrote an article for Rowing Recruiting about the “Next Evolution” in rowing training. In the article, I interviewed some top, well respected, and qualified coaches that felt that coaches need to take a step back when it comes to implementing their training programs.
It isn’t really an evolution. It is more bringing awareness to coaches that if their athletes are not being screened at a young age then a “specialized” training program may be sending down the road for poor performance and potential injury.
Building a solid foundation of mobility, stability, and flexibility for our athletes will allow a coach to successfully implement a strength training program. Athletes will get stronger, and will less likely get injured.
Collegiate coaches need to decide if their goal is to win races or develop athletes that may have a future at the national, World Championship, or Olympic level.
If athletes continue to focus just on Aerobic Capacity and Aerobic Power, then they will continue to manage rowing slower than their opponents for a long period of time.
Moral of the Story
The 2015 USRowing Convention was full of smart, capable coaches. Here are a few questions for them:
- Will all coaches ever get together and decide a single training standard for the United States and follow through?
- Why are our athletes – from high school up to Olympic hopefuls – spending so much time on the water and not any time in the weight room?
- Are all of them able to Squat, Bench Pull, and Deadlift well?
- Or will they wait until after selection to focus on this?
Until then, athletes will continue to be left figuring these things out on their own.
“’You can’t row and hope.’ Row and hope. All we did was row and hope…”
For more information on Strength and Conditioning for rowing, rowing technique, Kettlebells, Clubbells, AthleteDISC, and the Process Communication Model® follow my blog or like me on Facebook at RUFO OPTIMAL WORKOUTS.
Nolte, Volker (2005). Rowing Faster (2nd Edition). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, Inc. Ed McNeely, “Building Strength”. pg. 89, Chapter 8.
Nolte, Volker (2011). Rowing Faster (2nd Edition). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, Inc. Ed McNeely, “Training for Strength”. pg. 165, Chapter 12.
Davenport, Michael (2000). USRowing’s Coaching Education: Candidate’s Manual, Level II. Church Hill, MD: SportWork. “Training, Conditioning, and Nutrition.” pg. 102. Chapter 7.
Rowing Recruiting, Next Evolution in Rowing Training, November 2015
“Row like Mahé…”
In the fall of 2005, I was rowing for Union Boat Club on the Charles River in Boston, MA. Mahé Drysdale had just begun his journey in the M1x, and rowers around the globe were starting to pay attention to what New Zealand was doing on the world stage. Drysdale had just taken the gold medal in the M1x at the World Rowing Championships in Gifu, Japan. Georgina and Caroline Evers-Swindell had just won the W2x as well.
2005 was a special year for me. I had finally learned how to scull well and was moving the single much better. I was able to win a few head races, and my coach, Tom Bohrer, was trying to help me see if I had potential in the single. On one particular day in fall, he had a legendary guest coach with him. I will always have high respect for both of these coaches. Both of them are rowing icons in the United States, and they know how to make boats go fast. The fact that these men were sitting together in the launch just to watch me row was an honor and a privilege.
I was doing my best to scull perfectly. I wanted to focus on the best technique that I knew and show that I could move the boat gracefully and with power. As we rounded Magazine Beach on the way back out to the Charles River Basin, the legendary guest coach spoke these words to me:
“You need to row more like Mahé Drysdale…”
As he continued to drop the name and explain, I nodded my head. Mahé had just dominated in the single; he had defeated the 2004 Olympic Champion, Olaf Tufte, and a future World Champion, the young Ondřej Synek. Of course everyone wanted to be him, row like him, and unlock the secrets of how New Zealand was producing elite athletes! As I rowed back to Union Boat Club, I continued to reflect upon the coach’s words.
Over 10 years later, I still vividly remember this day. I am not a competitive rower anymore, and now, I coach and train rowers and scullers that look to me for guidance. I am still trying to understand why any athlete would want to “row like” someone else. Believe me, I understand the concept that this legendary guest coach was trying to convey. Mahé Drysdale rows the single beautifully – a fine balance of power and grace. He won the Head of the Charles, again, a few weeks ago and many of us still wish we could row like he does. We wish that we could row like Ondřej Synek, Andrew Campbell, Kim Krow, Gevvie Stone, Eric Murray, Hamish Bond, and a multitude of other Olympic athletes whom we idolize, follow on twitter, read their blogs, and watch their dominate performances year after year.
Do rowing coaches ever consider that it might not be possible for our athletes to row like any of them? Mahé Drysdale is 6 ft. 6 inches (1.98 m). I am 6 ft. 3.5 inches (1.92 m). Mahé can still break 6 minutes on the rowing ergometer, and he definitely was able to do this in 2005. My best 2k in 2003 was 6:06. After that, I could barely manage sub 6:10. Good training programs can lead to good performances, but to move the single like Mahé Drysdale, I needed to focus on getting just a little bit stronger (maybe even taller). Do we want our athletes to row like someone else, or are we really trying to teach them how to row well? “Row like Mahé” implies that my technique was not up to par with Mahé and that technical skill was the reason his boat moved faster than mine. Cleaning up my technique, I would go from going 7:20 to 7:35 in the single for 2k, and would drop 1:00 minute and go 6:33.35 (record set by Mahé in 2009).
As a young sculler, that is all I could infer from that statement.
I moved from Union Boat Club to Penn AC Rowing Association and the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, PA, in 2006. Over the next two years, I had my technique revamped. At 30 years old, I was finally learning to train in the single. Although it was difficult competing against the young bucks of Penn AC, I continued to plug away and stay relevant. In 2008, I competed at the NSR 1regatta. During the time trial, Row2k caught this image of me.
Not bad, I thought. I was definitely committed to going fast (as indicated by my headband). I printed this photo out to put it in my “Vision board” which was helping mentally prepare for the US Olympic Trials. At that point, I knew I wasn’t rowing like Mahé, so I searched for another elite rower to emulate on the water. My Penn AC coach mentioned this guy during practice.
Olaf Tufte won the Olympics in the M1x 2004, and eventually upset Drysdale in 2008. Drysdale was ill going into the final that year. A phenomenal race:
Based on the photos, I felt that if I was emulating Tufte then I was doing something right.
Eventually, I did go to the US Olympic Trials to compete in the M2x and was eliminated in the reps with a pretty slow time of 6:42.5. The winners of the US Olympic Trials, who were faster than we were by 20 seconds, finished 13th in Beijing.
“Row like Tufte”?
I rowed like Tufte. He was Olympic Champion and I finished 10th at trials. Why did I fail? If you look at the two pictures side by side, they look similar. Obviously, Tufte is a lot stronger than I am, and he will move the boat better. How could I row faster with this technique?
In the above photos, you can see that both Tufte and I have rounded shoulders, good compression (shins vertical), and arms extended. On the recovery, we look the same. On the drive, the application of power would be different. It really does make a difference if your erg is sub 6 minutes (7 min for women). My shoulders girdle, lats, and torso could not even support the force I needed to produce to make the single go sub 7:10, which may have gotten me into a final at the NSR (nowhere near a medal on the World or Olympic Rowing stage).
Most recently, a great video of Vyacheslav Ivanov was circulated on Facebook and Instagram.
A lot of likes for the way he was rowing, and comments on how he moved the boat. Rowing is a skill. It takes years of practice, drills, and training to move the single the way he did. The problem I feel is that someone would watch this video and try to go out and do the same thing. It is the equivalent of someone who cannot jump going out and trying to dunk a basketball like Lebron James. They can run up to the basket and leave their feet, but they aren’t going to dunk the ball without the talent and power of Lebron James.
Ivanov rowed with a lot of power. With his strong upper back, arms, and torso he was able to drive the spoon blades and keep them level through the water at race rate. He won the gold medal at the Olympics in 1956, 1960, and 1964. However, I would be interested to see how Ivanov would respond with to rowing with new equipment – hatchet blades, Vortex Edges, and carbon fiber. The load he would produce would be much different, and his body would respond differently as well.
However, we will all watch this video over and over and go out and try to “row like Ivanov”.
Moral of the Story
My rowing technique has changed. My philosophy on rowing technique has changed as well. I am constantly asked by my Masters athletes,“How do you want us to row?” They look for me to choose a sculler and a rowing style that everyone knows, and try to get me to coach them that way. I always start with the same answer.
“I want you to row like YOU.”
I don’t want my athletes to row like anyone. I want them to learn how to move the boat using their body. Athletes need to be assessed on their strengths and weaknesses — the results of their training program will reflect where they need to focus. If they want to win a particular event, then I will explain to them how much training they need to do. If I record video of their technique, I will try to show them what they are doing well and what they need to improve. I will show them how their posture and movement may affect how they put the oar in the water and apply pressure. If they are in a team boat, I will teach them how to move the boat together. If they REALLY want to row like their favorite rower then we’ll sit down to discuss why they want to row that way, and if it is actually possible.
Rowing isn’t complicated. Put the oar in the water, and drive the legs. Stay connected through the entire stroke. Go faster and outlast everyone else.
Every athlete and team need to find the rowing style and technique that works for them. If the coach wants the athletes to row a certain way, then they need to know how to train their body to be effective in that style.
As I look back at 2005, I am very appreciative of all the advice and knowledge that my coaches shared with me. However, that simple statement has taught me more than they will ever know.
Who do you want to row like?
For more information on training programs for rowing, rowing technique, Kettlebells, Clubbells, DISC, and Process Communication like me on facebook at RUFO OPTIMAL WORKOUTS.
Also check out the KB2K – Philadelphia – Kettlebell Seminar on November 29th, 2015!