By Coach Liza Dickson
This is a companion article to the video. If you haven't watched the video, check it out below:
A common question I get regarding technique revolves around layback - how much should a rower have? I think my rowers want a simple answer to this, but as usual with me, there isn’t a simple answer. For this discussion, I’m going to explain a bit about how I coach and my style. Every coach has their own style - there is room for all of them, your coach has one and you should listen to it. But never be afraid to ask them “why?” they coach anything the way that they do.
The style of rowing that I coach is based upon the optimal utilization of both a rowers body and the equipment. Basically, trying to use those two things the way they were intended on being used and in tandem. Focusing on these two things prevents injury and promotes optimal boat speed. Each rower is different, so my style revolves around trying to find the optimum use of their body. That’s why if you watch my crews row down the Montlake Cut on Opening Day, they are not perfectly matched with the bodies. Unfortunately, in Junior Rowing I have not had the luxury of a matched set of 8 rowers that were all 6’5! Instead of making them all look the same (when their bodies seldom are the same), I work on helping each athlete attain their most effective and efficient stroke based on the biomechanics of their body first and foremost.
That is step 1. Oversimplifying an entire year of coaching, the next step is looking at oars: catch angles, and stroke lengths making sure they are matched (and yes, sometimes that means making the short guy row with extra layback - but only if he is capable of it physically). None of the above works if you are not set up properly in relation to the equipment, but here again we border on the different rowing styles, so I’m going to leave it to your coaches to set you up the way they want you in the boat.
Now that you have some understanding on my approach, on to that pesky layback question. Of course all rowers want to be as long as possible, but there are limitations with their body (individual anatomy) and the setup of the equipment (physics). For each athlete to find the layback that is appropriate to them, I have my rowers row feet out. It’s important to make sure you are on the seat properly on the front of the ischial tuberosities (bottom of the pelvis, aka sit bones). Once feet are out, I am asking our athletes to find the layback that THEIR core can support with the feet out of the shoes. So on the drive, athletes are pressing into the feet and as the blade comes out of the water, the pressure on the bottom of the feet must cease. Rowers are in the layback position and without their feet in the shoe, they can not rely on the top of the shoe to hold them in the layback position.
Rowers MUST rely on the strength of their core. It takes some strokes each day with feet out to find that perfect layback where the rower is relying on their core strength to end the drive and make the turn to the recovery learning NOT to rely on the tops of their feet. When rowers pull excessively on the top of the shoes in the layback position they are not in control of their body - the body is able to FALL to the bow. That is not optimal for boat speed. Additionally, pulling excessively on the top of the shoes means you don’t have to use your core. If you go back further than the strength of your core will allow, you are putting your back at risk.
A few things go into this core strength and it goes beyond doing a core workout every day. (though you still do need to do that work!) The next thing is physical development. For instance, a teen boy is still growing rapidly and while we can strengthen the core muscles, the connections through ligaments and tendons remain loose within the whole body. Therefore, they are likely not going to be capable of a longer layback solely because they are still growing.
Often my junior boats do not have very much layback for this reason. As that rower enters his early 20’s his core will be capable of a longer layback. Take a look at a college crew and you’ll see that. The final thing is length of time rowing. So many times you hear your coaches say things like : “ you just need to take more rowing strokes to be good at this!” This is true for developing your core strength - the longer you row, the stronger those muscles get from rowing and the more efficient you are, therefore making you capable of having some longer layback. As my sculling coach always said, “The best core workout for rowing is using your core while rowing!” I’ll pick up on that topic next time.
Feel free to reach out with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I spent one year intensively studying anatomy, physiology and biomechanics in massage therapy school. That knowledge changed how I coached.
The outboard hand has two main functions: leverage and control. On the drive, the outboard hand is the most direct part of your body that applies power to the oar. Around the release and on the recovery, the outboard hand gives you the best control over the path of the handle (and blade), and the height of the blade over the water. That means we’re asking a lot of our outboard hand: within a single stroke they have to be powerful and aggressive, but also delicate, dexterous, and careful. That’s quite the task! In this article, we’ll break down the role of the outboard hand through the back half of the stroke, from arm draw, to extraction, to the beginning of the recovery.
Applying Downward Pressure
The first thing to recognize about the outboard hand is how it contributes to the height of the blade. A squared blade naturally wants to sit at about the right height for the drive (almost entirely submerged underwater). Let the equipment do most of the work for you: think of this squared and buried position as the default resting place for the blade. You don’t have to do anything to keep it in this position. That means you don’t need to do anything to keep the blade in position on the drive. Focus all your energy on the horizontal application of power--the vertical component will take care of itself!
When you want to control the height of the blade, keep it simple: all you need to do is apply downward pressure on the handle. You can do this with just one finger if you wanted to. Next time you’re in a boat, try this: sit squared and buried at the release. Take your hands off the oar except for your outboard index finger. Push down on that finger gently and lightly: the oar extracts cleanly and easily out of the water. Now relax the downward pressure: the oar returns to the water. And this took very little effort to accomplish. This is what it means when coaches talk about “weighting” and “unweighting” the hands. Anytime the height of the blade changes (i.e. at the catch and at the release) this is the economy of movement you want to strive for.
Hand Position at the Release
What should the outboard hand look like around the release as you extract the blade by applying downward pressure? Well, here’s a few pictures (this metal bar was the closest I could find to an oar handle in my house).
The final arm draw. In this photo I am finishing the arm draw of the drive. The (theoretical) blade is still fully buried, and I’m squeezing in towards the sternum. Note the outboard wrist is flat. At this point, the outboard hand is focused mainly on a powerful, horizontal draw. There’s not much finessing required at this point.
The very end of the drive. The elbow is away slightly from the body, but not a mile high into the air; it has also not gone past the body. The wrist is still flat, not cocked up. There is a slight lateral twist from the wrist, and the end of the oar has swiveled ever so slightly in my hand. Note that the blade is still in the water, and I am just about to begin the extraction. This is when the power winds down and the finesse takes over.
The extraction. This part of the stroke should be all about precision and finesse--the drive is over, so you shouldn’t be doing any yanking with that outboard hand. This is where you want to think about “weighting” the outboard hand to apply vertical, downward pressure. It doesn’t take very much force. Properly timed, this will slip the blade out of the water cleanly and easily. At this point, the inboard hand does the feathering (but that’s a topic for another article). Make sure the outboard wrist doesn’t bend here--you want to stay ON TOP of the handle, and let the handle just rotate underneath your hand as the feathering happens. You want your grip to be just enough to maintain control, but not so much that the handle can’t rotate in your hand.
The crucial responsibility for the outboard hand on the recovery is just maintaining a level height of the blade above the water. You do this by maintaining just the right amount of downward pressure on the blade, like we previously discussed.
Try this! The karate chop recovery: instead of the usual outboard hand grip, replace it with a karate chop. You can’t lift the oar, or even really hold it in place. It limits you to think about your downward pressure only. All you are doing is counteracting gravity, which wants to drop the blade into the water. As you take the recovery, look out at the blade, and make sure the height of the blade stays consistent above the water. Notice how an inconsistent application of downward pressure means you can’t hold the blade level on the recovery.
The outboard hand is a crucial connector between the equipment and the rest of your body. Don’t overthink and don’t overpower it (on the recovery at least!). There’s a time for really powering, and there’s a time for finesse--knowing when to balance these tasks is a crucial skill for getting the most out of the outboard hang.
Below is a autobiographical/historical piece I had written up to share with 5am about some of the places I have rowed around the world, and some of the people I have met through rowing. It also contains a couple videos to row along with. Most of the 5am team have their erg set up with these videos running as they do their Monday workouts, mostly at 3/4 pressure range.
First, I have a movie I want you to watch. “Kiss the Joy” is about Joan Lind who is an icon in American rowing. See below for the link to the movie. It ties in with the story that follows:
We were given this link below with encouragement to donate to the her Endowment Fund at the National Rowing Foundation. Let me add that the NRF is legit and the group that supports our national teams. They funded our 1978 effort that we will be following next week (as well as all the other years) so I encourage you to contribute something if you are able to. They have some special challenges this year with the one year delay in the Olympics.
"For anyone wanting to contribute to US Rowing and Joan's endowment, just go to:
It'll help some very special people...
Regardless - at the end of the day, this film is about the joy of sport and life- and an extraordinary human being. Let me know if you have any problems with the link below- and don't hesitate to send feedback. Enjoy!
Take care out there during this very difficult time...
Oregon State University, 1978
After suffering a back injury my Sophomore year, I had walked away from rowing at Connecticut College. My Junior year I transferred out to Oregon State University and the following year, in the fall of 1976 with the encouragement of some rowers I had come to know, decided to join the rowing team. I had looked into it the previous year at OSU but the rowing coach had talked me out of it. In the fall of 1976, Robert Zagunis (just back from racing at the 1976 Olympics in the 4+) coached us. He is the person who inspired me to pursue the level of rowing I did and is a close friend to this day. (He also must have inspired his daughter Mariel Zagunis- she became the first American ever to win a gold medal in fencing and is a 4 time Olympian (2004/2008/2012/2016). Actually she recently had made the 2020 team also. She was the flag bearer for the US team at the 2012 games.)
OSU rows on the Willamette River. It is the fastest moving body of water I have ever rowed on, and the higher the water gets in the winter, the faster it moves. Typically the team would come off the water for December and January due to the high water level and amount of debris/logs coming down the river.
The video you will row along with shows what it looks like now. Back in the 70’s the boats were kept in a set of WWII barges that floated on the water at either end of the dock you will see. However, there were a couple boats kept in a Quonset hut up by the “barn”. Since I had science labs many afternoons, I was often relegated to the losers who would come to practice late and have to row in one of the “Spirit 4+s”. These boats had been made at OSU during the depression out of about 1/2” plywood. The 4+ easily weighed more than our 8+'s do today, and were about 6’ wider than an 8+ is in the middle. Needless to say it was a workout just getting it into the water, and it didn’t move along very fast.
One thing to keep in mind if you ever row in Corvallis is to turn around about 1/3 the way through the practice, because it will take you much longer to come back upstream than it did going downstream!
My final year I only had two terms left to complete my coursework. So, as any good rower would do, I decided to work fall term, and then go to school (row) winter and the spring racing term.
General rowing goals for the year:
#1 compete in the spring racing season at OSU
#2 Try out for the national team that summer. (I had thought about it the previous year, but had to work instead.)
Beginning of January. Big Problem. I come down with a really bad case of Mono. I laid on the floor for about a month, lost a bunch of weight, and couldn’t go to class. I was so weak that I had to crawl to the bathroom and sit on the toilet because I couldn’t stand up. I was worried about being able to pull off the term and graduate.
February. Finally I started to get better. Faster. I gained a pound a day for 3 weeks. My poor roommates appealed me to kick in some extra money to cover the food bill because I was consuming so much. I obliged. I recovered fully and was ready to race by the first race in mid-March.
Our first row that day, will be here on the Willamette River in Corvallis. The video below is shot in August when the river is really low and slow. Check out how long and steep the ramp is that they carry the boat down to get to the dock (3:30 in video). Two years ago the water was so high in the winter that it was over the bank and a couple feet deep in the parking lot.
Workout Video #1
After the regular season at OSU my final year there, four of us skipped graduation and went east to race a 4- in the IRA (which was held in Syracuse back then on a huge lake that could have all sorts of wind issues. Years later they finally abandoned this site for holding IRA’s). Winning there helped me make the next step- trying to make the National Team.
The Worlds were in New Zealand that year, and not until November (rather than the normal early September timeframe), so there was a lot of club rowing that summer, with National Team selection later than usual, in late summer. I decided to move to Philadelphia to row with Ted Nash who was the U Penn coach. He had rowed for Lake Washington Rowing Club back in their golden years, racing in the ’60 and ’64 Olympics (Gold and Bronze), and eventually went to 11 Olympics as either coach or athlete. Ted was unbelievably driven, resourceful and quite a character. We would always be hearing stories about him, and say “no way, that is true”, but later find out it was. Lots of stories there. I was lucky to land there because Ted put together the best collection of oarsmen in the country that summer and it was a deep/talented group: Chatzky, Otto Stekl, Sean Colgan (and more- from Penn), Ibbetson (UCI and stroke of ’77 US 8+), Hull (Dartmouth), Townsley (and his pet skunk- from Syracuse), Turner (UCLA), Prelou (UC Berkley), a couple from Wisco, UCSD, and many more.
A bunch of us lived in a frat house on the Penn campus, paying a dollar a day for a place to sleep. It was a pit. All the dishes from the school year were left unwashed in the kitchen, and never were washed that whole summer. Hardest however was the oppressive heat. I was sharing a room with another guy and I was lucky enough to get a fan that I could point directly on my body, uncovered and wearing just underwear, to sleep. Still I would wake up in the mornings wet from sweat. However, I was thankful I didn’t have the worst room. The guys on the top floor described how on the hottest days, the tar dripped through from the tar roof above melting and seeping through. Or the following year, the two guys who slept in a closet. It was so small that they had to shut the door (which opened inward) to lay down. It was not a pleasant smell in the mornings.
I got a lucky break at one point that summer when Anita DeFrantz let me stay at her place while she was out of town for an extended time. It was a nice break, in a quiet neighborhood and the house was much cooler. I had met Anita when we were both rowing back in Connecticut my freshman year. She was a senior, and went to Vesper that summer to row. (I ended up helping to drive their Vesper boats out to Women’s Nationals that June- in Lake Merritt CA, where we rowed for Masters Nationals 2 years ago). Anita went to law school at U Penn, and continued on a successful rowing career. She was in the 8+ in the 1976 Olympics that got the bronze rowing with Harry Parker. In 1980 Anita lead the charge to fight the boycott. She put her skills to work filing a law suit against Carter to try to allow the US team to go. Although the suit was unsuccessful, her efforts caught the attention of many, and a few years later she was elected to the IOC (International Olympic Committee) where she ended up eventually as Vice President and served until recently.
I had a bike which I rode to the boathouse. At one point in the summer I was forced to take a big detour for several days. The slum I had to ride through turned out to be where the MOVE headquarters were. They had had a big shootout with the police that week. This was also the summer that the garbage collectors went on strike. So, the garbage just got piled in the middle of the streets. At one point black garbage bags were piled almost one story high, running 100’ down the middle of the blocks in the neighborhoods I rode through. Filthydelphia became the chosen word for the city.
During this timeframe there was a big revolution occurring in boat construction and design. Pocock had been the dominant US manufacturer up until the early 70s. They made their boats out of all wood, and the riggers were pretty well fixed with no adjustments possible. In the Penn boathouse and in many others on the east coast the Pococks were being replaced, mostly by Schoenbroad boats. They had riggers that you could make all sorts of adjustments to, and had fiberglass hulls with a wooden interior framework. While the fiberglass was pretty maintenance free, the wood had the same old issues the wood boats had. The varnish got worn off and the wood would start rotting if not refinished. And the framework could break and loosen up over time. This loosening up was the main reason boats only lasted 10 years max back then.
If you got in a 10 year old wood boat rigged traditionally, the stroke seat would be down to port all the time, while up in the bow, the boat would be down to starboard all the time. This twisting of the boat was due to the weight of the end oars on the riggers on the recovery over time. Pococks were especially susceptible to this because Pocock built his boats loose/flexible on purpose. And his oars were soft/super flexible too. Stan Pocock stuck with that philosophy through the 70’s and 80s as the market moved away from him, with people looking for stiffer boats and stiffer oars, and as other manufacturers transitioned quickly to synthetic materials.
Ted Nash gave me a job that summer so I could earn money to eat. My job was to help the boatman by sanding down the interior wood structure of U Penn’s boats (mostly Schoenbroads), glueing broken pieces, and varnishing the wood). I remember working on their dock slip for endless hours that summer, sanding away, and looking out over the city. On most days you could see about a mile or two, and that was it. I'm not sure if it was humidity, smog, or most likely both, but it was striking how short the visibility was most days.
In 1978, as now, one of the best brands in the world were Empachers, made in (West) Germany. That’s what we always raced in at the Worlds, and they were really sweet boats-and all glass/carbon, even in 1978. In these International videos you watch, the light yellow boats are generally Empachers. (The East Germans made their own boats that only East Germans rowed. They had a distinctive look with a much deeper hull, right from the bow of the boat.)
Our next virtual row will be a row where we trained, on the Schuykill River. “Boathouse Row” is worth checking out if you ever get to Philadelphia. There are 15 boathouses in a row, all built 100-150 years ago, just above a dam on the river. The boat you will row with is launching from close to the downstream end of Boathouse Row, by the dam (which is next to the Art Museum where Rocky ran up the steps in the movie). So, you will get to see the whole row of boathouses from the water. Note that at 65 seconds in, just a couple strokes off the dock, you will pass the cable device strung across the river. (It was erected prior to when I rowed there so that if you flipped near the dock you have a chance to grab onto it and save yourself (they had lost a gal who flipped and went over the dam before this was installed). The U Penn boathouse that I rowed out of has a bunch of red on the top face of it that you can see as you go by. It is right next to the famous Vesper boathouse (where Jack Kelley Jr. and Sr. rowed and the 1964 Gold Medal Olympic 8 was assembled).
Along the shore on this stretch that we will row is Fairmount Park and Kelley Drive (named after Jack Kelley- Google that name, both Jr and Sr.) on one side. The Schuykill Expressway is on the other side. (A couple of the guys worked on a crew replacing guardrails there during the day. It was nicknamed the SureKilll Expressway).
Workout Video #2
At 14:30 into the video you go under Columbia Bridge with a slight turn. It is hard to see but right after that bridge on the shore are some grand stands. This is the finish line for the 2k course that is used for races like the Dad Vail, Independence Day. It is the only 2k course I have rowed on that has a curve in the middle of it. Take a break at the top of the island when they turn around, 17:30 into the video. (This is about 500 to go on the race course. The Head of the Schuykill starts further up river). Leave the video running, but get off the machine and stretch for 3 minutes but hop back on and pick it up with them as they go under the Columbia Bridge again at 20:30 into the video, and follow it back to the boathouse. For about the last 2 minutes, the rate and pressure come up together, so build with it, finishing at full pressure @30 SPM. Paddle it back to the dock, stop video at 33 minutes, and go on to the next video.
One of the memories I have most firmly burned into my brain are the endless pieces we did racing our 2+ (Otto/me/Chatzky) against the 2- of Ibbetson/Colgan. Ted was really good at handicapping the boats. We would start first in the 2+, and then Ted would start the 2- after a calculated pause so that, I think every single piece, the 2- would finally catch up and go through us in the last 10 strokes to the Finish Line of this race course you rowed by in the video above. This is where I learned to handicap races and what I try to replicate on our Race Day Fridays. It’s Ted’s fault, so you can blame him!
Ted did an unbelievable job of lining up a summer full of races (I am not sure how it was all financed, but the fact we all rowed in U Penn shirts, and I am listed as a U Penn graduate in some of the records may be a clue):
Selection started in Princeton, where they have a buoyed course for seat racing. Later it moved to Dartmouth, NH. Dartmouth was a wonderful place to row. I loved it here. Swimming off the dock after practice, cooler weather with less humidity, and in beautiful northern NH - out of the Filthydelphia urban setting that I disliked so much. (We will row here when I cover 1979 next week.)
Because the Worlds were in NZ in 1978, the expense of sending a team was much higher and so the US had decided to take a much smaller team than usual- just a 4+, 2- and 2+. I was trying for the 4+ at this camp. After a long brutal selection process, the boat was announced and I made it! (Vreugdenhill, Otto Stekl, Lubsen, me and cox Jaugstetter). Immediately Vrugedenhill revealed that he had a job teaching in Philadelphia he was committed to, so we had to change plans for the next month+ of training. So we left Dartmouth and went back to Philadelphia to train for the next stretch. That was disappointing, but a patron of US Rowing let us stay in his air-conditioned condo in Philadelphia and we thought we were in heaven. Well, at least as close as you can get to it in Philadelphia.
In October we moved to Long Beach CA, trained there for a short stretch and had a scrimmage with the Canadians. Long Beach rows in the LB Marine Stadium, a manmade course constructed for the 1932 Olympics. They had a bunch of old wooden Pococks that we used. If you go back in time far enough, boats used to have much shorter tracks. I am guessing they changed this in the 60’s? These older boats’ short tracks took some getting used to because you would hit the stern stops before you had compressed to your usual spot. I also remember using these old boats because in our scrimmage with the Canadians, we were ahead of them with about 500 to go when the wheel on the seat of the guy in front of me completely disintegrated and I got to watch him attempt to keep rowing (no slide) while the Canadians went by us.
Another memory was of doing a long row one day. We left the protected canals there, went out into the Pacific and rowed to the Queen Mary and back.There was just a small gentle roll so it was ok. On that row Chatzky, the cox of the bow loaded 2+, hit a buoy (it was broad daylight, so maybe he fell asleep?). We still give him grief about it to this day.
Pete Gardner (Dartmouth coach) was our coach this year. He was a good person, we liked him, but it was concerning how he would start off every morning after practice with a couple beers by the hotel pool. Earnie Arlet was coaching the scullers. He was the guy who had the idea that became the HOCR.
Long Beach is where Joan Lind trained- so if you watched the movie I recommended, “Kiss the Joy”, then you have been there! (Joan was on most the teams I was on, including this1978 trip to NZ.). In case you didn’t catch it, back then the women only raced 1k while the men raced 2k. We raced on different days at big regattas so they could make the changes to the starting platforms for the different distances. In 1978, unlike other years, we stayed with the women’s team most of this trip and it was fun to get to know most of them.
Next stop for us was Australia for a couple weeks of training in Sydney, and some racing. We trained out of the Sydney Rowing Club. Typical of clubs over there, they had slot machines and bar upstairs (to help finance the club) and the shells were downstairs. We slept in a different boathouse across the bay. We had a couple launches at our disposal to get back and forth. We put the launches to use. I remember some of the guys playing frisbee in the boats, and occasionally making a diving catch into the water. We heard later there were sharks in Sidney harbor. Another day we went to a beach outside of the city and I saw for the first time the shark fences they had to keep sharks out of the swimming area. The launches had a quirky behavior and had a V shaped hull. I remember driving one by myself at full speed, sitting on the right side behind the steering wheel and throttle. Suddenly without warning the launch tipped to my side, putting the gunwale, half my body and part of the steering wheel and throttle in the water- at full speed. It was all I could do to stay in the boat and stop the launch! After that I tried to sit in the middle of the launch and reach over to steer the boat.
At the end of our stay, we raced on the Napean River in Penrith, outside of Sydney. Since then, they have built a beautiful manmade course (for the 2000 Olympics) next to the river. So it sounds like everyone rows there now rather than on the river. The thing I remember most about that place were the flies. I have never seen so many. You had to continually wave your hand around your face, etc or it would soon be covered with flies. No good videos here, so we are heading to NZ now.
Lake Karapiro, New Zealand, 1978
It is now late October and Halloween was celebrated (one of the guys dismantled the toilet in the hotel so he could be that for the costume party).
1978 was the first time the Worlds were held in NZ. It was beautiful and very rural. There are more sheep than people there. However, there were some real challenges. One was getting enough high quality boats there to race in. The guys in the 2+ were to row a boat from NZ. When they got there, they found out it was heavy and had a SitUp cox, rather than a LayDown cox. I had never seen a sit up 2+. Finally a lay down boat was found on the South Island that they were able get and to race in. Our 4+ was shipped in a container from USA. However, the container was about 4’ shorter than the boat. So our boatman Conn Findlay, cut off the bow, and then when he got to New Zealand, glued it back on. (Conn Findlay is another interesting person- google him if you want. He was in the 1956(Gold), 1960 (Bronze), and 1964 Olympics (Gold), all in the 2+. Then, he switched to sailing and won a Bronze in 1976!)
In 1978 the facilities at the course were small and primitive. The buildings were all new but thrown up quickly, without insulation or sheetrock. That was no problem back then, but when they held the World Championships again here in 2010 (the video we will row along with) it looked much different. To see what it looks like now row along here:
Workout Video #3
I was happy with our results (4th) that year, the top placing by a US men’s boat. After the races a bunch of us crammed into a van and toured around the North Island for about 4 days before heading home. It was a blast. By then it was mid November so I headed back to Corvallis Oregon, worked on a Christmas Tree farm harvesting trees, and tried to figure out how to approach the next year’s racing.
By Liza Dickson
While it isn’t everyone’s favorite thing, it is a huge benefit that taking turns in the coxswain seat is the norm at SRA. I have worked at several clubs that struggled to find coxswains and were not willing to take this on. I ended up coaching A LOT of masters’ practices from the coxswain seat. Here are some basic tips that I think will help everyone out, or at least ease some anxiety the next time you are in the coxswain seat.
The first thing I talk about with anyone before they cox is their priority list of responsibilities:
Number 1 and Number 2 are so important to me that I usually do all the commands for my new coxswains when possible. That way they can focus on safety and steering. While that may not be possible as you jump into the seat, don’t worry about complicated commands and motivation until you feel comfortable with safety and steering – especially if it’s dark. Rowers may be rowers, and put some pressure on you otherwise, but remember your first two priorities!
Thanks to Matt and Ethan who helped me compile the list. As you all know, every coach is different. We tried to stay with general tips that most coaches feel are important.
STEERING – it takes practice!
MOTIVATION – once you have a handle on all the above, you can start some motivational calls.
Over the past two months, we (human beings) as a collective have experienced a significantly traumatic and ever-changing period of time with COVID-19. You may have noticed that since this has taken place that you are more irritable, hypervigilant, stressed, experiencing more anxiety, less sleep, and a decreased (or increased) appetite. Some of you may have been navigating through these things prior to the pandemic, but for some these sensations and feelings may be relatively new and overwhelming. I just want to encourage all of you who are reading this, that there is no right or wrong way to handle or cope with this experience, there is solely just being in it and trying to move through.
“What does that even mean? Just being in this and trying to move through?” Think about the first time you took a stroke on the water, for the majority of you that meant you didn’t drop it in at the right time, or it wasn’t turned to the correct degree and you didn’t catch the water. Remember those emotions and how frustrating it was to be in that position and be unsure of to make your body do what your mind was saying. Fast forward to your 10,000thstroke, you no longer need to think about what you need to do to make your oar drop just right, it just happens, you feel it in your body. That’s what I mean when I say just be in this. Allow yourself to experience the feelings that are coming up, remember they are temporary (just like your inabilities and feelings of frustration in the beginning of this sport), and then express them in a safe way.
Unfortunately, I cannot provide answers to when this will “end” and I can acknowledge that at times that thought alone can be overwhelming and terrifying. But here’s another way to look at this pandemic: you’re in a single and you’re halfway through your race when you start to feel like you can’t or won’t make it to the finish line, your aching body screaming that you can’t do it. But somehow you do and you’re a stronger rower and human at the end of the race because you kept going. Although we don’t have a finish line in sight, we do have our own resilience and drive that we can tap into to help us feel like we can make it through.
For many of us, rowing brings a sense of community, belonging, love and support; and now, all of those things have been stripped away or feel like they have. Just being we cannot physically be together in a boat or on the ergs, we can still remain connected. Creating a Zoom workout group with the other rowers in your boat or on your team, holding each other accountable like your coaches would, reaching out to one another via text when you start to miss the connection, email your coaches for resources to share with your other team members, utilize the technology you have to keep that community alive!
Numerous regattas have been cancelled, events postponed, fundraisers shut down, and so many other aspects of this sport and lifestyle have been impacted. There is an element of grief to having all of these exciting events cancelled, the hope that you had to prove yourself on the water, the medals and awards that were possible, and for the seniors, some of the last moments with your team and as a high school rower. I’m encouraging you to allow yourself to grieve those moments, but to remember that there are still infinite moments in the future that you will have. Just because you couldn’t experience some of these present times, it does not mean that you are not a rower, and it does not make you any less of a rower. Grief doesn’t look the same for everyone, it can manifest as anger, frustration, irritableness, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, etc…So if you are experiencing any of these, there may be a need to allow yourself to recognize that you feel a loss and to work through that. You’ve lost before at regattas, on the erg, on the water, you know how to handle this, you just have to believe that you can. This has allowed time for you to develop more of the mindset of a rower without the physical rowing. Can we use this time as an opportunity to build a stronger mind and body to help us return back to the sport better than ever before?
For parents: I just want to acknowledge that I know this is a very challenging time for you as well, but I am going to encourage you all to help provide a space for your children to experience, feel, and process through their emotions during this time. For some of you, you may have lost your job, which is what your child now feels like, they have lost their purpose, their meaning, their routine. Many of you were not prepared for this, which is a place where you can find empathy for your child who also did not have time to prepare. Some ways to help communicate with your child and to encourage them to express themselves: a) setting up a journal system where your children can write in a journal and leave it in a specific place in the house for you to read and respond (if communicating verbally is anxiety provoking or distressing for the child), b) spending time discussing your own worries and fears (to an appropriate extent) to help normalize that they are not alone in their feelings, c) helping them create a flexible routine or schedule where they choose the tasks they want to get done for the day but may not necessarily need a time frame to do it in (less anxiety provoking and defeating if they can’t complete something), d) creating conversation about the present moment and how to stay mindful in that and then practicing those strategies (breathing together, yoga, meditation). Sleep is one of the most important things that we need as a human being to help heal ourselves and to just function on a daily basis, so if you recognize that your child is not sleeping well or just not sleeping in general, this may be an indicator that they are trying to navigate some of the things mentioned above. They are strong but they need you to help guide them through this, and it’s okay to let them know you are also navigating this for the first time.
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health. You all know how to work your bodies, let’s use this time to connect with our minds and building an overall stronger self. There is no mandated timeline for your progress, as long as you as continuing to work towards your goals, you are doing it right.
Please reach out for support when you need it, you are not alone in this, we are a team!
All the light,
Dr. Jessica Reyka
Bio: Dr. Reyka is a psychologist in the Denver area mainly working with young adults and adults in navigating their healing process through complex trauma, significant anxiety, and attachment issues. She utilizes a holistic integrative approach where she focuses on the mind-body-spirit connection, often referring clients to massage therapy, acupuncture, and yoga to help facilitate a more thorough and comprehensive healing journey. Connection to rowing: She began rowing while pursuing her undergraduate degree and then went on to coach middle school athletes. She has faced some of the same challenges on the water and can understand the intense personal connection to the sport.
Check Your Seat
Yes, I’m anxious. It’s time to check my seat before the race. I’m anxious because I’ve experienced some lapses of focus thinking more about the race than being in the moment. How about the time we were launching the pair after re-rigging it from a double? Boat’s in the water, teammate hands me my oar and as I go to put it in the open oarlock...”for crying out loud!” It’s a sculling rigger!
I’ve got a routine now and this is what I do before every race - because this is what I do before every practice.
Check the rigger:
• All the nuts and bolts at the boat and all the backstay fasteners. Two fingers tight, great.
• Top nut at the top of the pin three fingers tight, perfect.
• Bushings at the oarlock seated all the way down? If not I squeeze the oarlock up and down. Then spacers. Is the oarlock too loose, do I need another spacer? Perhaps I can just flip one over and the oarlock will move well enough for Goldilocks.
Check the foot stretcher:
• I move it to my customary position. Did I get it perpendicular to the gunwale? Yup. Is it seated right? I push and pull on it and it and it drops into the notch. I tighten the wing nuts again. I hate it when I don’t do that. Just when you jump on the stretcher the whole thing shifts.
• Shoes at the right height and secure to the plate?
• How are my heel ties? Rules require 3” and boy do I need that with my stiff ankle joints. Oh not again the zip ties have been tightened so much I can barely lift my heels and when I do my heels come out of the shoes or the heel lifts and the sole of the shoe departs from the body of the shoe! I have spare 11” zip ties that should work and I know that at least 3-4 fingers across my hand width is about 3”. Cut replaced and done. Check.
• Almost forgot to check the 3 stretcher tracks that are attached to the boat that the foot stretcher slides in. I wiggle them and they’re tight and not missing any sections. Awesome. Thank goodness cuz I don’t have a small adjustable and phillips head screwdriver in my kit. Better get ‘em.
Check the tracks:
• First I wipe them down. That always calms me down. Hmm, looks like they aren’t even at the front stops and one of them is loose up and down. I reach under the tracks at the front and near the back under the deck and feel for the wing nuts; there are two for each track. Ah, found them and loosen the ones on the out of alignment track, tight little buggers, slide the track in place and tighten them back up. Sweet.
Check the seat:
• First the wheels. Is the seat rolling smoothly? Cool. Maybe I should push down on it while I roll it; I have put on a few pounds. It’s making a grinding noise. I check the wheels to see first if there is a rusty color around any of them while I’m cleaning them. Are any of them wobbling side to side? Especially the one with rusty color. Yup that’s the culprit. The bushings are failing. Where is that boat guy when you need him? I should have written it on the repair log last time.
• I make sure I put the seat back the right way! Ok boat’s ready to go. I’ve already checked my oar, well at least the ones I took down. • The grips are tight and wiped down.
• The collars are not broken and they aren’t crooked.
I’m ready to row. I can’t blame the equipment now. Oh well there’s always the cox.
We’ve shoved off. While I’m setting the boat I reach out and double check that the star nut at the end of the keeper/gate is seated and tight. Nothing like that popping open and the oar coming out of the oarlock – now that’s a very weird feeling!
Time to do the work.
Oh about that pair race. We swapped out the rigger and made it to the start – pretty frantic, rowed the race at a 39 and that’s about all I recall.
Pre-Practice Snack Ideas
Everyone is different when it comes to what they can digest or tolerate for a pre-practice snack. The key to all of it is timing. Use the guidelines below to select an appropriate pre-practice snack for the amount of time you have before practice to make sure you are fueled for the work ahead. It may take some trial and error to see what works for you. Choosing “real” food instead of overly processed food is preferred. Try to pick things closest to their natural form, or with a short ingredient list.
Source: USOC/USROWING Sports Nutrition Dept.
Finding Motivation to Train in a Time of Covid
One of the most common frustrations I have heard during this crisis from athletes of all ages, both from SRA and beyond is: “I don’t have the motivation to train without races and without my team. What do I do?” I want to highlight three words in this statement – motivation, races and team and discuss them further.
The first thing I want to address- there are races in your future! I know you don’t know exactly when, but you will race again. When that race day arrives, will be you be ready for it? And what does ready look like? Probably a little different for everyone, and maybe different than it used to for you. Yes, your overall focus should be around getting back to racing and being prepared for it, and for some people that may be maintaining the same rigorous training plan that you always do. But that may not be true for everyone. And, if you are guilting yourself for not doing enough, it’s not going to help your motivation.
Since we don’t have an exact target date for your next race, it’s ok that racing is not the focal point of your training plan right now. It’s ok to take some time away from structured, metric based workouts and instead find ways to be active that bring you joy. That will help you be more motivated to train seriously when the time comes and to serve your general mental and physical health in a better way. Make sure you give value to whatever workout you do, versus telling yourself you haven’t done enough. Release yourself of the pressure to prove something to anyone other than yourself each day.
Second, you still have a Team! Unfortunately, you just don’t get to see them every day. For me, I didn’t need to see my teammates every day to be motivated by them. The main reason for that was the trust that we all had in each other. Success on a rowing team is reliant upon deep trust between all members of the crew. We all must trust that everyone is going as hard as they can always. This trust is forged through countless hours of practice on land and in the water. It comes from suffering side by side. While we can’t do that right now, we DO have all the past experiences that built that trust between our teammates and ourselves. Now is the time to lean on that. When you can’t be with your teammates every day, you must trust they are continuing the work as they are trusting you to do the same. When I had workouts to do on my own, and I wasn’t really motivated, I just would remember that I had a responsibility to my teammates to do the work, whether we were side by side or not!
Motivation is a thread woven through having races in the future and having teammates to train with. Both races and teams have something in common – they are external drivers. They are things beyond you that help to motivate you. We all also have internal drivers as motivators. Psychologists used to think that people were one or the other, but the reality is we all rely on both external and internal drivers for motivation. Right now, two major external drivers have been removed as motivators. Now is the time to explore and depend on your internal driver to keep you motivated. This is the time to pause to remember the other reasons that you love to row, especially the very personal reasons that keep you coming back. Rowing is too hard to ONLY pursue because of external reasons. My sculling coach used to say that in order to row everybody has to have a spark inside them. His job was to throw some gasoline on that spark to motivate us further, but we all had to have that internal spark. Now is the time to find out what that spark inside you is, and let that internal driver be your source of motivation to continue to train in whatever capacity that works for you.
Connected to why you row is your definition of yourself as an athlete/rower. Whether you think about it or not, we are all doing many things everyday that contribute to our definition of ourselves as a rower. While you aren’t racing or with your team, two things that may be central to your definition of yourself as an athlete, focus on doing things everyday to reinforce your definition of yourself as an athlete. While I would hope this includes some training of some kind, this isn’t JUST training: it’s getting the sleep an athlete needs; focusing on the nutrition you need as an athlete; drinking enough water. You get the idea. Find a way to call yourself an athlete every day so you stay in touch with that version of yourself even as we don’t practice as a team.
There is an opportunity here. I know that not everyone can find opportunity in times like these and I certainly can understand that. It’s a hard time. But, with a pause on racing, this is a time we can re-set. We can choose to re-define our goals and objectives, to be a different athlete, to commit to something new. In addition, we can also just choose to be a stronger version of the athlete and teammate we already are, re-affirming the goals and objectives we have set, with just a slightly different timeline. Either way, take advantage of this pause to check in with your goals, and revise or reaffirm.
I hope I have given you some ideas to connect with why you row beyond your team and racing, and hopefully some motivation as well. I’m always happy to chat with any rower about goals, why they row and motivation.
The quote “Don’t promise when you are happy, don’t reply when you are angry, and don’t decide when you are sad.” -Ziad K. Abdelnour is often thrown around to imply that intelligent and logical people often make unwise decisions based on emotion. I’ll add “Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry and don’t make a race plan in the middle of a race” because no, of course I don’t need the ice cream and the donuts, and no, of course backing off to “save for the sprint” isn’t going to get me to my goal.
Why should you have a race plan? What does having a race plan mean? And most commonly, what is the best race plan? Often I’ve gotten these questions just before or even during the warmup on 2k day. It’s a desperate rower’s hail-Mary, the hope that “there must be a key, some secret that if I can learn and execute will unlock the mystical erg test.” By then it’s too late to teach - too late to equip the rowers to answer those questions, so at that point I’ll give an example race plan, and if they’re lucky, they’ll have a relatively recent score to use as a starting point and we can craft a serviceable plan on the fly. But here in writing, when we have the luxuries of ample time and of logical thought, when we’re several stages removed from the heightened, anxious state that exists pre-erg test, here we can go into how and why to build an effective race plan. If there were such thing as a best race plan, then this wouldn’t be much of an article. Alas (or perhaps thankfully?) rowers will encounter different circumstances that require different race plans, and rather than try to prescribe a plan for every eventuality, we’ll lay out how to build your race plan based on your circumstances.
“Why” to have a plan is summarized in the first paragraph - if you have no plan, then you’re going to fall back into emotional decision making. In the middle of an erg test or race piece, while the lizard-brain is elbowing in on your logical self with cries of “stop this madness!” is not the time to plan anything at all, let alone how hard you want to keep working for the next couple minutes.
Circumstance 1 - “I don’t really know what I should aim for” This happens to novices, athletes coming off a long injury, or rowers who have come back to the sport after years off. If this is you, then, as soon as you can, get out of circumstance 1 - figure out what to aim for! How to do this? There are lots of “predictive workouts” (6x500, dirty dozen, 4x1k, etc), but in Philosophy of Science Norbert Wiener suggests that “The best material model of a cat is… the same cat” and I tend to agree. If you’re prepping for a 5k, do a 5k, if you’re prepping for a 2k, do a 2k. In fact, do several, because that’s the best way to simultaneously find an appropriate pacing and eliminate the foreboding that can accompany the erg test. Bear in mind that doing several 2ks isn’t “training” for a 2k, rather it’s a way of finding your correct pace. If you’re in this category, don’t get bogged down with an intricately detailed race plan, because at this point you’re just turning the coarse adjustment knob to get your pace somewhat in-focus. This is also where the “fly and die” has some value. While fly and die is not a good strategy for athletes who are trying to optimize and shave off 1 more second, for those who don’t know their pacing, it helps to “find your edge” if you’ve seen it from both sides.
Circumstance 2 - “I have a goal, but how do I get there?” NOW, we can start building a race plan around something meaningful, and here are some questions to consider. What do you want your pacing to look like? Do you want to just hold steady for the bulk of the piece, or start 1-2 splits higher and work it down to -2/-3? Do you want to break it down by 500s/400s/300s and “castle” around your target average. Any of these are valid, but my usual prescription is to start a little slow, and accelerate throughout the piece. I like to think of it in terms of the percentage of the piece that is uncomfortable - see the charts below for a hypothetical comparison.
The red line is a rower who paced to accelerate throughout the piece and the blue line is a rower who came out too fast (by about 7 splits) and then crashed. Both rowers wind up with the same time, but the blue rower is miserable starting at about 600, while the red rower probably gets uncomfortable around 800, but isn’t truly miserable until about 1200! What a savings! The red and blue examples are hypothetical, but are meant to trace more or less what a well paced, and poorly paced 2k could look like.
In general, the more you know about where you’re aiming, the more precise and tighter your pacing should be, for example: you’ve only done one 2k this season and it was 2 months ago? You could aim for +3/+0/-3/-(6+) over each 500, but if you’ve done several and you’ve got a pretty tight grouping, maybe you go for +1/+0/-1/-2. These are just examples, and I want to emphasize that the details of the plan aren’t as important as committing yourself to it- whatever it is.
The Sprint - over the last ~15% or so you want to start committing a little harder, pushing deeper into the hole, so that by the last 20ish strokes, you’re going flat out. Use all the tools at your disposal here - pressure, rate, tech (efficiency). If your last 10 flat out strokes are just a couple splits below your average, or even if you crash in the last 5 and the split starts to climb, then you paced pretty well, but if your last 10 are wildly faster than your average, then you know you underestimated your capabilities, and you’ll want to try again and pace a little faster to home in on your hypothetical potential.
Takeaway: build your race plan well in advance, Design it logically based off of previous (ideally recent) scores. If you don’t know where to aim, there’s nothing like the real thing to give you an idea.
Consider: What is training?
Your first thought is probably that training is the act of working out, probably repeatedly. Maybe it’s taking a 30 minute break from your job to do a core circuit, or maybe it’s going on a 16 mile run on Saturdays. Maybe it’s rowing for 2 hours three times a week, or maybe it’s rowing for 12 sessions a week as you try to make the national team.
What is a training plan?
Chances are, it makes you think of some sort of cycle or calendar, with workouts of varying intensity and duration spread throughout. And depending on how serious or experienced of an athlete you are, the more workouts you’ll have and the harder they’ll be. Seemingly, a training plan is just a list of workouts arranged throughout the week (or month, or day, or year).
Alas, this conception of training and training plans is incomplete. A fuller picture of training needs to consider a number of factors, including nutrition, hydration, injury prevention, and--crucially--recovery, which we’ll focus on here.
So let’s be clear: A hard workout will never make you faster on its own. Working out doesn’t improve your performance; recovery after a workout does. Adaptation to a physiological stressor occurs while you are in recovery. Quite literally: you become a faster rower during the periods of time when you are NOT working hard! If you want to engage in a well-rounded, effective training program, the recovery period is equally as important as the exercise stimulus.
Let’s walk through the graph above:
1. Baseline Level
This is pretty obvious. It’s basically how fast of a rower you are right now, prior to a workout.
2. Training Stimulus
This is the workout itself. You stress your body in some way. Maybe it’s crazy hard sprint pieces; maybe it’s a long, light steady state piece. You tax the various energy systems in your body and the immediate effect is to actually get slower.
3. Recovery Period
This is where the magic happens. This is when your performance sinks below your baseline level for an extended period of time; the entire time when the curve dips below the horizontal line in the graph. If you do 12x500m on the erg, and 12 hours later I ask you to pull a 2k--you probably won’t PR, because your body will not have fully recovered.
During this time, your body undergoes a number of physiological adaptations as it replenishes your energy stores, repairs muscle and tissue tears from the workout, and improvements at the cellular level (i.e. increasing the density of mitochondria). Fundamentally, this is the period during which your body is actually adapting and improving. If you don’t let yourself properly recover from a workout, you’ll never get faster.
At a certain point, your performance level continues to creep up and up, until you’ve surpassed the initial baseline level. Congratulations--your body is now in supercompensation! You’re officially a faster rower than you were before the last workout. This is the best time for you to apply another training stimulus and repeat the process all over again.
Performance Over Time
If you don’t allow for proper recovery, your performance over time could look something like this (exaggerated) graph. Your performance level continues to sink, and in spite of numerous hard workouts, you are only getting slower! Bummer.
With a properly executed training program, you can recover properly between workouts. Then, when your body is in the supercompensation period, your current performance level is higher than the baseline level. If you apply a training stimulus now, you will undergo another recovery period and come out the other side even faster!
Keeping Track of Recovery
How do you use this information to be a better rower? Well, it’s important to keep track of your recovery process with a training journal. This will help you notice patterns in your recovery that can inform important decisions in your training. For instance, you may notice that anytime you do a good hard Anaerobic Threshold workout, the next day’s session is always subpar, no matter what it is. This is an indication that your body might need two days to recover properly, and the day after AT would be a good chance for a light session, or no session at all.
It’s also a good idea to keep track of stressors outside of rowing, since those can play an important role in recovery. Record how much sleep you get. Make a note of how much you have going on at work or school. Consider repeated, stressful social situations. A busy week at work might be a good opportunity to have a lighter week of training, since your body might be less able to recover quickly.
But without a training journal where you can keep track of your workouts and the factors that impact your recovery, you won’t be able to notice these patterns.
Keeping a Recovery Journal
In addition to keeping track of your workouts, try adding in some extra information. Here are a few basic questions to get you started. If you rank each question 1-10, then you can formulate a “recovery score” for yourself. You don’t have to answer these questions every single day--just once a week will be enough to start noticing patterns. This is also not an exhaustive list of stressors that can impact your recovery, but try it out and see if it helps give you a more complete picture of your training.
How many hours of quality sleep do you get each night?
How well have you been hydrating every day?
How well have you been fueling with proper nutrition?
Do you have adequate downtime during the week to relax?
How much emotional stress have you experienced this week?
How busy are you with work/family/school?
While it’s easy to get caught up in the workouts, a complete training program has to consider recovery as an essential component to improving over time. Adding more and more, harder and harder workouts will not necessarily improve your performance. Physiological, psychological, and technical adaptation actually occurs during the recovery period after the stress of a workout, so without adequate recovery, additional sessions won’t yield additional speed. Fundamentally, recovery is as important to training as the workout itself.