Over time coaching experience is passed on. Young coaches from all over the world learn by listening to experienced coaches, attending coaching conferences, and experimenting. A lot of legacy beliefs and dogmas are passed on, often without much questioning. (eg. When you rock over, get your body weight onto your feet).

Now with YouTube and social media, it is easy to get hold of video of many good crews. When you watch these fast crews can you discern what they all have in common? They do not all row the same way that is for sure. There are many styles out there and many seem to be effective.  

So why are they fast?

If you were to come into our sport with no previous knowledge and you were asked to define what it is that makes a fast crew, where would you start…?

My guess is you would read a few books about rowing, speak to some successful coaches and possibly read a few scientific publications on the biomechanics and physiology of rowing. 

What are the main components of fast crews

  • Good Athletes
  • Correct equipment
  • Appropriate training programme
  • Effective performance monitoring
  • Correct biomechanics
  • Robust psychology

I would like to discuss what biomechanics….

  • What is actually going on in a fast boat?
  • How long a stroke should you row?
  • How much slide should you use?
  • How much body should you use?
  • How fast should you slide on the recovery?
  • What is the correct hand speed at each point in the stroke?
  • How can lots of rowing at 18-20 help you race at 36?
  • Is the entry the last part of the recovery or the first part of the drive?
  • What is the ‘perfect’ force curve?
  • How far should you lean back at the finish,and why/

Are these questions relevant or useful?

Eton, United Kingdom. Exhausted crews after the Men’s pair A final, at 2011 GBRowing Trials, Dorney Lake. Sunday 17/04/2011 [Mandatory Credit; Peter Spurrier/Intersport-images]

A few observations that summarize what is going on in the boat, based on telemetry data collected on crews of all standards.

The boat speed ebbs and flows during the stroke. With the minimum speed being just after the entry of the blade into the water. The maximum speed occurs at different position on the recovery depending on the rating. At lower rates it occurs not long after the blade is extracted from the water. At high rates, the maximum speed is when the athlete is at about ¾ slide.

  • As the stroke rates increase the stroke length also increases until about rating 24, thereafter it decreases. This is the case for both the fastest rowers and the average club rower. The fastest rowers just happen to row longer at all stroke rates. As the stroke rates increase the stroke length decreases, in sculling the stroke shortens at the finish and in rowing the stroke shortens at the catch. 
  • Applying pressure to the footplate when the blade is not in the water slows the boat down. The later you apply pressure to the footplate on the recovery the faster the boat will be travelling when you put the blade in the water (plus the boat will have travelled further). The more direct and aggressively you are with the pressure you apply to the footplate at the beginning of the stroke, the sooner you will connect your body mass to the hull. The sooner you connect you body mass to the hull the sooner you will accelerate the hull.
  • You push the footplate to accelerate the athlete, pull the handle to accelerate the hull.
  • Fast hands away has no effect on boat speed. But a fast rock over creates significant detrimental downward pressure on the hull.
  • As the blade enters the water at the catch the best athletes apply a great deal of pressure on the foot stretcher. Initially this has a large detrimental effect on the acceleration of the hull. The more pressure an athlete applies the greater the negative effect on the acceleration of the hull. But it also means that the hull accelerates sooner and with a greater positive effect.
  • When you do apply the force on the stretcher at the catch, greater the stretcher force you apply at the beginning of the stroke the better. This will reduce the time it takes for your mass to ‘catch-up’ with the boat. The sooner your mass catches up with the boat the sooner it will add to acceleration of the boat.
  • If the handle force is greater than the stretcher force then you are not accelerating the boat.
  • The handle only accelerates for the first 2/3 of the drive. It decelerates into the body at the finish. The blade washes out of the water as the handle reaches the finish.
  • Maximum seat speed occurs at ¾ slide on the recovery. At high rates this coincides with maximum boat speed, but this is not the case at lower rates.
  • To more effectively use the major muscle groups, the heal should press on the foot stretcher before the back angle opens.

Now the question is how do you go about coaching that? Do you focus on the visual side of things, or do you focus on the skill of making the boat go fast? Suddenly the position of your little finger on your outside hand seems less important.