The perfect fit – a guest blog by Dr. Ed Wittich from Bat Logic

Rowing is one of the most equipment-heavy sports on earth. It is also one of the most physically demanding and yet it’s a sport for which the main parts the rower is interacting with are often not personalised at all and in many cases don’t even fit the operator. I’m talking about your key 3 contact points with the boat – the oars/handle grips, seat and especially the feet.

This is a curious factor that helped create our businesses; BAT Logic and Project B, and has turned into an obsession – how can we make rowing more comfortable, safer and add to performance? The answer, for us, is getting the athlete set up comfortably and with a view to their body’s needs.

When we row, the greatest force is produced and transferred through the legs. Any level of rower is easily capable of exceeding more than their own body weight worth of force on the foot stretcher during the drive phase of the stroke and this is replicated 200+ times in a 2km race. That’s a lot of load, and so you’d imagine that footwear plays an important role in boat feel, force transfer, connection, and stability, and you’d be right but why then do we jump in any old shoe, which in most cases doesn’t fit our feet and is not really up to the task?

Hygiene

If we add in the element of the hygiene issues associated with the practice of sharing random shoes, it seems even dafter. Studies show that foot bacterial proliferation and infection rates effectively double in prevalence within any sporting environment, such as in locker rooms. Keep in mind that the risk factors for catching foot infections in sporting environments are listed as; common showers, lockers, saunas, and swimming pools and the wearing of synthetic fabrics/unventilated shoes – almost all of which we have in rowing, except we go one step further and then actually share the shoes themselves.

As podiatrist Mike Curtin B App Sc (Pod), B Ed (HMHE) summarises:

“One of the major issues in rowing shells is the fact that most boat houses have high humidity due to the marine environment and whilst rowing, skin cells on the feet are being shed into the rowing shoe. The shoes that are strapped inside the boats permanently rarely get the opportunity to dry out and this is the perfect environment for fungal colonies to grow in. Breakdown of the skin is a portal of entry for a bacterial infection also so things like blisters and even small abrasions on the feet are a significant issue.”

In one foot hygiene study of sports teams, Athlete’s Foot was found to infect 69% of professional soccer players in a single team. This matched with approximately 69% of male college soccer players tested as a comparison and 43% of female college soccer players (well-done girls). Non-athletes demonstrated a significantly lower infection rate of about 20%.

So, at best, almost two people in your rowing eight could carry Athlete’s Foot fungal infections and at worst, and more likely in a team of athletes, it could be as many as five in the boat. Not great odds. In a club of 200 members, statistically you could find up to 138 carriers and you’re literally in their shoes.

Biomechanics

The biomechanics story around shoes that don’t fit is no better – you know that feeling of wearing shoes that are too big and having your feet sliding up into the toe of the shoe through the recovery and into the catch? That creates a whole lot of unnecessary muscle contraction and bracing that is transferred through the feet and legs and can affect areas like your pelvis and lower spine. When you are loading at high rates and the feet are not stable and connected, extra stresses are constantly affecting your body. When the shoes are too small and you need to curl and cramp your toes you again put extra muscle demands on the feet and legs that don’t allow a natural and strong position to execute the stroke. This all adds to the level of injury and discomfort we see in our sport and sadly the rates of both are very high across all levels.

There are literally no benefits to sharing shoes in this way, not even cost, if you consider the fact that feet which don’t fit properly into a shoe are jammed, wedged and folded inside them every row. The fact that these shoes stay in the boats and never dry out also contributes to far faster wear rates and clubs pay the price for this each time they need to replace a broken or unworkable shoe. We of course recommend the use of a properly designed rowing shoe and our QuickRelease system to allow everyone to use their own shoes, or at the very least a size that suits them when they row but outside of our own kit we just want people to think differently about what is right to row with and what they should expect.

 

This sort of thinking can be pushed out across all of the other touch points in the boat – some may be harder to completely individualise, such as seats, but at least having the ability to offer more choice and adjustability to these key equipment pieces would be good.

We have an amazing ability in our sport to include people of all shapes and sizes but to do this effectively and comfortably, we need to think about who is in the boat and what their needs are. This approach will drop injury rates and see performance increase and importantly it will also positively affect the numbers of people in the sport.

 

Ask anyone if they would run out at half time in a football match wearing their friend’s boots that are 2 sizes too big for them and the answer will 100% be “no way” and yet in rowing we do this all of the time. Would you ever get in a car and not bother adjusting the seat so you can see over the steering wheel properly and reach the pedals? No way. So why then do we accept this one-size-that-doesn’t-fit-all approach in one of the toughest sports on the planet? We don’t have to and the solutions are here, simple and cost effective – to start just ask a few more questions before you get in a boat for your next row; am I comfortable and is my body in a position that helps me row?