Are you getting enough reach at the catch? Tired of your coach yelling at you to ‘get longer’, or fed-up with rigging yourself to row like you’re 6’8”? The fact is that the length of a rower’s stroke is a common concern for many rowing coaches.
Coaches often single out rowers with shorter strokes and pressure them to produce more length. Over-reaching is one approach to increasing stroke length, but comes with an increased risk of injury. Other strategies include lowering feet, reducing footboard angles, changing spans and oars, etc. To increase their stroke length, many rowers try to get their shoulders, hips, or both further into the catch.
While all of these options or a combination of them may seem ideal, alone, they aren’t effective solutions in the long term. More important, these ‘quick-fix’ solutions may actually place athletes in greater risks of injury. A more effective and long-term solution to increasing stroke length is to determine the athlete’s strength and flexibility deficits, and develop and implement an individual corrective program. Temporary rigging solutions can then supplement this program during the corrective transition.
A rower’s stroke length is primarily controlled by two factors: strength and flexibility. When both are in good balance, the athlete can get into a strong, powerful, and long position with little effort. While other considerations also influence stroke length -- arm length, leg length, and torso length -- these anatomical factors can not be altered. Instead, coaches and athletes use rigging changes to help modify stroke length, and improve uniformity in a crew with varying body types. However, using rigging strategies alone to correct possible deficits in a rower’s strength and flexibility is not the best long term solution, and can lead to increased risks of injury.
To effectively improve stroke length, I encourage coaches and athletes to first identify and correct individual strength and flexibility issues,and then explore possible rigging changes. Strength issues usually improve quicker than flexibility issues, so it may be several weeks or months before rowers should attempt to rig into a more advantageous position, as it relates to rowing power.
When stroke length is short, rowers will try to lengthen by reaching further into the catch with their shoulders (most common approach), hips (preferred approach), or possibly even both. While many rowers increase their length by reaching further into the stern with their shoulders while keeping their hips stable as they reach the catch, other more flexible athletes get too deep into the catch to find more length.
However, because these athletes tend to be weak, this solution places them in a greater risk of injury because they get beyond their strength at the catch. These athletes often hit their Achilles’ tendon of calf with their seats, with knees well past vertical of the ankle joint at the catch. The relationship between the shoulder and hip joints should be set during the first third of the recovery. Once this relationship is set, it should remain unchanged for the remainder of the stroke, to and through the catch, and into the first half of the drive. Athletes who use the shoulder strategy to increase stroke length (compensating for strength and flexibility deficits), will have a less powerful rowing stroke and be more prone to injuries.
To understand the most powerful rowing stroke sequence, consider a heavy dead lift. With this lift, the hips must move first to get the weight moving. Then, as bar momentum builds, the back can then begin to isotonically work (shorten) in conjunction with the hips and knees. Using the shoulder strategy to increase stroke length alters the stroke sequence -- the shoulders (instead of the hips) initiate the stroke movement, and therefore lead to a less powerful stroke.
Getting the hips deeper into the catch once the shoulder-hip relationship is set, is an excellent way to increase stroke length and power, especially when the changes in hip depth come from improvements in the athlete’s strength and flexibility. While changing the rigging (i.e. lowering feet or reducing foot angle) can increase stroke length, it reduces horizontal power in the stroke. A body-balanced approach to addressing and improving individual strength and flexibility deficits is the ideal solution to finding more stroke length, increasing boat speed, and reducing an athlete’s risk of injury.