row2k Features
Masters Handicaps for Head Racing
March 2, 2018
Tolly Allen

There are lots and lots of factors that determine how fast a crew will be; conditioning, technique, and equipment to think of a few. That said, there is strong sentiment that the ability to generate power degrades with age. As a result, most masters events are either conducted in age groups or with handicaps for age. For sprint type racing, the handicaps are well accepted, and; although we won't review them here, are essentially fair. Head race handicaps, not so much, we see different standards at different regattas. In an attempt to drive to a fair standard for masters head race handicaps, I submit the analysis below, based on data for male masters rowers. Fair warning, the results were not what I expected going in. I expected that taking the sprint handicaps times the distance was excessive, but didn't think it was as bad as I discovered.

For this analysis three data sources and one anecdote were used

The heavy analytical lifting was done using a data file with every 5000 meter score reported on the concept 2 "Rankings" page for ranking year 2014. This is a great data set because it is a large sample that covers the entire age range under consideration. Also, even though ergs don't float, they don't have headwind either. Seriously, this is a huge sample with each athlete rowing in essentially identical conditions.

The one cry I heard, even before I was finished with the math, is that the C2 scores include a bunch of gym types, who are not really athletes; or for that matter, who don't actually row. To answer this potential criticism, I ran the same analysis that I did on the big data set against the fastest ten times for each age. Ten 27 year olds, ten 28 year olds etc...) The members of this group are all reasonably fit, and may represent the actual degradation in physiological capability with age.

Ergs don't float, but single sculls do, the last data set is the results of several age groups in the 2013 Head of the Charles. I chose the Charles for several reasons. It is a big event and therefore has a big sample size. Almost everyone who gets into the race takes it fairly seriously, in terms of preparation, so the obviously missing factor of how hard people train is mitigated a bit.

Finally, we all love a good story, and I have included an interesting set of facts about the Schuylkill Navy Regatta and the Head of the Schuylkill, which reveals that Philly rowers may be a lot of things, but they aren't dumb.

Head race handicaps for Masters Men, Under 50

Zero (0)

Ok, I didn't believe this either at first, but the math doesn't lie

Starting with fitting a curve to the data, a linear regression of 5000 meter times against age, using the entire C2 data set of 5000 meter times, for athletes under 50 yields:

Under 50 Time = 1232 + .2749 * Under 50 Age

This suggests a potential age adjustment of .27 seconds per year. But the .2749 is not even close to being significantly different from zero. For the statisticians in the room, R-Sq is 0.0%

The chart below gives a pretty good picture of just how little age has to do with performance for this group

(I also fitted a quadratic model with and also got a whole lot of zero)

Ok. So this is a bunch of gym rats and non-competitive rowers. The next look is at the ten fastest scores by age from the C2 data. Same analysis, linear regression, same results, 0.25 seconds per year, and the picture is just as flat.

U50 Top 10 Time = 1039 + 0.25 * U50 top Ten Age

So the top performers are not slowing down with age either.

You can see that the three times under 950 seconds (1:35 pace) are all under 40, but exclusive of those three individuals, the fastest times for the fastest individual in each age are flat.

Since ergs don't float, it makes some sense to look to on the water results. As mentioned above the Head of the Charles presents an opportunity to compare results for a reasonably large sample of reasonably conditioned athletes. Here again, a linear analysis of the 40- 49 age group for the 2012 Head of the Charles (2012 chosen because the ages are shown in the online results). While the analysis suggests a whopping .9 seconds per year of handicap, of course, the .9 is not statistically significantly different from zero.

Finally, an anecdote that I think is interesting. Every year there are two head races on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. The Head of the Schuylkill, and the Navy Day Regatta, presented by St. Josephs, in honor of the US Navy and not to be confused with the Schuylkill Navy Regatta, presented by the Schuylkill Navy in the spring. Ok, the Head of the Schuylkill uses age groups and no handicaps. This year the HOS had 19 singles in the 40-49 age group and 22 in the 50-59 age group. The Navy Day Regatta combines C and D age categories, (so the age group ends up being 42 - 54) and uses the US Rowing handicaps times 4. The youngest athlete to compete in the 42 - 54 age group was 49! I can't help but think that this suggests that the athletes are aware, at some level, that the handicaps make it a tough place to play for the under 48 crowd.

There is a lot of evidence here that suggests that zero is the right handicap for head racers under 50. This may be a tough sell to some athletes who are used to winning based on their handicap, and are correct in the notion that in sprint racing age handicaps are clearly appropriate.

Head race handicaps for Masters Men, over 50

On the other hand, something happens at age 50, and it's not pretty. Here are the top ten 5000 erg scores for each year of age from 27 to 65. It is pretty clear that something happens and times begin getting slower pretty abruptly at 50.

Using the same methodology as above, the best fitted line for 5000 meter times for athletes over 50:

Over 50 Time = 1254 + 2.438 * Age minus 50 + .2463* (Age minus 50)^2

In this case, all terms are statistically significant, so we will keep them in the model

Unfortunately, this formula is kind of kludgy to work with. But if we can match fitted values form these results to a multiple of the current handicaps, we may have a usable solution.

Here is a comparison of the fitted handicaps and the US Rowing Handicaps, both taken to a base year of 50 years old by subtracting the predicted time of a 50 year old from the predicted time for each age. "Handicap Factor" is the fitted value divided by the US Rowing handicap. The "Average Factor is the average for each ten year age group

For simple ease of use and based on the table above, I would suggest that handicaps be applied according to the table below.

Under 50 Zero
50 -59 3 * (USRowing Handicap- 50 year old Handicap)
60-69 4 * (USRowing Handicap- 50 year old Handicap)
70 + 5 * (USRowing Handicap- 50 year old Handicap)

This is a pretty different picture than what we see at most regattas today, but the data is pretty powerful in what it tells us. I am sure that everyone wants the races they row in to be fair, and this really would be a big move in that direction. Please feel free to contact me if you want to disagree, agree, recreate my analysis so you can believe it for yourself or simply have questions about what I did.

I would like to thank the truly nice folks at Concept2 for sharing their data, and in particular for sending me all the scores in one file. If you have any questions or suggestions, about my analysis, I would love to hear from you. Masters rowing is growing like crazy and we should really make the effort to get this right


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03/08/2018  10:30:44 AM
Wow, a "full" analysis with NO REGARD to looking at parallel data for women? Seems like a HUGE bias (and oversight). I'm offended.

03/08/2018  12:18:06 PM
Tolly just did this for himself, and then was generous enough to share with row2k and the rowing community; it would be great if any math whizzes were up for running numbers on women's data for sure. Any takers?

03/09/2018  10:58:35 AM
If that is what this is, then this should be CLEARLY stated as such. "Mens' Masters Handicaps for Head Racing." or "Tolly's Handicaps for Head Racing." Currently, as it reads, the first five paragraphs do nothing to address gender. It only mentions age. In fact, you have to read really carefully to see that only men's data is being used (only mentioned twice in two subheads). The conclusions do nothing to state recommendations for men vs. women. Only "masters". Soooo perhaps this can be cleared up?

03/08/2018  5:13:58 AM
With all respect for Tolly's excellent research and agreement with his conclusions, the BRA handicap system is excellent and it works in practice: for the mixed 2x at last year's HOC the 1st 3 boats were tightly grouped after handicapping w/BRA's schedule - 1st was middle-age, 2nd was the youngest, and 3rd was the oldest, i.e. no age bias at all. At least for ages over 50, you can't apply C2 erg age-performance data to on-water results. Erg depends on brute strength, while a skill factor creates a sort of ski jump pattern where performance degrades less between 60 and 70 than it does between 50 and 60 where strength disappears fast except for Greg Benning. You can see perceive this as an "S" shape in the dots, and it's apparent if the least squares analysis is confined to 10 year segments.

I personally prefer fair handicaps to 5-year segments, because bigger brackets make better competition. That said, the absence of 5 year segments AND absence of handicaps for HOC rowers over 80 is blatant age discrimination.


03/07/2018  11:52:42 PM
The proposed handicaps, produce a large jumps transitioning from one age group to the next: for example there is a 4.7 jump from 58 to 59, and a 18.9 second jump from 59 to 60. Similarly there is a 8.3 second jump for 68 to 60; but a 41.5 second jump from 69 to 70. Not close to fair if more than one age group is in the same race. 58: 32.4 59: 37.1 60: 56 61: 62.7 ..... 68: 115.2 69: 123.5 70: 165 71: 175.9 I did an open water 10K a few years ago that used a handicap similar to what is proposed here. I lost on handicap to someone who was in his mid 60's. I would have had to row at2:06 pace in an open water boat for 10K to win. Can anyone do that?

03/07/2018  9:42:06 PM
Totally agree with Old Oar that a Time on Time percentage handicap would help a lot. The worst example of Old Age Bias in my experience is the Head of the Hooch which is long on miles but short on time due to a usually very fast tail current and often fast tailwind. The miles based handicap is exacerbated by very wide age bands. It is basically not even worth racing if you're only slightly over 50 as it is a logarithmic handicap and strongly favors older athletes. Of course, I'll be one of them soon and will probably change my tune. :-)

03/07/2018  4:46:20 PM
I did a similar analysis years ago a reached the opposite conclusion. There clearly is a dropoff well before 50. The US rowing handicap is not fair and was biased in favor of older rowers. It does not make much difference within an age group, but for smaller regattas where a 40 year old may compete against a 65 year old, it can make a big difference. The two links given by other posters contradict the analysis here, which at first glance appears to suffer from not enough data.

Totally agree with Old Oar that the handicaps should be in percentage not absolute time.

Old Oar
03/07/2018  2:54:07 PM
1 people like this
Tolly and the Row2k Community; I encourage readers interested in rowing handicaps to complement the analysis here with that of John Garret, of Rowing Canada and that of Carlo Zezza in his inciteful article that appeared earlier in Row2K  Beyond the work of these sages, let me offer a few comments: The application of handicaps is as critical as their computation. Most handicap system apply a handicap based on the length of the race: "Time on Distance." This approach fails to take into account the overall time of the race. Clearly a handicap should be greater if the race is run in a boat-stopping head wind or less in a screaming tailwind. This type of handicap is called "Time on Time" with the handicap expressed as a percentage of the winning time (or to eliminate the freaks of nature, the 3rd place time.) A challenge to implement but a fairer system nonetheless. With deference to all the good work of Messers. Allen, Garrett and Zezza, I contend that the only fair way to handicap rowing races is to forego formulaic handicaps and do as we do today and race in closely bounded age groups. I now leave you with these thoughts and head out to race in the San Diego Crew Classic's "F"(Fading Fast) event. Old Oar, Charlie Hamlin

03/07/2018  2:14:14 PM
You talkin' about me...?

03/07/2018  9:42:43 PM
Are you claiming the Freak of Nature title?

03/03/2018  1:39:59 PM
Years ago, I exstracted the year by year age data from the C2 data base for 500-marathon men&women and put it in a spreadsheet that I used to calculate age adjusted times for the erg and different boats. The data was a little rough from 13-about 20 and again over 70.

Sander Rosenthal has extracted the C2 data and done some mathematical analysis. I forget where I saw it.

A recent post in FB from Rowsandall provides further data 

Note that FISA has taken notice of the increasing age degeneration of older rowers and has changed the age letter groupings above age 80 to be in 3 year groups rather than the five year groups they previously had for 50+. the previous age groupings were 27-35 (9 years), 36-42 (7 years), 43-49 (7 years), 50-54, 55-59, 60-64, 65-69, 70-74, 75-79 (all 5 years). Now 80-82, 83-85, 86-88, and 89+ (3 years).

03/03/2018  12:18:10 PM
This is really, really interesting Tolly - thank you for producing such a thorough analysis. If you ever had a dull weekend, it would be really fantastic if you could do the same ting with women's data from these sources too. There is, of course, currently only a single set of Masters handicaps, but some of us women masters wonder if the loss of strength with age occurs at a different age for women (hormonal changes at the meonopause could well have an effect) or a different rate.

I guess one thing to bear in mind about this data is that it is for an endurance distance (and it's very useful to have it for head races). The effect of age may be significant much earlier than 50 in 1k sprints (the international masters distance) which are power events, of course.

Best wishes Helena

03/04/2018  11:21:27 AM
kindly consider to lance a motion to FISA concerning the age-categories at WRMR. since the crews race at average-age the exisitng categories are meaningless.

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