Last month we wrote about power, with the goal of explaining the physics of rowing in laymen terms. We mentioned that on the recovery, we are not generating power, which is not quite true. Power will be produced on the recovery, especially at higher stroke rates, and the boat continues to accelerate after the drive.
You can visualize how this happens by thinking about a swing set. You pump your legs and lean your body back to go one direction (i.e. the drive), and then you swing your body forward and kick your legs underneath you to go the other way (i.e. the recovery). To make the swing set go higher, you need to lean further in each direction. If you were to keep your body back when you got to the top of the arc on the swing, you would slow the swing.
This leads us to the idea of rhythm and ratio. Ratio on the swing set is very easy, it’s one to one. If a different ratio is important to rowing - say two to one - then more thought goes into a quicker drive and slower recovery. Often though, when we try to do this, we take away that natural rhythm. We can also get so concerned about hitting a certain stroke rate that we fail to allow the boat to flow.
There are many other sports where you could count strokes or strides or revolutions (swimming, running, biking) but rarely is that the emphasis. Instead the emphasis is on speed - to swim 10 100's on a 1:30 interval, to run 4 x 400 on 2 minutes. The coach doesn’t then ask the athlete to do that while taking x number of strokes or strides, but rather to find the rhythm that best allows them to do the workout efficiently.
Thus we like you to think that you are going to push the boat on the drive (accelerate it), and then ride the boat on the recovery. The speed of the recovery would be the speed of the boat. To go faster, you do both quicker and the stroke rate comes up naturally. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be at all concerned with stroke rates in rowing, but don’t allow that number to get in the way of establishing the rhythm that best helps the boat to flow at the speed you desire to go.
On the drive we are trying to accelerate the boat to generate speed. To do this, we accelerate our mass through a distance. On the recovery we are trying to reposition our mass back the same distance so that we can prepare for the next drive. At the same time, we’re trying to relax and recover in order to put in as little work as possible. This is easier to do at a low stroke rate and helps explain the tendency for coaches to talk about feeling the boat run on the recovery.
As the stroke rate comes up, that sense of time and relaxation is reduced because in reality we are now working on that recovery to get our body mass out of bow, which is putting power into the boat. We are moving to the stern in relation to the boat, the boat accelerates forward to the bow and the max hull speed is produced somewhere mid-recovery. Then the hull will start to slow down dramatically at the end of the recovery, because we are stopping our mass moving towards the stern by putting pressure on the foot stretchers.
Starting the drive to go the other direction, we are putting increasing pressure on the foot stretcher, which leads to a deceleration of the boat. Most coaches call this check. The complexity of the catch and how to reduce check in order to maximize hull speed will be the topic of next month's article. It is impossible to eliminate check, but we want to reduce it as much as possible.
We work with all skill levels and ages at Calm Waters. Over and over, we see kids hop in a boat and row with ease, allowing the body to swing naturally, just like on a swing set. The adults on the other hand, with preconceived ideas of what it should be or perhaps just thinking too much, will turn the stroke into something mechanical and robotic - arms first, then body, then slide. Or they might exaggerate quick hands and slow slide, or slow recovery and quick drive. All of these styles are forced and there is nothing natural to them. The key is to relax and let yourself move.