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Rowing 101: Ask the Ergmaker - Heel Heights and Settings on the Erg
March 5, 2020
Concept2 and row2k

Rowing the erg has become a fundamental part the sport of rowing, and in fact a considerable portion of the current growth of the sport is directly attributable to erging/indoor rowing.

The erg does not replicate all the nuances of rigging and boat fit, but it simulates the motions of rowing closely enough to be a very effective training and assessment tool, and you want to make sure you are optimizing the various adjustment available on most ergs.

Proper heel height can impact both the effectiveness of your stroke and your comfort to keep on going, so it’s worth making sure that your heel height is set well. Differences in athlete physiology, biomechanics, flexibility, technique and style all play into proper foot placement. As such, there is no "one size fits all" by shoe size.

We asked Concept2 for some guidelines on setting heel heights on the erg; here are there recommendations.

Footstrap Placement
The general rule is to set the adjustable heel cup (in the case of Concept2, it is called the Flexfoot) so that the strap crosses at the ball of the foot. For most athletes, this is where the foot naturally flexes when the heels raise. If the strap crosses too low on the foot, it can limit movement of the heel. Placed too high, the strap minimizes contact with the foot plate. A strap near the ball joint is usually a good balance between making good contact with the footplate to initiate the drive, and allowing the heels to comfortably lift at the catch.

Strap marks post-erg race
Strap marks post-erg race

Choosing Your Heel Height Setting
This standard strap placement works in most cases, but there are times where the heel height impacts the athlete’s ability to achieve a strong catch position.

An athlete who is prone to over-compressing at the catch, for example, may benefit from moving the heel height up. This will limit the heels from coming up too high, which can contribute to moving the athlete past vertical shins. Athletes who over-compress at the catch put their legs and knees in a weaker position and tend to overreach, both of which can reduce the effectiveness of their leg drives. A heel height change can contribute to fixing this technique fault.

For athletes who are having trouble getting into a strong catch position, it may help to move the heel height lower. This foot position is more common for athletes with smaller feet, those with less flexibility, and those with larger bellies. In these cases, the strap may not be across the top of the ball joint, but it is a necessary change to allow for full compression at the catch.

(Note that rowers with small feet may be inclined to move your feet really far up just for the placement of the strap. But that may not be the best position for technique. So strap placement is not the final answer - catch position is!)

Athletes with proportionately long shin lengths may also want to move their feet lower - and/or consider using a seat pad. A seat pad helps to raise the athlete, effectively lowering heel height.

Many athletes probably chose a heel height placement when they first started rowing and have never considered changing it. Experiment! Make sure you’ve found the position that is most effective for you. There may be subtle changes to your stroke, style, flexibility, strength or footwear that have changed over time.

What to Wear on your Feet?
Shoe design can impact heel height in addition to your training, flexibility and strength. While some athletes choose to row barefoot or in socks to maximize their connection to the footplate, this isn’t always practical, hygienic, or advised. (The heel cup can rub, in addition to this practice not translating to what is worn in the boat.) Many running and training shoes offer substantial cushioning, thick soles, and wide toe boxes; this may require a lower setting. Some cross-training or weightlifting shoes add a significant “drop” between heel height and the forefoot. This “drop” pushes the athlete significantly forward into the toes and changes the foot angle.

Many rowers simply opt for very flat-bottomed shoes, with a thin and consistent layer of rubber on the bottom, and a very simple upper. For example, Chuck Taylors have been a go-to erging shoe for high volume ergers for a long time.

Whichever shoe you find comfortable and effective, test different footstretcher positions. The shoes you wore last decade or last year may not be designed similarly to what you’re wearing now. This could require a change to your “usual” setting. Thick soles? Move your heels down. Minimalist footwear? Move the heels up.

Folks who row the erg a lot come up with their own approaches; a sock wrapped around the strap and tied off to snug bare feet against the footboard; boat shoes of various types; you will figure out what works for you.

The only way to determine the optimal setting for you is to do some controlled testing. Within a workout, adjust your feet to see how your comfort and results change. Change one variable at a time for a true “seat race.” A 1-minute on/1-minute off workout gives ample time to change settings (or shoes). To test for longer pieces, try 3 x 20 minutes or 2 x 30 minutes.

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