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Coxing the Pre-Race Warmup: Physical and Mental Preparation
March 6, 2013
Rob Colburn

Pre-race warmups are probably one of a coxswain's most variable tasks. There are often constraints that may force your crew to modify the warmup. The body of water may not be large enough — or be too crowded with boats — to allow room for all the drills, tens, or practice starts you would like to do. The warmup itself will depend on how much on-land warmup you do (runs, erging), as well as the air temperature.

The mental part of the warmup is every bit as important as the physical part.

Purpose of the warmup: to get the heartrate up, increase the blood flow so that the blood can carry more oxygen to the muscles, and to get the muscles warm and flexible (break a sweat.) It is also to get your rowers mentally focused, tuned into listening to your voice, and feeling themselves part of the boat. The warm-up should be rooted in a down-to-business attitude from the moment the crew gets hands on the shell.

Pre-race warmup plans should be reasonably consistent. I like to keep the first parts of our pre-race warmup as similar as possible to our standard warmup for practices, as routine helps take the edge off the pre-race nerves. Different boats have different ways of coping with the pre-race tensions, thus coxswains who truly know their rowers can be a huge help. Knowing when it is appropriate to lighten the mood a little if the boat is wound too tight, or to "call the meeting back to order" if not serious enough, are subtle yet valuable skills.

We know, not that kind of warmup, but it's still a cool trick
We know, not that kind of warmup, but it's still a cool trick

Readers of this column have asked me what my "standard" warmup is. Adjusting for conditions, my framework warmup for a 2000m sprint race at typical spring temperature of 55-58 degrees F/14-15 degrees C goes something like:

  1. Progressive rowing by fours (in an 8+) or pairs (in a 4+), e.g. arms, backs, half slide, full slide. Often my boats prefer to do this in reverse in order to emphasize the leg drive and connection, i.e. legs-only half slide, full slide, backs, arms.

    I suggest moving briskly through the drills to get to all eight/all four as soon as possible. Drills in a pre-race warmup are not intended to fix things as much as they are to remind the boat of one -- or at most two --particular technical strengths to emphasize during the race (e.g. length, slide control, catch timing, whatever it might be). Trying to work on more than one or two things will probably be counterproductive. Warm-up drills are to emphasize your boat's strong points and to get your rowers to deal to their strengths (see mental aspect of warmup above).

  2. Brief pause drills by sixes (or pairs), then add the remaining pair

  3. "Emphasis drill" by all eight or all four (i.e. whatever particular thing the boat wants to emphasize for the race). Then rowing by all four or all eight to bring the boat together, increasing the rating and pressure.

  4. Five power tens with the ratings calculated from our target sprint rating, starting at sprint minus 12 and progressing upwards by four, four, two, and two. Meaning that if our sprint rating is 40, the tens would be 28, 32, 36, 38, 40. (The arithmetic is somewhat arbitrary; your coach might prefer another. Whichever progression your boat is used to is best.) For head races, we'll sometimes substitute a twenty at base rate in place of the final sprint ten. If lack of room prevents all five, I distill it to the first, third, and last of the sequence.

  5. At least three, (hopefully four or five) practice starts:
    first 5 strokes at three quarters speed, three quarters pressure,
    first five at full speed, full pressure,
    start five plus high ten and shift ten at full speed and full pressure.

For head races, we modify the above to include the five building strokes with each start -- i.e. 5 to build, ten high, shift ten. If the warmup area allows, try to practice your starts in the same direction as the race course so that the rowers can get a feel for the wind and any other conditions. This is true whether the starts are for a sprint race (from a stop) or for a head race (moving).

The warm-up is also a final opportunity to go over the main points of the race plan and also to let rowers tell the coxswain what they want from the coxswain during the race - what calls they want to hear and when. (This may have already been done on land , but a little reiteration seldom hurts.) Coxswains should not be afraid to be quiet for short periods during the warm-up as well. An occasional silence goes a long way into letting the rowers get into their groove. Keep your warm-up calls calm, steady, confident, and businesslike. Keep your rowers internally focused on the boat and not distracted by what is going on around them. Update your rowers frequently on how many minutes remaining until the start.

So, how to know whether your rowers are properly warmed up? Always ask them. "We have room for another ten, do you want it?" (assuming of course that there is room).

Allow time for light paddling between the warmup and the start in order to purge the CO2; remind your rowers to stretch. Once your rowers are warmed up, keep them warm. You may have to paddle in place by pairs or do something creative to keep them moving while waiting to be marshalled for the start (this is particularly true for autumn head race season).

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