Content – Rowing


Transitioning Back On the Water from Winter Indoor Training

By Coach Kaehler

Just recently, I did an interview for a rowing publication about how to transition from winter indoor training to outdoor water training.   My response focused on what I believe is the greatest obstacle to a smooth transition; properly increasing your on-the-water training volume to help minimize training related injuries.

Indoor training can greatly vary among rowers.  Many choose to minimize or not include the ergometer as part of their winter training program and instead run, cycle, or swim to keep their cardio systems up and running.  I personally love running on a trail during the winter months because I can still enjoy the outdoors while training.  Others may need to cross-train because they experience back pain when training on the ergometer.   Ergometer-induced back pain is usually a clear sign of significant strength and flexibility imbalances. (My Body Balance Evaluation Process can target and eliminate back pain by correcting those imbalances)

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An Erg is an Erg is an Erg?

By Coach Kaehler

The release of the Dynamic Erg by Concept 2 has caused many people to question its value versus the standard Concept 2, and how it compares to the Row Perfect or even water rowing ergometers.   Each brand markets its own specific benefits and features which do vary quite a bit, but the fact is they are all excellent for training purposes.   The reality is none of them really feel like rowing on the water, and they certainly cannot teach you how to apply power from the oar to the water.

While ergs will never replace rowing on the water, there are some real benefits to rowing on land.  The first is that you can truly develop a sense of how to apply consistent power to the handle by monitoring your splits during different types of workouts.  In addition, it is very easy to compare your rowing physiology against other athletes so you can get immediate feedback regarding where you stand with your rowing fitness.  Ergs allow for excellent training even when the weather or water temperatures are unsafe, or daylight hours are lessened.

Another helpful benefit of erg rowing is time efficiency since you can get on the erg and begin rowing within minutes, unlike the water, where you are moving boats, oars, and spending time setting-up, cleaning, and chatting with other folks on the dock.

Recently, I did several side by side training sessions using both a standard erg (with and without Shimano shoes) and a dynamic erg.  I rowed 10’ on one erg and then immediately jumped onto the other erg and repeated, so the total training time was 40 minutes.   My first thought was the dynamic erg should really be called the “un-dynamic erg”, but that feeling was not unexpected.  My second observation was the need to row 2 to 3 beats higher to row at the same workload

You see, there are a quite a few rowers who don’t have any physical problems when rowing on the water, yet they are unable to row on a standard erg without experiencing back pain or rib injuries.  This is where the dynamic ergs come in, because all versions require less muscular work from the trunk to control the body around the finish of the stroke.  Because of this, higher stroke ratings are needed to produce the same workload for a given piece.

I personally prefer training on the standard erg because I know it challenges my muscular system to a greater extent than compared to dynamic ergs.  Other athletes may prefer the reduced stress the dynamic ergs offer, trading higher ratings for equal work loads.
The better your muscular balance, strength and flexibility are, the easier it becomes to handle training on any machine at any workload.  Understanding your muscular perspective helps you make better decisions when purchasing or training on an ergometer.

All of the ergometer types mentioned here are effective at training the cardiovascular system, however they differ in the ways they challenge and train your muscular system.

Dedicated to Making You Faster, Stronger, and More Resistant to Injury.

Shiny Objects: Do they improve your performance? 

It depends…

By Coach Kaehler

 

With more and more training products — or what I refer to as ‘shiny objects’ — available on the market, how do you know which one is right for you?  To be honest, it can be a daunting task trying to distinguish one gadget from another, and then trying to understand just how they help you become stronger and faster in your sport.  To add to matters, some manufacturers include research (clinical results) and expect the average person to decipher them.  Here are some guidelines to consider if you’re thinking of purchasing some ‘shiny objects.’

Recently, a number of endurance athletes have asked my opinion about various exercise tools.  Exercise equipment, or shiny objects, that improves your training performance are what I refer to as your ‘external toolbox.’  These training devices include the ever-expanding ergometer market, bio-mechanical shoes and footboards, speed measuring apps, biomechanical assessment equipment, rowing specific weight training equipment, etc.  The list just keeps growing and growing.  And as the selection expands, so does the confusion regarding which shiny object is right for you.

As more shiny objects become available, it becomes increasingly difficult to find clarity on which one is right for your personal needs.  When I work with clients, I have them start the clarity process by writing down specific training goals.  Goals are wide and varied, but could include things like: improving technique, increasing speed, endurance, and/or power, or simply being able to train off-water without having potential injury issues, etc.

Once you’ve determined your goals, share them with your coach or training mates to see how adding a new shiny object to your training routine may help or perhaps hinder your progress.  If you don’t have a coach or other expert friends to consult, check the rowing blogs.  It’s easy to get caught up in the perceived benefits of a new shiny object.  However, when you’re considering purchasing new equipment, it’s also essential to understand how your current flexibility and strength (your internal tools) may limit the performance of these new tools.  In other words, ensure you have the necessary strength and flexibility to use your new shiny object effectively to maximize performance and not incur any potential injuries.

An accurate assessment of your current flexibility and strength, or what I call your ‘internal toolbox,’ is critical to helping you best achieve your training-related goals.  Training around significant imbalances not only reduces your potential, but also increases your risk of training-related injuries.  This is true with or without the use of shiny objects.   Understanding and having a plan on how to improve your ‘internal tools,’ is essential for every sport and will help you achieve the most bang for your buck.  In addition, by improving your internal toolbox, you’ll also improve the effectiveness of external tools –  shiny objects — as they help you build the proper foundation that leads to success.

Culprits that can hinder training success include inadequate sport-specific flexibility, and strength imbalances, or previous joint injury or  joint damage.   Your body works with your current toolbox.  Your mind isn’t concerned with the quality of the movement, but rather just focuses on getting the job done in the most efficient manner.  Imbalances lead to less-than-ideal movement strategies which can place undue stresses in less-than-ideal places (bones, discs, joints, etc.)

Bottom line: train smart and be balanced.  If you’re considering investing in shiny objects, understand your current flexibility and strength imbalances.  With this knowledge in hand, you’ll not only make more informed decisions about potentially costly purchases, but also, and just as important, maximize their potential to help you improve your training and race performance.

 

 

Improving your rowing technique by changing from the ‘inside’ out

By Coach Kaehler

 

Are you frustrated with your current rowing technique?  Tired of hearing your coach make the same comments to you over and over again?  You’ve been working hard to make the suggested changes, but feel like you’re getting nowhere.  Over time, both you and your coach accept your ‘rowing flaws” as inherent and permanent limitations.

 

Or are they?

 

Have you considered the possibility that given your current tools ‘inside’, you may not be physically able to make the desired changes ‘outside?’

 

Experienced coaches are aware of proper technique — how an athlete should look from an ‘outside’ perspective.  When coaches observe that an athlete is struggling with proper technique, they use drills to help improve the athlete’s sequencing.  If drills don’t work, then equipment is altered to help accommodate the corrections.  And when this fails, the self-perpetuating cycle of frustration continues.

 

Having experienced this cycle, you may be wondering, what now?  How can you break free of this cycle, improve your rowing technique, and finally move forward?  I see many athletes — junior through senior, and even elite level — caught in this frustrating and often painful cycle.  My advice to you is the same I have for them: change from the ‘inside’ out.  Improve from the ‘inside,’ and improve your odds for achieving your athletic goals on the ‘outside.’

 

Some may argue that athletes have achieved considerable rowing success with poor posture and less-desirable technique; that it’s perfectly acceptable to continue coaching from the ‘outside’ only.  From the perspective of a former elite athlete, strength and conditioning specialist, and physical therapist, I encourage you to think otherwise.  Athletes who have trained under these circumstances (with less-than-optimal tools ‘inside’) have also had a long history of injuries.  That’s a shame considering their injuries were avoidable in the first place had they identified and addressed their strength and flexibility deficits.

 

It’s important to be aware of your limitations ‘inside’ — your strength, your flexibility, and any imbalances that exist with these systems — and how they impact your rowing technique.  Many issues can cause a breakdown in rowing technique.  Sometimes a lack of mental focus can play a role.  More often than not, however, athletes don’t have the physical tools in their current arsenal to make the necessary changes no matter how hard they focus.  For this reason, coaches and athletes must understand the importance of assessing each individual to determine his or her own unique body balance deficits.  Outside the things we can’t change — limb and torso length and morphology — the good news is that we can certainly improve strength and flexibility deficits once we identify them.

 

Armed with this knowledge, coaches can better understand potential roadblocks to proper technique, address them, and end the cycle of frustration.  Both athletes and coaches will also appreciate the added benefits of reduced injury rates and prolonged racing seasons.  Clearly the more positive and productive route to successful athletic careers.

 

An example of understanding body balance issues as they relate to rowing involves a female athlete I worked with recently.  Rowing for a top prep school, this 3rd year rower had a PR of 7:52 when I started working with her.  After working with her for just four and a half months, she improved her PR to 7:24.

 

During my initial assessment of her rowing technique on the erg, I observed great rowing flexibility, so no corrective exercises were required in that area.  She also had good rowing posture.  I did notice, however, that her shins were way past the vertical and her seat was hitting the back of her calves.

 

During her Body Balance evaluation, however, I found moderate weakness in her hamstrings, abdominal muscles, hip flexors, rhomboids, and paraspinal muscles.  At that time, she wasn’t even able to get to a 90 degree position (thighs parallel to the ground) in the squat assessment.

 

All this to say, that while she looked good on the erg (aside from too much compression), she simply did not have the strength (‘inside’ tools) at the time, to generate power in her stroke.  In fact, her excessive compression took her way past her ideal range of power.

 

As we improved her tools ‘inside’ by identifying and addressing her areas of weakness, her stroke moved back to the correct amount of compression (shortened by about 3” on the slide).  As well, by the third month of working together, she was able to perform a full, deep squat without assistance.  Changing her tools ‘inside,’ increased her power dramatically on the ‘outside.’  No heavy or even moderate weight lifting required.  Just targeted, deficit-specific body balance exercises that ‘tightened’ up her system, and made it more efficient and powerful.

 

Bottom-line: improve your rowing technique by understanding your ‘inside’ — strength and flexibility limitations — and correcting them.  Trying to improve technique without correcting these changeable issues limits your true potential for athletic success on the ‘outside.’  Addressing your deficits will also decrease your risk of injuries, and enable you to enjoy a longer, more fulfilling athletic career.

 

The Erg: A essential tool for tracking intensity and consistency for rowing development

By Coach Kaehler

Do you track intensity levels when you’re training on the ergometer?  Coaches use rowing ergometers (ergs) to teach athletes how to properly pace themselves, and to how to monitor their changes in intensity (or power — measured in watts) over time with different types of training.  Erging is also a great way for athletes of all skill levels — especially novice and intermediate — to understand their rowing intensity, and how consistently they apply it.  Developing consistent and powerful strokes over longer periods of time and during repeated intervals, is one of the most effective ways to speed up your athletic development.

Achieving consistent results is essential to successful training and competing.  Mastering this skill leads to consistent power application and peak results.  The benefits of interval training are maximized when athletes achieve similar or exact results for all the intervals in a given session.  One common mistake many athletes make is the ‘fly and die method’ — where the first piece is real fast, then next is so-so, and the last tanks.  While there is some training benefit to this method, it is not nearly as effective as sustaining the same speed and intensity for all three pieces.

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Posture and Rowing

By Coach Kaehler

Posture is a culmination of life’s activities and tendencies.  At the same time, our posture inevitably reflects our effort and commitment to improving it, or in some cases not.  While ideal posture is different for each person, there are some key body alignment areas that are certain positions.  For example when your back is against a wall your ears should be directly over the shoulder joint and your head should be touching the wall with your chin parallel to the ground.   Infants and toddlers start out with a clean slate, and have an ideal body alignment from the get-go.  They are flexible and strong at the same time.  Like a world-class Olympic lifter, they can easily get into positions that many would cringe at.  Barring any genetic or birth defect, the fact is that most of us could still easily get into these ideal positions if we had perfect posture.  So what happened?  Life, gravity, and normal daily activities.  They slowly undermine our clean-slate posture.  Fortunately, one thing I have learned through my years of practice is that we are capable of restoring much of the flexibility and strength we once had through hard, consistent work and a solid well-balanced plan.

Gravity creates a constant pull on the body when we are standing, sitting, or rowing in a boat.   Years of postural neglect lead to the development of poor postural habits, and the inability to maintain good posture for more than a few moments.  Poor standing posture only gets worse when you get in a boat.  When we stand, our hips are free to move forward and back as we do in daily activities.  However, in a boat, we lose this ability and the hips shift the force to other areas of the body, namely the trunk and lower extremities.   Keeping the spine in a good upright position then becomes difficult and tiring, especially when you have flexibility and strength limitations.   A common rowing posture is what I call the “turtle shell”, or “rounded” position, where the spine (low and mid-back) are flexed or rounded.   This spine position places increased stress on the passive tissues of the spine and ribs (discs, ligament, and bone).  While the spine is amazingly resilient, prolonged periods of rowing at high intensity and volumes ultimately lead to back and rib injuries.

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How are you finding more length in your rowing stroke?

 

By Coach Kaehler

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.

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Ease into the Catch Part 2

By Coach Kaehler

Do you use momentum to get the last few inches of reach as you approach the catch?  Or do you get there with freedom and ease?  Your body, like all physical objects, follows the path of least resistance.  Your catch length — the distance your hips and shoulders travel into the stern — can vary based on your flexibility and strength.    Good flexibility and strength allows freedom and ease when approaching the catch, while deficits can create the need to use momentum to force your final, and less-than-ideal catch position.

The catch is a fundamental component of the rowing stroke.  How we achieve this position varies based on our individual body type, flexibility, strength, and technique.  With good flexibility and strength, the hip-shoulder position (fig. 1) can be set early in the recovery to create a strong body posture by the body-over position.  Once this position is set, the remainder of the recovery simply involves sliding the hips into the catch position (fig. 2).   Poor flexibility and / or strength can alter proper sequencing which can force the rower to use momentum to achieve adequate reach length.   Changing the hip-shoulder relationship on the second half of the recovery can lead to a less powerful position at the catch, which in turn can increase the risk of training-related injuries.

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Acceleration and Deceleration in Rowing

- Don’t Forget your Springs when you’re Training your Engine and Pump.

By Coach Kaehler

Rowing, like all sports, involves acceleration and deceleration of the body.   To make this happen, our muscles assume the role of springs – they apply and absorb force to a given object.   If we think of our body as a car, then our muscular system would be our engine and shock absorbers, our cardiovascular system would provide our fuel, and our bones, ligaments and tendons would serve as our frame.  Endurance training tends to focus primarily on improving our engines and fuel – rightly so.  However, the flip-side of this kind of conditioning is that we often neglect our shock absorbers.   And weakness in the shock absorbers can then result in injuries to the frame.

Regardless of the activity, the majority of sports-related injuries occur at the peak points of acceleration or deceleration of the body.  The forces required to control these sudden changes in body momentum can create an overwhelming stress to the frame.  If your springs (muscle strength) are too weak to absorb to these forces, then your frame gets damaged.

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Ease Into The Catch

By Coach Kaehler

Have you ever been told that you need to get more reach at the catch?

Whether you are 5’6” (167cm) or 6’4” (193cm), good reach at the catch is important.   Proper hip flexibility and/or strength are essential to make this happen.  When athletes do not have proper hip flexibility at the catch, quick solutions include either lowering the feet or sitting on a butt pad.  A more effective and long-term approach is to identify your hip flexibility, and if necessary, improve it.

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Proper “Core” Exercises can get you Back on the Erg, Pain-free!

-Indoor rowing can be a pain in the back. But it’s nothing that better core strength can’t fix.

By Coach Kaehler

“Because there is no change of direction on the ergometer, your muscular system is responsible for 100 percent of the energy that is required to change direction.”

One of the greatest things about rowing outdoors is hearing and feeling the water rushing beneath you on the recovery. The sudden increase in speed at the release is one of the most incredible and addictive sensations in our sport. There is none of this on the erg. Your trunk is dead weight every stroke—you stop the momentum into the bow, restart it as you head back to the catch, and repeat ad nauseum.

Because there is no change of direction on the ergometer, your muscular system is responsible for 100 percent of the energy that is required to change direction from the finish to the recovery. On the water, that number is lower depending on how well you suspend your body weight through the drive and at the finish. The better your suspension, the less stress you place on your body. But the erg is the “truth teller.” It shows who has the internal tools (muscular strength) to handle the stress of the erg, and who does not, which manifests itself in lower-back pain.

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Balance Your Rowing Program

By Coach Kaehler

Do you feel the need to try and balance out your rowing program by cross-training?  Most of us want to be better, stronger and healthier rowers.  However our commitments to work, family, and other life issues make it hard to find the time to get in additional non-rowing workouts.   Simply adding  two or three 20-minute strength/core training sessions will add balance to your current program, and  lead to better, stronger and healthier rowing.   These sessions can be used as a quick warm-up before training, or can be done by as a separate training session.

You can create your own 20-minute balancing program by doing some strengthening exercises that target the opposing (antagonist) muscles to those which are used on the drive of the rowing stroke.  We can break up these exercises into the upper body and trunk, and the lower body.  While the major muscles (quads, glutes, low back, and rhomboids )used on the drive of the stroke are aggressively working to propel the boat/erg forward, the antagonists are working to provide support and control of the body,  and work at a lower level of intensity.  The antagonist muscles include the hamstrings, upper and lower abdominals, hip flexors and pectoral muscles to name a few.  These antagonist muscles play an important role during the drive of the stroke by maintaining a strong body position.  The opposition work the agonists provide creates the platform needed for complete body suspension during the drive.

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Cram Session

- Build strength, endurance, and power by combining your weights and water workouts.

By Coach Kaehler

While we all want to be stronger and faster, finding time to add strength training into your current rowing program is a common problem. One option is to combine your strength training and rowing into one session. Choosing which comes first depends on your goals for the workout. Some prefer rowing after their muscles are already fatigued from a strength-training session. Others will want to row while they are fresh. And there will be some who are fine alternating which comes first.
Getting your strength-training session in before you row is a great way to warm up. It also helps improve your strength and flexibility. Circuit training with light (10 to 30 percent of body weight) to moderate (30 to 65 percent) weight is an excellent way to stress the neuromuscular system without over taxing it just before a session on the water or erg.

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A Balanced Approach

- “When working your core, remember to pay attention to your posterior muscles”

By Coach Kaehler

If your training program includes core exercises, make sure you also incorporate posterior core work to keep your routine balanced. With core training focusing largely on the abdominal and anterior trunk musculature, the posterior muscles tend to get less attention. These include the thoracic and lumbar paraspinal muscles—muscles on either side of the spine—the glutes, and the hamstrings. Each of these groups play an important role in helping to control the spine when the upper and/or lower extremities resist against it, with or without movement and with or without external weight.

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Core Beliefs

-To increase power and reduce the risk of injury, focus on your trunk strength.

By Coach Kaehler

Are you incorporating core- or trunk-strengthening exercises into your training program? And if so, what are you actually trying to accomplish with them? Your body’s core consists of the musculature around the trunk that controls anterior, posterior, and lateral forces placed through the spine when rowing, lifting, exercising, or performing other body movements. Making the trunk or core the point of stability for the legs and arms to work from is key to improving your rowing power and helps reduce the risk of low-back injury.
There are four categories of core exercises: fixed trunk with moving legs; fixed legs with moving trunk; fixed arms and legs; and all extremities moving. We can then break down each category according to how the trunk is positioned to the work or gravity (anterior, posterior, standing, lateral, etc) and how the work is applied to the trunk. Improving trunk strength is one way to increase rowing power, and using exercises from each of the above categories will help you develop balanced trunk strength. (Many training programs focus solely on improving anterior trunk strength.)

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Proper Body Positioning

- Where your head/vision goes, so goes the body.

Written by Coach Kaehler:

Are you stuck on the ergometer now that winter has set in?  For those of you who must train indoors this winter, now is a great time to work on proper body posture while cranking out the meters on the erg.  Rowing with proper body posture, or biomechanics, through the winter training season can help to reinforce good habits now, and better prepare you for a solid on- the-water season once the ice melts.  One big advantage of using an ergometer is that it allows you to get instant feedback on your body posture and technique during the rowing stroke.    An easy way to quickly assess your posture and rowing technique is to place mirrors in front and alongside the rowing machine, or by using a video camera to record your rowing stroke.  Either method allows you to get quick feedback and make the necessary adjustments to improve your rowing posture and technique.    Although ideal rowing posture varies among coaches, most would agree on keeping your  spine in an extended, upright position (Figure 1, yellow line) rather than in a C- shape (Figure 2, yellow line), at  the catch, during the drive, and on the recovery of the rowing stroke.  Your spine connects the power from your legs through the arms onto the handle, much like a transmission in an automobile. The spine, when remaining stable, acts as a harness to transmit all of the force from the legs during the first half of the drive.  During the second half of the drive, the spine begins to generate its own force along with the arms to help complete  a powerful stroke.  A solid rowing posture improves your ability to maintain effective body suspension on the drive, leading to a smoother and more rhythmic recovery.  Improving your rowing posture requires specific attention to several areas, including proper head position, hamstring flexibility and solid trunk strength.

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