Lightweight rowing was introduced to the Olympic programme in 1996 and its primary purpose was to make rowing more accessible around the world. Usually top rowers stay it the same weight class for their entire international career, but this year saw a number of elite rowers change their weight and change their boat class.

Heavyweight men can be any weight, for the lightweights they must be below 72.5kg or part of a 70kg crew average. For women lightweights they must weigh below 59kg or an average crew weight of 57kg.

Lately there have been some high profile names that have opted to change their weight class. Hayden Cohen of New Zealand rowed and medalled at both the junior and under-23 level as a heavyweight rower. Then in 2015 Cohen - brother of Olympic Champion Nathan Cohen - changed to the lightweight men's double sculls. Rowing at the elite level as a heavyweight and having an unsuccessful season led Cohen to re-evaluate how he would progress in the sport.

"I was always a relatively small heavyweight compared to my peers. I needed to lose about 8-10kgs, not all at once though. So I set out on some good healthy eating and hard training to try and loose some fat while maintaining as much strength as possible."

Cohen's decision to change to lightweight was his own and he also chose his own weight loss path. "I lost the weight in a way that I was comfortable and happy to do. I lost the initial 5 or 6kgs in about 4-6 weeks. This got me to 'winter' lightweight. I then slowly lost the rest when I needed to for racing."

In the boat Cohen says he feels remarkably the same. "My strengths and weaknesses may have changed slightly," says Cohen. "But at the end of the day rowing comes down to a lot of hard work and technical development. I probably do row differently. Being a lightweight you have a little less weight behind the handle and need to row as efficiently as possible."

Peter Taylor (b), Hayden Cohen (s), New Z_ © FISA Igor Meijer

Race preparation, however, takes on a new dimension for Cohen. "As a heavy weight you just eat and eat. However as a lightweight you have to be a bit more mindful as a bad decision at a meal time can be detrimental to your racing." 

The 2014 World Champion from the lightweight women's single sculls, Eveline Peleman of Belgium went the opposite way to Cohen. She moved to the heavyweight boat class to keep her Olympic dreams alive. The lightweight double is the only Olympic lightweight boat class for women and Peleman says the pool of elite rowers is so small in Belgium that there was no one to row a double with, so Peleman decided to try for an Olympic spot in the open women's single sculls.

Training, Peleman says, did not alter significantly apart from a small increase in weightlifting. Coming into the 2015 season Peleman was 7kg heavier so she says going back to lightweight would not be an option at present.

Eveline Peleman, Belgium, Women's Single _ © Detlev Seyb/MyRowingPhoto.com

Germany's Lars Hartig began his rowing career as a lightweight, including the London 2012 Olympic Games in the lightweight men's double sculls. "Then my partner stopped," says Hartig. "I have to say that as a lightweight I had a really good time, I could celebrate lots of successes but now the time had come to change."

Each year Hartig was finding it harder to get to lightweight weight. "After the (Olympic) Games it was getting worse. The weight for the (lightweight) single was ok for me and this is certainly something that pushed me to the decision to become heavyweight.

"The most difficult (as a lightweight) was mentally, as it was always hard to be on a diet all the time. I had no pleasure in life. I had lost the pleasure to row. It was all about the discipline necessary to make weight and even after the race I couldn’t really enjoy life. I couldn’t even go out with my friends as I had no energy, I was always thinking about food and it was really obsessive. It was not healthy."

Hartig now weighs 86kg and is enjoying being heavyweight. "I can focus more on the race itself and not on my weight and the scales. Before it was first the weigh-in and then the race. It also changes my recovery. I recover much quicker and I can focus more on training as I don’t have to think about food. I always have energy now when I go to train."

Often lightweight rowers race at a higher stroke rate than their heavyweight counterparts, but Hartig has not felt any difference. "I even have the feeling that I have more power now at the end of the race, I have more energy." Peleman similarly does not notice a difference. "As a lightweight I always raced at low rate so it’s the same."

Both Hartig and Peleman experienced a marked improvement on the ergometer. "That really came quickly," says Hartig. "I was ten seconds faster than last year on the erg. I am now at 6:01 (for 2000m in summer 2015). I feel much stronger. I have more muscle so I can push harder. But I also have a bit more endurance."