Boat speed for rowers has come to use the universal standard of ‘per 500 metres’ World Rowing asked the question ‘why has this split measurement come about?’ Here’s what we found out.

Whether in a boat or on the indoor rowing machine, the 500m split is an expression of a rowers’ speed relative to a distance of 500m. The term is often used in two related but different ways:

1)      a projected time of how long it would take to cover 500m at a rower’s current speed
2)     the actual time taken to cover 500m (e.g. race results showing times for each 500m)

Projecting speed
The first of these uses is probably what comes to mind for anyone who has sat on an indoor rower. The 500m split is usually the biggest number on the screen. Even the newest rowers learn quickly that pushing harder lowers the big number, while easing off increases it.

Yet for most of rowing’s history, rowing speed has been difficult to measure in real time.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Nielsen-Kellerman’s (NK) SpeedCoach brought practical real-time speed measurement into the boat. The real game changer, however, had come a decade earlier in the form of a little black box, not on the water, but attached to an ergometer.

NK’s founders, Richard Kellerman and Paul Nielsen, had struck up a short but crucial partnership with brothers Dick and Peter Dreissigacker, who had masterminded the Concept2 indoor rower.

“The original Concept2 Model A indoor rower had a bike speedometer and a red needle,” remembers Alix James, current CEO and President of NK. “Dick said ‘we need something better’, so Paul figured out how to measure power output between acceleration and deceleration.”

The resulting performance monitor provided – by all accounts for the first time – the capacity to show a rower’s speed from stroke to stroke. “I don’t think it existed before that,” says James, pointing out that it was Dick’s idea to do pace in terms of 500m splits.”

The use of stroke-by-stroke 500m splits in real time was new, but it built on what was already there says Dick Dreissigacker. Five hundred metres was both a typical training interval as well one quarter of a 2000m race,” he says. “It was logical to get split times at the 500s.”

Breaking up the race
Although it is hard to imagine a time before 500m splits, accurate measurement of boat speed was not always so accessible. “Historically, the only way to measure speed was to time how long it took to row between two points,” says Peter Dreissigacker.

At almost two hundred years old, the Cambridge-Oxford Boat Races are an example where crews and coxswains, even today, will pace their race as much by the time taken between bridges and turns as the 500m split for each stroke. The Head of the Charles in the United States also follows in this tradition.

In fact, it was only in the 20th century that 2000m gradually became the sport’s global standard

The first 500
“I believe the first 500m [times] were published at the Rome Olympics in 1960 in conjunction with FISA’s [the World Rowing Federation] introduction of the buoyed ‘Albano System’,” says Kent Mitchell, coxswain for the US men’s coxed pair at the Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964 Games.

Mitchell saw the potential in FISA’s dataset that provided elapsed times at each 500m mark of the race. “As competitors, we were interested in each 500m time also,” he says, “so I published a complete set of those individual 500m splits.”

In 1968, Mitchell took things to the next level. “I developed the first 500m split computer programme graphically depicting boats at each mark,” he says. First used internationally at the 1970 World Rowing Championships in Canada, Mitchell’s programme would help secure a place for splits on future results sheets.

While having official elapsed and split times for each 500m race segment simplified things, 500m as a benchmark predates Mitchell’s efforts. “Before that we were all doing a lot of hand calculations on our own races to determine which crews were likely to fade in the latter stages of the race,” he says.

Measuring time
Discovering the birthplace of 500m splits takes us back another decade according to former Czechoslovakian rower Bob Janousek, who headed Britain’s national team through the 1970s.

“As far as I remember 500m splits originated with the famous German coach Karl Adam,” says Janousek. He “introduced interval training to rowing in late 1950s and used 500m as interval pieces. This distance began to be used to compare the fluctuation of the speed over the racing course.”

Michael Socolow, American academic and media historian at the University of Maine, believes the origin of the 500m split can be seen far earlier. “I agree that the idea of four 500m segments being used as the metric for analytics and practice became the standard after World War II and it was a European idea, but the basic idea existed as a measuring stick earlier.”

Socolow, whose extensive research on the now-famous University of Washington crew that won gold at the Berlin 1936 Olympics, is published in his book “Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics”, says the idea was in the air.

“US school didn’t race 2k,” Socolow says of domestic American regattas at the time, “but I’m quite sure that once in Princeton for the Olympic trials, and then again in Berlin, the UW squad broke the race into four 500m segments. They regularly practiced the starting 500m [and their coach] timed them in 500m splits in practice.”

While Socolow suggests that it goes back even further, perhaps we will never really know the true origin. The question of nailing down the first time anyone clocked a rower over 500m may be as old as the metric system itself – coincidentally about as old as the modern sport of rowing.

“Since time immemorial we have used 500m split times,” says Penny Chuter, whose own sculling career and time as Chief Coach and then Performance Director for Britain’s national team overlapped with Janousek. She may not be far off.