“One performs at the level of the crew,” wrote American rower Stephen Kiesling in his 1982 book The Shell Game. “When every part of each body says stop, inexplicably the boat still continues.”

While rowers seem to endure unthinkable amounts of pain, the question persists: do rowers actually have a higher pain tolerance than athletes in other sports?

Research at the University of Oxford in Great Britain may have some light to shed on the matter, and the answer appears to have less to do with rowers than with the nature of how rowers train and move together.

World Rowing spoke with Dr. Emma Cohen about the research she and her colleagues have undertaken on the topic. Their findings were published in two articles: “Rower’s High: Behavioural Synchrony is Correlated with Elevated Pain Thresholds” in the journal Biological Letters in 2009 and “Social Bonds and Exercise: Evidence for a Reciprocal Relationship” in the online journal PLOS ONE in 2015.

Behavioural synchrony

Cohen and colleagues concluded from their research that engaging in synchronous behavior was a key part of withstanding higher thresholds of pain – such as rowers moving in time with one another. This isn’t exactly new information, but there are many unanswered questions according to Cohen.

“The mechanisms are still not known,” she says, “nor indeed the specific aspects of synchronous behaviour that trigger them. It may have to do with the social reward or social support mechanisms, or both. Both have known associations with the body’s pain and pleasure mechanisms, such as the endogenous opioid and endocannabinoid systems.”

In other words, it isn’t just moving together that is dulling the pain, but rather the perception of togetherness – of being part of something greater than oneself – that synchronous behaviour creates.

Kiesling described this as a sense of being inescapably bound within a crew. “Individual limitations reassert themselves only when the race is over,” he wrote; “only then is the body released from the tyranny of the shell and allowed to vomit, lose consciousness or gracefully expire.”

But how exactly is a sense of social cohesion linked to the ability to push harder?

It comes down to trust                                                         

“Togetherness and cohesion are important indicators of the quality of social bonds among individuals,” explains Cohen. “The effects of social reward and support on pain depend not just on the presence of others, but on the quality of the relationships – people in close relationships support one another and can rely on each other when the chips are down.”

The bonds of trust that exist in tight-knit teams take on an even greater significance in light of this information. It’s in our genes to seek out and benefit from the support of others. “Humans have evolved self-regulatory systems (in pain and other area) that take such social support into account,” Cohen says.

Implications for training

So what does this mean exactly for how rowers train and compete? Is group training more valuable than individual training; what about situations like a selection camp, where you could be racing for your seat on a daily basis?

“There are likely various implications for training, depending on the specific goals,” says Cohen. “We have not tested any interventions for improved performance or competitiveness in training and selection, but the implications of our work (and a lot of other work by others) are that individuals may get more out of their bodies, eg via raised fatigue and pain thresholds, if they are assured of and can feel the supportive bonds of others around them.”

The question of what role personality has to play in this is something Cohen hopes to address in future. “We are starting to look into this in more recent experiments,” she says.  “Individuals who score highly on certain personality characteristics may be more impervious to the effects of social support than others.”

Although synchronous movement is what these studies looked at, “the effects of support may potentially be signalled in many ways,” explains Cohen, “not just synchrony. Whether it generalises across different skill levels is an interesting question; in rowing specifically, synchrony is not just something that can be seen or heard, but it is viscerally felt in the body and the movement of the boat.”

“I imagine that this places higher demands on getting it ‘just right’, and therefore on expertise, but perhaps also generates greater rewards,” she hypothesizes. “Individuals’ contributions are indistinguishable and this leads to a feeling that others amplify one’s own efforts.”

Kiesling seems to have agreed that there is a point at which things come together for a crew and this is where the magic happens. “Ordinarily the limitation of a crew is its weakest member,” he wrote; “however, at the moment of transcendence, which oarsmen refer to as swing, the limit of the crew is beyond the strongest.”

Perhaps there is a new ring of truth to the old adage that a crew really is greater than the sum of its parts.