A recent study in the Croatian Medical Journal looked at data from the 2007 World Rowing Masters Regatta to analyse injuries in masters rowers. The study was carried out by some of rowing’s top medical experts including Dr Tomislav Smoljanovic who is also a member of World Rowing’s Sports Medicine Commission. World Rowing talked to Smoljanovic about the study.

What to watch out for?

One thousand masters from a range of ages, out of the total 2910 competitors at the World Rowing Masters Regatta were invited to take part in a ‘cross sectional’ study.

About one quarter of all competitors, in the end, agreed to share their injury data with the researchers. “Thirty-three per cent (158 men and 90 women) had sustained 359 injuries,” Smoljanovic explains of the number of total injuries these rowers had experienced during their rowing careers. This meant that some athletes had undergone more than one injury.

“The most common site of both acute [short term] and chronic [long term] injuries was the low back,” says Smoljanovic.

Outside of low back pain, for the younger age groups, (27-42 years) they “sustained more injuries in the lower body (pelvis/groin/buttock/hip/thigh, knee, and lower leg)” compared with those older. For rowers in age class F (60 years and older) the non-low back areas most frequently injured were the opposite to their younger colleagues.

“These rowers sustained more injuries in the upper body (neck/cervical spine, elbow, lower arm, and wrist) compared with younger groups.”

“This is important to note,” says Smoljanovic, because it “is in contrast to earlier findings of injury patterns in juniors and senior rowers. It is recognised that people aged 60 and over experience a decrease in strength and balance with ageing.”

Smoljanovic suggests that the reason behind more upper body injuries may be due to older rowers changing their technique to rely more on the upper body. “Increased or more pronounced use of upper extremities might result in higher frequency of overuse injuries.”

Changes in rowing technique from a lower body oriented stroke, to greater upper body use in the 60+ age groups may also be, according to Smoljanovic, a reason for the increased risk of low back pain. Low back pain is something generally more associated with heavy training loads and especially ergometer training sessions longer than 30 minutes.

“In rowers from group F and older, the average length of training sessions on the ergometer is shorter than 30 minutes,” says Smoljanovic. “Yet masters rowers from the F age group and older who cannot perform longer training sessions on the ergometer - due to the functional decrease in strength and balance - are more prone to acute injuries in the low back even when performing shorter distances.”

Thus, an older rower’s ability to handle training distances of longer than 30 minutes is important to staying relatively free from low back injury.

Advice for keeping injury free

When it comes to keeping injury free, or at least reducing the risk, Smoljanovic can offer some advice. “Based on our findings we can give a few directions which would decrease risk of injuries,” he says.

“First, master rowers in C, D and E groups should follow traffic rules more closely,” says Smoljanovic. While not rowing into anything – like another boat or a dock – may sound like common sense, the researchers found that younger masters were actually at greatest risk of injuries related bumping into things.

“Second, engaging in multiple cross-training modalities per rower were related to significantly more rowers sustaining acute injuries,” Smoljanovic continues. Although saying the more types of training someone does can increase the risk of injuries may be technically true, he was also clear that “the majority of the injuries experience by master rowers in our research remained of low severity, i.e. they did not cause long-lasting loss of training or competition time.”

So, the take home message for master rowers is; be aware and understand what your body is telling you.

“Master rowers are experienced athletes,” says Smoljanovic. “They are familiar with their locomotion system. We are aware that athletes always push limits further away, but even they should accept that there are certain limitations related to biology and physical rules. Once they sustain an injury, they should follow suggestions of their medical team and coach and respect the time required for healing. After the injury is healed, a gradual return to rowing activities is advised.”

“Regular rowing provides a number of health benefits to the masters athlete,” Smoljanovic concludes. “Such as improving serum cholesterol levels and preventing sarcopenia and bone weakening. As a non-high-impact sport, rowing is suitable for people who have had total hip or knee arthroplasty.

“These benefits, together with the positive psychological impact of camaraderie inside and outside of the boat, are the reasons why there are so many master rowers worldwide and why the master regatta is the largest FISA rowing events.”

Research paper here.

Reference: Smoljanović T, Bohaček I, Hannafin J, Nielsen HB, Hren D, Bojanić I. Sport injuries in international masters rowers: a cross-sectional study. Croat Med J. 2018;59:258-266.