Think again about the symmetry of rowing
We naturally think of rowing in terms of perfect synchronization, blades entering the water timed to the millisecond, with perfect symmetry of oars and limbs. It is a powerful image, a trope so ingrained in the popular conception of the sport as to become almost cliche. Yet even when it comes to what seems like the most symmetrical type of rowing – single sculling – it may be time to think again.
Resent research from Australia’s University of Sydney suggests that asymmetries may actually be beneficial for speed and are in any event an integral component of an elite sculler’s stroke.
World Rowing spoke with Dr. John Warmenhoven, lead author of Force coordination strategies in on-water single sculling: Are asymmetries related to better rowing performance? This was published recently in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/sms.13031
Warmenhoven’s study group involved Australian national and international rowers with a high level of ability in the single.
“I think the overarching conclusion was that asymmetries in propulsive force application are a normal part of rowing during on-water single sculling,” Warmenhoven says of the rowers involved in the study. “Regardless of what skill level, all athletes possessed some form of asymmetry across the drive phase.”
Where past research has looked at port-starboard asymmetries in terms of peak force, Warmenhoven’s team used new statistical techniques to crunch data collected through the entire drive phase and determine how differences affect boat speed.
“In this data set, international athletes were more likely to have asymmetry curves with increased stroke-side (port) force early in the drive phase and increased bow-side (starboard) force through the second half of the drive,” says Warmenhoven. “This was likely the result of international performers modifying their movements relative to a mechanical or rigging offset (where the oars sit slightly apart both vertically and horizontally across the stroke).”
Interestingly, the international level scullers they looked at also showed a far greater range of asymmetry patterns from one rower to another. This result, says Warmenhoven suggests that “international athletes were much better at adapting their stroke to find an approach that suits them.”
What it all means
Although it may be tempting to conclude that focusing on symmetry is an idea whose time has run out, Warmenhoven isn’t so fast to abandon the evidence for building up both sides of a sculler’s strength equally.
“Given that the international athletes had a much larger range of asymmetry patterns, this reinforces that athletes explore a range of different scenarios before settling on a strategy that works for them,” he says. “Having balanced and symmetrical strength would still be important though to allow for this ‘exploration’ process to take place.”
Although it is true that in a traditional training context, most of these differences between a sculler’s port to starboard force curves would not even be on the radar for coaches and rowers, times are changing fast.
The rise of powerful technological tools and real-time feedback make it more pressing than ever that coaches and rowers understand what an ideal stroke – or at least an ideal range for a sequence of strokes – looks like as rowers and coaches seek out even greater gains in boat speed.
“I think it’s important for coaches and athletes to understand that sometimes things like asymmetries are a reaction relative to environmental surroundings,” he continues, referring to things like weather, water and course conditions. “To expect a rower to have perfect symmetrical force output would be incorrect.”
While he does not believe there is any need to change the fundamentals of how sculling is coached, Warmenhoven hopes that his team’s research can serve to give both scullers and coaches a deeper appreciation for what is happening in the stroke.