World Rowing looked at the question of pain and synchronous movement in a conversation with Dr. Emma Cohen at Great Britain’s University of Oxford in 2016 here. 

This time, we reached out to Canada’s Zak Lewis to talk about how his team’s work has carried forward research into what scientists call the “Synchrony Effect” in rowers.

Synchrony effect

“The effect has been demonstrated in a few different ways,” says Lewis, whose own investigation was done as part of a Masters of Science degree at Brock University in St. Catharines, Canada before taking on his current role as Head Coach at the Ottawa Rowing Club.

“Basically, when people move together with some degree of effort, if you compare pain tolerance before and after, they are able to tolerate a higher level of pain after,” he explains. “This is not just because they were moving, the effect has something to do with the fact that they matched up with others.”

“Much of the research has come at this from an anthropological standpoint,” says Lewis. “We can see the effect in many places from soldiers marching in lock-step to rhythmic drumming and even singing in groups. Previous investigations have looked at a number of different group sizes, but no one had investigated the relative impact of group size on pain tolerance. That’s what we set out to do in a rowing context.”

Does group size matter?

“My supervisor at Brock University, Dr. Philip Sullivan, had already done some rowing-specific work highlighting that people erging side by side in synchrony could tolerate more pain than when doing the same training individually,” Lewis says. “So we built on that to look at whether increasing the number of rowers erging synchronously would improve the pain tolerance even more.”

Keeping consistent with Cohen’s original study, Lewis used a modified blood pressure cuff that can cause incrementally higher levels of discomfort by squeezing the arm tighter and tighter.

“What we found was group size does matter in at least one sense,” he says. “There wasn’t a significant difference in the amount of pain anyone could tolerate during hard erging, but there was a big difference in the duration of the analgesic effect.”

In other words, although both large and small groups of rowers were able to tolerate about the same amount of pain when they were tested immediately after hard erging, the small-group rowers quickly lost their ability to handle higher discomfort.

As Lewis sifted through the data, the full extent of the effect was surprising. “When the groups were tested again at five and ten minutes after their erg, not only did the large group hold onto their higher pain tolerance,” says Lewis, “their tolerance kept going up.”

For Lewis, the real-world implications of this research are clear: “Every rower can relate to the sensation of pulling harder in a crew boat than on their own,” he says. “The findings of this study take the first step in proving just that. With this in mind, if rowers want to pull lower splits on the erg or row faster on the water, they should try erging in synch with a group or rowing in a crew boat. The larger the group, the longer lasting the effect.”

For all that, as head coach at a club with almost 1000 members unable to get too close to one another due to the current COVID-19 lockdown measures, Lewis is sympathetic to those who have to push through the pain of erging or single sculling on their own.

“I think it just fires everyone up to get back into group training,” Lewis says.

More questions than answers

As for other practical applications of this lingering ability to handle higher doses of pain, Lewis is eager for future researchers to add their pieces to the puzzle of pain tolerance.

“There are a few big questions that I don’t think the research has answered yet,” says Lewis. “The age question is fascinating. I would love to see someone take that one step further and ask how rowers from teenagers through to older adults are impacted by group synchrony.”

“Similarly,” he suggests, “while we know that the more closely rowers match their movements, the stronger the synchrony effect, we have yet to figure out what is going on at the psychological level. What is it about athletes’ experience of synchronous movement that leads to reduced perceptions of pain? How much of an effect does rowing in synch have on what they are feeling?”

“Another question is trying to separate out the physiological factors from what is happening psychologically,” adds Lewis.

As for another well-known analgesic – music, read World Rowing’s article on this here. Lewis thinks the combination of music and group synchrony in rowing is another exciting field of research just waiting to be studied.

“There is definitely research (in runners) showing that music can create a similar analgesic effect, but I don’t think anyone has looked at whether synchronous group exercise and music would work together for an even greater effect. Anecdotally, it makes sense to me that the effect would be compounded.”