On water, off water. What makes a rower faster?
It seems to go without saying that the more time spent on the water rowing, the better for improvement. But could taking some time away from the boat actually help make you faster?
In his decades of work with Canada’s National Rowing Team, Al Morrow has faced the fact of frozen water 3-4 months of every year.
“As you can imagine,” he says, “I am a believer that one does not need to train year round on the water.”
“Of course it is best to row for rowing,” admits Morrow, “but it is not always possible and thus for many years we have had to adapt our training plans and in doing this, have found many useful ways to train on the land. In fact there may be many reasons that land training may be beneficial.”
Morrow isn’t alone in thinking this. “I am a big fan of taking some time away from the water in the winter,” says Bernhard Stomporowski, Head Coach at the California Rowing Club, USA. His opinion may seem odd for a club where it is possible to train year-round on the water, but he has some good reasons behind his claim.
To everything a season
“Most of our rowers are not perfect and struggle with technical changes,” says Stomporowski, whose club is home to some of America’s top development athletes. “Through the requirement of significant on-water mileage, any technical mistake can deepen throughout the autumn and winter rowing. As a coach, you can only work so much on technical improvements.”
“In my experience,” he continues, “time out of the boat helps to loosen up the pattern in the rowing stroke, which I am trying to correct. It seems easier after a break to correct things.”
Morrow agrees and says that time off the water “allows one to target specific areas of fitness and in some cases weaknesses.”
He also suggests that the added focus on ergo training in the winter months, “allows one to be better prepared for many of the evaluations we do in rowing. Erg testing is likely a little more valid when a rower trains periodically on the erg.”
Erging aside, Morrow also feels the opportunity to do various types of cross training as a way to “establish balance in one’s athletic abilities by allowing one to be well rounded as an athlete.” And Morrow also notes, “variety in training brings with it inherent psychological benefits.”
The reality of winter
Reduced day-light hours are another reality of training in high latitude countries like Canada. For Morrow, that’s one more positive mental association with indoor training that “allows one to train year round regardless of day light as well as water conditions.”
Along with a compressed day, rower’s schedules can seem more loaded throughout the winter months. Unless you’re training on a national team (and often even if you are), there are many demands on your time beyond rowing including studies, work and family. “A dry-land season can be more efficient time wise for rowers who are strapped for time,” says Morrow.
Stomporowski sees another psychological benefit as well: giving the coach a mental break. “For me as a coach, taking a break from seeing the same thing day-in day-out, helps me to tackle the problems from a new angle,” he says. “Sometimes I have to recognise that some technical issues have become more of a fixation for me than they are real problems for the rower.”
But, if you have the water…
While taking some time away from the boat can definitely have significant benefits for both athletes and coaches, there are equally compelling reasons to take advantage of access to water year-round.
“Almost all training weeks involve some on-water rowing in our programme,” says Jimmy Clarke, chief physiologist for the South African National Rowing Team. “We feel that the preparation specificity, continuity and enjoyment offered by year-round on-water rowing serves us well and we embrace it.”
“While on-water rowing is the mainstay of our programme, land-based training meets important needs in our annual plan,” Clarke continues. “Land-based training modalities all have merits in their own right, so we do choose to incorporate them year-round for specific training aims.”
Would you ask a runner to stop running?
“I don’t see any reason to take someone away from the water,” says South Africa’s Head Rowing Coach, Roger Barrow. “You aren’t going to ask a runner to stop running.”
Barrow thinks of this as a matter of efficiency. “I believe in this sport you want to take as much time as possible to master the art of rowing,” he says. “With a team that aren’t big erg pullers, we’re spending more time mastering the art of feeling the boat and understanding it.”
While his programme does see periods of comparatively lower on-water volume complimented with increased dry-land activities, everything is done with an eye to the boat. “The ergo is one of my best training tools,” says Barrow. “We row the ergo the way we want to row the boat.”
While he acknowledges that more time on the water and a focus on “rowing” the ergo can lead to slower ergo scores, Barrow says he sees “good returns on the water.”
In the eye of the beholder
“The irony of the topic is that people who are from climates where they can row year-round often understand and promote year-round rowing as the best,” Morrow concludes, “while people in climates that do not allow year-round rowing become experts on alternate methods of training and also accept this as a norm in a year-round plan.”
Ultimately, the best training for rowing is undoubtedly rowing. Yet the change in pace that a period of off-water training brings can be just the thing to keep coaches and athletes engaged and looking at training and technical improvements in new, exciting ways from year to year.