Weighing in on the science of rowing
The range of books on the medical side of rowing are limited. World Rowing looks at the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Handbook of Sport Medicine and Science for Rowing with the help of medical doctor and rower, Jane Thornton.
Thornton, a World Champion and Olympic rower from Canada has researched a number areas around the science and medicine of rowing and she has observed a growth in the field since the book was published in 2007. Thornton weighs in on the book's contents and the changes in the world of rowing sport medicine.
The book’s stated aim is “to guide and help athletes and coaches in their training, testing and team selection.” This is a lofty objective in such a concise publication and, as Thornton points out, “the task is not an easy one.”
“Some aspects of our sport,” she says, “evolve relatively quickly – think nutrition and recovery strategies or equipment materials. Others, however, seem almost timeless – boat dimensions, rigging, and arguably the sport’s basic technique and physiology of performance.”
Some chapters, therefore, are just as relevant now as they were then. There are sections of the book that appeal to rowers, coaches and, as can be expected in a book on sport medicine, health care practitioners and exercise physiologists.
“The book’s strengths lie in the chapters covering the history of rowing, as well as those on biomechanics and medicine,” says Thornton. “The medical chapter is accessible to a general audience as well as to health care practitioners. As a researcher in this field, I was pleasantly surprised at the broad range of topics - injuries to the coxswain are even included, a segment of the population that is often overlooked.”
One thing that could be expanded today, according to Thornton, is the inclusion of female-specific content. “Female athletes have unique health considerations,” she says, “and many have questions about menstrual cycle disturbances, specific injuries and/or nutritional considerations… even about rowing during pregnancy and beyond.”
Energy imbalances, specifically low energy availability, or when an athlete burns more calories than she or he is taking in as fuel, is also something worthy of further attention, says Thornton. “Energy imbalances can affect all rowers, female and male, heavyweight and lightweight. The traditional idea of the female athlete triad (disordered eating, amenorrhea and osteoporosis), for example, is now being redefined to include male athletes as well. The IOC has recently coined the term Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) to describe this syndrome. We are learning about further physiological consequences, beyond menstrual disturbance and bone mineral density loss, which can result from low energy availability.”
There has been much debate in the last decade regarding the question of talent vs. training and a chapter in the handbook investigates the anthropometric (body measurement) characteristics of successful rowers. Not all rowers fit the mold, however, which continues to fuel the discussion.
“I always think twice when I see numbers like these,” says Thornton with a smile. “According to the statistics presented in this section, I would have been between 4 to 6 cm too short and 16 to 19 kg too light to be successful at the national level, much less on the international stage.”
“It does bring up an interesting question, however,” she says, “are certain anthropometric characteristics more suited to one event over another? Or even for a particular seat in the boat?” Both would be an interesting area for further study.
“Other rapidly developing areas of research,” continues Thornton, “include the effects of different types of ergometers on injury prevention, advances in para-rowing, and data on elite rowers who are pushing the upper age limits and racing for longer with top results.”
“Our understanding of rowing injuries may yet undergo a dramatic shift as well,” she says, “Rib stress fractures and the IOC’s recent recommendations concerning RED-S are two examples. We are also learning more about the etiology of back pain, pre-competition cardiovascular screening, and the ever-evolving issues around doping in sport. Our sport continues to change and grow; I for one look forward to the next exciting advances – as well as the next edition of this book!”
Secher & Volianitis, Handbook of sports medicine and science, rowing, 2007