Indoor rowing under Cameron Nichol's guidance in CrossFit
Indoor rowing under Cameron Nichol's guidance in CrossFit

Martin Cross talked to two former international rowers. In part one, world silver medallist from Great Britain’s men’s eight, Cameron Nichol came to CrossFit after he retired from rowing. Now a full-time doctor, CrossFit athlete and coach, Nichol is Britain’s go-to for rowing CrossFit.

Martin Cross: How did you get involved with CrossFit?
Cameron Nichol: It all started back when I was missing the start line and the camaraderie from my rowing days. After the Olympics, I messed around in gyms keeping myself fit in and around medical school. A PT suggested I try CrossFit. I did my first CrossFit workout, loved it and wanted to get better at it. I’ve now started Rowing WOD (, which links the world of rowing and CrossFit in the form of a free online training programme.

 MC: What grabbed you?
CrossFit has managed to repackage a highlight reel of the good stuff in fitness, whilst stripping what works back to its basics. The movement, the programming the positivity are massive ingredients in its success, But the real meat of everything is building communities that enjoy and pursue fitness together.

 MC: Whats the philosophy?
CN: It strikes a balance of catering for athletes aiming to compete with the best athletes in the world, as well as someone who wants to work out twice a week. That felt the same as my rowing club where you can get novice juniors all the way to octogenarians rowing on a Saturday, with Olympic champions in the middle. To me that’s just how human beings should be living – in communities spanning several generations, everyone learning from each other. It’s awesome.

 MC: And what’s the goal that people aim for?
To be fitter. CrossFit’s definition; being able to execute “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” The idea behind CrossFit is to be good at everything. There’s constant variety of exercises; an avoidance of specialisation.

MC: So where does rowing fit into that?
As most rowers know, our sport is actually a great tool to help build the engine and the global extension that rowing demands actually transfers into a lot of the CrossFit movements quite well. I’m of course biased, but I feel the Concept 2 rowing machine should be used disproportionately more in a CrossFit athlete’s training when compared to running or other cardiovascular machines.

MC: Give me an example.
CrossFit combines an endless list of exercises across different loads, rep schemes and time domains. A great example of a CrossFit workout involving rowing: 27 calorie row, 27 thrusters, 21 calorie row, 21 thrusters, 15 calorie row, 15 thrusters, 9 calorie row, 9 thrusters… as fast as possible. A thruster is a front squat straight into a press overhead with the bar locked out over your shoulders with arms fully extended. You have to move between apparatus and get the work done as fast as possible.

MC: So with your rowing background you must be one of the best?
CN: You’d think so. My personal best for 2k on the erg was 5:48.3, about a minute quicker than most CrossFit guys. But my best for the routine I’ve just described is 6:57, which is about a minute slower than most elite CrossFit athletes. At 195cm, my height and limb length can become a hindrance.

MC: How did your CrossFit coaching start?
I’ve coached many different types of CrossFit athletes on the rowing machine. I could see how much they could improve their times with a bit of technical advice on how to row properly. I feel I’m also able to add value to the top athlete’s by drawing on my experience from competing and training with the Olympic rowing team. Performing at the highest level in rowing formed lots of habits that breed success and I feel CrossFitters can benefit from them.

There’s a lot of parallels between rowing and CrossFit.  Both sports put you through a lot of pain and it’s important to have mental strategies to deal with that. Then there’s the whole protocol of how to behave in and around a competition. Nutrition is key too. When I first got involved a number of great CrossFitters didn’t really eat enough. They are doing six or seven high intensity workouts a day.

MC: So let me get this straight: you do CrossFit. You’re setting up a coaching business and you’re a full time doctor. How does this work?
It’s tough. But after years of working hard at medical school and enduring Jurgen’s (Grobler) Olympic rowing programme, I’ve become incredibly robust and am a driven guy.

I’m up at 4:30am most days, working on my Rowing WOD business and goal setting for the first hour. I’m then in the gym training for an hour. I’ll then go to the hospital to start my shift at 8am. On my way home I sometimes go via the gym for a second session and finish my day working on the business some more and catching up with my wife over dinner. I’m conscious that this is unsustainable in the long run but is a necessity at the moment whilst the time is right to pursue these projects.

MC: So when do you get to coach other CrossFit athletes?
: Last year I made an executive decision to use all of my holidays to coach CrossFit and pursue my entrepreneurial ventures. Right now I oscillate between feeling of euphoria when a new lead or connection goes right and paralysis from my own ambition when I realise what I’m trying to do.

MC: What do you make of the claim that the winners of the world CrossFit Games are the fittest athletes in the world?
The athletes that win the CrossFit Games are some of the fittest humans on earth. But so are the rowers that win the Olympics and the marathon runners etc. CrossFit is a sport just like any other sport, but it’s a sport that rewards general abilities rather than specific.

MC: How clean is CrossFit?
I’ll answer the doping question in two ways. The first is to say that rowing is a very clean sport for many reasons including the rigorous testing and lots education on what you are and aren’t allowed to put into your bodies. In my brief time in CrossFit, I haven’t seen the same rigour of drug testing out of competition, though it certainly exists at the big events. There also isn’t a WADA ‘whereabouts’ programme yet. This may leave more room for cheats to operate.  

MC: Do you encounter other rowers in the CrossFit world?
CN: I bump into former rowers all the time at different boxes (CrossFit centres) around the world. It seems the cathartic pursuit of pain is a natural next step for rowers.