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New Classifications of Rowing

This is an excerpt from Rowing Science by Volker Nolte.

By Volker Nolte

World Rowing, on the other hand, has turned its focus and support to different types of rowing. The arguments to include indoor rowing, coastal rowing, and coastal sprints in the overall international rowing program are compelling. These activities certainly offer more people around the world the opportunity to participate in the sport.

Indoor Rowing

Indoor rowing has already been used for some time for training and physiological testing, yet it was not seen as a stand-alone sport category until recently (figure E.1a). Once Dick and Peter Dreissigacker started to produce the Concept2 rowing ergometer in 1981, which allowed athletes to kinematically and kinetically mimic the rowing stroke, indoor rowing took off. The machine was easy to maintain, did not take up a lot of room, and was quite inexpensive. Not only did this rowing machine became mainstream in boathouses around the world, many rowers obtained their own private equipment to be able to train more easily. Moreover, indoor rowing was discovered by fitness clubs as an excellent training method, and so rowing was introduced to people who would never be attracted to join a rowing club.

It is therefore not surprising that interest in ergometer competitions, which were initially held locally, quickly spread. There are now competitions held at the national and international level, all the way up to official World Rowing Indoor Championships. Additionally, because indoor machines are calibrated and not dependent on the weather, it is very easy to create rankings of results and even world records. These are available for age groups from 12 and under to 100+, from sprint distances of 100 m to marathon distances of 42,195 m, and durations from 1 min to 60 min or even longer.

The COVID-19 pandemic was used as an initial spark to develop and hold virtual competitions as well. The widespread interest in this indoor sport encouraged more equipment manufacturers to develop and market new rowing machines, and to make the activity more interesting and motivating. Feedback monitors became colorful displays with gamelike video training sessions and races in virtual environments of actual waterways. Despite its growing popularity and the ease of holding virtual competitions, it is hard to imagine that such competitions could be made interesting for spectators.

Coastal Rowing

Both long distance coastal rowing and sprints are executed on sea in more rugged boats than typical flatwater rowing shells (figure E.1b, c). Also known as offshore or open-water rowing, coastal rowing was already performed and contested in various forms before World Rowing discovered its appeal and started to regulate the sport in 2007. This sport development can be traced back from competitions between crews of larger ships anchored in harbors to make their idle time a little more entertaining or from the training of Coast Guard safety crews on ocean beaches. Some initial coastal rowing events showed World Rowing that there is some interest within and outside of existing rowing clubs, that such competition bears entertainment value, that athletes who have access to these open waterways could be attracted to get into rowing, and that staging such events is much less expensive than the current Olympic flat-water racing. Based on these factors, World Rowing now intends to have coastal rowing included in the Olympic program, and there are strong indications that the IOC will accept.

Figure E.1 The new World Rowing events: (a) Indoor rowing; (b) coastal sprint rowing with a Le Mans beach start and a sprint race out to a buoy and back; and (c) coastal rowing with a minimum distance of 4,000 m.
Figure E.1 The new World Rowing events: (a) Indoor rowing; (b) coastal sprint rowing with a Le Mans beach start and a sprint race out to a buoy and back; and (c) coastal rowing with a minimum distance of 4,000 m.

However, it remains to be seen if these new types of rowing indeed will open new and exciting avenues for the sport. Coastal rowing is a new addition, and time will tell how it will develop. To be included into a national sport program, infrastructures and training facilities need to be developed and built so that athletes can properly train to elevate the national performance level. It also remains to be seen how this sport develops from an organizational point of view. Presumably, individuals could learn the basics of the sport in a short time in introductory courses, buy their own personal equipment, and continue on their own—similar to what we can see, for example, with stand-up paddling. Athletes could store their equipment at home and transport it to the next waterway to row individually without being a member of a club.

With new ways to exercise rowing, be it coastal or indoor, it is very likely that they will lead to completely different organizational structures than traditional club rowing. Professionally managed institutions are likely better able to run these new sports than the previous clubs, which are mostly based on volunteer work. However, this also means that higher-level organizations (such as national and international federations) will have to reorganize their structures.

More Excerpts From Rowing Science

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