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The five elements of effortless rowing

This is an excerpt from Rowing Faster - 2nd Edition by Volker Nolte.

The Process of Effortless Rowing: No Waste, No Extras

Effortless crews do not waste a movement. Any movement should be well sequenced and have only a positive impact on the performance of the hull.


Effortless crews have a strong commitment to the platform of the boat. The word platform suggests a solid surface or base from which all activity can occur. In the case of rowing we are referring to the need to have the boat balanced from side to side. A number of factors contribute to boat balance, including seated position in the boat and handle heights. So many people do not sit squarely and evenly in the boat. If athletes are not in the intended start point, they are creating a challenge that should not have to be considered.

The oar is not only a propulsive device but also a major contributor to balance. All athletes in a boat must ensure that they are able to carry the oar handle on a consistent path yet be able to make fine adjustments as other variables affect the boat.

The Ginn example described previously is one where the boat did not have a good platform (due to conditions). The hands were possibly coming forward on the best plane they could, but the rigger sat somewhere above this path. It is possible that the athletes were knocked off their platform by a blade clipping the water on a previous stroke, leading to this loss of platform.

An excellent image of platform in rowing is the Great Britain men's pair in 2002 (James Cracknell and Matthew Pinsent). They not only were committed to a fast, aggressive start, but they also were committed with their bodies and hands to ensure that they had a platform from which they could work. Their racing intent would not have been achievable without their process intent of having a solid platform.

Stroke Length

Long, well-sequenced movements should be the aim of every crew. The challenge, however, is determining the optimal stroke length. Which stroke rate at race velocity is most effective to bring about the boat speed that will ultimately lead to victory?

Once again, this is where we introduce some compromises to the ideal, which will establish what is most effective for a particular crew. Crews must identify their optimal stroke length. Though there are variations in the arc of the stroke, the rowers will no doubt start out with the objective of wanting to row as long as they can. Over time they will start to make some compromises when they consider the effect of stroke length on other aspects of the stroke. For example, let's say a crew is rowing a sweep arc of 98° but cannot rate above 32 spm. What is the effective arc? What is the effect of only rowing 92°? In order to reduce the arc to an effective 92°, what changes should the crew make?

Allow the Boat to Work

Rowing is a series of compromises. The best crews have a good compromise between horsepower and boat movement efficiency.

A top-class crew will be able to accelerate the boat for the larger part of the complete stroke cycle, and for the remaining part of the time the boat will be experiencing deceleration. Top crews will continue to attempt to improve on this position, while less efficient crews will show more deceleration. Deceleration increases in two main ways. The first way is coming onto the footstretcher heavily as you move forward on the last part of the recovery. There will definitely be deceleration coming into the catch position, but it is a matter of doing this as smoothly and evenly as possible. A rush in the last part of the recovery or the body falling over the feet at the front will see a further deceleration of the boat.

There will also be a period of deceleration as rowers take the water and initiate the leg drive. However, this deceleration will occupy a greater percentage of the drive phase if rowers are not skillful in the introduction of the body and the arm draw.

Some top international crews appear to simply be muscling the boat along but still have optimized the time their boat is under acceleration. As with any consideration of acceleration and boat behavior, we want to ensure that the boat is achieving an acceptable velocity. Some successful crews clearly trade efficiency of acceleration for power.

Sequence and Added Extras

If you think through the list of all the possible technical problems that crews might display, most fall into one of two categories: movements performed in the incorrect sequence and extra movements in the stroke that should not be present. For example, if the body swing occurs too early, it adds unnecessary vertical movement and reduces the power of the legs. Or, if the handle moves up and down during the recovery, it spoils the platform. The effortless rower will not yield to these fundamental errors.

Blade Skills

Coaches can spend a lot of time coaching the body (that is, how the movements occur in the boat) and neglecting blade skills. We are all aware that what happens inside the boat dictates what happens with the blade, yet it is the blade that is our point of propulsive connection. If the blade is not suitably prepared by being squared and ready to go into the water, we are creating an inefficiency that should not be present. This inefficiency is incredibly costly.

The blade must be sufficiently high off the water so as to ensure that it can be squared soon enough to be placed into the water at the forward-most point of reach (figure 13.1a). This will ensure the possibility of a direct movement of the blade into the water.

A blade too close to or too far from the water results in inefficiency through the front turn of the stroke (figure 13.1b). The correct movement through the front turn is set up through a back turn that can be described as having shape and being bold. If we have sufficient step-out, we should be able to row a good line of the blade on the recovery and achieve the front turn as previously described. The blade should step cleanly from the water—out of the front of the puddle and clearly over it as it is carried forward on the recovery. Good crews make this look easy, but it is a skill that they have spent countless hours practicing.

Read more about Rowing Faster 2nd Edition by Volker Nolte.

More Excerpts From Rowing Faster 2nd Edition