Please Release Me

No one has ever asked me what I consider to be the key to consistent, high-quality rowing, but I’ve thought about it and prepared an answer just in case anyone ever does.  Best of all, as a blogger, there’s no need to sit around waiting for anyone to actually ask.   Unprompted and unbidden, I can freely opine  –on a whim, on a lark, at the drop of a hat.

So what is that key, the pivotal phase of the cyclical rowing stroke?   Quick “hands away” at the release, that’s what.

In plainer English, this means that the rower (after completing the stroke and pressing the oarhandle down slightly to extract the blade from the water) should immediately extend the arms away from the body and initiate the motion of pivoting the trunk forward at the hips to swing into “body over” position.  One of my (many) coaches described the hands-away motion by drawing an analogy to the path of a bicycle chain around the sprocket:  the chain approaches the sprocket in a level, horizontal path, drops down the diameter of the sprocket as it rounds the bend, and heads back in the opposite direction.  The key is that the chain never stops moving as the cyclist cranks along.

This is also what’s important about the rowing stroke:  the hands should never stop moving because a cascading series of bad things will result if they do.

1]  The rower will be a fraction of a second late (relative to the rest of the rowers) in getting to the “body over” position.   This will disturb the dynamic momentum of the moving boat, and will contribute to lateral instability.  The boat will/may begin to dip to one side or the other.

2]  If the rower is late with both hands-away and body-over, he will often try to catch up with the rest of the rowers by starting up the slide before arms and body are fully extended toward the stern.   However, he will then have trouble getting the oarhandle past his knees when they rise as he begins to move up the slide:  the oarhandle will be trapped between his body and his rising knees.   When he raises his hands to clear the knees, his oar dips closer to the water surface and often strikes it, further destabilizing the boat (and disconcerting the rower).

3]  Being late with hands-away and body-over also means that the rower’s slide recovery is out of sync with the rest of the boat.   When he senses that he’s lagging behind, the rower may try to catch up by increasing his speed on the slide toward the catch position.   This will also disrupt boat momentum, because the rower’s body weight is accelerating toward the stern faster than that of the other rowers:  the boat’s forward motion (the glide or “run” between strokes) is immediately reduced by this counteracting rearward thrust.   This is the infamous “stern check” that gives cox’ns sore backs.   Worse, since the rower’s moving body weight is almost always slightly to one side or the other of the centerline, the boat will dip down to one side just as the crew is preparing to catch for the next stroke.

4]  Following this rapid succession of disheartening events, the hapless, disoriented rower will be hard-pressed to time his catch with the rest of the crew, or cleanly release the blade at the end of the stroke.   He’ll pause to collect himself … and the vicious cycle continues.

Concerned oarsmen might well ask; how can this deficiency be corrected?

Some coaches try an almost subliminal approach, enlisting the implicit psychological power of language and word choice.   These coaches go so far as to avoid use of the term “finish” to denote the phase of the rowing stroke when the oarblade has concluded its sternward motion through the water.   Instead, they emphasize “the release;” the extraction of the blade from the water.   The idea is that the rower never (subconsciously) thinks he’s “finished” rowing, and continues moving his hands to prepare for the next stroke.

But the power of mere suggestion only goes so far, and is almost never enough.   Where there are coaches, there must also be drills for reinforcement.   Oh, joy!

Arms-only drill: In this exercise, the rower sits at the release in the layback position (with shoulders toward the bow of the boat).  At the cox’n’s command, the crew begins a continuous, arms-only rowing stroke at light pressure while remaining in the layback position.   This drill is usually done by sixes (in an eight) or pairs (in a four), so that the boat can remain stabilized by the pair sitting out.   This drill puts a premium on two aspects of the rowing stroke: a quick, decisive catch at the beginning of the stroke and constant motion of the hands following the release.   Since the arms alone don’t have a lot of strength to drive the oarblade through the water during the stroke, the whole drill can and should be done at a relatively low stroke rating.  The idea is not to rush the hands around the back end of the stroke, just to keep them moving.   Coaches often use this drill to work on getting the crew’s timing into sync, and sometimes emphasize this aspect of hands-only rowing while the drill is underway.   Synchronous hands-away is a big part of boat timing, so even if the coach isn’t explicitly talking about it, that’s part of the purpose of this drill.

Arms-and-Body rowing: This is a customary intermediate drill in the progression from arms-only rowing (or legs-only rowing, for that matter) to drilling the full rowing stroke.   The transition from arms-only rowing adds the body swing and greater stroke length to the exercise, but keeps the premium on a quick catch and smooth hands-away at the release.   Here the coach can make sure that “the hands are leading the body out of bow” after every stroke.   Usually the coach is also looking to see that the oarblades aren’t diving too deeply under water during the drive, being lifted by rowers who are heaving their hands up as their backs swing toward bow during the drive.   Level hands through the drive = level blade through the water = level boat on an even keel.

Quarter-slide rowing: Now it’s time to add leg power to the stroke – but only a bit, because the idea is to maintain quickness with the hands rather than trying to gain speed on the slide or during the (extremely short) leg drive.  Now that the knees are rising slightly as the rower uses only one-quarter of his usual slide length, it’s more important than ever to ensure that the hands are out front and forward body angle is established before travel up the slide begins.   The cox’n should remind rowers not to bring up the stroke rating just because they’re (finally) using the slide.   Quick hands, sloooooowwwww slide.   Quick catch, sloooooowwwww slide.   Meanwhile, the coach is watching the crew’s catch timing and release.   Quarter-slide rowing is also a drill that works on quick catches just as much as it emphasizes the importance of hands-away.  Rowers can’t use their recovery time on the slide to prepare for the catch because there just isn’t much time on the slide.   The only way to be ready is with quick hands away leading into forward body angle  –the rower is fully prepared to catch even before starting up the slide.

These drills are generally performed in succession while rotating pairs of rowers into and out of each drill.   Usually, with a pair sitting out, each set of six rowers will repeat the drill for twenty or thirty strokes before the cox’n switches in a fresh pair.   Once the entire boat has participated in the drill, it’s on to the next one in the progression.   By the time the boat moves from quarter-slide rowing into half-slide and full-slide rowing, the coach is probably working on something other than the hands-away motion and a quick catch.   That doesn’t mean you should forget what you just learned.

Your very own rowing coaches may have used these very drills without ever explaining why.   Now you know:  quick hands away.

A final few words on the topic:  in rowing competition, whether at 2K or in longer head races, fatigue eventually becomes a factor.   When you’re tired, pushing the oarhandle away from your body begins to seem like the most exhausting thing you could possibly do at that particular moment.   Psychologically, it’s useful to tell yourself that it’s best to get it over with quickly so that you can relax on the slide during the recovery.   At 30+ strokes per minute, that one second on the slide can be as close to heaven as you’re going to get for the next few hundred meters.

Improved fitness can help, especially if you’ve been working on upper-body conditioning.   I hate pushups and avoid them whenever possible, but they work most of the muscle groups that come into play during the hands-away motion.   Aerobic capacity helps, too.   Better a little pain now than a lot of suffering later.   After all:  pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

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One Response to “Please Release Me”

  1. Novice Says:

    great post. how do you modify it for single ?

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