Start to Finish

In the world of rowing, the sweltering time of year now coming to a close has been sprint racing season for two wildly different groups of athletes:  masters rowers age 30 and beyond who flail their way through 1K races, and elite international oars(wo)men vying for world championships and Olympic gold at more than twice the distance.  By mid-July, collegiate and scholastic competition has been over for almost a month —most young rowers have little incentive to train or race when the thermometer is stuck well over 90F.  Their elders, who should have better sense, don’t even begin their racing season until rowing conditions begin to get downright hostile.  Racing in July and August?  Whose idea was that?

Although I eminently qualify as a masters rower, I haven’t competed in a sprint race for at least 15 years.  There are  several reasons for that, and ridiculously excessive temperatures are just one factor.  Mostly, I’m just not comfortable with the frantic, sometimes uncontrolled pace of rowing that’s all-too-often triggered by the command “Attention … go!”

Sprint racing –whether on the water or on the track– begins from a dead stop, with competitors arrayed in parallel lanes at the starting line.  Getting from stop to go in a predictable, controlled manner is the subject of this post:  a discussion of the starting sequence of strokes used at the beginning of a sprint race.  Just because I haven’t raced in 15 years doesn’t mean I don’t know how, or that I’m no good at it.  Our club regularly practices racing starts while training for/during the sprint season, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to improve technique.  In an actual race, you (usually) only get one start:  in practice, you can do it over and over and over.  So, although there are many minor variations on the basic theme, the starting sequence I describe below should be relatively familiar to almost every rower.

Our coaches teach a 25-stroke/3-phase sprint race starting sequence that’s described in rowing lingo as: starting 5; 10 high; 10 settle.  Let’s take each component in turn.  But first, some basic math …

Basic Mathematics

The starting sequence is performed at high cadence:  the stroke rate can be 40 strokes-per-minute or higher in top-level collegiate crews.  Since there are always 60 seconds in every minute, this means that each stroke will take about 1.5 seconds+/-.  Fueled with adrenaline, the grand total of 25 starting strokes will be over and done with in 40 seconds or less.  Then comes the hard part:  the rest of the sprint.

Starting 5

To start a 1-ton boat and crew from a dead stop, rowers need to use leverage and quickness to make the transition from Newton’s 1st Law of Motion to the 2nd.  Leverage –to efficiently translate force into forward motion– and quickness, in continually applying that force to break inertia’s iron grip.  This goal is accomplished with the first 5 short, quick, powerful strokes that PRY against the water to get the boat moving.  One common such sequence of strokes  used in the starting five is described in rowing shorthand as:  3/4, 1/2, 3/4, lengthen, full.  Here’s how it works:

But first, a breath of fresh air.

Because aerobic capacity is so important in rowing, the secret to a successful start and sprint lies in synchronizing the rhythm of breathing with the rhythm of rowing –before the race has even begun.  With that in mind, rowers should be consciously thinking about (and adjusting) their breathing while the cox’ns are getting boats aligned at the starting line.  That means making sure that the spine is straight and supported by the abdominal muscles, giving the diaphragm space to do its job; that the chin is up to provide an unobstructed airway through the esophagus; that the inhale/exhale cycle is calm, full and regular, and that the rower is prepared to adjust that rhythm to align with the referee’s starting commands.

Why?  Every rowing coach who teaches the basic mechanics of the sport emphasizes the fundamentals: exhale during the drive, inhale during the recovery.  Purge that CO2 as quickly as you can, then take time to refuel with as much oxygen as possible.  Since the race begins with a mighty stroke, rowers need to be prepared to begin exhaling milliseconds after the command to “GO!”  Sooooo … they must be prepared to inhale as the referee is saying “We have alignment.  Attention …”  If rowers aren’t breathing in the proper rhythm at the beginning of the race, oxygen deprivation will rapidly set in, and they’ll quickly lose power, focus and the ability to execute their race plan.  The race has been lost almost before it started, and neither the rowers nor the coach may realize what happened.  If so, this basic mistake may go uncorrected.  Don’t let this happen to you!


Back at the starting line, awaiting the referee’s starting command, rowers sit in the catch position at 3/4 of the way up the slide toward full leg compression.  Arms are fully extended, shoulders are slightly turned toward the oarlock/rigger, the oar blade is fully submerged, and the torso is hinged at the hips and angled toward the stern of the boat in the “body-over” posture.  Abdominal muscles are engaged but not tensed, to support the spine/ hold body position, and to be ready to transfer leg power to the oar handle once the race begins.

When the boats are aligned, the referee calls “Attention … go!”  At the word “Go!” rowers firmly push their legs down, quickly but calmly, prying the oar blade against the water’s resistance by using their abdominals, backs and arms to transmit leg power through the body to the oar handle.  The stroke feels slow and heavy –the key is to maintain pressure on the oar all the way through the drive.  This first stroke doesn’t use a lot of  follow-through or “layback” at the end of the drive:  when the legs are down and the torso has swung to vertical, the arms should be pulling toward the body to begin releasing the blade from the water and start the recovery for stroke #2.


The second stroke is all about maintaining momentum.  You’ve just barely begun moving the boat, so don’t slow down now.  Recovery is short since rowers are only using one-half their usual slide length and one-half the recovery time.  This puts a premium on getting “hands away” immediately after the release of stroke #1.  The torso is already vertical, so getting back to “bodies over” also happens quickly.  The 1/2 slide stroke is short and quick, but make sure the oar blade is buried in the water.  Air strokes don’t help.  Hands out, hands up, drive the legs, hang on the oar!  Stroke #2 will be over before you know it.


The third stroke begins the transition to the body of the race –in a sneaky kind of way.  Returning to 3/4 length recovery is the first step toward the long, flowing strokes the crew will use for the remainder of the sprint.  It’s halfway between the quick 1/2 slide stroke and the full-length rowing that really moves the boat.  The key to this stroke is remembering that you have a little more time than you did for the previous stroke, so there’s no need to rush.  Sure, your hands are away promptly and your torso is prepared at bodies over, but the extra distance down the slide to 3/4 compression means that everyone in the boat will take a little bit longer to get there.  You should too.

The stroke doesn’t feel as heavy as the previous two because of the boat’s motion relative to the water surrounding the oar blade.  As with the first stroke, there’s not too much layback at the end of the drive.  However, during the drive on this stroke rowers should consciously think about adding more body swing and layback —on the next one.  The cox’n will be calling “lengthen” for stroke #4, and rowers should be prepared to execute.


The fourth stroke of the starting sequence uses somewhere between 3/4 slide and full leg compression.  In the excitement of the start, many rowers are actually rowing full slide at this point, and the cox’n’s call is pretty much superfluous.  However, it’s a reminder –should one be needed– that rowers ought to be emphasizing their body swing to bow following the leg drive, and that finding race rhythm as a crew is everyone’s primary goal.  Every phase of the stroke is still executed at top speed, so getting hands away after the release is more important than ever.  Breathe.


The final stroke of the starting five.  Or, seen another way, the first of eleven high-cadence strokes that establish race position in the first 100 meters of the sprint.  Full compression.  Drive and exhale.  Body swing and layback.  Hands away.  Breathe.  What more is there to say?

10 High

At the conclusion of the starting five, crews are rowing at a pace that’s usually unsustainable over the long haul –38, 40 strokes per minute or higher.  The 10 high strokes maintain that unsustainable pace for another 15 seconds or so, to build boat speed and increase momentum.  Here more than ever, rowers need to concentrate on synchronizing their movements to match the rest of the crew.  All eight (or four) blades need to enter the stroke together, drive through the water together, and emerge from the water at the release at exactly the same time.  This translates into a set boat and comfortable, maximally efficient rowing.  Just what you want.

Particularly in rough, windy or choppy conditions, rowers will have to make constant minor adjustments to hand height, fore-aft hand speed, and body position –swiftly and smoothly responding to changes inside or outside the boat.  Since there’s little time for conscious thought, it’s best to keep the shoulder muscles relaxed and avoid the tendency to try to do too much with the arms and upper body.  Use your legs:  there’s a long way to go.

At the catch of the eighth “high” stroke, the cox’n will begin the call to  “lengthen/settle/stride in two.”  Some coaches prefer the term “stride” because “settle” may have subliminal psychological connotations of “relax,” take it easy, ” or “settle for second place.”  Rowers aren’t supposed to be thinking any of those things during a race.  Whatever the terminology, the last two strokes of “10 high” are the three seconds of the race when rowers should be thinking about adding more body swing and layback to their strokes and taking slightly more time on the slide during the recovery.  It’s not a huge shift down –perhaps  3 or 4 spm– but it should be a noticeable change from frenzy toward calm.  Stroke seat’s job is to lead that change.

Stride for 10

The concluding strokes of the starting sequence set the pace for the body of the race.  Everyone in the boat has had 15 chances to get it together, and now it’s time to build on that base.  The goal is to maintain momentum, keep everything flowing, and increase the “run” of the boat by rowing as smoothly and powerfully as possible.  Pivot the body around the rigger.  Hook the hands up into the catch.  Drive the legs. Exhale.  Swing the body into bow.  Squeeze the arms to the body at the release. Breathe.  Match the rhythm of the boat.  Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

These 10 strokes are “base race pace,” a nicely alliterative phrase that indicates you’re going to be doing this for a while longer.  Depending on where your boat is in relation to its competition at this stage of the race, the 10 “stride” strokes can determine whether your cox’n will be able to stick with the coach’s race plan or whether she’ll have to resort to inspired improvisation.  Either way, the sprint has only begun.  The rest is up to you and the rest of your crew over the next 5, 6, or 7 minutes.


Now that it’s almost autumn (no more sprints, just grind-it-out head racing) many rowers may not have occasion to practice sprint racing starts before next spring.  That gives you six months to forget everything you’ve read here, and to visit this blog post once again in February or March.


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