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Rowing 101: Race Tactics

The third in my less-than-astounding-but-still-a-little-informative series deals with race tactics.  More specifically, I’ll be talking about 2000 meter sprint race tactics since this is considered our “championship distance”.

Those of you that have read my entry on erg testing already know a little about the physical and mental challenges of this distance.  Like with the erg test, the goal of any race plan is to maximize the speed and efficiency of a crew.  To this end, we tend to break up the race into smaller chunks.  I’ll be talking about the most basic pieces: the start, the body, and the sprint.

The Start

Most parents or casual spectators of rowing may see many regattas but never actually witness what goes on at the start line.  Below is a clip of the first ten seconds from a race at the 2009 under-23 World Championships:
The first thing you may notice is that all the crews are at a standstill with their bows perfectly lined up.  You may also notice the raft-like contraptions behind them which are holding onto the sterns of the shells until the start of the race, these are called “stake boats” which hold the sterns of the boats to align the bows.  As the race begins, the crews execute what we call a “racing start” to get the hull up to speed as quickly as possible.  This involved several shorter strokes taken in quick succession.  Note that the strokes get gradually longer as the boat picks up speed.

The racing start is all precision and horsepower.  In the case of a heavy men’s 8+, they are bringing close to 2000 pounds to full speed within 10 seconds.  Racing starts are simple in concept, but have a few variants.  One of the common sequences is the one that we use on the girls’ team: 3/4, 1/2, 3/4, 3/4, full.  The fractions refer to the length of the stroke.  Looking at the start sequence above, you’ll notice the crew at the bottom executing a similar start sequence.  They sit at 3/4 slide at a standstill, squeeze through the first stroke to get the boat moving, then a very short stroke to maintain the acceleration, then lengthen over the next three strokes as the boat continues to accelerate.

After the first several strokes of the start sequence, crews will execute a “high” where they will row up to 30 strokes at a stroke rate several beats above the rate they will hold during most of the race.  For example, if a crew were to row at 34 strokes per minute during the race, they might row their high at about 38 – 40 strokes a minute.  Physiologically, this is a little silly.  By executing such high-intensity strokes for 20 to 30 seconds, we are immediately introducing lactic acid into the system and the discomfort starts very quickly.  Psychologically, it’s an important aspect of racing.  Because the rowers face backwards, they can’t see who is in front of them.  It is rarely an advantage to race from behind in rowing like it is in distance running.  By rowing a high, we are balancing the need to get ahead early with the need to allow the body to complete the full distance effectively.

After the start and high, crews will settle to their base rate.  I prefer to use the term “lengthen”, but the concept is the same.  For many coaches, the transition between the high and the settle is the single most important transition of the race.  It should happen in one stroke, and speed should be maintained.  A crew that can immediately find it’s rhythm on this stroke will have a better chance of being effective in the body of the race.

We spend a great deal of time on racing starts, not because we think a good one will result in a glorious win, but because a bad one can spell disaster.  Even one missed stroke from one rower can throw the steering off and cause a disruption to the timing.  My adage on starts is this: you will never win a race on the start, but you can certainly lose one.  The focus should be on clean execution.

The Body

Below is the Men’s 8+ Final from the 2008 Athens Olympics.  I invite you to watch until at least 1500 meters in or about the 4:30 mark.
While the US has a good start to get out with the leaders and gain a slight advantage of .53 seconds at the 500 meter mark, what dictates the outcome of the race is the second 500 meters where they push out to just over a length advantage on the field.  Most races are won or lost in the middle 1000 meters of a race, and this race is no exception.

The table below shows the splits from that race, I have highlighted the fastest split at each 500 meters in red.



































While the US had a slight half-second advantage at the 500 meter mark, it is the second 500 which is over 2 seconds faster than the next fastest boat which dictates the race.  This decisive effort is what gives them the astonishing full length lead by the 1000 meter mark.  Even though the Dutch were able to row a faster last half, the US was already in control of the race.

The commentators make a point to highlight the fact that the US is only rowing at 35 strokes when they cross the 1000 meter mark.  This is a low rating by international standards and is a testament to the power and skill that the US boat possessed.  Watching the race, you can see the length and acceleration they establish.

All boats should aspire to be so dominant in the middle thousand meters of the race.  By establishing a 3/4 length lead at 1500, the outcome was never really in doubt in the last 500 meter, despite the valiant Dutch effort.

Each team will go into a race with a certain plan for the body of the race.  Often teams will have scripted moves with “power 10’s” or “power 20’s” when they attempt to take some sort of advantage.  Usually these moves will happen at some point near the 1000 meter mark.  Coaches will often try to outdo each other by making a move either just before, just after, or before and after they anticipate another team making a move.  The idea is that if you can minimize impact of a move that another team has spent a lot of energy making, you have gained a profound psychological advantage.

It can be tempting for a coxswain to keep calling 10’s to try to gain an advantage.  Inexperienced coxswains are often found just repeating 10’s down the course, to no avail.  Theoretically, a crew is already racing at peak capacity, to introduce a number of moves only minimizes the impact of each one and will alienate the coxswain from the crew.  Another issue with 10’s is that it takes a mature crew to maintain strong effort on the 11th stroke.  If an effective 10 is followed by 5 strokes of mediocre output, you’ve lost any advantage you’ve gained and further taxed your body by doing so.

A good body of a race should be aggressive to the point that a crew maximizes its potential, but steady and managed enough to sustain that output and allow the crew to finish effectively.  This takes an immense amount of training, practice, and mental fortitude.

The Sprint

It is an unfortunate truth that fans most often watch races at the finish line, when most races are decided far earlier.  Races which are decided in the last 500 are the most exciting for everyone, including the athletes.  The link below shows what can happen in such a finish.  Apologies for not being able to do a fancy-pants embed, WordPress and Silverlight don’t get along very well.

2010 Rowing World Championships – LM 4-

This is perhaps one of the closest races in recent memory and the order of finish came down to three crews: Great Britain, who held a narrow lead at the 1500 meter mark, China who came from a length down at 1500, and Australia, who quietly hung with Great Britain for the first 1500 and just about caught them at the end.  In the end, it was Great Britain who prevailed by a mere 0.01 over a hard-charging China who may have been about one or two strokes away from taking the lead.

One important aspect of this race is that Great Britain benefitted from a little luck. Hull speed is never constant. A hull is constantly accelerating or decelerating based on where the crew is in the stroke. In finish line margins such as this, whichever hull is accelerating more than another will often dictate who wins or loses. Unlike sprinters who train to extend themselves across the finish line or swimmers who extend to the wall, rowers cannot time the surge for just that right moment. After all, they can’t even see the finish line. In this case, Great Britain was just ahead of China in the stroke cycle and their hull was just at the tail end of the acceleration phase which helped push their bow across the line. Had China been in a different phase of the stroke, they might have gone home with the Gold medal.

The sprint is just as it sounds, a quickening of pace and speed to finish the race.  Crews will bring up the rating in the last 500 to bring up the speed to either row through another crew, or to fend off a charge from another crew.  The above clip is a prime example of how China used a sprint to almost row through Great Britain, who had just enough of a sprint to fend them off.

By the time the athletes reach the 1500 meter mark, the body has already been through a small slice of hell.  Heart rate and breathing rates have been maxed for while, the body is furiously trying to get rid of lactate, and the moderate discomfort of the second 500 meters has developed into an all-encompassing burn.  Now we need to go faster.


The choice for the rower is this: either I ease off and let down myself and my team, or I will die.  I guess it’s a good day to die.

Perhaps I embellish this a little.  Rowers can sometimes get carried away with our characterization of the pain of racing, but it is hard to describe the feeling of that last 250 meters.  We tend to describe this in a way that makes it sound like the least fun imaginable, and to some people it is.  The idea of pain is easily imagined, and most of us have had the sensation of being out of breath to the point where we fear we can’t continue.  What is difficult to describe is the mechanisms that keep us going through the last 500, but that is the most compelling dynamic in our sport.

For me, a great last 500 is the most freeing experience in rowing.  At this point I have already found my limits.  I have come to a place where there is no longer a question about whether I can push myself to the breaking point.  There are no doubts about whether I’ve maximized my potential.  Instead, I now have the opportunity to explore how much farther I can go.  The self-confidence gained by this knowledge becomes my bulwark against the pain, and I throw myself headlong into the void.  This effect is only compounded when rowing within a crew that you know is sharing the same experience.  What compels us is not the fear of letting ourselves down, but the joy of experiencing this moment together.

This type of performance comes at a heavy price.  It takes countless strokes, meters, and hours to get there.  For most, there are more failures than successes on our way.  A crew’s race plan is designed to elicit that type of performance, but it is only an outline.  It cannot force the best performance onto an athlete, it can only provide the framework within which the athletes are able to bring their best race.

Coming up next in Rowing 101, regatta progression systems.