Rowing: How to survive winter training!

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ScullerIt's that time of year again, a new season begins, new training goals and aspirations, 2K tests, squad meetings, enthusiasm high with what the coming year will bring. How many Head races will be cancelled this year due to bad weather, will the actual crew actually row together more than 2 times before race day, and will you make it through winter training without injuring yourself or threatening to quit at least 3 times?!?!

If you've been in the game long enough then you know that winter rowing training is its own kind of training. There's big gains to be had in the early weeks, but as the nights draw in, the temperature drops, availability dwindles and training volume is high; it can be a tough time of year to survive.

After *cough* nearly 14yrs rowing experience, and come mid-November been desperate for some sunshine, to see the person in front of me during an evening outing, and having to resort to placing my alarm on the other side of the room because you 'know' you'll hit snooze otherwise, here's my list of the essential things to help you survive a rowing winter season.

Take care of your hands

Applicable whether this is your 1st season or 15th. Damaged hands = no rowing.

Don't be afraid to tape up if need be. If you've done what most rowers do post Bumps (which is nothing!) then your hands will be soft, really soft. Some people have strong opinions about using any kind of tape, but taped correctly it will definitely save your hands through the first few outings. And importantly if your blisters burst or callouses tear then using tape can help keep water out and blood in. No one likes picking up a blade only to spot an unknown person's blood donation on the handle!

Second, get into the habit of taking care of your callouses. You've worked hard for those, they've developed in response to the hundreds of strokes you've put your hands through. So maintain them. Its different for everyone but if you're prone to callouses ripping in races then regularly trim them down. You can use a pumice stone, file, scissors or blade. But be sensible - take off too much and you risk hurting yourself or leaving too fresh skin open to blistering!

Go to bed early & track your sleep

No matter what you like to think you are not Superman and you are not getting any younger!! You may be able to manage for a few weeks of minor sleep deprivation by cutting an hr or two off your normal sleep pattern. But it will catch up with you! Unless you're one of those odd people who can seemingly hop out of be at 5:45am and function, then that grogginess or urgent need for caffeine for in the morning is a sign your body needs more sleep! And don't dismiss that. Chronic sleep deprivation can increase injury risk and decrease performance, and we've all experienced that in one form or another.

And track your sleep. Use something like Sleepbot (https://mysleepbot.com/) on your phone to keep an eye on sleep quality. If you're getting in 8hrs and feeling like a zombie then you may not be getting the quality deep sleep that you need. For more info on how to optimise your sleep check out this post.

Adjust equipment

Really? But at least 6 different crews use this boat, and I sit in a different position almost every week!

Yup, I know. But would you go run a 10K in shoes that don't fit? No? Why's that? Because you'll hurt yourself? Ahhh......

Here is some basic info about setting up a boat correctly.

Ok, you get the point. So at the very least work out where you need your footplate to be IN RELATION TO THE PIN. Every boat is different and you're right, you can't spend hours adjusting pitch and height just for you. But at least sit down with your coach and work out where you need the footplate so that you are positioned to provide maximum effective force. And ensure that as a minimum that the footplate is in the right place. After that look at adjusting footplate angle, runner position and using a seat pad if you're short. I once knew a girl who used to use the cut halves of a sponge tennis ball under her heels to help shoes fit better. Adjust as much as humanly possible.

Warm-up before training

Ok hands up if after the first 6 weeks of training you know someone who regularly warms up before outings? I know they do exist, I have met one or two of them, but as a rule rowers are 'notorious' for not warming up before training.

With the river set up as it is in Cambridge you can get away with not as much warm-up because of the bends before the Reach. But know that you're getting away with it. You won't be fully warm by the time you hit the Reach. Which means you won't be warm...so physically joints won't be lubricated, blood supply to the muscles won't be at optimal function and your muscle control and movements patterns will be sluggish. And typically rowing injuries are slow onset, which means they accumulate over time and are often linked to poor movement patterns. Give yourself a fighting chance by completing a short warm up before the outing. Think of the major muscle groups and joints you use; ankles, knees, hip, spine & shoulders and do some movements on all of them. Cycling to the boathouse in a panic will mean you feel warm, but won't have hit all those joints right?!

Get some weightlifting coaching

Weights are a rower's best friend. We play in a power endurance sport, big muscles working over a period time equals going fast! Done well your twice (or three times) a week weights sessions can really differentiate you as an individual or crew from your competition.

There are some excellent coaches in Cambridge who have skills coaching both rowing and weightlifting/S&C. But in my experience this is the exception rather than the rule at the moment. I am a massive advocate of the way the coaching culture is in Cambridge, we churn out hundreds of crews each year mainly from volunteer coaches. But most of what I see in clinic and have experienced is rowers learning to lift weights coached by other rowers. Often meaning athletes aren't getting maximum return out of training and reinforcing poor movement patterns.

Lifting weights, be that power lifting or Olympic lifting movements, is a sport in itself. So try to access some really good coaching from a specialist; coaches consider getting some 1:1 sessions yourself, rowers perhaps look at getting a specialist S&C coach in for 6 weeks at the beginning of the season to coach technique. Learning good form early in the season should make for some big gains, and more importantly strong and healthy backs and glutes for the entire season, reducing or eliminating the risk of lower back and pelvis pain.

Monitor your performance

And my last piece of advice is to monitor your performance. This could be formally as a training diary or just getting into the habit of noting how you feel after certain workouts, how tired you're feeling, what your weights are like in the gym etc. You will all have high rates of improvement anywhere up to 12 weeks into a new season. The rest or break doing different sports, will mean your body should respond rapidly to the new training stimulus of the rowing season and almost anything you do should make a difference.

But when that improvement curve starts flattening out, which it will no doubt about that, thats when you get smart. Just doing more of what you did to get yourself there won't work. Training harder;more volume and intensity will simply start to break you. Train smarter, not harder. Ask yourself why are you plateauing? Is it because work or the PhD is stressful at the minute? How's your sleep? Have you been working on a change in technique? What are you eating?

It may simply be that you are doing everything right and its a heavy loading week. But if its not, if its a sigh that you body is starting to struggle with the cumulative load, then just hitting training harder is not the answer. Unless you want to get injured or ill that is!


So those are my top tips of years of rowing, coxing and coaching for surviving, and performing well over the winter season. There are many more but keep these in mind, it is much much better to get 'safe' training sessions under your belt than attempting to PB every week your 30min R20 erg. Take the glory when its there, but be sensible the rest of the time. Can guarantee that your most successful seasons were the ones you made it through the winter injury free and training consistently!

Take it easy! And have a good winter training!


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Sports Massage Therapist

Vicki Marsh MSc BA (hons) studied at Oxford University before training as a Sports Massage Therapist. With over 12 years experience she specialises in chronic pain & complex cases as well as coaching Crossfit & Weightlifters. She runs specialist workshops, creates online courses and has spoken at events such as COPA on how to grow a successful business.

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