I come from rowing stock, you could say. My mother rowed, my father rowed – in fact, it’s how they met. It was a long time before I would get a chance to try it; my high school didn’t have a team, and my high school life put me off trying out for sports enough that combined with the busy schedule of an undergraduate engineering student, I didn’t look into it at the University of Waterloo either.
It took until Grad School in 1999-2000 for me to get in touch with this part of my athletic heritage; I mean, where better than England to get into that scene? It was unusual for Grad students to take part in athletic clubs, and stranger still to be the eldest on the Novice Men’s Team (I was 26 amongst 19 and 20 year-olds). The Leeds teams didn’t do well that year, but we still had lots of fun and I learned a lot. Sadly, digital cameras weren’t that common (at least I didn’t have one), so I’m having trouble tracking down any photographic evidence of these adventures.
We have a rowing shell at our cottage that I hardly use. The problem with rowing solo (or ‘sculling’) is that it takes an even higher level of skill to keep the boat level and moving in a straight line. If both oars don’t enter and leave the water at the same time and aren’t inserted to the same depth, the boat reels and curves to the left or right, making it somewhat frustrating. I can’t follow the shoreline easily, nor can I simply head out to the middle of the lake, because it tends to be wavier and more choppy out there.
Rowing as part of a crew is different. All rowers are trying to move in sync, taking their cues from the ‘Stroke’ – the rower at the stern of the boat. Yes, there is a cox (a typically smaller person at the stern who faces forward) who can call out real-time tactics and the rhythm, but your natural responses are a little better simply watching the rower in front of you; provided there isn’t too much delay from one rower to the next, everybody should be in lockstep with the Stroke, who’s in the best position to do what the Cox says.
So rowing has a teamwork aspect and a very technical aspect. An oar can get caught awkwardly in the water (either on the way in, or more often in my experience, on the way out) and it’s called ‘catching a crab’. So your technique is something that can always be refined, in addition to simply having plenty of strength and endurance to pull that oar hard, over and over. The element I like the best, though, is the simple rhythmic exchange between the pull and glide (where you recover for the next stroke). It reminds me a lot of cross-country skiing, or maybe even inline skating.
I think I wrote all that out of nostalgia, since rowing doesn’t play a very big role in my current fitness regime with one exception: when I attend a Yoga class (as I have been once a week for the past 3-4 weeks), I don’t like to do it without having warm muscles. So I often hit the ergometer/rowing machine for 5-10 minutes before a class. It works out the whole body, but especially the back muscles, which are not only often neglected by other forms of functional exercise, but they get a nice stretch through so many Yoga poses and sequences. Using the machine (side note: a friend of mine who got himself in good enough shape to pass police entrance exams credits most of his transformation to a rowing machine!) lets me train my muscle memory so I don’t completely forget the gross motor parts of a rowing stroke, puts me in touch with my past a little, and the rhythm of the stroke can be meditative (though I usually have to concentrate to tune out the gym’s distractions like music, TV and other people).
In other words, it can be a great mental and physical complement to a Yoga class, thus: Row-ga. Of course, there’s also this guy, who heads out in a boat in the ocean to have deep, meditative thoughts. That’s also good (though he seems to have retired that blog, most of the links seem to be dead). Plus these guys think like me.
Have you used an ergometer/rowing machine? How about the real deal?
Live Long and Rock On!