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Head Race Rowing Plan: The 4 Core Elements

Race Plans for Head Racing

When speaking of any type of racing, one thing is certain—just getting ready for the race already takes a lot of work, and that’s especially true in rowing head racing events.

The good thing about the head racing season is that there are many types of events where you can practice and improve on your crew’s time.

We all know that there will always be glitches, even with the best laid plans. So how do you prepare for a successful head race?

Today, I want to tell you about how I put together a head racing plan. It may not work for everyone, but hopefully it will inspire you to create your own plan for your crew’s head races.

Set a Practice Race for Your Winter Peak Event

As you plan for the upcoming season, you should find a winter “peak” event, which will be your crew’s priority.

For many, this event is usually the Head of the Yarra (Australia), the Head of the Charles (USA), or the Eights Head of the River (UK).

team of rowers testing their race plan

Unfortunately, two of the above-mentioned events happen quite early in the head racing season. This means that you will have a very limited timeframe for practicing and refining your race plans.

Two weeks before the main event, find a race that will serve as your practice event. If you can’t find a formal race, you can explore other options instead. For example, you can set up a local informal racing activity against others in your club, or perhaps you can invite a nearby club to race against yours in a private match.

I’m betting that another club would jump at the chance to get in a practice race as well, so I would try that option first.

What to Do If Things Go Wrong

Before going further, I want to take a moment to talk about what to do when and if things go wrong.

Bad Weather and Other Elements

Wind and river currents can be a problem, and bad weather has sometimes caused waves swamping boats and even flipping crews out of the boat!

Women rowing on the water training for race day

If this happens to you, try to get the attention of the safety marshals by waving. There are officials who act as spotters, but unfortunately, I’ve seen it rain so hard that you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

If you should get flipped, stay with the boat and wait for assistance. The decision will be made about whether your crew can continue the race once the water rescue is complete.


Besides the weather, the most common issue I’ve seen is what feels like endless delays. You are warmed up and ready to go, but a logjam or other delay has you sitting idly for as long as 30 minutes.

team of rowers getting their boat ready for a race

Wear layers of clothing. You can always remove them if the day warms up or the weather is good, but sitting in a shell in near-freezing weather wearing a T-shirt and shorts is a quick way to ruin your head race.

4 Elements of a Head Racing Plan

You’ve probably heard it said that all races are the same, and all races are different.

You will need a plan for each race, but every plan you make goes right out the window once the race begins.

These might seem like contradictory statements, but once you’ve done a head race, you will understand that these statements are true. For these situations, you will need a rowing coach to help you become a more adaptable rower who can race in any situation.

So, what should be in every race plan?

While you may approach head racing plans differently, they will all have these 4 core elements:

4 Element of Head Racing Plan -

Too simple, you say?

Think about it. You’ll need a plan to get your shell from sitting still to a racing pace.

You need to have some way to improve your technique. Constantly. Every Day. Every Race. Every stroke.

You need to learn some way to make your shell go faster than the rest.

You need a plan to have a finishing sprint if you hope to win.

Remember, a head race is a race against your opponents’ time, and the only way to win is to finish the course in the shortest time.

Write Out Your Race Plan in Detail

You should have several options for each of the 4 elements of your race plan. I recommend that you practice all options at least 3 times before choosing a version that you think will work best for you and your crew.

team of men rowing on water in red shirts

To give you an idea, here are a few examples of what your options might be:

1. The Start:

Pick a standing or flying start. What sequence of strokes will get you up to race pace fastest? Is your coxswain good at judging distance before the start line? You want to be sure that you pass the start line at pace, right?

2. Technique Improvement:

What are the top 3 technical things you can do that would improve the speed of your shell? Work out this problem using a speed meter.

Whatever you decide, practice it with your crew several times before the race. Choose a single phrase that your crew understands and can execute quickly. Make it short and snappy so your coxswain can say it fast (Jump to it! For example). Develop a shortlist of meaningful calls so no time is wasted on long explanations.

3. Speed Improvement:

Even the most well-practiced crew will have speed lags through a head race. Getting a push or a power move will help maintain speed. The point of a head race is an average robust speed. Stay close to your mean, and don’t go considerably slower or faster.

4. The Finish:

Sprinting to the finish line takes some judgment. How fast can your boat go? How high can you rate before your crew loses speed and technique? How long can you keep at that higher speed before technique and fitness fail?

head race rowing 2 teams competing

Taking Necessary Risks

When planning a race, it’s important to correctly estimate your crew’s ability to sprint. Can your crew sprint the final 500-meter distance? If you think so, my challenge is for you to sprint 200 meters earlier and see if you can last the distance. If that proves successful, do another early sprint in your next race except that this time, you go another 200 meters earlier. Do this again until you find where you fail.

The point here is to know how far you can push your ability to sprint because only then will you know what your crew can do. That knowledge will help you make good judgment in future races.

Try incorporating these calculated risks into your plan, and I’m sure that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you will discover.

Of course, by sprinting early, you also run the risk of losing power before reaching the finish line. That’s why it’s important to determine the risks that you are willing to take and be prepared with a Plan B so that if Plan A doesn’t work out, you can still last the course.

Variations in a Plan

Experience will tell you that things don’t always work according to plan. The important thing about having a race plan is that the crew has a broad framework to follow, and they understand the wisdom behind the planned moves through the course of the race.

So when things don’t go as planned, you’ll have a trusted coxswain who can decide based on that framework and a crew that understands the logic behind the cox’s commands.  Read more here on what does a Coxswain do and say.

Creating a race plan isn’t that difficult, and when it comes to head races, like Head of the Charles, multiple landmarks help you mark off obstacles and timing.

Rowing Race Plan

How you string together your race plan and the four elements above is up to you. The more experienced you are, the easier it will be to create this plan.

Some crew members will require more practice than others, and some elements will depend on your personal preferences.

Possible variations during the race should be included in your plan and discussed with the crew. Don’t arrive at the race with a new strategy in mind or try something different mid-race because chances are that you haven’t thought it out completely, which means that it probably won’t work.

At the End of the (Race) Day

You now have all the tricks and tips to build a robust race plan. The rest is up to you and your crew.

This is a group effort, so if you don’t do well, don’t dump on the coxswain or let your crew tell you that the plan was a stinker. Learn from your mistakes so that you can do better the next time around.

Let’s not forget that rowing is a never-ending series of planning, practicing, racing, and learning. There’s always an opportunity to do better next time, and that’s what makes it fun.


1. What is a head race in rowing?

A head race in rowing is a race against time, or a time-trial competition, where the rowing teams compete for the fastest time in finishing a course. Head races are usually held in the fall, winter, and spring seasons, on a river course with some interesting bridges and turns. Some of the most well-known head races (and most awaited by rowing teams and spectators) are the Head of the River (the UK), Head of the Charles (the USA), and Head of the Yarra (Australia).

2. How long is a head race in rowing?

Head races vary in length but are typically within 2.5 to 6 miles (4 km to 10 km) long. For instance, the Head of the River race on River Thames in London is 4.25 miles (6.84 km) long. The Head of the Charles on the Charles River in Boston is 3 miles (4.8 km) long, while the Head of the Yarra race on the Yarra River in Melbourne is almost 5 miles (8 km) long.

3 thoughts on “Head Race Rowing Plan: The 4 Core Elements”

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