I’m often surprised how some (newer) Masters rowers talk about rhythm as if it were an elusive butterfly that one must “catch.” Rhythm in rowing, also referred to as swing, is not as difficult as you might think. Sure, it’s something to learn and master, but it’s not magical and definitely not a virus that you can catch.
How do you learn control and rhythm while rowing? Today, I want to talk about rhythm in rowing and how you can learn this skill faster than you thought possible.
Why is rhythm so important? A crew with a good rhythm allows the rowers to put their best effort into their rowing.
If you’ve ever heard rowers say, “We lost the race because we lost our rhythm,” then you might get a glimpse into just how important this skill is.
What Is Rhythm in Rowing?
Rhythm is not only being in time with the other crew members, but it is also a feeling of ease, of a “flowing” experience, where you relax and move from the power phase to the recovery phase without spending one second thinking about it.
We all know a good rhythm when we see it. Some say that this skill cannot be taught or is somehow innate, but I don’t believe that.
I can absolutely hear when someone isn’t on key when singing, and I can see some people can’t dance a lick because they have no sense of rhythm. However, when speaking of rowing, I know it can be taught because I’ve done it.
Yes, some of us might be born with more ability or a well-functioning central nervous system that naturally gives one graceful movement, but if dancers can be taught rhythm, then so can rowers!
Rhythm is a matter of control and training. You need to train your muscles and nervous system to do something the way you want it done, not necessarily the way your body feels it should be done.
Why Is Rhythm So Important?
To answer this question, close your eyes and picture this:
Your body weight is sliding up and down the inside hull of the shell. As the shell surges forward, your body moves in the opposite direction. Let’s not talk about the oars right now, just picture your rear on the seat sliding back and forth.
If these two movements (the boat moving one way and you moving another) are out of sync, the boat will go a lot slower, won’t it? Like a swing, if you are leaning forward as the swing is going backward, the swing won’t go nearly as far.
When you are out of sync with the timing of the boat, the boat will feel heavier, and you will work a lot harder to accomplish a great deal less.
One of the biggest benefits of rhythm includes the ability to keep the boat going even when wind or wake from another boat disrupts your smooth water.
Always remember that while learning rhythm can be challenging for some, it’s not impossible to learn.
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Learn This First
Before you even attempt to learn rhythm, you should know that there are 4 crucial parts of the stroke cycle where one must be confident about their blade work and know how to create a power stroke.
1. Scullers have a key reference point, and that is when their hands cross over each other. This is where you complete the stroke cycle–on the recovery not at the finish. For sweepers, it’s getting their weight back onto their feet on the recovery part of the stroke.
In short, rhythm is the contrast between the drive and the recovery, and learning it involves these main points:
- Without stopping the movement of the handle(s), take more time than you think you need to straighten your arms around the back turn of the finish.
- Whether you’re testing out your new steering system or a new foot stretcher, don’t test it out at the regatta.
2. You should be able to mimic the crew member in front of you like a mirror. This is how most people learn rhythm, so practice this as much as possible.
3. During the acceleration phase (the drive), you must be able to increase the speed of the shell.
4. Last, you need to be able to manage that tricky transition from power to recovery smoothly, without thinking about it.
It is vital that you learn to manage the transition from power to recovery because being skillful at recovery is a vital part of rhythm.
I recommend that you find a very experienced partner who will sit in front of you and whose every move you can learn to mimic. Hopefully, you will have someone interested in helping you and willing to spend lots of time with you in your training.
How to Teach Rhythm
In short, rhythm is the reverse between the drive and the recovery, and learning it involves these main points:
- Keep your handles in motion, especially at the back turn of the finish.
- Try not to make abrupt changes as this can cause others to lose their rhythm
- Be accurate with your blade work
- Without stopping the movement of the handle(s), take more time than you think you need around the back turn of the finish
I’ve discovered that everyone, even complete beginners, has rhythm, it simply may not be in sync with the rhythm that everyone else has!
Try changing rhythm as you row and see how you like the change.
Other Tips for Learning Rhythm
Scullers should focus on keeping their hands in continuous movement. I’ve found that this simple trick often changes their stroke rhythm.
Nearly everyone has at least one point where they pause or hesitate somewhere during the stroke. It’s usually around the release, but it can be anywhere.
Keeping your hands in motion may feel as if you are rushing. If that’s the case, try a drill where you shift your focus and do a harder drive but a more relaxed recovery.
You can also try to focus on constantly moving your hands from the release to the catch.
Some people find that counting beats in their head or moving to a particular song can help them as they learn rhythm.
If all else fails, you can always try to deliberately make mistakes such as stopping, jerking, rushing, starting, for 5 strokes, then try your most rhythmic, perfect strokes for 5 strokes.
Alternating in this manner can help you learn what you DON’T want to do, rather than simply focusing on what you do want to do.
Does Technique Really Matter?
Probably not if your only goal is to lose weight, enjoy the water, get fit, and build muscle.
However, if you want to get the most out of your rowing time, learn to row properly and not injure yourself, and maybe break your own personal records or even a world record, then yes, technique will matter tremendously.
The entire rowing motion should be fluid and seamless. When done correctly, you almost feel as though you are dancing with the shell or with your crewmates.
When you’ve learned the proper technique, you will enjoy rowing more. It’s also much easier to reach your goals this way, including weight loss goals, fitness goals, or whatever goal it is you have set for yourself.
During the winter months, an erg can be of tremendous help. No, it won’t help you master your blade work, but it can keep you from going out of shape and losing your endurance.
When it comes to the rowing strokes, learning them first on an erg can be quite helpful. You don’t have to think about the oar, feathering, rhythm, or balancing the shell, you can focus on your form so when you do get back in the water, that is one less thing you will need to think about.
Rowing is a full-body exercise and complete body movement that has many different little areas that should flow seamlessly into one another.
Getting feedback is one of the best ways to learn proper technique. If you can’t get live feedback, film yourself rowing on the erg and ask for feedback later on.
At the End of the Day
If you are goal-oriented, and you truly love rowing, rhythm is something you will want to learn.
There is a joy in good rhythm that can’t be matched by anything else.
Learning a good rowing technique on the erg will transfer over to the boat, so learn this first.
If time is short, you will probably do better with multiple short training sessions close together than long sessions farther apart (for example, it would be better to do 30-minute training sessions twice a week than a 3-hour training session once a month.)
Keep rowing, folks! It’s worth all the time you invest in it.
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Written by Rebecca Caroe – RowingCrazy.com
Experienced Rower, Rowing Podcaster, Olympic Rowing Commentator & Expert Masters Rowing Coach
Rebecca Caroe is a masters rowing expert and a rowing coach. She is a rowing entrepreneur, has commentated for the BBC at London 2012 Olympic Games and is also a very well known Podcaster in the rowing world.