words by Kathryn Dobinson
“What, is that?”
“A sponge,” said Beth, holding up a piece of sodden yellow foam between forefinger and thumb.
“I’m not quite sure that’s going to do the job,” I offered, glancing at our rowing boat, rapidly filling with swirling brown water.
It was a chilly January morning in Putney and my first proper rowing race – a mammoth coming together of over 300 boats on the tideway for the Head of the River. Only, our beloved craft was filling up with water and our emergency sponges, being the size of postage stamps, were useless.
As a seasoned runner (and so a fan of thoroughly safe and solitary dry land) this was not the kind of situation that I was used to. I had suddenly found myself in a wellies-clad crew of eight women – with a mascot whippet called Stanley – in environs that looked suspiciously like the North Sea. But the biggest change, lay not in my scary new surroundings but in substituting my lazy plodding training miles for explosive sessions that wiped me out in 2km flat.
The more I row, the better I run. I never thought that I could run any faster than I did already. Eight minute miles? I could crack those out like a happy tortoise. Now I regularly ergo and mimic rowing drills with explosive boot camping sessions, and I am knocking out comfortable seven minute miles and blasting PBs. Of course, faster running times can be achieved with increasingly popular interval and trendy cross-fit training, but rowing has other, hidden benefits too. I’m no longer a serial shin-splinter and I suffer minimal aches and pains, aside from the blisters that pop up on every available inch of hand, plus I am less stocky and have gained more lean muscle mass. But why?
Explosive and Endurance
All runners crave anaerobic capacity and a greater lactate threshold. Repeating the complex rowing rhythm of leg press, dead lift and drive forces you to sustain your explosive power. A quick Twittering to the online rowing community confirms this. “Rowing is a power endurance sport and requires a higher Vo2 (volume of oxygen consumed per unit of time) and so benefits the runner”, says former elite rower Michelle Prince @rowprince “Rowing fitness is right up there with Nordic skiing. It builds a bigger pyramid for aerobic capacity and perhaps shifts ones anaerobic threshold too.”
Unlike running, rowing punishes the legs, core, back and arms in one continuous movement. It’s not, as some people assume, a pulling with the arms activity but a pushing with the legs one. Muscles are also required to work harder in order to overcome the inertial drag of the water. Simply cranking up your running mileage is not the way to achieve PBs, says Kerry Peake, a rower at City of Oxford rowing club. It’s even possible to train for a running race by doing hardly any running, she insists. “After a season of rowing and absolutely no running since March I went out for a 10k run the other week and matched my PB.”
Happily, a glut of gyms like sleek and shiny Equinox, are replacing more and more spinning classes with rowing ones, particularly in the US. The GoRow training studio in New York for example, offers spin-style classes and a mimosa for every million metres you log – my kind of training. And back in the UK, CrossFit classes routinely offer a row and a muscle rinsing.
But beware, you can’t just turn up and start yanking away willy-nilly. Basic technique has to be taught properly for rowing to be a hard core but low impact and low injury sport. For that reason, joining a Learn to Row course, like the leading one I completed at Lea Rowing Club in Upper Clapton, London, is the best option, time willing. Rowing can also be used as a recovery sport, like swimming, when old running niggles resurface. “Personally I find rowing better for my dodgy knees than running, says club rower Becki Ellsmore @Beckibutton “I rowed Boston Marathon with no anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee, says Caroline Barnes @CaroBarnes. “Could I have run 31 miles?! No way. Rowing wins.”
But you have to find a balance if you want to row and run, says Philip Marsden, another City of Oxford rower. “I run two marathons a year and since I took up this rowing lark, I am usually shattered, and my long distance speed has dropped”. The longer distances I find my hips tighten up a lot more than they used to before I started rowing. Foam rolling helps tons for both sports and hip flexor and psoas (the areas that rotate the hip joint and flex the spine) stretching helps too.”
So what are you waiting for? Grab a oneise, wrap your hands in blister-busting electrical tape and hop on an erg to smash that spring 10k.
Kathryn Dobinson is a sports content editor at The Telegraph and blogs about women in sport for Tele Wonder Women. She is a trustee for the Women’s Sport Trust and can be found tweeting @katedobinson