It's unclear what the cause was for my injury. What was clear was the fact that my five year rowing career had just come to an end. I found myself lost and confused. My coaches and teammates made me feel like I was weak and exaggerating the injury to remove myself from the competitive rigors of Division 1 rowing. After five months and five different doctors it was clear that I wasn't exaggerating anything. I had spondylolisthesis at L5 and two herniated discs. Surprisingly, I was told that this injury was common in rowers and that it was completely possible to continue my rowing career. In actuality this may have been true but I feared continuing would only make it worse. I eventually decided against continuing with the hope of being able to play with my kids in the distant future.
I didn't know it at the time but my injury happened for a reason. I've spent the last 4 years of my life trying to figure out how to reduce the chance for injuries in the sport of rowing. I don't claim to be the best coach by any means but I do believe I'm making a difference in these kids lives. What I hope to do by sharing my experience is to create some thought that may help more kids than I can personally reach.
Injuries like mine are far too common in the sport of rowing. I've read figures that range from 30%-70%. This means at least one in every three rowers will find themselves injured. Yet the biggest issue is that these rates are accepted as normal in the sport. Every season athletes get injured and not much effort seems to be put into avoiding these injuries. As Mike Boyle has said, coaches treat the sport as a "survival of the best bone and connective tissue contest, a twisted take on the survival of the fittest theory. Those who don't get injured by the volume of training survive to compete". All too often this mentality creates an environment where rowers are pushed to row to the point of injury and often through injuries.
Using what I have learned through experience, experimentation, sites such as strengthcoach.com, mentorships, seminars, books, videos, articles, and several internships I was able to reach my goal last season. My #1 goal was and is to have a team with no injuries. Yet, I knew that few people would care if my team also did not remain competitive. Which leads me to goal #2: be competitive. To do this I had to go against tradition. Along the way I got a lot of strange looks and comments on how I was doing things wrong. As my boss said at the end of the season, "it took a lot of balls to try what you did, but it worked".
There are 3 mechanisms of injury in the sport of rowing:
2) Technical error
Rowing is a non-contact sport, we have control over all 3 mechanisms listed above. This means that we can reduce the chance of all injuries from ever even occurring in the first place. All we have to do is make it a priority.
Comparing my last two seasons as a head coach:
-8 Injuries out of 30 athletes (27% a little better than average)
-6th Place finish at championships
-0 Injuries out of 28 athletes (excluding 1 pre-existing injury)
-3rd Place finish at championships
Not only did our injuries drop dramatically but our performance improved as well.
Changes made between seasons:
1) Emphasized Quality over quantity, work + rest=success
We dropped training volume, increased recovery time, and encouraged quality work instead of the quantity of work. When technique broke down, training stopped.
-Trained 5 days a week instead of 6.
-Trained 15 hours a week down from 18 (hours dropped 16%).
-Decreased work volume by 25%.
2) Used an extremely progressive ESD program
-Weekly work volume ranged from 27K to 65K meters.
"Elite" programs use between 80K to 160K of work volume, 2 to 3 times more than my program.
-Never increased volume more than 10% a week, less then 20% a month total
Dr. Fritz Hagerman, the exercise physiologist for the U.S. National team recommends the 10% rule in early stages of training and regressing to 5% in later stages.
-All workouts were designed around the length of a spring race(2K)
For my team a race lasts around 6mins so workouts simulated this length of time. For example 30sec intervals were done in sets of 12, totaling 6mins of work.
3) Went against traditional wisdom, advice, and warnings
I was told that a low volume program that practices 5 days a week would never work in the sport of rowing.
-Reduced the amount of time spent on pure aerobic work
It is common for programs to include workouts such as 60-90mins of steady state work. I see no value for these workouts and therefore eliminated them from our program. Dr. Fritz Hagerman and other research actually claims that pieces over 30mins have no further benefit, and are actually associated with injury.
-Most of our aerobic capacity work came through intervals
In early stages of interval work the athlete's heart rate is elevated for 24 minutes straight when we include active recovery.
-We never trained for the fall season
The fall season consists of head races which are 5K meters long. The competitive season consists of races which are 2K meters long. Since both goals are on the opposite end of the spectrum I believe training for fall before spring can hurt your performance in the spring.
-Strived to produce and reinforce power and strength, not endurance
I have found that athletes from other sports such as football and water polo make extremely good rowers. Why then would we try to make them more endurance oriented?
-Removed long runs from the program
A source of several injuries in previous seasons and other programs.
4) Unilateral Training
Although rowing is the only bilateral sport, I found that the nature of the sport lends itself better to unilateral training.
-The application of pressure is not applied evenly between the legs or upper body.
-Imbalances are developed that need to be remedied.
-Example exercises used were RFE split squats, SLDL's, and single leg squats.
-The only bilateral lifts used were trap bar deadlifts and goblet squats.
5) Created a specific warm-up using the FMS
Athletes were screened at the beginning of the fall and spring. Warm-ups were designed around these results.
-The men's team tended to have mobility restrictions at the ankle, hip, and t-spine.
-Example correctives used were kneeling ankle mobility, rib grabs, and leg lowers.
-The women's team tended to have stability limitations on the TS Push-up.
-Example correctives used were push-up holds, walkouts, and regressed/assisted push-ups.
6) Asked myself why
Thanks to my mentor, Brandon Marcello, I had to have a good argument to keep it in my program. If I couldn't justify it, it was removed. This forced me to honestly evaluate my program.
7) Good luck
Lets face it, we may have just gotten lucky.
1) Volume that is not progressive is dangerous
-Back pain was not noted until 1980 when training volume increased (Stallard).
-Most injuries occur in the fall season, a high volume period (Hosea).
-Most injuries in rowing are related to overuse (Hosea).
-Injury incidence is directly related to the volume of training (Hosea).
2) The aerobic energy system is important, be creative in how you train for it
-Avoid pieces longer than 30mins, there is no benefit, just added risk (Hagerman).
-Use active recovery as a means to develop aerobic capacity.
3) Technique & Mobility are linked
-Often times coaches get frustrated when an athlete doesn't fix a technical error, the majority of the time it's due to mobility restrictions. They just aren't physically capable of getting into the position.
-Mobility allows proper technique, therefore mobility is king
4) Keys to technique and injury reduction in rowing:
-Teach the hip hinge
If rowers don't know how to hinge they end up repeatly flexing their lumbar spine.
-Hammer hip & t-spine mobility
If they lack mobility here, they find it elsewhere, resulting in increased load on the spine.
-Emphasize core stability
Specifically focus on anti-rotation and anti-lateral flexion exercises.
5) The most dangerous position is the catch
-We need to teach athletes to instinctively activate their core to help protect their spine. Activation of the transverse abdominis and obliques, and developing infra abdominal pressure could help protect the spine.
Exercises that seem to fit the bill:
- breathing exercises
- anti rotation holds at the catch
- rotary suitcase holds
6) Avoid heavy low rate pieces
-These place excess stress on the back
7) Change can be good
-Don't reinvent the wheel, but always search for better ways of doing things.
8) Evaluation is key
- Keep track of everything you do and evaluate it honestly.
- Much of the learning process is discovered through trial and error.
Coaches tend to forget that athletes don't have the option to become a professional rower. If they did the chances of making it in professional sports are 1 in 12,000. Yet coaches treat rowing like a professional sport and they end up injuring athletes for the sake of their own egos. I hope that this article spurs some thought that results in smarter and safer training. It is possible to keep your athletes healthy, you just need to make it a priority. Please feel free to contact me with any questions. If I can help one more rower with this article it was worth my time and much more.
1) Hagerman, Fritz. "Training the Energy Systems".
2) Stallard, M.C. "Backache in Oarsmen". British Journal of Sports Medicine. 1980; 8 (14) :105-108.
3) Hosea, Timothy and Hannfin, Jo. "Rowing Injuries". University orthopedic associates. 2012; 5.
4) Smoljanović T., Bojanić I., Hannafin J. A., Hren D., Delimar D., Pećina M. (2009) Traumatic and overuse injuries among international elite junior rowers. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 37 (6). pp. 1193-9.
Blake Gourley holds a Masters of Science in Sports Performance Training and has over 10 years of experience working with rowers. Read more here.