For those of us who have trained or competed in rowing, we know the rush you feel when the boat is moving after that perfect stroke. But we also know the amount of hard work and dedication that goes into this sport that requires immense power, finesse and, above all, endurance. For those who have never tried it, please let us tell you how a sport made to look so simple by professionals is so gruelling and technical. But so worth it.
The training that goes into that perfect stroke can take it’s toll. The most commonly reported rowing injury across all ages and levels of rowing is lower back pain. But what is it about rowing that causes it?
There are three main contributors:
- training volume,
- core strength, and
- lumbopelvic biomechanics.
Training volume includes the amount of time and intensity spent training both on and off water. The repetitive nature of the rowing technique means that high amounts of force are placed on the body (particularly the spine) hundreds of times in a session, and potentially thousands of times in a week.
With the role of the trunk and lower back during the drive phase being to brace as a cantilever, it must be able to accept the highest loads placed on the body at the catch and mid-drive (where it can reach up to seven times your body weight!) before it tapers toward the stroke’s finish. Accepting this load hundreds or thousands of times a week happens just on the water! When you include ergometer (rowing machine) training which places similar loads on the spine (some studies even suggest higher forces occur during ergs, with nearly all agreeing that erg-ing longer than 30 minutes markedly increases your risk of lower back injury) and weight training (which often includes rowing-specific movements such as deadlifts and cleans), it can really add up.
There’s no doubt a relatively high training volume is an necessary part of successful rowing. However, without gradual increase in training load and allowing for appropriate recovery time, it’s easy to see how a lower back injury can occur from overload.
Core strength and stability is one massive factor that can be protective for a rower’s back. And this doesn’t just include getting a six-pack – core includes the deep abdominal and spinal muscles that co-contract during the high load phases of rowing to brace and protect the spine. While the ‘six-pack’ muscles still play a massive part in good rowing technique, the smaller muscles are often forgotten and are the ones that can help the larger muscles do their job properly to avoid injury.
Lumbopelvic dynamics, a term you probably haven’t heard before, refers to how your lower back (lumbar spine) and hips (pelvis) move together during the rowing stroke. So often you see rowers with curved spines, almost into a ‘C’ shape at the catch. While having this movement or shape in your upper back is acceptable for rowing, allowing your lower back to curve puts you at a much higher risk of lower back injury. Having this curve forces one or two spinal levels to accept the majority of the load, rather than being distributed amongst all of the vertebrae. An ideal position at the catch is for the hips to be tilted forward, with the lower back flattened and upper back somewhat relaxed. While muscle length can influence this, commonly good lumbopelvic dynamics deteriorate with fatigue.
Glossary – for those of us who might not be quite as familiar with this sport
Stroke – a full cycle of a rowing stroke (catch, mid-drive, finish, recovery phase)
Catch – the first part of the rowing stroke where the rower’s legs are bent with the hips close to the heels, the arms extended and the rowing blades (oars) in the water in preparation for the legs to push.
Mid-drive – the middle phase of the stroke where the rower’s legs are extending, the body begins to swing backwards with the arms remaining straight.
Finish – the final stage of the stroke where the legs and body are in their final extended position with the arms bent and the oars have just exited the water.
Recovery phase – this phase of the stroke the rower’s body is returning to the catch position by straightening the arms, rocking the body forward and bending the knees with the blades out of the water in preparation for the next stroke to being.
Madi is a Physiotherapist who works with our Jordan Springs team.