It is really natural for a runner to consider biking or swimming as a form of cross training or another endurance activity to take up and try to improve in just for fun. I did that very early on, and while there is a lot of work left to do for my abilities in those fields to catch up to my running, the novelty of the sport of cycling and swimming has worn off…or was perhaps never quite there. While a team sport, like a pickup game of softball or kickball sounds like fun, I would never commit to regularly participating…too much skill and standing around, not enough pure rhythmic, repetitive expenditure. Rowing was a mystery to me all throughout high school and college. My high school did not have a team, but the shiny new Camden County boathouse on the Cooper River was a turn-around point for a ten-miler I did from my house. When there was a regatta and we didn’t know, my teammates and I would dodge bows and fear for our lives for a few minutes, then take another route instead. In college, I knew of a couple people who were on the club crew team and practiced earlier than my team did during indoor track season. This was about all I knew about rowing. Then, I started working at the running store in 2010, and realized how prominent rowing was in Princeton. My first week of work was also the first week of work for two [former] coworkers training with the National team at the Princeton boathouse. One was a tall, strong rower and the other a short, strong coxwain (spoiler: the former went on to win bronze in the 2012 Olympics). We became close working weekends together when their practice was over. Sometimes I would ask questions, but the sport was still so foreign to me that it remained mysterious and intriguing.
I met several other rowers at the store after that, as many would come in for running shoes or gels and chat about their training. Early this year, I thought about what it would be like if I tried to row. I train like a triathlete year-round; the upper-body strength requirement wouldn’t come as difficult to me as many other runners. I also thrive on endurance and I imagined that a rowing workout or race would be pretty mentally and aerobically comparable to running a workout or race. If there was a perfect place and time to try, it was here and now, when I can do whatever I want with my training and am immersed in an area where it is just as common for someone to row than to play baseball.
So on Saturday, June 1, I participated in National Learn to Row Day with the Princeton National Rowing Association at Mercer Lake. I decided to do this event versus others in the area because 1.) I would actually be able to row on the water, not just in the tank and 2.) it was free (duh). I showed up pretty darn excited. After a brief introduction from Princeton National Rowing Association, a group of about 20 of us went inside to the erg room. I had never been on the erg before, mainly because I didn’t want to use it the wrong way, honestly. PNRA rowers taught us the technique in steps, and it was much easier to get the hang of that way. To improve the cross training of everyone reading, here is the proper way to use the erg:
1. The Catch (position 1): Your seat is all the way forward, knees vertical, arms and wrists straight.
2. The Drive (phase 1): The legs extend powerfully, the torso leans back, and the arms bend at the elbow to pull the handle to the sternum. In this phase, it was very helpful to think, “legs-body-arms.”
3. The Finish (position 2): Legs are contracted and straight, abs are engaged as the torso is extended back.
4. The Recovery (phase 2) : the triceps work to send the arms forward. The torso then flexes forward, and then legs bend as you slide back up the catch position. This is essentially the opposite order of phase 1: “arms, body, legs.”
We stayed on the erg for about 20 minutes. It was amazing how much more efficient (and fast) you can get after spending time getting your form correct! It was way different than running, when you can let your mind run free and not concern yourself with what you’re really doing. I suppose once it becomes second nature rowing could become more like running, mentally, but I still think there needs to be more focus involved. [This is a good video demonstrating proper form.]
After the erg lesson, it was time to get on the water! I was able to get out twice, in two different boats. Some of the Mercer Juniors (high school rowers) hopped in the eight boats with us (and coxed) so we would have some experienced rowers with us. The coach’s boat went out beside us and we did some sequences that would allow all of us newbies a chance to really row and understand how it feels. One thing we did I felt was most effective was having the bow four and the stern four take turns rowing together. The feeling of making a strong, smooth stroke and feeling the breeze on the lake was so awesome! (In other words, it was cool that I was part of actually making the boat move….)
This turned into a rather long post, but in summary: I loved rowing, it didn’t hurt my ITB at all, and now I have a new cross training activity that certainly isn’t easy!
Lake Mercer…I will be back.