Gasping for Air

By Volker Nolte

Photo by Lisa Worthy.

Have you ever thought about how you breathe during rowing? I have, and my initial thoughts turned out to be all wrong. I believed you should inhale during the last part of the recovery so that you reach the catch with full lungs. This pattern seemed to make sense on the first view, since filling your lungs with air would help to stabilize the core and presumably protect the back—similar to how we breathe when lifting weights. But I was mistaken. Why? Because creating such pressure within the torso also compresses the heart, thereby inhibiting the massive blood flow our sport requires. The catch position already increases pressure within the torso, pushing the intestines into the rib cage, so air-filled lungs would only be in the way. Rowers instead engage in a different breathing pattern. We exhale at both turning points of the stroke and inhale during the drive and the recovery. On the drive, we stabilize the core to maintain posture partly by contracting the diaphragm, which causes inhaling. At normal training stroke rates, we only have time for one breath on the drive and one on the recovery. This is one reason why we normally do not teach rowers how to breathe. Everyone finds their proper breathing pattern naturally.