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Machine Learning

BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
VIDEO BY ADAM REIST

Anyone involved in the rowing world—in any capacity—would have to be living under a rock not to know that our sport is changing. From the de-prioritization of lightweight rowing on the world stage to FISA’s more recent focus on coastal and indoor rowing, to the surge of indoor rowing within the boutique fitness industry, there is little doubt that we are entering a new era for our sport.

On the international level, efforts are underway to increase rowing’s diversity and exposure more broadly. One of the greatest measures of this on the international stage, of course, is coverage received at the Olympic Games. While coverage is important for the many sports for which Olympic gold matters, it perhaps matters even more for rowing. But with the Olympics only coming around every four years, there is an immediate and growing need to develop new permutations of rowing that evolve the sport and capture public attention, both during and between the Olympic Games.  

Yet for many—myself included—warming up to the next evolution of rowing has taken some getting used to.

Remember when the word “erg” was synonymous with painful tests and long winters spent training indoors? Today, people across the country are enthusiastically embracing the machine, signing up for indoor rowing classes and jumping at the chance to race on Concept2’s ubiquitous indoor rower at the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints and other competitions alongside their CrossFit teammates. And while the CrossFit boom is not new, the rise of indoor rowing sure seems to be. 

For many in rowing, the erg is a tool; a means to an end. Used for a very specific purpose at a specific point in the season—typically when the water is frozen over—the erg offers a way to simulate the rowing stroke and accurately measure work output.  Historically, it enabled rowers to stay fit over the winter so they can get their bows over the finish line first in the spring—on the water, where it mattered most. 

And for many, this is still true. But it is also true that the indoor rowing boom, especially within the boutique fitness industry, has provided traditional rowers with an opportunity to adjust how they think about both the erg and the ways in which it helps generate awareness and enthusiasm for our sport in the broader world. 

And overall awareness is on the rise. Hydrow, for example, the rowing machine that launched in 2018 with live and on-demand workouts led by current and former U.S. national teamers, was recently featured on Ellen DeGeneres’ popular daytime TV talk show. The machine was included as part of a holiday giveaway series, introduced by guest Jennifer Aniston. “We were really excited about that,” said Bruce Smith, Hydrow’s chief executive officer, “to have tens of millions of people exposed to Hydrow, to have one of the world’s most famous people present Hydrow to the world. We think it’s just an unbelievable opportunity for the sport to come across as not something that is for a few elite people but really is for everybody. It’s incredibly exciting.” 

When asked why indoor rowing seems to resonate with people so strongly—Smith’s machine surpassed treadmill sales at Best Buy on Black Friday—he cites two reasons. “The first is a really rational reason, which is that if you have a specific amount of time to invest in your fitness and whole health, then you want the most bang for your buck. The best exercise you can get is on the rowing machine because it engages 86 percent of your muscles, versus cycling or running, which really only uses the lower half of your body. The second reason is that there is a powerful emotional connection that people have to water. And so the opportunity to actually do the sport in a meaningful way, through an authentic connection to the water as a way of participating in this really old and formerly quite famous sport, resonates with people in a way that at times even surprises the people who do it.” 

This exposure isn’t just limited to Hydrow. The public’s increasing awareness of indoor rowing is also evident in boutique fitness studios like RowHouse. While franchises like OrangeTheory and CrossFit gyms use the erg for high-interval, short-distance bursts, RowHouse takes a totally different approach to indoor rowing. 

“When we first opened,” said Caley Crawford, director of education at RowHouse, “half the team was fitness and half the team was rowing, and we were able to combine those and say, ‘OK, here’s our fitness perspective on this. This is going to translate, but this is not.’ And then the rowers would say, ‘OK, well, rowers are going to laugh at this but appreciate that.’” 

I ask Crawford what it’s like to bring rowing to the masses. “Most of our clients had never touched a rowing machine or never even knew that crew was a thing prior to their experience at RowHouse. It’s the oldest sport in [the world] and yet no one really knows about it. It’s very niche. However, through marketing, we’ve been able to really highlight the low-impact nature of indoor rowing, and at all levels, the inclusivity we believe in. I think that’s really spoken to our members.” 

She continues, “Being effort-based allows us to row together and row in swing, where everyone can generate their own intensity. Members are not put at a level where they can’t keep up. It’s incredible when you have a machine that’s based on body mass. It means I can perfect my ability to use my body as force to basically pull against the chain and get the fan spinning. And so when those initially deconditioned clients come in, once they get good at the form and the timing and body positioning, they can quickly become the most powerful people in the room. It’s amazing. There’s really not a lot that’s out there in fitness that’s like that. It’s been really rewarding to see. Some people haven’t worked out in, say, two years, three years, five years, and they’re losing over 50 pounds in their first year. They find this passion that becomes a habit and get addicted to the meters and split times. It’s pretty incredible.”

RowHouse had three locations when they first opened in early 2018. Within the next 24 months, they say they plan on opening an additional 300 locations. RowRepublic, Power Rowing, Drive Rowing Studios, and Row & Ride are also growing indoor rowing brands. 

Then there is World Rowing’s focus on indoor rowing. In 2018 World Rowing, the marketing arm of FISA, launched the inaugural World Rowing Indoor Championships in partnership with Concept2, USRowing, and the organizing committee for the Erg Sprints in Alexandria, Va. The event followed the successful inclusion of indoor rowing at the 2017 World Games in Poland and according to World Rowing, was “formally formed in recognition of the tremendous growth and development of indoor rowing as a full discipline within the sport of rowing.” Paris is the site of the next World Rowing Indoor Championships in February 2020. Indoor Rowing was also featured at the inaugural World Urban Games this past October in Hungary and drew praise from organizers and participants. 

A longtime rowing broadcaster, both at the worlds and Olympics, FISA’s Robert Treharne Jones has one of the most recognizable voices in our sport. I asked him about the explosive growth of indoor rowing in his native United Kingdom. “I think it’s the accessibility because there’s not a gym anywhere in the world worthy of the name that doesn’t have one or two ergs in the corner. They may not get used particularly well and they may not get used particularly proficiently, but at least it gives everyone the chance to have a go, simply as part of their regular membership. 

“It means they don’t have to hunt down the local rowing club, which can take a massive amount of work depending on the geographic location of where they live. Because let’s face it, by the very nature, rowing has to have access to water, and there are vast areas of the world where that is not the case.

“Having accessibility,” he continues, “having the equipment provided there and hopefully some folks in charge who can give you a rough idea of what it’s all about before you step onto the machine helps tremendously. Of course, there’s a lot more to it when you do get the chance to climb into a boat, but as far as first steps are concerned, I think it’s a great way forward.”  

I continue to think about exposure and access, and the larger implications for our sport when both are present. 

“Of course, it’s not just indoor rowing,” Treharne Jones says. “There are many other branches to our sport beyond the part we’re familiar with—the flat water, the racing shell. Certainly in the United Kingdom, there are six or seven other rowing disciplines that I can think of on the water, and the idea is to bring them all under one general umbrella because the sport and the people who take part in it will benefit from it.”

Treharne is very much aware of the changes occurring internationally in rowing, with the Olympics the determining factor for so much that occurs in our sport at the highest level. He cites the introduction of new branches of the sport—coastal rowing and beach sprints specifically—that are being floated as potential new formats for future Olympic contests. “The world is moving on and the rules which have governed what we do and the way we do it since rowing was included in the first modern Olympics in 1896 may no longer hold true, and just because it’s been done like that for the last 100 years doesn’t mean to say that’s the way it’s going to be for the future.” 

For Treharne Jones, indoor rowing is simply another new branch of the sport.

“The same sort of ethos that I was talking about in the United Kingdom that brings all members of the rowing families together under one umbrella, on or off the water, is true at a continental and global level. And then people have the opportunity, hopefully, of moving between one branch and another. Moving from the erg to the water is an ideal we would hope for, but it’s quite a mixed picture at the moment because of the uncertainties of how the Olympic program might develop. 

Treharne Jones continues: “The guiding principle there is universality, which is as many men and women from as many different nations in the world taking part in the sport. And if the sport has to change to attract more men and women to take part in it, then that has to be the way forward. I think coastal rowing and indoor rowing are significant parts of that equation.” 

Accessibility, awareness, exposure, and reach. This is actually the new era of indoor rowing, and indeed rowing across all forms and disciplines. Independent of whether one learns to row on flat water, the ocean, or on an erg viewing workouts on-demand, the result is the same: A broader understanding and appreciation for our sport and its many benefits.

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