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Swimming for Rowers: A Primer

STORY AND PHOTO BY LIZ HINLEY

To add to your arsenal of cross-training tools, swimming can be a great option for rowers. In addition to the fact that knowing how to swim can be a safety benefit in the event of an untimely capsize. 

Swimming, like rowing, is a full-body exercise that requires a high level of attention to technical detail to effectively move through the water. Rowers can practice full-body awareness, improve breathing techniques, and enjoy the water in another fun way by hitting the swimming pool.

Below, we will cover key parts of swimming and how it can carry over into the rowing world. 

The core: 

Goal: Stabilize spine; maintain good posture

Drill: Superman kicks

Rowing application: Boosting posture to protect the spine and strengthening core stabilization muscles for a strong trunk

Superman kicks: fly like Superman extending the arms in front, stretching the spine long, and kicking steadily with the hips. Focus on the spine lining up with the surface of the water, squeezing the core to push the body to the surface. 

The breath: 

Goal: Utilize full lung capacity; improve breathing efficiency 

Drill: Bobs

Rowing application: Larger lung capacity and higher breath efficiency will assist with oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange to row at higher efforts and high efforts longer; practices breath control to time the inhale and exhale to specific parts of the stroke 

Bobs: Just like drills we do with our oars when feeling for the surface of the water, inhale through the mouth above the water and exhale strongly through the nose under the water. Create as many bubbles as possible. Once this feels comfortable, apply it to your swim stroke. 

The arms: 

Goal: Provide forward propulsion; assist in creating an efficient streamline position 

Drill: Swim with a pull buoy (optional paddles) 

Rowing application: Engaging similar muscle groups, such as the latissimus dorsi, to strengthen the drive phase

Pull: The arms in swimming act as the oars of the body. They anchor into the water, apply pressure to pull the body up and beyond the point of entry (the catch), and release by exiting the water during the recovery phase to repeat the cycle once more. While swimming with a pull buoy, pay extra attention to squeezing the lats and triceps to pull forward just as you would driving the elbows back with the oar handles in the drive phase.  

The legs: 

Goal: Provide forward propulsion

Drill: Kick with a board – various stroke types

Rowing application: Engaging similar muscle groups, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles, to stimulate neuromuscular firing for proper activation; assist with active recovery 

Kicking: While maintaining good posture, extend the kickboard in front so the attention can remain on the legs. Whether you practice flutter kick (pictured), breaststroke kick, or butterfly (dolphin) kick, bring the emphasis on the glutes and thigh muscles engaging for forward movement versus the knees bending to do the work.

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