Rowers from DC Strokes Rowing Club work on the "bounce" during a cold weather training session.

I took the month of January from the erg and from fitness training to sail to Cuba for the fourth time. Surprisingly, sailing on a small (40 feet) boat such as mine is a pretty good substitute. Perhaps it is the constant work of balancing oneself, or the daily chores of hoisting, lifting and the constant of steering in all winds. One inevitably loses weight. And some aerobic fitness.

But sailing and distance from rowing routine also gives much time to think – about how to row this competitive season and perhaps how to improve performance. The theories of rowing are always changing, and at my club, Capital RC, they are changing as well. While a few years ago we sought a fast return of the hands and a slowing of the slide up to the catch, now these parts of technique are passé. Like most other clubs we are now working on ways to keep the boat going fast at the right time. Ways to prevent slowing it down while it is moving fastest.

We know when the boat is moving fastest. This is when the blade has been extracted from the water and the boat is running freely, with no connection to the crew rowing it. From this point, it slows gradually until the next catch and drive has been accomplished and oar power has accelerated the boat.

This is counter-intuitive: the boat actually moves faster with nothing impelling it. As the great English coach Hugh “Jumbo” Edwards wrote: “It is interesting to note that the boat usually continues to accelerate slightly for nearly half of the swing forward.” Edwards, of the Oxford University Boat Club, was one of the first to apply science, in the form of a French pressure recorder on the oarlocks, to an eight-oared crew in 1960.

Thus logic leads us to do nothing to disturb the boat at the moment the oars leave the water at the finish; this in turn dictates that right after the finish, the rower should pause, letting the boat run, while the hands move quietly away to the knees. This, then is almost exactly opposite to the former ideal of fast hands, slide slowdown.

It works with one other important event – this is the “kinetic” catch, when the rower moves directly toward the furthest reach possible on the slide, and without hesitation makes the catch. But “kinetic” is too complex a word and a thought. What we are talking about is what I and some others call the “bounce.”

There was a time when slides were shorter and there was a thing in the boat called “front stops” – the point at which the slide actually bangs into its end stop, a piece of wood or plastic. But slides during my rowing life of over 50 years have become longer and longer so that now there is virtually no “front stop” at all, and the slide tracks are for practical purposes, endless.

But we all know there are limits to the flexibility of the human frame, limits to how severely the knees can be compressed (popularly stated as maximum “butt to heel”); this limit is what I call the “bounce.”[pullquote align=”right”]The bounce is the self-limiting “front stop” in rowing today. And using the bounce to propel the boat is a most important moment in the cycle, one which deserves thought.[/pullquote]

It’s easy to discover this on the erg. Sitting there, trying to reach as far forward as possible with the hands, body and handle, we find we are several inches short of the chain stop on the normal Concept2 erg. Yet after warmup, we find it is relatively easy to hit the chain stop, and most coaches recommend hitting the chain stop every stroke. The difference between sitting and reaching, and reaching after warmup is that “bounce” – the limit of the elasticity of joints and muscles.

The bounce is the self-limiting “front stop” in rowing today. And using the bounce to propel the boat is a most important moment in the cycle, one which deserves thought.

If we were able to row perfectly, it’s logical that we would place the oar in the water at the moment of the bounce. It is not only the farthest forward angle possible for the individual’s arc;  but it is also absolutely free energy, the unleashing of the stretched muscles and sinews which have been compressed on the travel up the slide.

Contrast the entry at the bounce, with the entry at slide slowdown – the old theory of fast hands and slow slide. Rather than using the compression of the knees and thigh muscles, the slowdown actually wastes power. It is a stop and start affair. Red light, green light. The weight of the whole crew moves to the stern of the boat and rests there for a fraction of a second, then starts toward the bow with the entry and the catch.

Good timing depends on each rower stopping and starting at the same time – a difficult feat, requiring perfect control and concentration.

With the bounce, on the other hand, there is no stop, simply a natural reaction to muscular limits, a release. In a way, the bounce is out of control, like the striding of a runner or the swing of a tennis racket.

The problem is still timing. To use the bounce it is essential to time the entry of the blade precisely. Fortunately it is easier to get the timing right with a pause after the finish than with the slow slide approach, if rowers can learn to pause consistently, even after fatigue begins to creep in.

This is February, the cruelest month, in spite of what poet T.S. Eliot may have said about April. It is cruel because spring and rowing on the water never seemed farther away. Erg on; using the bounce in erg work is a good way to get through to better times.

Columnist Duncan Spencer, 74, is a former newspaper reporter with The Hill; he has rowed at Yale University, Oxford University, and Capital Rowing Club. He is a former US team member, a Henley gold medalist, three time Head of the Charles winner and an incurable rowing addict.