The science of rowing: improving performance naturally

This week BMC Sport Science, Medicine & Rehabilitation published its first supplement, presenting abstracts from the Sport Science and Medicine Conference for Rowing. First published on British Rowing’s website, Annamarie Phelps, Chairman of British Rowing, shares her thoughts and provides an overview of the conference that was a first for the sport.

Across the two days against the stunning backdrop of Wittington House and Estate, rowing’s sports science and medicine community divulged best practice, answering to a vital theme of the sport and putting the athlete at the centre of development – improving performance naturally.

British Rowing
British Rowing

High-level expertise was in ready supply from the speakers, and crucially all had a connection to our sport. Reflecting as a rower, who had once competed at the highest level, I learnt a huge amount and on only a few occasions did I think wistfully, ‘if only we had known this in my day.’

This was quickly countered by the energising effect of seeing long-time rowing coaches who had once graduated in sports science, now fired by the information shared and wanting to revisit their studies and refresh their knowledge.

The fact that delegates and speakers alike carried on discussions and debates throughout each break and after every session was an indication of the readiness of the sport for such a gathering, the topical nature of the lectures and the quality of the speakers’ presentations.

Highlights for me were provided by our opening speaker, Professor Alison McGregor, who presented on ‘Injury Prevention and Performance – Are they Mutually Exclusive?’ and Professor Stephen Seiler on ‘What We Know Makes the Boat Goes Faster from 150 Years of Research.’

Professor Alison McGregor

Professor McGregor
Professor McGregor

Professor McGregor, has devoted 20 years of study into back pain at Imperial College; every rower’s fear; a major concern and a real hindrance to performance.

The Professor revealed the advances in understanding back pain and how the application of rapidly evolving technology was now providing invaluable preventative insight through improved recording, storing and analysis of data.

She said that these advances had helped dispel the traditional view that it was the scientists’ job to make an athlete go faster, the coaches’ to push them to breaking point and the doctors’ to mend them.

Improvements in understanding could help change the emphasis from repair to maintenance and with more analysis and further research hopefully to avoidance altogether. Whilst athletes are more interested in performance-edge than injury-prevention, working as a team, athlete, coach, scientist and medics can ensure that elite performance is compatible with a sustainable, healthy and long active life.

Reassuring to those of us looking at the next generation, and as Dr Richard Budgett, Olympic Gold medallist and Chief Medical Officer at the IOC, said, crucial for the future of sport.

Professor Stephen Seiler

Professor Seiler
Professor Seiler

Professor Seiler’s presentation was engaging and fascinating. More so because he didn’t focus solely on understanding the physiology of the athlete but provided plenty of analysis of equipment changes over 150 years.

This therefore suggests that a revisit to some early experiments might provide the next giant leap in making the boat go faster.

I was amazed at how little the advances in physiology and training of the athlete appear to have contributed to increased boat speed over the last century and a half.

Truly revealing was that, across the forum, data mining and analysis in the field of sports science and medicine was ever-broadening, and is now leading developments in all aspects of rowing performance from learnings on technique, to cardio vascular health, to understanding natural increase in muscle mass: although the finer details of protein synthesis and carbohydrate metabolism were lost on me; leaving me wishing I had focussed more on my ‘O’ level chemistry!

As a sport which places the highest value on integrity, a conference on Improving Performance Naturally, provided a platform to learn and inquire on that vital question to which the rowing community takes to the gym and to the water – how to make the boat go faster.

It was an unqualified success, joining both the leading medical and scientific minds to the coaches and rowers, like me, with no scientific background, in arming us all with new and exciting knowledge.


If you are interested in publishing a supplement with BioMed Central, please contact our supplements team. To relive the conference, then head to British Rowing’s YouTube channel to view all of the recorded presentations

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