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Skiing and Sculling

Rowing Keeps Ski Muscles Fit


Skiing and Sculling

A rower in a single scull, preparing to take a stroke (Catch position).

Sandra Mu / Getty Images
In the winter, skiers hate the sight of water as much as the Wicked Witch of the West. However, in the summer, rowing on the water can be an enjoyable medium for keeping cool while getting a great workout for skiing muscles. I'm not talking about rowing a big, old wooden rowboat around your favorite fishing hole; I’m talking about self-powering a sleek, single seat shell through the water as fast, or faster, than you can run the same distance.

Racing and Recreation

There are basically two classifications of single seat rowing shells – racing and recreational. The most obvious difference –thankfully – between the racing and the recreational vessel is that the recreational shell is wider and more stable. During my first venture in the rec shell on the water, I could not imagine staying afloat while rowing the skinny racing boat.

The fact that many people do become comfortable and proficient in these racing shells is a testament to one of lesser publicized benefits of sculling that is a great help for skiing – improved balance. This isn’t the kind of static balance training like standing on one foot, but rather a development of your whole sense of balance, such as where your body mass is in relation to the boat, while you are moving and rowing. This is a feat that, first time out, I thought I would never master. However, with good coaching and on-the-water practice, the balancing started to become second nature and I could focus on learing a correct stroke technique.

Rowing, not Paddling

The big distinction made between rowing a shell and paddling a canoe or kayak is that in the rowing vessels, the oars are attached to the boat, creating a pivot point. This allows the rower to use the oars as levers of force to propel the boat, rather than free arm paddling. It also sets up the points for engaging the muscles used in the stroke. If you never tried rowing as an exercise, a close look at the mechanics will show you how all the major muscle groups are actually engaged during the rowing motion.

The Rowing Stroke

Many beginners, myself included, initially believe that rowing is a great upper body exercise. However, when done properly, the rower will be using about 85% leg muscle to power the vessel. A defined look at the whole movement through the stroke begins with the rower seated on a sliding seat that moves in relation to the stroke cycle. Each rowing stroke is broken down into three components called the Catch, the Drive, and the Recovery.

The Catch
A snapshot of the catch would include the point where the rower’s seat is forward, the knees are bent up with the back bent over the knees, the arms extended and the oars have just entered into the water. In effect the catch, is the instant where the all muscles are at rest and ready to power into the Drive.

The Drive
The Drive begins when the legs push against the resistance of the machine (or the water on the oar blades), extending straight out at which time the back rolls over the seat and the arms close to chest. Looking at that Drive motion from a muscle sequence, quads react to the resistance pushing through to extension at which time the abdominals are also engaged and remain so as the back, shoulder and arm muscles all come into play.

The Recovery
The Recovery returns the body to the position of the Catch in an opposite motion flow – arms go forward, over the knees the seat slides forward and the knees pullup. The Recovery reverses the sequence, but by gliding the seat forward with legs and abs you can further increase the workout through the cycle. Now get in rhythm and repeat this stroke, over and over, and your heart rate will quickly rise into a training zone.

If You Like It

There is no doubt you will get a muscle and aerobic workout and great balancing training on the water. However, sculling is an expensive sport – a recreational single seat shell with oars can easily run $2,000 or more. There are many rowing clubs that offer beginner to advanced classes and training programs for both fitness and competition. In many areas, shells can be rented at a reasonable rate after you become competent and knowledgable in safety procedures. Actually, several people I met that first tried sculling for fitness found they really liked the speed of the shell, so they moved on to amateur competition. Rowing in a race, whether you're in a single scull or a larger boat, is an excellent workout for rowers of all ages.

A Total Body Workout

Rowing is indeed a total fitness workout. If you get the opportunity to try it on the water with a good coach, don’t miss it. Rowing can be done year round, and when we transition to the rowing machine in the fall, you will see it is a great aerobic compliment during ski season.
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