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August 19, 2008


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Karen, I continue to find your blog instructive and helpful. This past weekend I focused as best I could on the release, aiming to achieve the release by simply relaxing my forearms. I think I experienced what you describe in your early blogs. Unfortunately, I failed in my next assignment regarding the grip: I had a hard time focusing on the grip because I still feel so unstable. I told myself that it's like a bicycle - with time and practice my body will learn how to maintain balance (called the set?) so it will become automatic - as it was when I was 5 and learned to ride my first bicycle. Without that hope I might well dispair at this new hobby. Reading today's post regarding catch drills, I'm reminded of this weekend's row: first one oar, arms only; then the other; then both, arms only; then arms and back; then 1/4 slide. All the while struggling with balance. In offering catch drills, I see that you warn about instability. Do you have any suggestions or drills for how to learn stability - is it just that I have to do it enough so that my body will learn, as in learning to ride a bike? I have pontoons. It's so hard to launch and land with them that I've taken them off, hoping that I can achieve proficiency without them through practice. Thanks.

Karen Chenausky

Hello, Eugene,

I'm glad to hear that the information I've been putting out there is useful! As the author of my favorite knitting blog says, all these tips "want out of my head, and into yours." You ask yet another excellent question, and you're not even a shill.

The question of how to achieve good balance (yes, also called "set") is a fairly complex one and really deserves its own entry. But I can give you a few pointers here. I know you're not going to want to hear the first one: miles. What I mean is that it takes a lot of miles to develop one's sense of balance in a shell. So, in that sense, you are right that it's like riding a bike: it will come, over time. Some things you can do right now to help, though, are to attend to the finish and the release, since they most directly affect the set of the boat.

If your blades are "washing out" before you take them out of the water, you may find that it is an effort to take them out. You can correct this by ensuring that the blades stay buried until the release -- until you decide to release the water -- and by accelerating the handles toward you as you finish off the stroke. On the other hand, the blades might be a little slow coming out of the water, in which case the water might be sort of sucking the blade down. What I mean is that there might be equal pressure on both faces of the blade, or there might be slightly higher pressure on the back of the blade than on the front. You would prefer there to be a region of high water pressure on the front of the blade, as a consequence of your piling all that water up there by accelerating the blade. If you do this then there will be a corresponding region of low pressure on the back side of the blade, which makes it easier to extract the blade. (Actually, it makes them feel like they just slip out of their own accord).

Make sure, too, that the handles are coming to the same height on the body and that the blades come out of the water together. It's easy to have the right hand come to a lower point on your shirt than the left, just because of how boats are usually rigged. But remember that after the crossover on the drive your thumb knuckles should *both* come to about heart-rate monitor level. Liz O'Leary, the women's coach at Harvard University, coached me once at Bill Miller's summer camp. She told me that the right hand has to remember to come in high, or to pull up just a little, for both the hands. She meant that, metaphorically speaking, it's the right hand's job to make sure both blades are buried all the way to the finish by feeling like it is pulling up slightly as it comes into the release. To make sure both blades come out of the water together, it's the left hand's responsibility to remember to push down for both the hands. This motion or division of labor need not be exaggerated, but it's been a useful mnemonic for me since she gave it to me to think about pulling up slightly with the right hand before the release and to think about pushing down fully with the left hand after the release.

Of course, there are many factors which can affect the balance of the boat. Some of them come from other parts of the stroke, though, and it's often the case that working on one aspect of the stroke has effects which ripple out and affect other parts that you didn't intend. But if you can be more specific about where in the recovery (or drive, for that matter) you're bobbling, perhaps we can problem-solve a little and help get you feeling more stable.



Karen, your information and instruction is phenomenal. I love the way you use metaphor which greatly deepens my learning. As I work to improve my stroke by incorporating your technique instruction I find my big challenge now is consistency at full power since so many of these techniques require relaxation and light hands.

btw - Aleks' 3/4 slide drill that you mentioned was taught to me post-race season last year. It was the best drill for improving my catch timing, although I was prone to jamming just to sure I wasn't missing.

Thank you for your fantastic blog!

Karen Chenausky


Your compliments make me fairly blush. (Not that that should stop you!) Again, I am very happy that my information is useful. If it weren't, there would be no point putting it up.

Just a suggestion on how not to jam the blades in the water backward when you catch, as an overcompensation for not rowing the blades in. First of all, this may be Stage Two of the catch -- that is, if you think if rowing the blades in as Stage One, then the overcompensation of rigidly backing the blades in the water as you begin to learn how not to miss water is sometimes Stage Two. People often get over this stage fairly quickly because it's kind of uncomfortable. But if you think about keeping your arms and shoulders relaxed, this often helps you get through Stage Two more quickly.

Here's how you do that: First, keep your shoulders low by tautening your lats just a little, even at the catch when your arms are extended in front of you. You'll find that this maneuver (I think of it as The Hulk because when the Hulk gets mad he does that body building pose where he squeezes his lats really hard) makes your elbows rotate from pointing directly out to the sides to bending slightly and pointing more diagonally down (slightly). Then the biceps and triceps are in balance with each other, but the elbow isn't rigid. Since your muscles keep the same angle with the elbow as you catch, you won't be straightening the elbow when you feel the load on the blades and thus missing the connection.

Now that your arms and shoulders are more relaxed it's possible to feel the blades grab the water more easily. Now, you can start to work on the timing between your blades and your seat. If you're rigid the oars will go "ker-chunk" in the oarlocks when you place the blades in the water and the water pushes the handles back at you. But if you're relaxed as I describe then you'll be able to feel the "ker-" and them immediately be able to start pressing with your feet to start the drive. (Almost *you* take the place of the "chunk").

I hope that helps.


That's excellent! I've been meaning to tell you how helpful your "use the elbows as shock absorbers" advice was when you coached me last month. I can build upon that as the Hulk training over the weekend.

I have an old elbow weight-lifting injury which has been flaring up. Jamming, or going down to port really hurts. So this is particularly helpful. I also noticed today that the handle too far out in my fingers, vs at the top of the palm (i.e. your Get A Grip paper) aggravates my elbow tendonitis. It seems to run right up the arm from the middle finger to the outside elbow. I was rowing a 3-stay mid-weight that's rigged high, so my elbows were way out to keep the oars in the water.

Learning these fine points not only helps the rowing and staying injury free - but also gives me a lot more data about what I want and need when I buy my next boat. Thank you!

And what you described was exactly my progression. To learn how to not miss I had to learn how to jam at first. That went on for quite a long time and I'm still tempted to do it in the larger boats when I start feeling check. I did not realize how much I was slowing the boat(s) until Malcolm Gefter straightened me out on that. Under every bridge he insisted on no noise: no oarlocks clunking, no hard catch, no big backsplash.

At one of Mayrene Earle's first masters camps from MIT, she coached us on the catch to aim the bottom corner of the blade downward, and when you feel it touch, lock in. I loved that but never had the timing from out of bow to 3/4 slide to be consistent at it. Malcolm worked with me initially on nothing more than getting to the 3/4 balance point. I also like your "uphill recovery" metaphor.

Its a great blog tagline, Karen - consumed!!

Jonathan Harman

Hi Karen, just wanted to say how helpfull I'm finding your blog. I'm self coaching all of my single outings so having detailed instructions of the stroke and drills gives me some structure. Now I just need the stream to die down a bit so I can get back out on the Thames and keep practising, as frustrating as it may be!

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