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4 Ways Learning to Row Made Me a Better Triathlete

By Deanna Pomfret | Aug. 22, 2017, 3:17 p.m. (ET)

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Olympic rower Gevvie Stone recently gave a keynote at the 2017 Female Athlete Conference at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Stone earned a silver medal in single sculls at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. She talked about the grit she had in training and racing, and one of the major things she shared with the audience was a clear love for the sport of rowing.

Maybe it was her talk or the other coaches and women and men I met who also have a rowing background. Maybe it’s the fact that I have access to a few rowing clubs. But something made it easy for me to hit the pay now button and sign up for “Learn to Row” with Greater Lawrence Rowing.

I knew learning to row would help me relate better to the athletes I coach who come from a sport like run or cycling and want to learn how to swim in order to compete in their first triathlon. But I was surprised how much learning to row taught me about how to be a better triathlete too.

Here are four things I learned from learning to row that have helped me train and race better in triathlon, plus ways you can incorporate these learnings into your training without even picking up an oar.

1. Practice great posture. 

We all know that posture is important in all facets of life and sports. Great posture improves the function of our muscles, projects confidence and creates space in our bodies for breath no matter what sport. For the past four weeks I’ve had a coach remind me to keep tall, not slumped over at the catch phase of rowing. This reminder has allowed me to recognize when I lose focus and to incorporate more power into my movements. Eventually it will become easier to sit tall at the catch but for now I appreciate the reminder.

How to make this happen for your training: Get a coach or a training pal to remind you periodically to stand tall throughout a training ride or run. So rather than thinking and reminding yourself, which can be helpful, it’s also beneficial to have someone else tickle your brain to keep tall and engaged. You can also work on great posture throughout your day. Every time you eat lunch or drive your car, sit at your computer, you can set yourself up for a posture workout. Sit tall, breathe easy and keep gaze forward.

2. Be in the moment.

Focus on the person in front of you and keep rhythm. If not, you can catch a crab. That’s when your oar gets stuck in the water and the whole boat needs to stop to wait for you to get organized. You cannot zone out when rowing. Same goes for swim, cycle and run for obvious safety reasons. But there’s also a big connection here to swim rhythm and feel for the water.

One way to be in the moment and tune into swim rhythm: Pick a target. It could be a tree, another swimmer ahead of you, a buoy, something on shore.  Think only of that item. When you lift to sight, find the item, and when you are not sighting, visualize that item in your mind. Follow it, swim toward that object and you will find that you are in a rhythm, which can lead to better performance. When we think arms, feet, head we can get tangled up and stuck in those thoughts and our performance sometimes suffers. The rower in front of me is like that buoy — I keep rhythm, keep steady and in the moment without getting tangled up or stuck in the water.

3. Be quiet.

Oh, this is the hardest. I just want to blurt out things like “oops” when I lose rhythm or “what bridge is that?” or “hey, guess what I made for dinner.” Keeping quiet has allowed me to calm my mind and be one with the activity, center my thoughts on the moment, the people I’m rowing with and the environment. It’s very peaceful. In triathlon training, it has surely helped me ease into workouts more quickly.

Work in quiet: Pick a time in the day or in your training where you simply listen to your breathing or if you are with others, the conversation or their breathing. Try to notice more around you than you usually do while you are swimming, cycling or running.

4. Grow through teamwork. 

This has been the best part. The team’s success depends on all of us working together. There’s no safety net. If I flake out, I risk slowing down the whole team. This has resulted in the whole team supporting and teaching each other. I’ve received unsolicited encouragement and extremely helpful tips from more experienced rowers. These people genuinely want you to succeed, learn and enjoy because when we do individually that elevates everyone. No one gets dropped — not even by accident — and your boat mates are on your team. They are not racing you.

Do a draft workout: Pick some workouts where you deliberately work on drafting for swim, bike and run. Use each other. I’ve seen the cross country teams out there in a pack, cyclists pulling each other along and swimmers drafting off other swimmers’ hips. If you don’t know how to do this, ask a coach, find a training pal and practice this together in all three sports. It’s fun, it’s helpful and it will improve your game.

Deanna Pomfret has coached fitness enthusiasts, runners, swimmers and triathletes since 2005. She is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach, Road Runners Club of America Certified Running Coach, Certified Functional Strength Coach and Owner and Swim Technique Analyst with Athletic Pursuits LLC. Deanna presents at clubs and symposiums on various fitness and motivational topics.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.