To row at your best requires your body and mind to be at its best. Most major rowing federations recognise this and employ a team of support staff (doctors, nutritionists, physiotherapists, psychologists, strength & conditioning coaches) to address the physical and mental needs of their athletes. Most rowers don’t have access to such a staff, but can do a lot of this work for themselves.
This series looks at the areas which can supplement your training to maximise your performance and show you how you can be your own support team.
Nutrition is probably the area which can have the most immediate impact on an athlete’s performance. Food is your body’s fuel and not having enough, not having the right kind, or not at the right time will impair your race performance and your training. The detail of nutrition is often overlooked by rowers, but it should be planned just as your training is planned. Proper nutrition helps to maximise the benefit of each training session and prepare the body for the next one. Without it, training can easily suffer and rowers will fail to make the gains they are looking for.
No single food will provide your body with everything it needs. Your diet should be varied and all food groups should be covered. It is important to eat regularly, not skip meals and to always carry a bottle of water with you to ensure proper hydration.
Fuel for Training & Racing
It is important to give your body enough energy to complete a training session as it was designed. Under-fuelling results in the last pieces or last minutes of a session being done on an empty tank. This puts greater strain on the body—you struggle to complete those last strokes effectively and with proper form—and can lead to injury as well as reducing the effectiveness of the session. Providing enough energy before a session (known as pre-fuelling) is essential to get the best out of yourself.
Many rowers train early in the morning and it’s a rush to get to the boathouse or the gym in time. Many forgo breakfast to save time, often with the belief that they wouldn’t have time to properly digest food anyway. With the body effectively having fasted for eight or more hours during sleep, energy stores are low and the metabolism is practically shut down. This is not a good place to be before a few hours of intense training.
A good strategy is to have something to eat as soon as possible after waking up for a morning session. This shouldn’t be a large, heavy meal but something small, containing carbohydrate, to kick-start your metabolism and provide some instant fuel for your session. Such foods can be eaten while packing your kit bag or travelling to the boathouse. You should aim to eat at least 1 hour before training and, ideally, have 1g of carbohydrate for every 1kg of body weight (for example: an 85kg rower should have 85g of carbohydrate).
Examples of 50g carbohydrate portions:
2 slices of Bread or Toast; 1 Bagel; 2 English Muffins; 2 Bread Rolls; 2 slices of Malt Loaf; 1 bowl Breakfast Cereal; 2 large Bananas; 500ml of Fruit Juice
Pre-training breakfast foods:
Cereal with Milk/Yoghurt and Fruit; Porridge; Toast or English Muffins with Jam; Fruit Juice or Smoothie; Yoghurt with Fruit.
Heidi Dietrich (a journalist and rower from Seattle) writes about how her change to early-morning eating improved her training:
“By regularly performing vigorous exercise without fuel right before and after, I was sending my body into starvation mode. My early morning metabolism was effectively going into hibernation”
“I’d been operating with a half empty tank, especially during those final race pieces or power strokes of the day. With my small early morning breakfast, I gained the energy to compete for much longer. […] It may make the difference between a half speed workout and a fully energized session.”
For sessions later in the day, a larger meal eaten longer before a session is preferred. Food should be eaten between two and four hours prior to training and should contain 1-3g of carbohydrate per 1kg body weight, as well as including some protein.
Sandwich (or similar) with Chicken, Cheese and Salad; Jacket Potato with Beans/Cheese/Tuna/Coleslaw; Pasta with Chicken and Vegetables.
Pre-race food should follow a similar strategy. Ensure meals are light and eaten 2-4 hours before the event. Consider low fibre foods to help with a nervous stomach.
Recovery from Training
Eating the right foods after training is important to give the body what it needs to benefit from the previous session, and recover for the next. Protein is needed to repair muscle, help in the process of replacing lost energy and sustain the immune system. Carbohydrate replaces depleted glycogen stores and helps to reduce fatigue and injury.
To properly recover from a training session it is crucial to give the body the right food as soon as possible. A post-training snack should be consumed within 20 minutes of exercise and contain 50-60g of carbohydrate and 10-20g of protein. At the next meal time a larger post-exercise meal should be eaten, containing 1-1.2g of carbohydrate per 1kg body weight and 10-20g of protein. Higher GI foods should be used if your next training session is in less than 8 hours. Otherwise, lower GI foods should make up the majority of the meal.
500ml Recovery Shake and a Banana; 500ml Semi-Skimmed Milk and one Cereal Bar; Sandwiches or Bagel with Tuna/Cheese/Chicken/Ham plus one piece of Fruit; 200g low-fat Yoghurt with Fruit and Cereal Bar; 2 slices Malt Loaf and 100g Yoghurt; Bowl of Cereal with 300ml Milk; 200g Baked Beans on Toast.
(For every 1g of fat there should be at least 5g of carbohydrate.)
Dehydration causes fatigue to occur earlier in a session and impairs mental function, concentration, coordination and reaction times. A good strategy to maintain proper hydration is to drink “little and often” throughout the day. Hydration can be determined by urine colour; ideally straw coloured, darker colour indicates dehydration. If dehydrated, aim to drink 6ml of water per 1kg body weight during the 4 hours before a session and a further 4ml per 1kg in the last 2 hours before training.
During training, the aim should be to limit water loss to 1-2% of body weight by drinking water or a sports drink. An 85kg athlete should not lose more than 1.7kg during a session, ideally less than this. Water loss can be measured by checking body weight immediately before and after a session. After a few tests you will learn how much water you tend to lose and can ensure you take enough fluid with you for the session. Remember that you will lose more water in higher temperatures so take an extra water bottle in the boat on hot days.
Sports drinks are a convenient way of providing hydration. Isotonic drinks are absorbed quickly and contain electrolytes to replace those lost during exercise. Sports drinks with carbohydrate provide extra fuel during exercise and are useful for long sessions.
You can make home-made sports drinks by mixing 250ml of squash (not low-sugar) with 750ml of water and adding 1.25g (1/4 teaspoon) of salt.
Rowers should aim to build lean muscle mass to produce power without extra body weight. Eating a post-training snack is essential to give the body protein and carbohydrate to effectively build and repair muscle. Protein is particularly important immediately after a weights or resistance training session. Whey and casein-based proteins (found in milk) produce the greatest gains in lean muscle mass, making milk an excellent post-session recovery drink.
If aiming for weight loss, rowers should reduce their calorie intake while still ensuring they follow a good fuelling strategy. A pre-training meal is essential for boosting the metabolism, increasing energy use throughout the day. Aim to reduce calorie intake by 500kcal per day for a loss of 0.5kg per week. This calorie reduction should come from reducing intake of fatty foods, eating lower GI index foods and foods higher in fibre. Good tips are to reduce portion sizes or add more fruit and vegetables to meals to make the plate look full, use reduced-fat spreads and skimmed milk, and spread out meals and snacks throughout the day. Foods with less than 3% fat are considered low-fat, 4-10% is moderate and 11% or more is high. Look out for hidden calories, particularly in squashes and fruit juices. If drinking purely for hydration go for low-sugar alternatives.
Immune Function & Injury Prevention
Food is not just about fuel and body composition, but also plays a major role in how effective your immune system is. Diets low in protein and carbohydrate, or high in fat, can reduce immune function. Vitamin C and zinc are essential for the immune system and can be found in fruits and seeds. Essential fatty acids (omega 3 & omega 6) also play an important part in immune response. These fatty acids are mostly found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and fresh tuna.
Food is important in helping to avoid injuries and aiding recovery from them. Most injuries in rowing come through breakdown of muscles and joints due to repetitive movement. Stress fractures can occur in the ribs and other bones over long periods of time. Replenishment of carbohydrate and provision of protein immediately after exercise, as well as a good balance of foods and intake of minerals and vitamins will best allow the body to rebuild muscle and recover from sessions.
Calcium is needed to build bones, but is also used in other functions of the body such as nerve transmission and muscle contraction. With a deficiency in calcium, the body must take calcium from bones to be used in other areas, weakening the bones. Vitamin D is used in absorption of calcium, so intake of both these nutrients is important for a strong skeleton. Young active women are particularly at risk of deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D (Female Athlete Triad). Calcium is found in milk, cheese, yoghurt but also in brazil nuts, almonds, leafy green vegetables and tofu. Vitamin D is mostly absorbed from sunlight but can also be found in oily fish, eggs, and fortified spread and cereals.
Stress levels are increased through dehydration and low carbohydrate intake and can adversely affect mood and motivation.
Alcohol affects the body in many ways and some athletes avoid alcohol completely to avoid its negative effects. Alcohol is often referred to as providing ’empty calories’. Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, whereas carbohydrate contains 4 calories per gram, but alcohol has no nutritional value. The body can’t store alcohol, so it metabolises it immediately, taking priority over other metabolic processes and allowing fats to be stored rather than metabolised. Alcohol can cause dehydration, disrupt sleep patterns, increase appetite and impair reaction time. Alcohol also decreases testosterone levels which adversely affects lean muscle production and muscle recovery, as well as athletic performance.
Most of these effects will only be significant to performance through consumption of large quantities of alcohol but, as with all nutritional choices, you should consider it carefully in your diet.
The role of supplements is to provide nutrients which are missing from the diet. Many people take supplements without first assessing their diet and discovering whether they really have a particular nutrient deficiency. With a well-balanced diet, supplements should not be necessary unless you have underlying health problems.
British Rowing, as with many other sporting federations, advises athletes not to take supplements unless they are advised to by a doctor or nutritionist.
“The position of the GB Rowing Team Medical and Science Committee is that members of the GB Rowing Team and national squads are strongly advised against the arbitrary use of supplements, which is in keeping with the policy of the British Olympic Association.”
“In the sport in general, no vitamin or mineral supplements should be required if a rower is consuming adequate energy from a variety of foods to maintain bodyweight.”
British Rowing: Statement on the Use of Supplements Policy
If you feel that you may be lacking particular nutrients it is best to consult a doctor or nutritionist before taking supplements. Nutritionists usually always advise that nutrients are found through improvements to the diet first, with supplements being a secondary option. This is particularly the case with athletes as supplements do present the risk of contamination with substances banned under WADA anti-doping regulations.
Calorie Intake for Rowers
Estimated Energy Requirements for rowers training for 3+ hours per day.
Open Weight Male: 5500–6000kcal
Open Weight Female: 4000–4500kcal
Lightweight Male: 4000–4500kcal
Lightweight Female: 3000–3500kcal
These are typical energy requirements for international-level rowers. Club rowers will require a reduced calorie intake depending on training schedule.
Example Daily Eating Plan for 6000 calories (Heavyweight Men training 3+ hours per day):
Large bowl cereal e.g. porridge, weetabix, shreddies
1/2 pint semi skimmed milk
1 thick slice wholegrain bread with olive oil/sunflower spread and honey or jam Glass fruit juice
1 litre sports drink during training
POST TRAINING SECOND BREAKFAST 9.45am
1-2 poached eggs
1/2 can baked beans
Portion mushrooms and tomatoes
3 thick slices wholegrain bread with olive oil spread 500ml fruit squash
Large portion spaghetti with Bolognese sauce plus grated cheese Side salad with lettuce, tomato, sweetcorn
3 raisin pancakes plus 1 mullerice
Fruit plus 500ml fruit squash
1 litre water or sports drink during training
POST TRAINING SNACK 5.30pm
4 Weetabix with 1/2 pint semi skimmed milk and sugar or 4 slices toast with olive oil/sunflower spread and jam/peanut butter plus banana
500ml fruit squash
6-7 boiled new potatoes plus 2 bagels Broccoli and carrots
Fruit crumble and custard
750ml water/ squash
BEDTIME SNACK 9.30pm
Bowl cereal and milk
[Information taken from "Nutrition for High Performance Rowing” Presentation, Wendy Martinson OBE (Lead Nutritionist, Great Britain Rowing Team), 2010]
Superfoods are the current ‘big thing’ in athlete nutrition, offering densely packed supplies of micronutrients such as antioxidants. Antioxidants are thought to combat free radicals which cause cellular damage and can impair cell function. This theory is linked to recovery from exercise and suggests that the body would benefit from intake of antioxidants, particularly in active people.
Antioxidants are mostly found in dark or brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, but also in some nuts. Blueberries, cherries, kale, beetroot juice, dark leafy green vegetables and walnuts are well-known for their high levels of antioxidants.
Recently the British Cycling Team revealed that one of the ‘secrets’ to their success is inclusion of Montmorency cherries in their diet to provide antioxidants. The team are well known for their support staff’s attention to detail, a culture driven by performance director, Dave Brailsford. Any potential benefits, including those from nutrition, are explored to find a performance advantage.
“Brailsford has a mantra that sums up British cycling’s philosophy. He calls it “the aggregation of marginal gains”. The theory is quite simple: any advantage that you gain in any one area might be worth only tiny fractions of a second when it comes to racing but if you add them all together they can make the difference between success and failure.”
The Independent, “The Ride of their Lives: Britannia Rules the Wheels” 20/08/2012
Be your own Nutritionist
Next time you’re planning your training programme, take some time to think about how what you eat can play a part in your performance. Make time in your schedule to properly fuel-up for training and include recovery snacks to maximise the benefit of your sessions. You don’t need to count calories or be overly-scientific, but use this information to identify areas where your diet may benefit from a few improvements which can translate into improvements in your rowing.