Can a fit novice beat an experienced rower?


A reader asked us the question

“Do you have any rough formula for how much speed bad technique can take from an otherwise strong boat? I think a lot about how much good technique can compensate for if an experienced crew with good technique races against a very fit novice boat who might not have great ratio and no control on the recovery, for example.”

I don’t have a formula but I know that a very fit novice will be easily beaten by an unfit experienced crew – every time. Every. Single. Time.

The trouble with rowing and sculling is that fitness for rowing (as opposed to general fitness) only provides around 35% of the total boat speed.  That percentage is a guess. The skill of moving a boat forwards and not retarding its progress far outpaces fitness in terms of creating speed for your crew.

In my view, the fittest novice (or one-year or two-year rower) just does not stand a chance of beating someone who is skilled at using their body weight and strength to propel the shell. Plus the skilled person’s ability to handle the oars and their body mass on the recovery part of the stroke means they slow the boat down far less (like 10x less) than the novice crew.

I’m sorry if that isn’t an answer you want to hear – I know it sounds like the deck is stacked against the novice.
What do other readers think?


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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Jeremy Fagan

    I prefer to think about raw power versus efficiency. An experienced crew capable of generating 300Watts, and able to row at 80% efficiency, will beat a powerful, 400Watt crew only operating at 50% efficiency. However, the vexatious question is, which is quicker/easier to improve – the raw power of the experienced crew or the efficiency of the novices? After all, in that example, if they get to 75% efficiency, then they will beat the other crew every time, even though they are less efficient.

    1. Elizabeth

      Well there is no such thing as ‘raw power’ and everything can be learned. It just depends on how willing each individual is to increase their boat speed by either becoming more powerful or more efficient in their stroke. Those who work at it harder will see the better results whether they are experiences in rowing or not.

      1. Rebecca Caroe

        Nicely put, Elizabeth!

      2. Jeremy Fagan

        Once upon a time, I was a scientist, but the ability to use technical language fades with age..
        A 2k erg score on a fixed C2 erg will give you a rough idea of the energy / power that a person can generate. (Yes, technique affects it, but I’m speaking roughly). Then the efficiency of a rower / crew dictates what proportion of that energy is converted into useful kinetic energy, what is wasted in heat or the wrong sort of kinetic energy.
        My general point is that it is not a case of trying to work out which proportion of boat speed is from technique or fitness, but an absolute figure and a percentage – that is, technique and fitness are two different sorts of measurements – power, measured (roughly!) in Watts, and efficiency, measured (even more roughly!) in percentage.
        In efficiency, I’d lump balance, rhythm, crew togetherness, bladework, even power output through the stroke, even power output through the race, pacing, boat check, efficient starts, etc. All of those affect the percentage efficiency of the rower – only the fitness / power output of the rower affects the Watts generated.

    2. Rebecca Caroe

      Jeremy – you make an interesting point here. As a rower or coach, which do you think is quicker or easier to improve? Power or efficiency?

      1. Jeremy Fagan

        No idea! Depends on the individual(s), coaching available, expectations of training and fitness, etc.
        If, as a thought exercise, you took the two crews mentioned in the original post, a fit novice crew, and an unfit experienced one, and assume for the moment that the two crews were actually evenly matched, then gave them two months to train, the novices on their technique, and the experienced crew on their fitness, I’d put my money on the experience!

        1. Nick

          I like your thought exercise, as otherwise this question gets into how do you define a novice and how inefficiently do they row.

          My money would be on the novices though – it’s pretty hard to get fitter than about 1-2% per month – whereas technique can improve comparatively faster in my opinion.

  2. Richard Philips

    One of the reasons many of the more senior beginners in our sport give up is that experience does count. We have a system that pitches non- junior athletes with just one race win under their belt against 18-19 year old competitors with four to five years of experience of training, racing and Junior level.. There are some senior beginners, most of whom come from other sports, who do make the breakthrough into full senior level rowing but a large percentage realise that they have come to it too late.

    Add into this equation the levels of commitment now required to be competitive and we can see why there is a black hole appearing in the sport..

  3. Alan Martin

    This is interesting. Maybe some physics helps. Velocity of a boat is proportional to the cube root of power…so you can double power and only get 1/8th extra speed. The faster you go, there is more and more friction to overcome. Also Power = Force to overcome drag x Velocity (at constant speed). For a fixed power, doubling your drag halves your speed. Hence this model suggests reduction in drag has a much greater influence than increase in power. So, the experienced rower always beats the strong novice. I think this principle is particularly true in swimming, where it is now clear to coaches that drag reduction is far more important than power generation.

  4. Nick

    Clearly “it depends”! If we define a novice as having such poor technique that they crab every other stroke then it will be pretty hard for them to beat any level of unfit but experienced crew.

    Or if the novice had one year’s worth of rowing experience but was world class in terms of physiology, then you might expect the tables to be reversed if the experienced rower was an 80 year old Olympian.

    Also the boat class might amplify or be sensitive to the skill to power/weight tradeoff. Throwing a novice into a good 8+ won’t slow it down that much compared to doing the same to a 1x!

    Still, as the saying goes, rowing is not dressage, so we do have to pull hard too. In my experience with UK club rowers in 4s, then the power-to-weight of the crew was basically correlated with boat speed -technique would account for about a 10sec variation in time around this over 2k.

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