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What’s the ideal force curve? Peter Mallory

Peter’s excellent book, The Sport of Rowing, includes this advice about force curves How about parabolas? You make … read more

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Peter’s excellent book, The Sport of Rowing, includes this advice about force curves

How about parabolas? You make a parabola by slicing a cone . . . or by graphing the formula x² = 4py . . . or by recording Kris Korzeniowski’s force curve while rowing!

Or the force curve of 1920 Olympic Men’s Singles and Doubles Champion John B. Kelly, Sr. Or 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympic Men’s Singles Champion Vyacheslav Ivanov. Or 1960 Olympic Men’s Coxless-Fours Champion Ted Nash. Or 1967 and 1969 European Men’s Coxless-Pairs Champion Larry Hough and Tony Johnson. Or 1969 European Men’s Doubles Champion John Van Blom and Tom McKibbon. Or 1974 World Men’s Eights Champion Al Shealy. Or 1984 Olympic Men’s Doubles Champion Brad Alan Lewis and Paul Enquist. Or 1988 and 1992 Olympic Men’s Singles Champion Thomas Lange. Or 1996 Olympic Men’s Eights Champion Michiel Bartman. Or 2004 Olympic Men’s Eights Champion Bryan Volpenhein. Or 2004 and 2008 Olympic Women’s Doubles Champions Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell.

What’s going on here? For Heaven’s sake, it’s a slice of a cone! What could that possibly have to do with rowing?

If you could ask legendary coach Steve Fairbairn what the ideal force profile would be for moving a rowing shell down the course, he would describe to you a parabola, my friends. As would Charles Courtney of Cornell. And Hiram Conibear of the University of Washington. And Jumbo Edwards of Great Britain. And Karl Adam of Ratzeburg. And Dr. Theo Körner of the German Democratic Republic. And Harry Mahon and Dick Tonks of New Zealand.

Seriously, what is going on here? Why a parabola of all curves?

Coaches have been trying to explain that for 200 years, and I have done my best to include their most eloquent efforts in The Sport of Rowing. My own tongue-in-cheek first effort was in my first book, An Out-of-Boat Experience, and it was this: “God is a rower, and He rows like me!” If I had chosen to be a bit less juvenile back then I might have said something about how when we hear the boat sing beneath us, we truly touch the Divine, that traveling over water relying on our own body power has truly cosmic implications, that only a perfect curve, only a parabola, is good enough for rowers like us.

So if the ideal power curve is a perfect parabola then the ideal peak force position is at 50.0%.  Many single scullers peak here and bigger boats peak at 46-47%.

About Rebecca Caroe
Rebecca is the host of RowingChat podcast and is a masters athlete and coach. Passionate about helping others enjoy the sport as much as she does. View all posts from Rebecca Caroe

2 thoughts on “What’s the ideal force curve? Peter Mallory

  1. I’m pleased Rebecca’s found a topic that’s generated some healthy chat, although this is pretty much the equivalent of inviting Mystic Meg onto Thought for the Day.

    Really, this is pretty silly. You start of by telling us how we can see a parabola (among others) “by recording Kris Korzeniowski’s force curve while rowing!” I presume that’s what the graph is you’ve chosen to show. It’s nothing like a parabola. The ratio of the area under each side of the midpoint is 8:7 , in other words the left side is nearly 15% bigger than the right. Since you evidently can’t recognise a parabola, I can’t really take your assertion that everyone from John Kelly to the Evers-Swindells also parabolises very seriously.

    You’re welcome to think that the rowing well has ‘cosmic implications’. But to infer that one of those implications is that the perfect stroke must follow a simple mathematical formula is not just fallacious but lazy. You must go into a rage at seeing the front wing of an F1 car. And shaving in the morning must be particularly onerous as you gaze at your own head, so cruelly not a perfect sphere. (Mine isn’t either.)

    Then you list off a bunch of coaches from the who’s-who of 20th century rowing, some of whom are dead, and suggest they would readily sign up to your quasi-religiously-inspired notion. That’s the point where your innocuous nonsense becomes pretty obnoxious. And trying to defend it by rubbishing your naysayers are reactionary just marks your zealotry out for what it is, I’m afraid.

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