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Why lightweight rowing can be dangerous

Imagine pushing yourself to your physical limit hours a day everyday….this is the world of ROWING. Now imagine … read more

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Imagine pushing yourself to your physical limit hours a day everyday….this is the world of ROWING.

Now imagine doing the same without drinking or eating for up to 48 hours….this, all too often, is the world of rowing LIGHTWEIGHT.

lightweight 1

In addition to the physical stamina needed for practice and competition and more than just strength, many lightweight rowers have to have the mental stamina necessary to constantly watch what they eat, count calories, and consistently “weigh-in” at a certain weight in order to be successful. However, far too many lightweight women who are currently rowing lightweight are above a pre-season cutoff weight that should exist for lightweights (as determined by coaches, etc.). In turn, these women play dangerous mind games in their relationships with their bodies and the food they eat (or don’t eat!) which could lead to extensive permanent damage to their health.

LIghtweight 2Lightweight 3

The photos above were taken hours before a weigh-in. Most of the lightweights are tired because only one or two of them can freely eat or drink the day of weigh-ins. Most others are running on less than 500 calories and insufficient amounts of fluids for the level of activity they are doing. One of the women did not eat or drink anything for over 48 hours and went for a pre-weigh in row with her teammates. She looked exhausted. I can’t imagine she was helping the other seven women much in pulling the boat through the water.

lightweight 4

There are countless extreme weight-loss tactics that borderline women use in order to get down to 130 pounds. Most involve dehydration- losing as much as 8 pounds of water weight in a day! Spitting, sweat-running in multiple layers of clothing in extreme heat, sitting in a steam bath for up to an hour, and layering-up and sitting in cars with the heat blasting are just a few examples.


And once the weigh-in has passed successfully it’s all about rehydration and eating. In this case, one of the rowers was 3 pounds under weight after not eating for more than two days. However, after being hungry and thirsty for so long, it’s nearly impossible for most of the lightweights not to binge. While none of the women stepped on a scale after eating and drinking that evening, it can be assumed that each of them regained all of their weight in a matter of hours.

lightweight 6

Finally (and only after a fellow lightweight spoke up about the issue), an unannounced mid-week weigh-in occurred and anyone not falling within three pounds of the necessary weight would no longer row lightweight. Keep in mind that this is something that should have been going on since the very first practice. The coaches finally made the correct decision- they told the one rower who was having difficulty that her lightweight days were over. While they could have announced it in a more tactful way, rather than in front of the rest of the team (see a teammate’s disapproving face above), the point is that something was finally being done. The rest of the team continued on and faired well, getting medals in many races. The final photo always makes me wonder though: is the thrill of victory really worth the all too evident agony of making weight?

What do you think?

As a coach, as an athlete?  What is needed to create a safe environment for lightweight rowing.

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 “Why lightweight rowing can be dangerous

  1. how to comment with brevity on such matter!

    The human spirit will always seek to define itself against limits – perceived or real, and sports with weight restrictions are no exception to this very human of conditions. Just look at the free-diver who pushes what is perceived as humanly possible – only to find this very definition becomes redefined once another ‘inhuman’ unassisted depth is achieved in a single dive.
    So it is a given that if we set boundaries, we will always try to push them to the limit. You alter the weight limit, you simply move the goalpost – athletes will still try to ‘put the ball in the goal’.

    Key to creating a safe environment is knowledge and the appliance of science (rather than myths or old wives tales). People running LW crews and programmes need to ensure they are suitably educated and have access to good resources.
    Safe training and competition parameters can be established (as they are for many lightweight programmes), and testing and analysis rather than conjecture used to inform this on an athlete by athlete basis.

    You must also add to this the psychological component which – owing to the above-mentioned human condition will vary from athlete to athlete, and in a crew or squad situation must be understood to prevent complex dynamics that result in guilt-driven or irrational / unsafe actions to meet expectations. Some athletes can cope mentally with the rigours of dieting or waking up above race weight, and some cannot.

    To put the above into context:- When I raced internationally, many LWs would drop several kg on the day(s) before early season regattas – as their bodies fought natures tendency to expect to maintain a buffer of weight through winter training (needed by the body cope with climate – cold European winters – it is much easier to maintain a low weight in the warm) and to deflect illness (also related to climate). At early season regattas it was not unheard of (and yes I have done it) to hear of 5-6kg drops for LW men and 3-4kg drops for LW women.

    In a crew situation varying approaches to the methods and timing of weight loss can lead to extreme crew or squad tension (in an environment which – lets face it is already pretty highly strung), and can form a significant distraction to the end goal.

    Pretty early on it was identified (via submersion and body mass testing at the BOMC) that I could not spend an entire season down at race weight – I needed to taper down towards the end of the season (and with the help of a squad dietician), and would always loose the last 0.4-0.5kg the morning of racing via a warm up paddle and light sweat run.
    This worked for me – in fact when we raced open weight, I struggled with nerves without this pre-race and weigh-in routine that ensured I felt fully warmed up and flexible. Once it became an agreed strategy for the whole crew, who did things a little differently, it removed conjecture about what was possible and not possible for me at varying stages of the season and gave us a plan. We just went out and beat the HWs early season as well.

    Without this testing and analysis, and an understanding that I was more comfortable with this approach, I would have potentially been subject to an unsafe diet plan, or set a target weight that was untainable, and made miserable over it.

    Once we applied a bit of science and knowledge, we found a safe solution that delivered.

  2. I would like to take this opportunity (once again) to say VASRA has a Rowing Weight Control Program (since 2006) that is designed specifically to address the issues mentioned by Rebecca Caroe (and some of the commenters above). The RWCP is it is administered by the individual team school Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC), managed by the team coach(es), and monitored by VASRA at its regattas. Yes, we have an advantage in that all our rowers are high school students and the responsibility for athlete health is managed within the school athletic systems.

    The crux of our program is lightweights are identified, before the competitive season during a four-week window, by body fat (OK, body composition) measurements. This determines the athlete minimum weight at 12% body fat (female) or 7% (male). If your minimum determination is above the weight maximum (130 women, 150 men), you cannot row lightweight – period. Those who can safely lose weight are placed on a program modeled after the wrestling weight management program. Weighing is REQUIRED at least weekly to ensure compliance. Additionally, no one – doctors, nurses, coaches, parents, NO ONE – can override the ATC eligibility determination.

    For the complete RWCP see:

    During the nine years VASRA has had the program, I have seen lightweight participation increase as natural lightweights join teams knowing they can earn a seat not in competition with heavier teammates who are now not allowed to lose (unsafe) weight. I only occasionally see stress for the marginal-weight athlete at regatta weigh-ins … the vast majority are 115-125 lb (women) and ~140-145 lb (men) … I call them athlete sticks … who are delighted to be able to row in fair competition and weigh-ins are just a necessary part of the procedure.

    We have a few head coaches who understand the value of the RWCP and have their entire team in the program in order to monitor general health of every rower regardless if they row lightweight.

    John D White
    Past President
    Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association
    H 703 534-9756,
    C 703 517-5487

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