[Interview] The Amazing Benefits Of Rowing & Why You Need To Be Doing It

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We’re a big believer in rowing here at Strength Matters for good reason – simply put, it’s hard to find a machine that turbo charges your heart and builds cardiovascular capacity any better. It’s perfect for people over the age of thirty who want to achieve that pain-free athletic body and for those amongst us who can’t run because of long-term injuries or who are recovering from injury.

It’s also a great weapon in the fight against fat loss and building mental resilience, one of our ten components of athleticism. So, we decided to sit down with Olympic rowing athlete, doctor, and entrepreneur, Cameron Nichol. We talk with the man behind RowingWOD and discover what makes rowing so damn good for your heart and why it needs to play an important role in your training.

When Did You Start Rowing?

In September 2005. I arrived at medical school, six and a half feet tall, about 185 pounds, and I was searching for a basketball club where I could play. Lo and behold, there was no basketball club near my medical school, so I decided to start rowing.

You Were Already In Medical School When You Started Rowing?

Yes. I always wanted to be a doctor. I played all the different sports that my school offered—basketball, rugby, cricket, football. I picked up an oar when I was 18 simply because it looked hard and quite fun. It also meant that I got to escape the hustle and bustle of London on the river.

How Did You Fit In All The Elite-Level Rowing Training While Going To School? Most People Can’t Even Hack Medical School On It’s Own.

It was hectic. I think I was primed for it at school because I did sports, music and all my academic stuff. I was pretty used to juggling things. If you try to throw a frog in a pot of boiling water it will jump straight out. But if you slowly turn up the water one degree at a time, the frog won’t realize what is happening. That is how I evolved. I started rowing once or twice a week, and then one of my coaches planted a seed that set me into fighter mode. He said, “London 2012 is six years away. If you want that, you could train pretty hard and you might get to go.” And so I was like, “I’m in. Let’s do this.”

My first year I went from never rowing to competing at the Henley Royal Regatta, where we made the final. And then again the next year. So basically, 18 months after picking up an oar, I found myself on the Great Britain team where we entered 23 world championships. Fast-forward another 18 months after the Beijing Olympiad and I was invited to train with the full Olympic team for the 2012 games. Luckily, my medical school was amazing about the whole thing. They said to me, “If you would like to take some time away, just let us know what works.” Originally, I think in their heads they thought it would be training once a day. Then I sent them the timetable and they seemed shocked. But they were fantastic and supported me all the way through it.

Did You End Up Taking Any Time Away?

Oh yeah, loads. I think I have the slowest-track medical degree ever. Training with the Olympic team was intense. I arrogantly thought, “I’ll train and continue on with › medicine and that will be fine.” Initially, I was managing to study full-time while still training about three hours a day. That was quite hard. But with Olympic training you’ve got to do two, three sessions a day, with a day off every three weeks. Then you go to training camp for two weeks out of every six. You are also not allowed to train in your own time; you very much have to be part of the team and turn up at G.B. rowing headquarters. That was when I had to make the decision—do I stop medicine and pursue rowing full time, do I do medicine part time and pursue rowing full time, or do I just forget this rowing dream and get back to being a doctor? I chose option two, which was to try to juggle things. And I did it relatively successfully for a while. Then two years out from the Olympics, I made a decision to pause the medicine and row full time.

Do You Find It Challenging Being An Athlete And A Doctor And Working With People Who Are Unwell?

Interesting question. My philosophy is that everyone is an athlete and every athlete should row. I’ve seen so much crossover between people in the hospital, people that I have trained with in gyms, people that I coach and the people that I row with at an elite level. It is the human body performing a task that we give it. And what I mean by that is, for instance, when I’m treating these sick, elderly people, they’re functional. The task they need to complete in order to stay alive, essentially, is to get up and down stairs, get out of a chair or get into bed. Then take that all the way to the other end of the spectrum where the Olympic athletes sit. Olympic rowers need to be able to get from the start line to the finish line as fast as possible. And at its most simplistic form, that is the human body adapting and training for a task. I feel really strongly that no matter how old you are, you have to be able to move because that’s one of the fundamental needs of a human body. And you need to move through your own appropriate task, whether that’s getting up out of a chair or putting a stick in the water and flinging it around in the water. Everyone’s united by movement.

It Basically Goes Back To The Idea That Everyone Is An Everyday Athlete.

Yeah, exactly. I love the term “Everyday Athlete” because movement is such a fundamental part of who we are as human beings. We’ve been moving for tens of thousands of years. I think that there’s a huge percentage of the population that is underactive and would benefit greatly from the knowledge that we are united by the fact that we all move.

Want To Improve Your Rowing Technique? Check Out This Great Video Featuring Cameron Nicol Himself.

When You Were Training As An Elite Athlete, How Much Time Was Spent Rowing And How Much Time Was Spent On Doing Accessory Exercises Like Flexibility And Joint Mobility?

Rowing is a unique sport in the sense that, compared to other competitive sports, it’s quite low-skill. Most of the world’s best athletes started their sport at the age of two or three, or, maybe if they were late, four or five. Whereas rowing you can start at quite a late age as it has a low skill and a high physiological demand. It’s a power endurance sport, so you can’t just be strong and you can’t just be fit, you’ve got to be able to create power and sustain that for like five to seven minutes. The training is very demanding and the mileage takes up most of your training time.

Getting miles under your belt makes up about 85-90% of your training. A pretty standard day is doing a 20K row in the morning and another 20k row in the afternoon. From a technical point of view, you want to make sure that you get a lot of strokes in because that helps improve your technique and efficiency. The accessory work we do tends to be around prehab and injury prevention. That, and I had to do quite a lot of core work to ensure that the force was dissipated from hands to feet and feet to hands efficiently. And then, obviously, because it’s a power endurance sport, lifting some weights is important. That tends to be rep ranges of fives, eights and those sorts of things. Never one-rep maxes.

What Positive Changes Would The Average Person Hope To See By Incorporating Regular Rowing Into Their Training Program?

Rowing is an extremely valuable movement for the human body. It’s low-impact, so even if you have issues in your joints, let’s say from running, it’s very good for you. It’s also time-efficient—it uses nine major muscle groups and it burns lots of calories per unit of time when done correctly. From a physiological point of view, it’s fantastic. It aids in weight loss and decreasing body fat. It works your cardiovascular system, you produce power and it increases strength. But I also found that when people master the rowing stroke movement, they don’t just get better at rowing as a skill; it also develops fitness in that triple- extension movement pattern. And that crosses over into a lot of other sports. And I guess the final prong of rowing where people benefit most is that thing between their ears. The repetitive movement, the rhythm, of rowing helps people relax. The dissociative mental skills are beneficial in many other parts of our lives. It definitely gives you mental strength and makes you more resilient as a person. Rowing is a skill, rowing is a fitness tool and rowing is a way to master your mind.

Everyone Is An Athlete & Every Athlete Should RowClick To Tweet

What Are The Key Principles For Someone To Consider When Designing A 500-Meter Rowing Training Program?

The 500-meter distance is a very interesting one. It’s shortish, so you need to be able to produce a lot of power. For about two minutes you need to create high amounts of power within your stroke. And you have to maintain that without running too much on your aerobic capacity. Your aerobic capacity only counts for about half of that score. Over two minutes of hard rowing, the aerobic energy system › only produces about 50% of the energy required. A really clever chap called Kenneth Jay wrote about this in his most recent book, Cardio Code. You really need to produce that top-end power by having great anaerobic capacity. And then from a technical point of view, you need to be able to get the start right. You have to get the machine up to speed very quickly and have maximum efficiency. You also have to be able to sprint correctly towards the last 150 meters of the race so that you are not wasting energy or speed.

Want A Great 500m Rowing Plan That’ll Shave Up 20 Seconds Off Your Time? Check Out This Great Training Plan.

In Order To Enjoy Rowing Is It Necessary To Get The Technicalities Perfect?

With rowing, you fall in love with the movement and you fall in love with the technical efficiency of what you’re doing. And then I think you get addicted to seeing the speeds get faster and faster. So the search for speed becomes more of a draw and you get this surge when you hit a really sweet rhythm or a really good speed. And that supersedes the burn in the lungs or that heavy leg feeling.

You’ve Said That Rowing Is Easy To Learn But Difficult To Master. Is It Easier On A Rowing Machine?

The machine is much easier in the sense that it’s less technical. From a technical point of view, you can still drastically improve on a rowing machine. It’s all about controlling your body weight and your momentum in a three-dimensional space. The efficiency at which the rowing machine handle cycles off the body is really important. It’s your ability to rate high, which means taking lots of strokes in a minute. So to go fast on the rowing machine, you need to be able to row very long and create lots of power within the stroke.

What’s The Most Common Technique Mistake You See People Doing On A Concept 2?

There are two. The first one is performing the handle profile incorrectly. By that, I mean beginning to glide back with the handle in the lap. The handle should come back over the knees before the butt starts to slide back—if you slide first it looks weird because the handle has to make its way over your bent knees. That’s okay when you’re doing 20 to 24 strokes a minute, but like I said before, to go really fast you need to rate really high. When you speed that move up, not only does it look a bit ridiculous, but you get a really big whip of the chain and it flails around. These are the people that you’ll hear before you see them. The second mistake is the use of the back. Rowing is predominantly legs. You create around two-thirds of your power using your legs. But people tend to see other rowing movements as more of a back and arm exercise and apply the same principle to rowing. They end up using their back more and cheating themselves out of 20–30% of their power.

Have You Ever Seen Anyone Injure Themselves On The Concept 2?

The rowing movement is very, very safe. The common injuries that professional rowers tend to get are overuse injuries such as limb stress fractures and lumbar disc injuries, but I haven’t seen those problems in people that row five, six times a week. The only exception is that I did come across one person—who will remain unnamed— that gave themselves a bit of a neck injury doing that funky chain-whipping thing.

Why Did You Start Rowing WOD?

I started it by complete accident. I was finishing off my medical degree after the London Olympics and I missed the camaraderie of being on a team. I just naturally gravitated to CrossFit, decided to do some local competitions and found it really, really fun. But I quickly realized that there are a lot of athletes who were quite slow on the rowing machine. And when I say slow, they were quick in the world of CrossFit, but they were still getting beaten by [rowing] club–level women. I realized that there’s a lot of knowledge to be shared. During the CrossFit Games in 2015, a weightlifting coach got in touch and said, “Hey, I’m training these guys, they are going into the CrossFit Games, can you teach them how to row?” I spent a couple of days with them and just tried to upload as much information as possible and they loved it. So I thought, what’s the easiest way for me to disseminate knowledge across the community? I put it on a website as a free program. Ironically, even though it’s called “rowing workout of the day,” we didn’t have a rowing workout every day; we had two a week. I started with what I could commit to around working as a doctor. Within about three months, 1,000 people had decided they wanted to learn from it. And I was getting requests from the U.S., Australia, and Europe to go and do seminars and coach people. It’s all stemmed from a desire to help people who want the knowledge.

How Are You Going To Balance Being A Doctor And Running This Incredibly Successful Business?

Yeah, good question. Last year was manic with working at the hospital, traveling, training myself and running the business. I made the decision that I would take this year away from full-time medicine. I’ve been working part-time as a doctor, and the business has grown again, which is great. But I still need to negotiate how I can keep this going and give it the attention it deserves while juggling my medical career alongside. But it’s worked out so far and I know I’ll get the balance right in the future. It’s a constant challenge that I somehow need.

I Love The Term Everyday Athlete Because Movement Is Such A Fundamental Part Of Who Ear Are As HumansClick To Tweet

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