Best Rowing Drills: The Athlete's Perspective, with Olympic Bronze Medalist Megan Kalmoe

Megan Kalmoe in the single (Photo: Nikki Raab)

The first three of articles in our 'Best Rowing Drills' series have focused on the view from the launch, so we thought it was time to flip the script—here, we check in with two-time Olympian and London 2012 bronze medalist Megan Kalmoe about her approach to skill and drill on the water. Kalmoe began her rowing career at the University of Washington, and earned her first international bid with the U.S. U23 team in 2005, winning gold in the BW4- in Amsterdam. Since then, Megan has more often raced with two oars, switching to sculling and competing at the Olympics in Beijing and then in London, the latter of which saw her win a bronze medal in the U.S. W4x along with teammates Kara Kohler, Adrienne Martelli, and Natalie Dell. Last season, Kalmoe switched back to one oar, and earned a silver in the women's pair with Kerry Simmonds at the 2014 World Rowing Championships. Here are a few of her favorite exercises to develop rowing and sculling technique.

From Megan:

This was an interesting question to answer, because as an athlete with the Training Center we aren’t actually asked that often to articulate how or why we are doing particular drills. My choices are going to reflect a few things:

1) I have spent a lot of time training in a single
2) I have spent a lot of time training myself in a single, because unlike college coaches, national team coaches do not follow and coach us while we are in small boats

Also, the drills I’ve chosen reflect my opinion that drilling should incorporate an element of play. Athletes aren’t going to learn technique all the same way, so they should be allowed to experiment with different stroke rates, pressure, and slide lengths in order to find a combination of things that help them to grasp the concept at hand at their own pace (this is more difficult to do in big boats). Since I have never been a strong technician as an athlete, I have also gotten myself through many drills by making them a little...ahem...competitive. That’s mostly with myself, but most of these drills give athletes immediate pass/fail feedback based on whether or not they touch the water in between strokes. Taking a clean stroke on these drills is still a thrill, even after all these years.

1: Square Blades

MK: I am famous/notorious on the team for including this in practice even when it is not prescribed. I love square blades. To me, it is the ultimate in cool when an athlete can do it really well, especially in a small boat. It took me a really long time to do it well in my single, but the only way I could figure it out was doing it every damn day, and in all kinds of conditions and wakes. The hardest thing about this drill is committing to it after you get a few strokes wrong and get stuck or hit the water. But the trick is that the more you can relax and back away from a defensive grip/body position/seat, the easier it is to recover and clear the blades again. If you stay nervous and defensive, it is almost impossible to get right.

Square blades is amazing in a small boat because you can feel just how little effort you can and should put in to the stroke after the catch in order to have a great drive and recovery sequence. Since you’re not adding any disruption to the stroke with the feathering motion you can focus on just finding the place in the stroke where the oar wants to release itself from the water with no effort in your hands. When you’re on, the blade will actually just lightly pop itself out of the water and come back around on its own—when it does, be patient and don’t hurry out of the bow because you’re afraid of hitting the water. If you are relaxed and diligent about letting the hands get away first before the body, you can just sit and trust the boat to take you the rest of the way of up. Whether you screw it up after that by bracing against the boat speed or moving around on the seat is up to you.

2: Top Quarter

MK: This is probably the most important drill I have done for myself while I have been an athlete. My biggest technical issue as a younger athlete was hanging catches. The idea of getting the blade in to the water on time and with a dynamic impulse was just not natural to me and it took many years to improve. This will help you work on catch-slide timing, handle heights, body prep, manual dexterity, and just general confidence and comfort at the catch. I prefer this in the single, but it’s good in all boats.

Start by just sitting at the catch position with the blades square in the water. This might seem obvious, but if you cannot sit comfortably at full compression for more than a few seconds before you start the drill, you aren’t in a good position and are going to waste your time. Figure out where you need to be so you are sitting up and on the seat, but aren’t flexing, holding or bracing in order to stay still (this includes butts, backs, shoulders, ankles or tops of feet). From there, engage and push only the first few inches on the slide. Take the blades out, completely relax your glutes and hamstrings and let your weight return to the seat, then roll lightly back to your comfortable catch position and place the blades. Wait to both hear and feel the blades sink in to the water before you push again.

The boat never gets to be moving very fast because you are only pushing short and light so you can take the time to play around with your hand timing in order to get the blades in before you push. I usually start out very slowly and exaggerate or try to over-bury the blades and really wait to push, before transitioning to a more natural, continuous stroke rate.

Ed. note: For an illustration of the drill in action, check out the videos with Olympic gold and silver medalists Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase of Great Britain below.

This can also be a real help to people who have difficulty separating slide speed and catch speed (i.e. “When I try to make the catches quicker, I end up zooming up the last quarter of the slide instead”) The boat speed should dictate your slide speed, so keep your legs very relaxed between catches so the boat will dictate how fast you roll. If you feel at any point you are accelerating up the slide or pulling yourself up with your hamstrings or your feet, stop, relax your lower body on to the seat, and just focus on rolling with no effort from any part of your body.

I typically do this on the feather, but you can also try it on the square, if you dare.

3. Flow Pause

MK: This is a minor variation on the classic pause drill that I find really helpful (and fun) in team boats. Mostly I prefer it in the pair or double, but if I have a quad that is working well together, I will use it there as well. I have never tried it in an eight, but I bet it could be fun.

In a traditional pause drill, the bow woman or cox makes a call when the pause is over so the crew know when to continue the stroke. I prefer to do the pause with no call, so that I am tuned in to what is actually happening with the movement and rhythm in the boat instead of waiting for or making an arbitrary call. The result is a smoother, more fluid pause progression with no obnoxious and repetitive “go” or “row” calls. The stroke can get in to an easier and more natural rhythm, and the bow gets to fine-tune her body reading and anticipation skills. Overall, I think you get the technical benefits of a pause drill, but this format builds stronger trust and confidence between crewmates and is much less tedious.

4. Gunwale Pause

MK: This is sort of like the equivalent of rowing dressage. If done correctly, people will definitely think you are showing off.

If you are struggling with your square blade rowing, this isn’t a bad alternative to work on a relaxed back end and recovery approach that will give you a nice, even run and set you up for cleaner strokes. To do the drill, finish your stroke and as you come around the finish, let your hands lead the body over until you are just past your knees, but instead of keeping the hands level, press them down until the oars rest on the gunwhales, and pause. For me, this position is usually about quarter-slide; some people are able to do it at arms and body.

Again, the inclination is often to clench the glutes, hamstrings, feet, core and/or hands in order to set the boat. Doing that here is almost a guaranteed crash. Keep breathing, and practice feeling like you are completely shutting off your hips and legs in order to just sit quietly on the seat at the pause, and after the pause, just let the seat roll with the boat up to the catch. Your hands have nowhere to go but up, so your blade should drop nicely in to the water.

If you really want to show off, do it all on the square.

Cave Hanc Exercitationem: Feet Out

MK: I have to say, I hate this drill and do not find it useful. At best, it ruins the bottom of my socks. At worst, it hurts my back. I think practicing over-pressing the legs until they are flat and rigid in the bottom of the boat will prevent athletes from developing elastic, athletic movements that allow them to move with the boat and come quietly back around through the finish. My fastest, easiest rowing is done with a small amount of feet into the tops of the shoes as I finish the stroke and the boat is sent away, and the weight returns to the seat. At some level we need to learn how to absorb movement with our bodies and move with the boat appropriately. Even people who are good at feet out look like wobbly little robots. Robots = bad. Ninjas = good.

Thanks very much to Megan for sharing her experience with us! You can keep up with Megan Kalmoe as she trains for the upcoming world championships with a view toward Rio via her website, linked above.

This is the fourth in our 'Best Rowing Drills' series, following up on Kevin Sauer's favorite five, Mike Teti's approach to technique, and Linda Muri's multi-faceted exercises. You can find a series index on our Rowing Drills page. If you like the idea of more coaching articles and ideas from some of the masters of the craft, please let us know, and share the love—together, we can move the sport forward. Highlights, emphasis added by editor.


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