Injury Prevention for Rowers

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With rowing pre-season schedules starting to heat up it is important that we acknowledge the potential increased injury risk that athletes may have. With the increased workload and the repetitive nature of the sport there are some common overuse injuries that can occur. To understand the injuries we first need to understand the sport. As with many sports technique in rowing is paramount to not only performance but also to the prevention of potential overuse injuries. We must also note that there are two types of rowing; sweep whereby each person has one oar and sculling where each person has two oars (pictured below). There are four phases of the rowing stroke (3), comprised of: 

  • The catch; the start of the stroke where the rower’s legs and back are fully flexed and the oar is square. 
  • The drive phase; where the legs extend first followed by the back beginning to extend, this is where the most power is produced for the stroke. 
  • The release; where the elbows draw the blade through the water as the handle lightly brushes the abdomen, the blade is then feathered across the water. 
  • The recovery; where the drive phase is reversed until the arms are fully extended to prepare for the next catch phase. 

Now that we understand the basics of rowing, let’s have a look at the common overuse injuries that can occur and what we can do to help prevent them. 

Back Injuries

Firstly non-specific lower back injuries account for 15 to 25% of injuries in rowers, with it more common among females due to hip muscle imbalance, and those starting training prior to the age of 16 (3). These injuries are generally chronic by nature and are caused by excessive hyperflexion and/or excessive twisting forces applied on the lumbar region (3). This is generally exacerbated at the catch position as the lower back muscles (erector spinae) can be relatively relaxed, whilst having great loads (up to 4 times body weight) placed on them during the drive phase (3). Other causes include fatigue and breakdown of technique due to increased volume and intensity, as well as varying training methods, compounding the muscle fibre contractility (3). However there are ways we can manage this as training volume starts to increase, including:

  • Improving hip flexor strength whilst improving hamstring length.
  • Improving endurance in the lumbar extensor muscles. 
  • Improving abdominal and gluteal strength. 
  • Maintaining length in the gluteal muscles. 

Exercise we can do to help reduce this risk include (1):

  1. Back extension
  2. Good morning
  3. Crunch
  4. Hip thrust 
  5. Hip flexor stretch
  6. Inch worm (dynamic hamstring stretch)

The Ribs

The next common over use injury for rowers is rib stress fractures, a less commonly expected injury however due to the excessive repetitive force that is exerted by the muscles around the ribs (serratus anterior and external obliques) with every stroke, it can lead to a weakness in the bones (2). This loss of strength in the bones can lead to a decreased shock absorption ability and increase the stress placed on the ribs at selected focal points (2). The incidence of this injury is up to 22% higher in female athletes due to often decreased bone density (2). One of the key factors that we can target in the gym to help reduce the risk of this occurring is working to reduce the imbalance between the serratus anterior muscles and the external obliques (2). Some exercises targeted towards reducing this risk include (1):

  • Push ups 
  • Bench press 
  • Push up plus

Shoulder Pain

The last two injuries that we will speak about are a little less common however are still very important to consider when looking at injury prevention. Non-specific shoulder pain can be caused by many factors however the most common includes overuse, poor technique and tension through the upper body (3). To reduce the risk of this injury occurring we can improve strength through the lower traps, serratus anterior, and shoulder girdle (3) by implementing exercises such as (1):

  • High cable row
  • Shoulder Y, T, W 

ITB Friction Syndrome

Finally, Iliotibial band friction syndrome is an overuse injury felt as a pain on the lateral side of the knee, commonly as a result of the full knee compression that occurs in the catch position (3). It is associated with tightness in the Iliotibial band (ITB) and weakness through the hip abductors (3), therefore it is important that we work to improve hip abductor strength as well as stretch and lengthen the ITB – this might involve (1):

  • ITB stretch 
  • Banded clam 
  • Cable abduction

Summary

So there you have it – the repetitive and demanding nature of rowing results in high risk of injuries, however, with some critical planning and programming including strength training and mobility we can help to reduce the risk of these injuries occurring. 

References

  1. Gee, T. I. Olsen, P. D. Berger, N. J. Golby, J. & Thompson, K. G. Strength and Conditioning practices in rowing. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25: 668-682. 2011. 
  2. McDonnell, L. K. Hume, P. A. & Nolte, V. Rib stress fractures among rowers. Journal of Sports Medicine. 41: 883-901. 2011. 
  3. Rumball, J. S. Lebrun, C. M. Di Ciacca, S. R. & Orlando, K. Rowing Injuries. Journal of Sports Medicine. 35: 537-555. 2005. 

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