Race plans for rowing head races

Getting ready to race takes a lot of practice. Fortunately come head racing season there are a lot of different events where you can practice and improve. As masters we enjoy the challenge of long distance rowing races and accept that we need to plan our training and practice before expecting to be successful racing,

Rowing winter peak event

When reviewing your plan for the season, you will need a winter “peak” event. This is your top priority for your group, crew or yourself. Frequently this event is the Head of the Charles or the Eights Head of the River or the Head of the Yarra. The trouble is that two of those events fall early in the head racing season and that gives you limited opportunity to practice and refine your race plan in advance with practice events. Ideally you want to do a race distance 2 weeks before your main event as a practice. If there isn’t a formal race, plan a local informal one against other people in your club or invite a nearby club to race you in a private match.

Don’t worry, Faster Masters Rowing has you covered. In this article we will cover off the 3 key things you need to have practiced and how to compose them into a written race plan which will see you through any head race event.

4 Elements of your head race plan

All races are the same. All races are different.

You need a plan for each race. All plans go out of the window once the race starts. Yes we know that sounds contradictory…. let us explain.

Exceptionally scary statements. All true and all things you need to learn how to execute to a high level of skill.

Having a rowing coach will help you become an adaptable athlete who can race in ANY situation. Faster Masters Rowing is your coach.

So every race plan has these 4 core elements:

  1. Start
  2. Technique improvement
  3. Speed improvement
  4. Finish

Yes it’s as simple as that. You need to be able to get the boat from stationary up to race pace; you need to have some way to improve your technique; some way to go faster, and a finishing sprint.

How you string these together is where your race experience comes in. The degree of sophistication of each depends on your skill, your personal preferences and whether you are a longstanding or new crew. Because some take more practice than others and you NEVER want to do something different in a race. No. NEVER. Because you’ll likely mess it up. So don’t risk your race result.

head race rowing, masters rowing, mens rowing four

Writing a detailed race plan

Let’s figure out some options for each of your 4 elements of your plan. For each of these, choose the version which you think works best for you. Practice them all (at least 3 times) before you select one. There are no wrong answers – your choice is about the one that WORKS. And your skill at executing now may be different next month or next year… so your choice is not fixed for ever. Be open to new things as an athlete. It helps build your flexibility and adaptability.

  • Start – Do you prefer a standing or rolling (flying) start? And what sequence of strokes gets you up to race pace (rate and speed) the best? Some like to wind to over race rate and then come down onto the race rating you choose. Work out how rapidly you can raise pressure and rate – how many strokes does it take? Do you need 200 meters or can you do it in 6 strokes? How good is your cox at judging distance before the start line? Because you want to be at pace as you pass the start line…. Ideally not more than 2 strokes before and certainly not after the start of a head race – that’s slowing your total time.
  • Technique improvement – We all come off our technical pattern from time to time when we are tired. What are the top 3 technical things which improve your boat speed? Work this out with a speed meter – could be squaring early, power through mid-drive or a better rhythm and relaxation. Whatever it is, practice how to get it back fast. Practice it together as a crew. Can you get it back in 1 stroke? Or does it take 3 or more? What words summarise what you are seeking? Choose one single phrase which has meaning for you all. It should be snappy so your bow man or cox can say it fast and you can execute it quickly (not losing time over many strokes while having a long-winded explanation). Pick those 3 technique improvements and practice getting the technique back when you lose it. Your goal is to get the rowing stroke pattern back 1 stroke after it’s called. And if you’re in a single scull you can still make those calls in your mind – I find this very helpful when racing – it makes me more decisive to think I have a cox in my head telling me what to do and when.
  • Speed improvement – A well-drilled crew will have speed lags through a race – when the rudder comes on, when someone has a poor stroke or when your technique drifts off the pattern. Getting a push or a power move in will help maintain your speed. Your goal for a head race is to maintain a robust average speed – try to stay close to your mean and not go a lot faster or a lot slower – it’s most efficient like this. And so when the speed drops on your meter – call a push. When approaching a corner have a push to improve speed before you have to steer and another push when you’ve finished steering and are straight again. Also use your pushes to attack landmarks like bridges or another crew nearby and you are overtaking or being overtaken. Whatever your push is (10, 15 or 20 strokes long) you can make it more effective by doing a technique improvement first for 3 strokes and then following with the power push call. A skillful crew doesn’t slack off after the push ends – they maintain the new boat speed for as long as they can.
  • Finish – Sprinting for the line takes judgement – how high can you rate? Normally your boat moves one boat length per stroke (further for small boats) and so taking more strokes per minute moves you faster. How high can you rate before losing speed and technique? How long can you maintain a higher boat speed and rate before your technique or fitness fails? My experience is that most crews under-estimate their ability to sprint. If you think you can sprint the last 500 meters – I challenge you to attack your finish 200 meters earlier than you think you should – see if you can last the course. If you can do that, in the next race try going earlier by another 200 meters. You need to find out where you fail in order to judge what’s best. Ideally your final stroke is the worst one of the race as you cross the line. Then you know you couldn’t have raced harder or faster.

Playing it safe versus taking risks

In the description of the finish above I explain the type of risk that you may need to take while doing a head race. You risk running out of energy and power before the finish line by sprinting early. If you don’t take risks, you’ll never do your best race. Your risks can be small and incremental – like choosing to rate a half point higher in the mid-race than you think you want to. Or adding in a push when you sense mental capacity is getting tired in the third quarter. I hope that you are pleasantly surprised by your performance. 

But if your risk doesn’t work out, you need a strategy to get back on track and to last the distance. One way to do this is to practice making a strong rhythm at a rate one point below your target race rate. Can you move the boat well at that rate? If yes, then try taking the rate and power up again after re-establishing the rhythm. 

Write out your race plan

Look at the map of your race course, divide it up by distance, time, landmarks or all three and then write out long hand down a page what race plan you intend doing. Here’s an example


250 meters hit the race rate and rhythm

Push 10 into 500 meters

Technique 10 – catches

Push 10 into first corner

Push 10 out of the corner

Etc .. you get the idea. This framework allows the whole crew to understand the logic behind each move. Pushes and technique interspersed with the distance / time / landmarks. 

Plan variations during the race can happen based on what is actually happening around you. This is where your cox or caller needs to be trusted to judge a situation and select the response which will best advantage your crew. If there’s a crew up ahead which you can overtake, don’t wait for the corner to make your push, go for them early – tell the crew the distance from the crew in front (4 lengths, 2 lengths, overlap) and use that focus to maintain higher average speed. When overtaking, never stop pushing after you are past them, you MUST move away from that crew to prevent them sensing they could attack back and overtake you. If being overtaken, use your pushes to stay in front of them. If you are steering, leave moving out of their way until the last possible moment and then move gradually so you don’t upset the rhythm in your boat. Cut back in behind them at the earliest possible moment. And when you can see the crew behind, focus on your boat rhythm – too often crew members look at the other boat and end up rowing in their rhythm – which makes your boat slow down.

And so you now have all the techniques you need to build a robust race plan, you know how to adjust it based on different head race events of differing distance and also what to do when racing to adjust your plan to take advantage of situations. Now all you need to do is to practice those moves, agree your calls and enter a race.

South Island Masters Regatta Report 2022

South Island Masters regatta hits Dunedin over the long weekend

Jan Brosnahan

Queen’s Birthday weekend saw the arrival in Dunedin of 220 masters rowers and supporters, mainly from the South Island but some from the North.

The South Island Masters Regatta has run for two decades and always at Queen’s Birthday weekend.  The first regatta was held at Port Chalmers, but has enjoyed significant growth since then. The regatta rotates around the South Island clubs, with the last two regattas, planned by Ashburton/CURE, being cancelled due to the COVID pandemic in 2020 and the 2021 floods.  Wakatipu held a successful regatta in 2019 on Lake Wakatipu and Lake Hayes.  

Rowing in June, in Dunedin, is not for the faint-hearted and organisers were pleased with the excellent response. 

As many masters rowers coach over summer, and the calendar is full, this weekend is an opportunity to race and enjoy some social time over the long weekend. We anticipated a frosty start, with associated calm water, and in fact we enjoyed perfect rowing conditions.  

Saturday saw the long distance race on the Taieri River, known as the Taieri–upon-Henley Bridge-to-Bridge, over 8.5 kilometres.  That’s 8.5 kilometres to the start and a race of 8.5 kilometres back, again, not for the pusillanimous. Chosen for the scenery, the quiet water and surrounds, plus the proximity to Lake Waihola, it is described as one of the best rowing routes in New Zealand. A bonus was the ability to beach boats at the Taieri Mouth end, before the race proper.  Onlookers at the Taieri Mouth Bridge enjoyed a spectacle as the sun glistened on the water and the many crews in different club colours wove their way down the river. 

The strategy of taking the shortest distance was challenged along the twisting river, however the scenic course offered a novelty for rowers.  With 32 crews entered in a variety of boats, and leaving at one-minute intervals, crews jostled to contest some coveted trophies including the “Mock Rooster” and “Port Parrot”.

The crack Picton crew finished fastest in 32 minutes 44 seconds, taking home the Bluebridge Trophy. Dan Karena, along with three Gaudin brothers – Keiran, Ryan and Hayden – took the race by the scruff of the neck, putting time into the favoured eights. 

Picton carried this through to Sunday where they were winners of A and B single and double sculls, B pair, B 4- and 4x and combined in the 8+.  Their enthusiasm has extended to volunteering to host the 2023 event – mark your calendars.

Winner of the Port Parrot for fastest women’s quad was North End.

In a nod to the Coast-to-Coast, all competitors finishing the long distance race were given a can of Emerson’s newest product.

Sunday racing over 1000 metres on Lake Waihola was generally very close.  Several trophies for overall honours were at stake, meaning handicaps needed to be applied to all events in each class throughout the day to negate the ageing effect – i.e. results of A-D races had to be matched against E-I races and handicaps applied to reveal the eventual “fastest” winner.  This also ensured crews didn’t ease up and was effectively a “sealed handicap”.  

Starting with mixed races at 9am, the fixtures moved to 5-year age group events and finished with the feature eights at 3pm. With many race classes available, there was a fair bit of boat-hopping and some quick turnarounds. 

The women’s eight was won by North End/Invercargill and the men’s eight Wakatipu/North End. 

Dave Hanan, North End, was again awarded “Stew’s Stirrer”.   Dave towed the club boats from the closest club but still managed to arrive just in the nick of time.  However, on arrival he realised he had left oars at home, but thought he could make the 1.5 hour round trip in less than half an hour.  

The Mercer Trophy, for the club with the largest number of wins, was awarded to the Avon Club.

The Terry Noonan Trophy for the rower or official showing commitment to rowing was awarded to Deb Hymers-Ross, Union, by previous recipient Maude O’Connell, Cromwell.

Long distance Taieri Gorge 8.5km race

Oldest competitors were local legends Faye Forgie and Lorna Bain (both 76), Port Chalmers United, and John Wilson, (77), Riverton.  Lorna is a novice and teamed up with Ross Johnston (76 and also a novice). Rowing is a challenging sport to take up as we age, so kudos to these very couragous Port Chalmers rowers.

The weekend incorporated two social events – a barbeque along with Emerson’s product post-long distance and a dine and dance on Sunday evening.  Monday was a well-deserved rest day.

For many competitors the weekend was nostalgic as they re-lived racing on Lake Waihola in the seventies and eighties, before the creation of Lake Ruataniwha.  As many commented, racing at Waihola is hit-and-miss as the lake is exposed to the southerly, how lucky we were. 


Peer to peer coaching clinics

The Legion of Rowers hosted two coaching clinics during July 2021 for masters rowers who are not coaches. There are not enough coaches available for masters groups to get regular coaching. One way to get effective coaching for masters is to enable self-coaching and group feedback. This has never been tried before. 

During 2020 we surveyed masters rowers via the New Zealand Masters Rowers Facebook page asking what would improve rowing for masters.

5 key areas were identified

  1. To speak with one voice nationally
  2. Grow membership and participation
  3. Have more regattas and with new race formats (coastal and flat water)
  4. More social events
  5. Access to effective coaching

Legion of Rowers and Rowing New Zealand agreed to organise two peer to peer clinics during June 2021 in Auckland and Karapiro led by Duncan Holland and Raf Wyatt.

Erg masters rowing, NZ Masters rowing, Legion of Rowers NZ,

Erg coaching on the rowing model

Masters Coaching, Peer to peer coaching, masters rowing New Zealand

Raf Wyatt explains the stroke cycle

peer to peer rowing clinic, masters rowing NZ, Legion of Rowers NZ

Planning an outing using peer-to-peer principles

Continue Reading →