Rowing, like running, cycling, or swimming is a cyclical movement. To get the best results you want to create consistent movement. You want to do the best you can to increase work when it’s necessary and decrease work when it won’t benefit you.
Stop spending so much time trying to work harder when you could be getting faster with a minor tweak to your movement instead. Like breathing.
When was the last time you listened to your own breathing? It’s probably bordering somewhere on the scale of “never,” to “the last time my doctor asked me to take a deep breath.” In rowing, your breathing is what sustains you.
If you really want to improve, you’re going to have to take a moment to drill down on this everyday behavior and reign it in as another tool in your toolbox.
There are two parts to breathing. Inspiration (aka inhalation) and expiration. Inspiration brings fresh oxygen into the body, and expiration moves used up oxygen out of the system in the form of CO2.
Have you every noticed that inhaling is much much easier to do? Pay attention the next time you workout when it starts getting really hard. You end up gasping for air like Kim Kardashian yearns for social media attention.
So here we are inhaling and exhaling as the workout goes along. Our inhale takes fresh oxygen and puts it into our blood stream feeding our muscles for movement. The muscles use that oxygen, then spit it out and ask the exhale to get it the hell out of our bodies to make room for more oxygen.
The process continues on and on and as things get more challenging the system only has to work harder.
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While the concept of warming up may induce thoughts of your dad in knee high tube socks and shorts short enough to cause whiplash jogging around a dirt track, it serves a pretty awesome purpose. It sends the signal to your body that “hey, things are going to get a bit challenging here, so get ready.”
That idea is critical to get the most out of your body. Why do you think we make you warm-up with drills before every workout? To get your body ready for movement AND to work on your mechanics.
Finally, the rowing part.
So your body is prepped for movement and you start your workout. Here comes your opportunity to win it or lose it and this is the crux of this whole article…
When you breathe while you’re rowing, you need to consider your breathing your pace setter. Like rowing is a rhythmic movement, your breathing is the control of that rhythm.
Have you ever seen a sprinter in a 100m dash breathing at a calm leisurely pace? Hell no. What about a marathon runner breathing like he’s being chased by a mountain lion? Nope. In each scenario, the athletes breathing pattern is in tune with the intensity of the scenario. A sprinter is going to be breathing heavily and forcefully and a marathon runner will establish a relaxed breathing pace relative to their more calm stride.
The key is to use your breathing to set the pace. If you need to go hard and fast, raise your breathing rate. If you have a longer piece and need to settle in, lower your breathing rate. What you’ll find is that if you commit to a particular breathing rate your body will come to match the pace.
So if you’re the kind of person that feels like they’re spinning on a hamster wheel when rowing, you’re probably breathing too fast. Slow your breathing rate and you’ll find it hard to keep moving too fast. Conversely, if you have trouble increasing your stroke rate, try increasing your breathing rate higher than you’re used to and your body will follow.
Finally, there is no one right way to breathe for rowing. The only right thing to do is settle into rhythmic breathing that you can control. Pay attention to what your breath does and learn to use it to your advantage and realize that it sets the tone for your body.
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Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to inhale than it is to exhale? It’s a real challenge to exhale when we’re tired. But if you can train your body to focus on the exhale instead of the inhale you’ll be rewarded with more fresh oxygen than a fish in a new bowl of water.
The key is to focus on a complete exhale from the belly. It will be uncomfortable to feel like you’re contracting your stomach when your body is screaming for more air, but you have to play the long game on this one. By focusing on a complete exhale for 10 strokes, you will flush far more CO2 out of your body than if you gasp for air. It means your muscles will have more fuel to keep going when you are inhaling. Trust me, your body knows how to inhale…exhale? Not so much.
TRY THIS: In the middle of a challenging piece, take 10 strokes where your sole focus is on completely emptying your lungs by squeezing your abs and exhaling from your belly. Your belly button should feel like it’s pulling into your spine. Then get back to a rhythmic breathing pattern. It creates a significant positive impact on the way you feel because you’ve improved the amount of fresh oxygen with which your body has to work.
At the end of the day, you have to feel like your breathing rate is your own. If you’re trying to fit into someone else’s specified breathing rate you’re working much harder than you need to. Learn to settle into a rhythm, attach your movement to your breathing, and learn to harness your breathing to power your own movement.
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