Since we’ve put Stroke Length data in RowHero, you may be like other coaches and athletes and wonder how you can better use this information to get faster. Turns out this is also a common question for ErgData users across online Concept2 communities, too:
“What’s the optimal drive length for a 5-foot, 7-inch-tall guy who rows between damper settings 3 and 4?”
“What’s your average drive length (steady pace)? I’m 189 cm, usual drive length between 121-127 cm. Anyone?”
“Since I downloaded the ErgData app, I’ve been almost obsessed with drive length…I’m not sure going for the longest pull gets me my most efficient stroke, though. I feel like I’m faster with less effort when my drive length is between 127 and 133cm.”
In this post we’ll break down what stroke length is and how you can measure what’s optimal for you.
(Note: I’ll use “stroke length” and “drive length” to mean the same concept.)
What is stroke length?
Stroke length is distance between the position of the center of the handle at the catch and at the finish.
Why is stroke length important?
The length of your stroke directly impacts your speed on the erg and on the water. The longer your stroke length for the same amount of force, the faster you go, but you also fatigue faster and have a lower stroke rate. Each of these variables affects the other, so we can’t make blanket statements like “a longer stroke is always faster.” This is why you need to find your optimal stroke length: (1) to be fast and (2) to sustain that speed over your entire workout.
For example, you can pull the handle to your neck on the erg and get a faster split time, but can you sustain this for 2000m? Concept2 advises against this technique:
- It’s a hard position to hold and requires a lot of core strength. [And if you don’t have this strength, you can injure yourself easily.]
- It’s a relatively weak position, from which you are not able to put much force on the RowErg handle.
- It’s going to take a while to get back up from that position and move the body toward the catch for the next stroke, wasting valuable time and energy, and lowering your stroke rate.
On-water rowers will also realize that this isn’t how you row out on the water, which should be enough reason not to do it for even intermediate athletes. However, very strong, experienced athletes may adopt this style to maximize their performance on the erg if they can compartmentalize rowing on the erg vs. rowing on the water.
What should your stroke length be?
Unfortunately, it depends.
Everyone has different body proportions (leg length, torso height, arm length) and capabilities (hip/hamstring flexibility, core strength) that govern their optimal stroke length.
That’s why asking someone of a similar height about their stroke length is unlikely to yield useful information.
Based on my experience as a rower and coach for 10+ years, I advise you to focus on your own measurements and improve those.
I’ll break down how to do this into 3 levels. Each level adds more precision but takes more time to calculate.
Level 1: Establishing a Stroke Length Baseline
Difficulty Level: Beginner
In this step, you’ll establish proper catch and finish positions and then use an app like RowHero to measure the distance between them. This should be a review for many of you, but if you need more guidance, see Concept2’s primer on basic rowing technique.
Your Catch Position
- Arms are straight; head is neutral; shoulders are level and not hunched.
- Upper body is leaning forward from the hips with the shoulders in front of the hips.
- Shins are vertical, or as close to vertical as is comfortable for you. Shins should not move beyond perpendicular.
- Heels may lift as needed.
Time for some action! Get on your erg and move up to the catch so you look like the rower in the picture. If you can’t get to this position, go as close to the monitor as you can while keeping your chest up and lats engaged. You may find adjusting your foot position helpful.
Your Finish Position
- Upper body is leaning back slightly, using good support from the core muscles.
- Legs are extended and handle is held lightly below your ribs.
- Shoulders should be low with wrists and grip relaxed. Wrists should be flat.
- Low back should be supported, not sagging or hunched under your torso. Ensure you feel perched on the seat with pressure on your Sitz bones.
Next, find your finish position based on the picture above.
Find Your Baseline Stroke Length
Practice taking strokes at 14 – 18 strokes per minute, moving between the catch and finish. Do this first for about two minutes without an app so you teach your body what to feel.
Try doing this with your eyes closed as you get more comfortable. Do you maintain your posture at the finish, or does your low back tuck under with your pelvis? Do you feel yourself sitting up tall at the catch, perched on the edge of your Sitz bones?
Next, connect RowHero to your monitor so you can see your stroke length moving between these two positions. Keep the same stroke rate and row for at least 2 minutes.
When you get it right, you should find that your stroke length normalizes at a certain number or back and forth between two numbers. Unfortunately, the stroke length we can read from the Concept2 only has an accuracy up to 2-3cm, so you may find you bounce between numbers like 140 and 143. This is normal, and I advise you to take the lower of these two numbers.
Congratulations, you’ve found your baseline! Start aiming for this length in your future rows.
Level 2: Tracking Your Progress
Difficulty Level: Intermediate
Having a target stroke length you can track in real-time is a great start. If you want to see your improvement over time, then you’ll need to start tracking your stroke length across workouts.
RowHero shows your average stroke length in each interval and workout, which you can use to check against the stroke length you gathered in Step 1. As you get row more and get stronger, you might notice this number slowly increase.
(Unfortunately, ErgData and the Concept2 Logbook don’t share your average stroke length for the workout.)
However, a higher stroke length doesn’t always mean positive progress! If you can’t hold to the guidance above for your catch and finish positions with an increased stroke length, you should stay where you are. Use a mirror or film yourself with your phone to check.
Level 3: Stroke Rate and Stroke Length
Difficulty Level: Painstaking
So far, we’ve oversimplified stroke length by treating it as a single number to strive for. The reality is that optimal stroke length depends on your stroke rate. Above a certain rate (usually around 24spm), as the rate increases, your stroke length will decrease.
This turns your optimal stroke “length” into optimal stroke “lengths” since every stroke rate will now have an associated optimal length.
To track this, you need to collect stroke-by-stroke data for every interval you row, combine all your strokes together, and calculate the average stroke length per stroke rate. Then you’ll need to see how this changes over time.
That sounds terrible.
You can simplify today. Consider tracking your stroke length during three different types of workouts: slower, steady-state intervals (18 – 22spm); intermediate (AT) ones (24 – 28spm); and race pace (28+ spm). Then you can see the difference between each bucket and how you progress over time in each one.
Understanding and taking action on your progress can make the difference between 1st and 2nd place. Racing well is as much about eliminating the bad strokes as it is making good ones. Or in our case, making the short strokes longer.
Fortunately, here at RowHero we’re collecting a lot of stroke length data, so we have the power to show you your progress by stroke rate as well as help you see how you’re doing against your peers. Stay tuned.
How to Increase Your Stroke Length Safely
Now that you know your optimal stroke length(s), what does improvement look like? Consider what you can change:
- Arm and leg length (not for most of us 🙂)
- Core strength
As your body gets more familiar with the rowing motion, you’ll find your flexibility and core strength will increase. This will allow you to change your catch and/or finish positions to support a longer stroke length without also greatly increasing your fatigue.
I recommend reviewing your numbers every month to see your progress. After a certain point, you’ll see them stay the same for several months in a row, and that’s when you’ll know that you’ve reached your optimal stroke length. The challenge then is to maintain your length when you get tired, especially during race pieces and competitions!
Want your team to stay long? Set up a quick call with us to see how you can measure, track, and compare stroke length for your whole team.