Sadistic yet addictive – why do I love the rowing machine?
Words by Rob Chilton
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Rob Chilton explores his fascination with this brutal piece of exercise equipment
I met Steve Redgrave at a party once in 2000 just after he had won his fifth consecutive gold medal at the Sydney Olympics. The crowd parted as this wardrobe of a man walked towards me. I stuck out my hand and congratulated him on his medal, he smiled and said thank you, and I went to hospital to repair my crushed hand. It was a thrill as rowing has always been one of my favourite sports to watch at the Olympics.
A close rowing race can be gripping. There’s a wonderful, mesmerising rhythm to the oars as they slide beautifully in and out of the water. Rival boats edge forwards then seemingly slip backwards with each stroke of the oar, propelled by rowers taking an excruciating dip in a bath of lactic acid.
My fascination with rowing began at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – the first Games I remember – when Redgrave won the coxed four, the first of his extraordinary five golds at consecutive Olympics. This was the start of Britain’s dominance at Olympic rowing – suddenly we were good at something and gold medals seemed almost a foregone conclusion.
Then, in August 2000, the BBC documentary Gold Fever followed Redgrave and his coxless fours teammates Matthew Pinsent, Tim Foster and James Cracknell on their journey to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Candid video diaries shot on wobbly cameras showed the commitment, doubt, pain and fear that each man felt as they strived for sporting immortality under Jurgen Grobler, their famously hard-nosed German coach, whose ominous motto describing the physical agony of rowing was painted on the training room wall: ‘The man with the hammer will come.’
The four men experienced unimaginable pain as they pushed their bodies beyond their limits in brutal training sessions, including 2,000m distances on rowing machines that forced Redgrave and Cracknell to fall off the seat in a dizzy, oxygen-deprived fog. Pinsent, whose time for the 2,000m rowing machine in 2004 is an astonishing 5mins 42secs still stands as a British record, says around 10 per cent of their training was done on these unforgiving machines.
I joined a gym after seeing the documentary and used the rowing machine for the first time. After tentatively strapping my feet into the Concept 2 machine, I set the resistance to 7 (not too hard, not too soft), set the electronic monitor to 2,000m and pulled.
Heavy is the word I’d use to describe the sensation. Awful is another. Using a rowing machine is a slog and punishes every muscle group, which is why it’s such a good workout. Drive backwards with the thighs, pull with the arms and tighten the core – it’s a compound exercise movement that, after just 30 seconds, scorches every muscle fibre in your body. The middle section from 1,000m to 1,600m, says Pinsent, is the horror show. “That 600m is tough, it’s make or break,” says the rower, who won four Olympic golds from 1992 to 2004. “When you get to that bit you know if it’s going to work out or if it’s not going to be a good day. And if you have anything left at the end, give it what you can.”
I was addicted to the rowing machine throughout my late 20s. Although painful, the rhythm of pulling and sliding backwards and forwards in the seat felt calming. Kris Agustin, fitness manager at Fitness First, says “Rowing can aid in the maintenance of good mental health. It is a great form of meditative and physical exercise which is ideal for individuals who like to be active while connecting with their minds. Close your eyes and link your breath to your body to appreciate the gentle rowing movements once the rowing rhythm has been established.”
As the callouses on my hands became rougher, I kept coming back for more. Why? The ticking clock – a cruel, addictive mistress. I hovered around 7mins 10secs for years and only once recorded a time under seven minutes – that one hurt. Watching the clock count closer to my personal best as I frantically tried to reach 2,000m became an obsession. Shaving even half a second off my fastest time here and there was a thrill. I had a piece of paper stuck on the wall at home with my times scribbled on it.
A bad back halted my rowing in my 30s but recently I took it up again because I wanted to freshen up my workout regime, which had become swimming, followed by swimming with some swimming on top. These days, my times on the Concept 2 beast at Fitness First in The Lakes are in the neighbourhood of 7mins 22secs. Frankly, I’m amazed (and delighted) I’m still able to stay in touch with my fitness levels of my 20s. The consistency of a rowing machine means it’s a workout that you can do all your life and measure your fitness accurately. It still hurts and I both love and hate it in equal measure, but the addictive nature of the workout remains.
I looked up the British records for indoor rowing at 2,000m. The chart shows impressive times from men in their 70s, 80s and 90s. In 2010 a man named John Hodgson rowed 2,000m in 13mins 32secs… in the 100+ years old category. Now that’s something for me to aim for.
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