Varsity crews: As Oxford and Cambridge limber up for their annual boat race on Saturday, LUCY FRY discovers the all-round health benefits of the noble sport of rowing
Although historically rowing was both a form of transport and naval warfare, it wasn’t until March 12, 1829, that two friends – one studying at Oxford University and the other at Cambridge – suggested a race.
Later that year, the first Boat Race was held in Henley-on-Thames, with Oxford the victors.
Newspapers reported some 20,000 spectators gathered to watch the two bastions of education battle it out on the river, a fairly astounding number, considering the limitations of transport and information distribution during Georgian Britain.
Since then, the Boat Race has grown exponentially and so too has rowing as a sport. It’s not just the impressive strength and stamina of the Olympic crews and Boat Race contenders that make rowing seem so attractive but the efficiency and versatility of it too.
Economics student Derek Rasmussen, 25, (pictured below) is this year’s Cambridge president. His crew, just like its Oxford rivals, has trained for a beastly six hours a day, six days a week, for the past six months. This includes rowing 160km per week as well as weight training in the gym – and all while studying for a degree.
Although rowing is very much a team sport, Rasmussen says the competition to make the Varsity team is very different.
‘Your entire purpose for the whole of the season is to make it into the boat [qualify for the race], so you need to prove you as an individual are a winner, that you’re moving fast, you’re going to move that boat,’ he says. ‘Then you come together and form an eight-man unit. So as a sport it requires a strange mixture of team spirit and individuality.’
On the surface of it, the benefits of the sport are impressive; it doesn’t discriminate against size, gender or strength, and utilises more muscle groups than any other cardiovascular exercise.
It elevates your heart rate but, because it uses a greater muscle mass, rowing can help you to burn more calories in a relatively short time. Because it is non-impact (ie, you don’t hit the ground with , each movement as you do in running), it is also kind on the joints and, provided it is
done with the correct technique (see box on right), has a minimal risk of injury.
Not only are your legs, buttocks, back, shoulders and stomach all working hard during the exercise but your body is required to move through an extended range of motion in an extremely co-ordinated fashion.
This can seem tricky at first but, once you nail the technique, rowing – either on the river or using an ergometer in the gym – can be a time-efficient option for those wishing to shift fat and improve fitness.
If you live miles away from water and still want the authentic experience, the next best thing is an exercise machine called WaterRower. Using a WaterFlywheel design to create resistance, much like the resistance of real water, the WaterRower makes for a smoother row and also adds a lovely swooshing noise, so you can close your eyes and pretend you’re really out there.
Mark Stipanovsky is a health and well-being expert for the advisory website www.greatvine.com. He is also a rowing coach qualified by British Rowing (www. britishrowing.org). ‘Rowing changes your body shape – you use 84 per cent of your muscle mass when you’re rowing,’ he says. ‘It improves posture by strengthening the back, so after just a few sessions you’ll start to move and stand