I’ve had my fair share of injuries over the years as a result of playing competitively in various sports, but it was only when I started rowing that the gravity of potential injuries became apparent. Miss a session? My rowing career, and therefore life, is over! The thought of missing an outing at rowing could be likened to the ultimate end-time scenario. And thoughts, as I’ve come to discover, are very powerful things. Sitting on the sidelines while everyone else is training, getting faster than me, lifting heavier weights than me, taking my seat, can mentally take it’s toll.
Which leads rowers, and athletes in similar high-intensity sports, down a slippery mental slope, questioning the authenticity of injury. Is my rib sore? I think it might be sore. We’ve only just rowed off, I can’t say anything now. I’ll loosen my grip…something is still not right. Coach: “Good flat water here we can start the pieces. How’s everyone doing?” “Great, ready to go.” Why did I say that? Why didn’t I say anything? The inner turmoil in an athlete’s mind can cause more harm than the injury itself. Paddling off knowing deep down that you are about to hurt yourself in the wrong way is not pleasant. And the thoughts of stopping, admitting injury (defeat? weakness?), and having to sit there awkwardly keeping your blade out of the way and absorbing the now jolting rhythm of the boat in your inactive freezing body as your crew mates haul you back to the shore, is plainly unthinkable. There will be no paddle of shame for me!
Maybe I was just particularly naive and unable to see the bigger picture. I wanted to be good at rowing NOW! I wanted to win NOW! Consumed by the thought that if it comes down to the line in a selection scenario I don’t want to have consciously put the words ‘injured’ into the coaches’ minds. Why would I choose to sign my own death warrant? It will fine, it will get better. But in a sport like rowing when training is multiple times a day, seemingly a trillion times a week, there is little time for the body to recover, and zero time for the mind. With this volume of training injuries are inevitable and sometimes unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare your body and mind in the best possible way to eradicate some of those ‘what if’ thoughts when you find yourself sidelined. Mobility, yoga, mindfulness – these are all weapons every athlete needs in their arsenal.
I have been rowing on the Thames Tideway for nearly a decade. I’ve had many personal accomplishments and will never tire of getting in a boat, but work commitments meant I didn’t have the time to train at certain times of the day and couldn’t fully commit to the season. I joined a CrossFit box which I heard combined a strong training ethic with a good sense of community. It was here that everything clicked into place. CrossFit aims to provide athletes with optimum physical competence and their training program covers multiple general physical skills: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. Personal weaknesses and strengths are immediately apparent – but it doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum of skill as every movement is scalable, and you only progress when you can master the basics. Each hour long class includes some component of mobility in preparation for the movements ahead – and therein was my revelation.
Mobility was something I had never considered as something that could make me faster, more robust, more efficient, better. A couple of minutes mobilising before a workout and within a few weeks I couldn’t believe the changes. I could squat all the way to the floor and do weighted overhead squats replacing my 5 x 5 @ stick kg with an actual number! A whole new realm of training opened up because my range of motion was improving. A yoga class started up in the club and I wholeheartedly embraced it. The intensity of CrossFit combined with the serenity of yoga was the balance I needed. We were all crossfitters and all focused on our own improvements. If your forward fold looks more like a lean than a fold then great, that’s where your journey starts! An hour of stretching out the body and thinking about nothing during final relaxation is glorious, and has helped me to appreciate the bigger picture.
Yoga enables you to tune into your body. You start to notice flexibility on one side more than the other. You can reach overhead in this pose but not that one. The vast array of poses means you can quickly whittle down problem areas – and get mobilising them! I began to take this awareness into my daily life. Actually isn’t it a bit strange that I can only cross my legs right over left and not the other way? Why do I always dismount my bike on the same side? Is it because that’s what I’m used to or is there a physical reason? Why do I always look over the same shoulder when steering in the bows? I thought this was just me, this is my body and how it works. Every movement task we make such as taking the boat to heads or picking up the weights not put away in the gym are drawing on our personal motor patterns – the instruction manual for our muscles. Abnormal patterns can be a result of pain, local muscular weakness or muscles not firing forcing smaller muscles to compensate. Don’t let your lower back or hamstrings take on the role of your glutes during hip extension. These muscles, like the crew member who feels he is pulling more than his own weight, will retaliate.
So I did a little personal inventory through yoga. All of my idiosyncrasies were directly linked to muscle tightness, lack of flexibility, muscle imbalances and a reduced range of motion, and it is no wonder with my history of high-intensity high-volume repetitive movement sports. Short hamstrings, tension in my shoulders and neck, stiff hips and tight hip-flexors were affecting daily movement patterns without me even realising! Regular mobility drills and a yoga practise has enabled me to address all of these issues and my body positioning for strength training has dramatically improved. I’d like to think I’m a better athlete now. If only I had known this during my early rowing days! Inspired by all of this and getting carried away, as one does, I signed up for yoga teacher training. THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW! I’m now a fully qualified yoga teacher and teach Yoga for Athletes and Beginners along the Tideway. I want to encourage others to take responsibility for their bodies as we only get one. While the impact of a good range of motion is evident now, it will be in later years that I’ll truly appreciate this investment into my health.
Today I train with full human capacity in mind to optimise my athletic performance. Range of motion is something we lose and something that needs to be practised. A greater range of motion helps you find the most efficient path for your body to move. If you can’t sit at the bottom of a squat comfortably then maybe you could start there. Yoga really isn’t a competition to get into a particular pose. It’s about doing what feels good for you. A good teacher will offer modifications and make use of props so every student can participate for the entire class. I can honestly say that while I still love smashing power cleans and split jerks, I also like lying on the floor listening to a rendition of Spirit Bird for relaxation. It’s OK to like both, and in reality, it makes us appreciate the latter more. It’s about longevity. I want to be training hard, lifting heavy things and feeling good about myself well into my eighties, and to do that I need to honour my body today.
Christina Duffy is a rower, CrossFitter, and qualified 200-HR yoga teacher based along the Thames Championship Course in London, UK. She teaches Yoga for Athletes & Beginners at Imperial College Boat Club Mondays 8-9 pm & Fridays 7-8 pm, and at Fulham Reach Boat Club Tuesday & Thursday mornings 7-8 am, as well as providing squad sessions to other clubs. You can find more information on her website or facebook page.