The drive – more speed for less effort

29 May 2021

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What Harry was able to do with me was to make me much more efficient than I’d never been before.

So I’d been strong, you know. In 1996 I pulled 5:44 on the Concept2; I was as strong as I ever became. But I wasn’t efficient with it.

In 19… the following year, in ’97, when Harry picked me up, he got me to absolutely maximize the speed I could get out of my physiology.

Now, how did he do that? I think it was by working very hard in the water, but doing it in sympathy with the boat, so that I applied the force at the right time; when the boat was ready to move, then I put more effort in. And then on the way forward, I was able to be relaxed and let the boat come to me.

Those things will sound quite simple. And as rowers we kind of understand them. But I learned to figure them out and learnt to feel them differently.

What Harry did was give me control over what I was doing. And I learned the things that for me made the boat go fast. So I could think about the kind of cycle of how the stroke needed to be.

Picking up the water at the catch

So to start with, the way I was picking up the water, I didn’t have to just slam it with my legs and get my legs down as fast as possible, which was kind of a way that I think people used to think of rowing – how quick is someone’s legs.

Actually, [it’s] how effectively are those legs moving the boat.

So to start with, if we start with the catch of the stroke, I spent a lot of time sitting at frontstops and getting the blade in the water and making sure I’d got the blade connected in the water. And I used to do a lot of, instead of going off backstops, I would go off frontstops first. So come forward, connect.

The first 30 centimetres

And Harry wouldn’t let me just drop the blades in the water; I had to actually get the blade connected, and then use a little bit of leg effort to start to get it moving. So I got very good at just that very first 30 centimeters of the stroke.

Once I could do that bit, then I learned to keep my arms really loose and relaxed. And only once I was connected to the water did I then start to bring my legs into that. Once I had the connection there, then I could use my legs.

The shunt

And I remember Harry used the word that I wasn’t driving with my legs or banging my legs down; I was… the word he used was to shunt.

Shunt like an engine, like one engine pushing another engine. So you don’t want to clatter into the engine. You just want to be pressed up together and then push along together.

So I’d get my hands… get my blade in the water. And then, once it was there and I had that connection – and I knew the connection was there; I could feel it through my arms which were loose, I could feel it through my lats, not up here in my neck, through my lats – then I could use my legs and I could shunt the boat along.

So then I would push with those legs, I would hold it with my core and then start to use my core through the middle of the stroke.

The back like a drawbridge

And then as I finished the stroke – and that was strong – and I remember him talking that I would shunt it with my legs – my back was like a great big drawbridge. So my back was like a big drawbridge; so, big and strong and heavy.

And once it was connected in, then I could just start to open it and use the momentum against the strong leg drive.

Quick and loose arms

And then the last bit was then to bring my arms in and to be quick and loose with my arms. And I remember being in the, in the scull, and I remember Harry behind me, and him saying, ‘You don’t need to have those big strong arms, you don’t need to see… I don’t need to see your biceps flexing’. And he said, ‘Pretend you got weak arms like mine; pretend you got little weak arms’.

And he would just sit there and I would just time my arms with his and he would make me move them quicker.

And by being quick, I was still using the muscles and I was still keeping the acceleration and adding to the acceleration I already had in the blades, and then I would come through here loosely, and come through here loosely and quickly, and get in and out of here quickly.

And I remember sitting there and, actually, on this one particular day, Harry getting me to think my arms were being loose and being quick. And looking at the speed of the boat, because I had the impeller under the boat, seeing the speed of the boat go faster. So I could see I was going fast and I looked at my heart rate, I could see my heart rate going down. So I could see, I’m rowing along, the speed’s going quicker, I’m doing less effort – this is magic; I’ve unlocked something very special.

So really, that was the drive phase of the stroke.

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About the
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Greg Searle

British rower Greg Searle was already an Olympic Champion in sweep rowing when he was first coached by Harry Mahon in the single scull.

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