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Layback Metrics: EmPower Oarlocks and the Science of Finishing Strong

Layback Metrics: EmPower Oarlocks and the Science of Finishing Strong
Photo Credit: Kevin Light Photography

As with everything else in rowing, layback is a balance. Too little and you miss out on valuable length; too much and you waste effort, create technical stroke problems, and put undue stress on your lower back. This leads to the obvious question: what is the perfect amount of layback?

Mayrene Earle, former Head Women's Coach at MIT and founder of Masters Coaching, suggests: "When you start to feel the connection between your feet and footboards softening... it's your cue to release the blade from the water. Don't give in to the temptation to lengthen the stroke with body swing."

Frank Biller, Head Men's Coach at UVA agrees with Earle, saying, "the moment you're no longer pushing on the foot stretcher, you're not only not propelling the boat forward… you're actively slowing the boat down."

Regardless of the style of rowing, the consensus is that the drive should last only as long as there is connection with the water. But how do we measure this with any accuracy? How do we know the exact point at which the effort we put into the drive starts getting diminishing returns?

One strategy is to row with the feet out of the shoes, or with the shoes tied very loosely. This works because the moment connection is lost with the footplate, it becomes very difficult to avoid falling over backwards, and the rower quickly learns to sit up at the finish.

Biller warns against relying primarily on this strategy, however, as it takes away the rower's ability to stabilize the boat laterally. Over time, it also might negatively impact other aspects of back-end technique: "if you row too much with feet-out on the water, you may start to create some bad habits with the blade work at the finish."

How do we find the maximum amount of productive layback without messing up other parts of the stroke?

Michael Naughton, Director of Product Management at NK and sculling coach at Undine Barge Club, left the design lab and went out on the Schuylkill River with summer intern George Twardy to see if they could use the EmPower Oarlock to find the "sweet spot" in George's layback.

Michael asked George to row full slide at quarter pressure to get baseline values for his finish angle and wash. On the EmPower Oarlock system, wash is the amount of drive arc that the blade travels after the force on the oarlock drops below 100 newtons (200N in sweep rowing). After George had rowed like this for a little while, with no specific technical focus, his baseline average finish angle of 46 degrees and wash value of 11-12 degrees were clearly established.

Michael then instructed George to sit up a little bit more at the release and reduce his finish angle by about four degrees to 42. With the help of the EmPower Oarlock's stroke by stroke feedback, George was able to make and maintain this change within just a few strokes. Instantly, his wash decreased as well, by four degrees, the same amount as his finish angle. This means that all of the layback George had cut off was length where his blade was not engaged with the water. He had decreased his overall drive length without shortening his effective length at all.

The use of a measurement and feedback tool such as the EmPower Oarlock is instrumental in quantifying boat feel. If it were easy to feel when the connection is lost, every rower would finish well. By quantifying the effectiveness of the finish, the athlete can begin to assign "feel" to their good and bad strokes.

You can watch the video of their practice session here:

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