Perspectives / Performance

One Hundred and Fifty Years of Rowing Faster

Stephen Seiler

Sportscience 10, 12-45 (
Agder University College, Faculty of Health and Sport, Kristiansand 4604, Norway. Email. 
Reviewer: Allan Hahn, Australian Institute of Sport, Belconnen, ACT 2616, Australia

Boat velocity has increased linearly by 2-3% per decade since the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race in 1829.  Part of this increase is a result of recruitment of athletes from a population that has become taller and stronger.  However, the increase in boat speed attributable to increased physical dimensions alone accounts for less than 10% of the total improvement, because the increase in rower mass has increased boat drag.  A 10-fold increase in training load over the last 150 years probably accounts for about one-third of the increase in physical capacity and performance.  The rest of the improvement is due to reductions in boat drag, increases in oar blade efficiency, and improvements in rowing technique.   Boat design was revolutionized in the 19th century, the only substantial change since then being a gradual reduction in boat weight.   Oar design and construction have evolved steadily, the most recent development being the introduction of cleaver or “big” blades in 1991.  Improvements in rowing technique have increased boat speed by reducing boat yaw, pitch and roll, and by improving the pattern of force application. New tools for real-time measurement and feedback of boat kinematics and force patterns are opening new approaches to training of individual rowers and to selection of rowers for team boats.   KEYWORDS: elite athlete, efficiency, history, performance, power, training. 

Reprint pdf (2.1 MB) · Reprint doc · Slideshow (3.0 MB)


Rowing has been the focus of a great deal of research, with attention devoted mainly to potential limiters and enhancers of performance of well-trained rowers.  Inspired by Alejandro Lucia's tutorial lecture on the science of the Tour de France at the 2005 ACSM meeting, I proposed and was accepted to present a tutorial lecture titled 150 years of scientific enquiry into rowing and rowers for the 2006 meeting.  In developing the lecture, I soon realized that there were too many isolated research topics and too many possible detours.  So, I decided to focus on one central question: what can science tell us about the improvements in rowing performance over time and how they have happened? 

I have modified the presentation from the original lecture format, removing a video clip and adding some explanatory notes in green text on some of the slides. The PDF contains the slides in a printer-friendly format.


Reviewer's Comment

This wonderful presentation provides an excellent summary of factors influencing rowing performance. I certainly found it very instructive, even though I have been quite closely involved with rowing for more than two decades.  The attempt to explain why rowing times have improved so dramatically over the past 150 years provides a clear theme that elegantly links the various items of information presented. Wherever possible, published references are cited, but the author has also shown a willingness to use current knowledge as a basis for informed surmise, and this adds an attractive dimension to the work.  –Alan Hahn

Published September 2006