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Iron Athlete rowing coach Kare Williams on her rower in a CrossFit competition

“Got That Swing”: Interview with Iron Athlete Rowing Instructor Kare Williams

Would you mind sharing a little bit of your background—your history in competitive rowing, as well as your introduction to CrossFit?

I had a strange journey from a desert hippie girl from Santa Fe to a Collegiate rower. I saw Crew for the first time watching the 1988 summer Olympics. I fell in love. The power and grace of the sport amazed me. I decided I wanted to row. I had never been involved in competitive sport before and had no idea that top rowing teams recruited from top high school programs. I had never even seen a shell. I packed my bags and applied to The University of Washington in Seattle. I started school, still not realizing that “Udub” was one of the top 5 women’s teams in the country. I walked onto the team never having touched an oar. I lied about my height (I was supposed to be at least 5’8”…I’m not), walked around on my tiptoes for a few weeks until they realized how strong I was, and I made the team. I rowed with them and The Seattle Rowing club until I returned to Santa Fe after school.

Even after leaving the water…(sigh), I still loved rowing.  I bought a Concept 2 rower and began competing in The Concept 2 world, ranking every year. I’ve placed in the top 10 women in the world for multiple distances from 500 meters up to the marathon distance of 42,195 meters…not bad for a short hippie girl from Santa Fe.

I found Crossfit through an old friend who had opened up Crossfit Northwest Tucson. Marriage, work, Life, and two hard complicated pregnancies had gotten the best of me. I was far from my fitness goals and 30lbs overweight. I knew 5 seconds into the baseline workout that I was hooked, completely in love with this new sport. I’ve never looked back. I have jumped at the chance to do every CF competition, and coach every class I can get my hands on. The fact that my new love of Crossfit embraced my old love of rowing—I saw this as a sign. It was fate that I came full circle as a Crossfit athlete and coach being, able to draw on my experience as a rower.

Are there common mistakes you see among CrossFitters in their rowing technique?

Absolutely!! There are two most common mistakes. The first is opening with your back at the start of the stroke. It is essential to utilize the legs as much as possible to find your power and build speed. If you initiate the stroke by pulling back with your shoulders, not only will you go slower and burn yourself out, but you risk back injury. The second most common mistake is not getting your hands out over your knees with forward body angle soon enough. If you ever have to lift the handle up over your bent knees…that’s why!

What are some good drills for improving technique?

There are two drills that address both these problems. The first, “The Drive Drill” emphasizes the use of your legs at the start of the drive. You set the damper to 10, start at full compression—forward body angle, strong back, relaxed shoulders, and repeat tiny little explosions with the legs without changing the body angle at all. The key is to feel the “grab” in your hamstrings and make that muscle memory. It’s trickier than it sounds

The second is the “The Swing Drill.” It teaches people to pivot from their hips, to finish off the stroke, and to get set up for the next one. This drill is done with straight legs, pivoting from the hips and swinging back with the body—reinforcing the very important “finish” of the stroke. The body swings back and the hands come in and out at the same speed with NO stopping at the chest. Hands lead, body follows back out past the knees. Often people miss or misuse the entire middle part of the stroke—the swing. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!” Thank you Duke Ellington! The stroke is cyclical; if one thing is off, it affects the entire stroke. The key is to find that one thing and fix it, then the rest of the stroke falls into place.

What about endurance? If I have an athlete who specializes in moving heavy weights, how might I program for him to bring up his endurance capacity?

Rowing is excellent for endurance. It’s low impact, easily adjustable, accessible in all weather. I think the importance in programming for endurance pieces in rowing is how to make it engaging. There are infinite possibilities for endurance pieces: split 500’s, pace pyramids, time pyramids, stroke rate work, etc… For example what sounds more engaging? 1) row a 5k or 2) row 3min at 60%, 1min at 80%, 2min at 60%, 2min at 80%, 1min at 60%, min at 80%, 1min at 60%, 2min at 80%, 2min at 60%, 1min at 80%, min at 60%. Both of these will result in about 21-25 minute of sustainable aerobic work, but the second will make it a lot more interesting.

Many athletes seem to agree—the 2k row is one of the worst workouts in CrossFit. For me, it either feels like a 9 minute sprint, or I allow myself to slack off too much for the majority of the workout. I can’t find a good way to pace it. How do you approach this benchmark?

Many athletes agree because they’re right! The 2k row is a brutal distance: too long for a true sprint, too short for endurance. The key for me is breaking it down into the 4×500 meter distances. I start with a 5 stroke racing start and then do a “power 20” right off the bat. The “power 20” are 20 strokes just a little faster and harder than your race pace. I settle into my pace after that. At 500 and 1000 meters in I do another “power 20”. At 1500 meters I do a “power 10” and then start my sprint with 250 meters to go. There is no way to truly soften the blow of a 2k, but organizing the race in your mind, and having a plan keeps you from screaming in your mind (or out loud) “OMG THIS SUCKS!”

Rowing is also notorious for rewarding taller athletes and punishing shorter ones. What can smaller individuals do to get the most out of every pull?

There is no working around this one, trust me I’ve tried!! In rowing, taller is better. That said, the trick is to make everyone’s stroke as efficient and as powerful as it possibly can be for their height and build. If you ever watch someone that really knows how to row it looks relaxed and effortless. The key is efficient power. The fastest rowers are the smoothest rowers, no matter what height. If squeezing the handle somehow made your split time drop, we would all be fine…it doesn’t.

Do you see any major differences in rowing for a CrossFit workout as opposed to rowing as its own sport?

The biggest difference is that when we get off the rower we usually have more work to do. Rarely do we do a time trial on the ERG and then we’re done. So the key is making CFers as smooth and efficient as possible so when they get off the ERG they still have gas in the tank.

Tell me about the new Iron Athlete rowing clinics. Could you give me a basic run-down of what you’ll cover in a day?

The rowing clinic is 3.5 hrs long. It begins with a basic introduction to The Concept 2 Ergometer: foot placement, monitor, calories, meters, damper setting, etc. Then, as the entire class does a 500 meter warm up, I record them to review later. We then cover basic technique, break down the parts of the stroke, rate, rhythm, force, and what itʼs supposed to look like. Next we cover the most common mistakes and learn drills to correct them. After the athletes have an idea of what itʼs supposed to look like, we all review everyone’s rowing together to start to understand what they need to focus on.

The next step is pacing, or “just because youʼre going fast doesnʼt mean that you’re going fast.” We will learn how to pace, when and where in the stroke to set your rate. Once we have pacing down then we get into power. We will do drills to increase power per stroke. Then we play a game that incorporates both power and pacing, or “the slowest most powerful person wins!”

After that we learn a few “tricks” and racing starts. At the end of the class is a workout that incorporates common CF exercise with rowing and helps to “cement” all the newfound technique.

Do you have any websites or social media where people can find you?

I’m in the process of creating The Iron Athlete Sand Shark Rowing Team FB page. As soon as it is up and running I will post it EVERYWHERE!

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