How the British Olympic rowing team used technology to prepare for Rio and take Gold

This article as originally published in December 2015, when Britain’s preparations for Rio 2016 were well underway. Now the team have added a set of new medals to their collection, it’s a good time to revisit it and see exactly how technology helped these world class athletes stay one stroke ahead of their rivals.

How the British Olympic rowing team used technology to prepare for Rio and take Gold

For a sport that’s thousands of years old, there’s an awful lot you can learn about rowing. With roots in ancient Egypt, we certainly have a great deal of experience in getting the most out of oars and boats, but with years of training involved, and the difference between gold and bronze often coming down to seconds, every single competitive advantage has to be mined.

At London 2012, British rowers picked up nine medals – four of them gold. In almost every one of those, the difference between first and third was less than five seconds. Moreover, it came down to fractions of a second in two of them, with just 0.25 seconds meaning Great Britain lost out to South Africa for gold in the men’s lightweight coxless four. With such tight margins at stake, it’s no wonder that, to ensure the future success of Britain’s rowers, technology is playing a major part in the build up to Rio 2016. I visited the team in Reading to see exactly how technology shapes their training, and the kind of improvements it can produce.

“There’s a lot of talk of marginal gains in sport at the moment, and we’re looking at very small time periods per stroke – tenths of a second,” explained Jamie Thomas, a biomechanist and performance analyst at British Rowing. “But if you’re taking 200 strokes per race, it suddenly becomes quite a significant margin.”

Not only that, but the steady stream of data the technology provides can give other interesting insights about the athletes’ physical state, potentially even assisting with injury prevention and aftercare. “If we’re monitoring people for a long time, we can see whether they may be dropping off, and maybe it’s time to back off their training programme a little bit,” explained Jack Mercer, another of British Rowing’s performance analysts. “That’s an area we’re looking to developing a bit further – as a monitoring and a ‘return to performance’ tool, so we can see where athletes were before they were injured, and ensure they’re back at that level before they go into racing.”jack_mercer_jamie_thomas_british_rowing_2

So, what are the tools Mercer and Thomas have to work with? “We instrument the boat with force sensors, angle sensors and accelerometry so we can get individual athlete data from the boats, and also overall data from the hull for how the boat’s moving as a whole,” said Mercer. “We look particularly at the angles the rowers are rowing through, so the stroke length, the forces, the power they’re putting down onto the water and the acceleration of the boat.”

This data is then collected from the logger and compiled into reports for the coaches, giving the athletes areas they can improve. While Mercer and Thomas have a big role to play in interpreting the raw information, it’s down to the coaches to decide how to relay the data to the athletes. “We see rowing as a set of graphs,” laughed Mercer.british_rowing_7

As of May last year, the official analytics partner of British Rowing is SAS. Their portfolio is an interesting mix, covering clients from global banks to the London Fire Brigade, but they also have a sizeable sporting portfolio across the Atlantic with teams such as the New York Mets, the Orlando Magic, the Washington Redskins and the Toronto Maple Leafs all relying on their data tracking. Rowing, as you might imagine, has its own set of unique metrics.

Thomas used to work with a number of football clubs before making the jump to rowing analysis, and the change is not without its unique challenges, chief amongst them the fact that a body of water separates the sports scientists from the athletes. “Working in football, you could have a laptop in a fixed position. You could film the game, do all the stats as you go and feed them back to the coach there and then. In rowing, you’re with a coach, the boat is moving over two kilometres, you can’t stay in one spot and collecting the data is a lot more difficult because you have that distance.”british_rowing_4

Another difficulty comes from rowing regulations, which don’t allow the telemetry to be used on race day. They get around this with a simple GPS and accelerometer, and then compare the races to training camps for an approximate comparison. This is a far from ideal solution, not just because GPS is far less accurate, but also because moving the sensors is time-consuming. “To set up an eight, you’re looking at around three hours,” said Thomas. “We do spend a lot of time moving kit between boats and collecting data.”

Hopefully, we’ll see their effort proved worthwhile when the British team head to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next year, but, if nothing else, it’s a timely reminder of how much technology has transformed sport in such a short space of time. “When I was first rowing, the only thing I had access to was stroke rate on the boat, and occasionally speed if you had an impeller on the bottom of the boat,” explained Tom Dyson, lead coach of the British Paralympic rowing team, speaking about the decade he’s been part of the sport.

“Sometimes with the biomechanics data that we take off boats, you’ll pick something up that you wouldn’t see with the eye immediately,” Dyson explained.

“It really helps with the coaching side of things – you know a lot more about their stroke than you did before. You used to be confined to what you could see, now you can take the data straight off the gates and see what they’re actually doing through the water. All of these small factors add up to bigger gains in your coaching over the course of a year.”british_rowing_6

But how much is the data absorbed by the athletes themselves? “In terms of the biomechanics data, the information is there on paper for them, and if the rowers want to look at it, they obviously can. But I think the coach’s job is to make sure they don’t get too much of that data and [ensure that] it doesn’t replace all the simple things they might be used to, such as seeing their own video data or the feel of the boat itself.”

“They have some access to the data in the boat: nearly all athletes will have GPS stroke coaches giving them live speed and stroke rate data. A coach’s job is just to make sure that any additional data they get around the edges is well presented to them and doesn’t overawe what they’re achieving in the boat and the technical changes they’re trying to make.”jack_mercer_jamie_thomas_british_rowing

What do the athletes themselves make of this? Well, four time Boat Race winner and Olympic bronze medallist Constantine Louloudis is a fan. “Now that materials have improved and we’ve made a lot of positive steps in the past few decades, the new way to get better is to be more scientific, being more intelligent with our training and that means monitoring and using data,” he explained at an event in March. 

And what about Dyson himself? Has the day-to-day analysis changed the way he rows? “Probably not, if I’m honest. I only jump in boats now if I’m coaching,” he explained, underlining that the kind of gains we’re talking about here are best embraced by the professionals only. Although undoubtedly niche, the kind of observations that Dyson, Thomas and Mercer are making on a day-to-day basis could make all the difference in Brazil next year.

“We’re there to inform the coaches,” concluded Mercer. “We just hope the information and data we provide supports what they’re seeing on the water and they can use that as an extra variable in their decisions.”

Some quotes have been edited for clarity.

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