Not Exactly Rocket Science

Rowing as a group increases pain thresholds


You may have seen rowing before, but I guarantee you that you know little about the sport unless you went to university at Cambridge or Oxford. There you will find a subspecies of human known as the “boatie” who seem perfectly happy to gather en masse at godforsaken times of the morning to paddle about on a river. In the rain. In winter. With a hangover. Later, in the pub, they will spend innumerable hours discussing their training schedules, talking about “catching crabs” without a hint of irony and comparing blisters.

For those of us who wondered what could possess grown men and women to forgo the comfort of a bed for several painful hours in the company of eight grunting companions, Emma Cohen from Oxford has some answers.

Group activities, such as rowing in an ‘eight’, increases the pain thresholds of the individual athletes, compared to rowing alone. These raised thresholds are probably the result of endorphins, natural pain-killing chemicals that our brains release when we exercise. Endorphins also produce a light euphoria and a sense of wellbeing that is important for bonding with our friends and peers, and gluing a group of rowers together, despite the smell and pain. 

Cohen worked with a dozen men from the University’s rowing squad and asked them to complete 45 minutes of continuous rowing on an ergometer – a gym machine that simulates the rowing experience and that crews use to train out of the river. They rowed for two sessions, either alone or in a “virtual boat” consisting of eight athletes using ergometers side by side.

i-34fe8bca3006c6bc74b026e2e6923880-Ergometer.jpgBefore and after their 45 minutes, Cohen measured the athletes’ pain threshold by inflating a blood pressure cuff until they felt discomfort. Their answers clearly showed that the rowers coped with almost twice as much pain when they worked in a squad than when they rowed alone, even though all the athletes were doing similar amounts of work.

So training as a group raises a rower’s pain barrier compared to training alone. Cohen pins these raised thresholds on the effects of endorphins. Obviously, there’s no way of measuring the levels of these chemicals directly while the rowers were exercising; the only option would be a lumbar puncture, and they might just have objected. Nonetheless, measuring pain thresholds is a standard way of estimating endorphin levels – the two are so closely linked that one can predict the other.

Teamwork clearly matters. Winning a rowing race isn’t just about pulling the oar with the most power; all eight boatmen need to synchronise their strokes. Whether it’s this coordination or the feeling of jointly achieving the team’s goals that churns out extra endorphins and raises pain barriers is unclear. Certainly, the physical nature of the activity could be important, for studies have suggested that two people are more likely to bond as friends if they engage in coordinated physical activity than if they share more sedate activities.

Whatever the case, Cohen suggests that other shared activities like laughter, music or religious rituals, might encourage us to bond with our peers through the release of endorphins. It’s our equivalent of the grooming rituals that provide the social glue for ape and monkey groups.

Reference: Proc Roy Soc B doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0670

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  1. #1 dean
    September 15, 2009

    It sounds like this would also apply to cyclists riding in echelon or in a team time trial – at least it seems reasonable to me.

  2. #2 tl
    September 16, 2009

    Cambridge and Oxford aren’t the only schools with rowing programs. :v)

    I had always assumed it was just the added motivation of having teammates that caused you to push a little harder and get a little more out. But that factor of two is rather impressive.

  3. #3 Heather
    September 16, 2009

    This does explain why erg tests were so painful while races were not as much 🙂 It would be interesting to compare those who row competitively in singles to those who row in eights/fours etc. An alternative hypothesis would be that perhaps those of us who don’t already have a a high pain threshold (eg are not marathoners, singles racers) NEED to have the extra social motivation to get to the elite level. PS: There is a another Cambridge in the US that has two quite good rowing teams, mate!

  4. #4 Kelly
    September 16, 2009

    There are a lot of competitive places to row all over the world besides Oxford and Cambridge.

  5. #5 Crudely Wrott
    September 17, 2009

    This probably explains the difference I felt between listening to Jeff Beck on the home stereo with a crowd of less than, say, five and attending a live Beck concert with a crowd greater than, say, ten thousand. Whahhoooo!

    The mob effect. Teen age groupies. Fans of various stripes. Party faithfuls. Faithful congregants. These seem like similar manifestations.

    Btw, I really like to row. It’s like a meditation with deep breathing and sweat. And it moves me.

  6. #6 Sojournposse
    September 18, 2009

    Really? I coxed the men’s eight yonks ago. The guys hated each other outside the boat. It’d be good to conduct a psychological or anthropological research into the rowers’ group mentality – so much bullying and counter-bullying going on. A kind of public/boarding school type of survival mentality, which I bet also exists at their workplace (oh yes, these Oxbridge types are often bankers and lawyers, too. To think that I sat in the same boat with a bunch of bankers).

  7. #7 Squirrel
    October 1, 2009

    One element to consider is that an erg provides instant and imperical data as to how hard one is working. When seated on an erg surrounded by my boatmates, I feel a distinct pressure to perform. If I take a stroke or two off, then they can see that.

    The same is not true while alone or in a boat, or on a race course, etc. I am not saying that I take breaks when nobody is watching, but the social motivation and the immediate imperial data are missing, and so it is possible to slack a little more, possibly without even realizing. Anyone who has ever erged has seen a number come up that they have found to be horrifyingly poor and adjusted their efforts. Not possible in a boat.

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