How To Win The Boat Race

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How To Win The Boat Race

Words by Mr Jamie Millar

29 March 2017

Early starts, rowing machines and spaghetti mountains – the secrets to triumphing on the Thames.

First rowed in 1829, the Cancer Research UK Boat Race – as it is now known – between Oxford and Cambridge is one of the oldest and most prestigious sporting contests in the world. Graduating to a coveted seat in either university’s Blue Boat – named after the awards that the crew receive – requires you to subject yourself to a high degree of suffering. “Compared to, say, football, rowing is a sport with a lot of input and not a lot of reward,” says Oxford’s Mr Josh Bugajski, who, in between exercising twice a day six days a week (often with “recovery training” on the seventh day), is studying for a master’s in oncology – in other words, curing cancer. “It’s months of training behind closed doors. But it means the reward is that much greater when it comes. If it comes.”

So here I am at 6.30am on a Thursday morning at the Oxford University Boat Club for the crew’s first training session of the day. In case it isn’t already printed indelibly on their minds, the chalkboard on the wall above the serried Concept 2 rowing ergometers reads: “The Boat Race, 2 April 2017, 2.5 weeks to go.”

The rowers strip down to shorts and heart-rate-monitor chest straps, strewing the gym floor with topssneakers and bottles of electrolyte-infused Glacéau Smartwater, the official water partner of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. The ergos begin to wheeze in synch. With windows open and shirts off, sweat pools on the rowers’ backs. As the warm-up ends and the workout proper begins, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica blasts out with cruel irony given the time their alarm clocks must have gone off; the next track, “Highway To Hell” by AC/DC, seems much more appropriate. A typical session on these torture racks can last as long as 90 minutes, but this morning’s will be “just” 40.

Compared to the interminable training sessions, the Boat Race itself is relatively short. The record for the four miles and 374 yards (6.8km) along London’s River Thames from Putney to Mortlake, held by Cambridge, is 16 minutes and 19 seconds. It’s not exactly plain sailing, though, and preparation can hardly be left until the night before, as students are occasionally wont to do. This is what it takes to win the Boat Race, or at least be in a position to do so – plus what you can learn for your own physical education.

Arguably the most fundamental requirement of all is the unstinting dedication needed to drag yourself out of a comfortable bed for a deeply uncomfortable 6.30am training session. But, like physical fitness, this can be developed. “I remember in my early days dreading that first stroke, knowing that it would hurt,” says Mr Bugajski. “Then, after a while, it becomes such a habit that you don’t even think about it – to the point where I genuinely miss training out of season.” Beyond that first stroke is the scarcely less enticing prospect of all those other strokes, which calls for a psychological coping mechanism or three. “I daydream, think about my tasks for the day or do maths in my head to work out what average pace I have to hold in order to hit a target time,” says Mr Bugajski. “Then, by the time I’ve figured that out, time has elapsed and I need to redo my calculations.” Working out can subtract some of the pain from your workout.

Mr Bugajski eschews fast-acting carbs, swerves sugars and swaps white bread and pasta for brown. He also loads up on healthy fats to fuel his 6ft 5in, 99kg frame with the 7,000 calories a day he needs when training is heaviest. That said, he’ll often train first thing on an empty stomach before refuelling with porridge. Lunch is invariably “the most scrambled meal of the day”, a shop-bought sandwich or salad before departing at 1.30pm for water training at nearby Wallingford. Dinner, after they get back at about 6.30pm, is where he makes up any caloric shortfall. “I cook a lot of bologneses, curries, anything that you can chuck in a wok. I can usually get through the whole thing.” Hydration is also vital, and complicated for Mr Bugajski by the fact that he works in a lab where food and drink are prohibited. He monitors his weight and, less scientifically, urine colour. He doesn’t deprive himself of an occasional morale-boosting drink with friends.

The crew lift weights once a week, strengthening their overloaded legs and backs but also shoring up their underused chests and shoulders. In this respect, they’re pretty much the opposite of most pec-flexing gym-goers. “Every day is leg day,” says Mr Bugajski. Imbalances are detrimental, wherever they arise. Training is a form of stress, and you can only handle so much. “The key thing at Oxford is the work balance,” says Mr Bugajski. “If you’ve left too much until the last minute, or you’ve planned your day badly, you can end up rushing back and forth or missing meals, which isn’t very helpful for training.” You also need to schedule some sleep if you want to avoid injury and illness. “But some deprivation is inevitable if you want to fit in rowing, your course and any semblance of a social life,” he says.

Whether you’re chasing a rival boat on the water or a personal best in the gym (most Blues can complete 2km in less than six minutes), efficiency is paramount. “Even if you’re just losing a couple of inches per stroke, add that up over 600-plus strokes in a race and you’ve already lost by a length,” says Mr Bugajski. Common mistakes include leaning back too much, which effectively obliges you to do an abdominal crunch to sit up again. Well-built men, meanwhile, will attempt to strong-arm their way through instead of using their legs (there’s a reason why we don’t walk on our hands). Or the stroke can be “slack” and leaking energy. “So, you push with your legs, but because you haven’t taken the load in the handle, you’re not getting any drive,” says Mr Bugasjski. The OUBC uses dynamic ergos where both feet and seat slide, which require better technique, mimic real rowing more closely and are kinder on your lower back.

During the race itself, the crews will maintain an average of 35 strokes per minute, peaking as high as 48 at the start. “Which is quite intense,” deadpans Mr Bugajski. But they train at much slower rates: mid-20s, even as low as 18. With long, deliberate strokes, they can generate decent power while remaining aerobic – at an effort level that their heart and lungs can sustain – rather than going anaerobic and burning through their finite energy stores and blowing up. (It also means they can preserve their technique.) While they gauge their progress with all-out efforts three times a season, sticking to a lower intensity for the most part enables them to train twice a day six days a week without dropping out, and consistency begets results. “It’s a balance between pushing yourself but not over-exerting,” says Mr Bugajski. “That’s probably the biggest challenge. We’re all so competitive that we usually want to do more.”

Illustrations by Ms Giovanna Giuliano