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Who Needs An Engine? HSS Doctor Shares On-Water Tips

Dr. Jo Hannafin.
Dr. Jo Hannafin. Photo Credit: Hospital for Special Surgery

STAMFORD, Conn. -- As the team physician for U.S. Rowing for the past 22 years, Dr. Jo Hannafin knows what it takes to compete at the Olympic level. However, with strenuous training, injuries are bound to happen. 

"The majority of rowing injuries occur from training at high intensity, acceleration of training protocols without an adequate strength base and over-reliance on the rowing ergometer, an exercise machine that measures work done by a muscle or group of muscles," said Hannafin.

The most common area of injury in rowers of all ages, levels of expertise and training is the lower back. Since rowing requires the coordinated use of the arms, back and legs, the lower back acts as a connection point between the forces applied to the oar via the arms and the power generated by the legs. "A strong core is critical to stabilize the lower back and permit  the transfer of power," said Hannafin. "Rowing with poor posture and rowing into fatigue where good technique is lost put the non-elite rower at risk of injury." 

The second most common overuse injury with rowing is stress fracture of a rib. "This injury is much less common in the high school, club or masters rower but does affect top collegiate and national team rowers," said Hannafin.  This injury often occurs where abdominal wall and shoulder blade muscles attach to the ribs. "These injuries can occur during high-intensity winter ergometer or distance on-water training." However, the fracture can also occur in the spring with the transition from winter training to racing. As with any injury, early detection is key. If diagnosed early, a rib stress fracture may only mean taking a four- to six-week break from rowing competition.

"Rowing is a fantastic sport for active people of all ages, providing an excellent source of cardiovascular conditioning and strengthening musculature throughout the body," said Hannafin. "If rowing inspires you, look for a local club or training facility near you."

Dr. Jo Hannafin is an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery. She is also the medical director for the HSS Outpatient Center in Stamford.