Sprint races vs. Head races

Winter training is slowly trudging along but before you know it, the spring racing season will be upon us. If you coxed or rowed in the fall but haven’t done a spring season yet, you’re probably wondering what the differences are.

Head races

Head races are run over a course an average distance of 3 miles. Instead of being a distance race, it’s raced against the clock, with the goal being to have the fastest overall time with as few penalties as possible. Crews are started 10-15 seconds apart, allowing for faster crews to overtake slower ones along the course. Due to the length of the race, the cadence is much lower when compared to a sprint race. Head races are aptly nicknamed “the coxswain’s race” due to the winding turns along that river. Navigating these turns as efficiently as possible aids the crew in achieving a fast overall time. In comparison to the spring season, the fall season is usually shorter in duration – crews might only do two to four races starting in late September and ending in early November.

Sprint races

Spring season is the best season. In college races, rowers cover a course of 2000m whereas in most high school races, rowers cover 1500m. They’re rowed somewhere between five and a half and eight minutes and at a much higher stroke rate than head races. Anywhere from 4-8 boats are lined up at the starting line, either through a floating start or on stake boats, after which the starting marshal will utilize one of the various starting calls followed by “Attention, GO” to begin the race. The end of the race (250-300m) is an all out, balls to the wall sprint.

The season itself lasts from late March or early April until the beginning of June, and crews will typically race in seven to ten races during that period. The training is much more intense and unlike fall racing, begins a few months before the actual season starts, a period classified as winter training where the athletes primarily train indoors on the erg.

Coxswains employ a different strategy with these races compared to head races because there is less distance to cover, which translates to the amount of time you have to make move running out very quickly. It is imperative for coxswains to have good control over the steering of the shell to ensure it travels the straightest line possible. If he/she is slaloming down the course, it can cost their crew a win. The intensity of the race overall is also heightened – it’s pure adrenaline from start to finish, which is an experience you can’t really comprehend until you experience it.


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