How to protect your voice

Previously: Steer an eight/four || Call a pick drill and reverse pick drill ||  Avoid getting sick || Make improvement as a novice

We’re getting closer and closer to racing season so you want to make sure you’re taking the necessary steps now to ensure your voice is in working order on race day. Similar to other athletes, you can do everything right and still injure yourself – in the case of a coxswain, you can still lose your voice regardless of the preventative measures you take. I’ve learned that many times. Most people don’t realize that it’s about prevention first and not just dealing with the after effects. It’s different for everyone so no guarantees but here are some of my tried and true ways to protect your voice when you’re out on the water.

Stay hydrated

Drink lots of water throughout practice (and before and after too). I’m guilty of not doing this and there are definitely times when I regret it, most often when it’s cold outside. I end up feeling like I’m swallowing needles, which is not pleasant. You know when you go to sleep in the winter and you wake up with your nose and/or mouth really dry because there’s no humidity in the air? Take that feeling, get in a boat, and talk at a loud volume for two hours … you can imagine the damage you’re doing to your throat. Your vocal cords essentially become two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together. Water acts as a lubrication to keep things sliding off each other the way they’re supposed to, so when you remind the rowers to get a drink make sure you do too.

If you have allergies or a sore throat and are taking any kind of medicine, make sure you’re drinking lots of water to counteract the decongestants. I had to take a lot of allergy meds in high school because I was allergic to the pollen, mold, etc. that was down by the boathouse and my doctor, who knew I was a coxswain, told me to drink a lot because when the tissues in your throat dry out it reverts back to the whole sandpaper feeling.

Stay relaxed

The more tense I was, both mentally and physically (with my upper body), the scratchier my throat got when I was doing intense pieces. Make sure you’re breathing correctly when you’re calling races and talking a lot. You should be breathing from your core, not your shoulders. Breathing from your shoulders creates tension which eventually leads to your vocal cords cramping up. If this happens too often you can get nodules which will really suck because they’re essentially blisters on your vocal cords. These are our version of the blisters rowers get on their hands. If they’re bad enough they might require surgery to fix.

Take it easy

If you have a cold or sore throat, switch with another coxswain for the day and ride in the launch or ask your coach if you can stick to drills and stuff that don’t involve the usual loudness during practice.Your coach and boat can survive without you for a day if it means you’ll be 100% on race day. A sore throat alone is not a reason to skip practice though. If you have a cold, the flu, etc. duh, stay home but if you just have a sore throat but are otherwise fine, ride in the launch and take video of your crew or something.

The type of injuries coxswains suffer are different than rowers which tends to lead everyone to think they aren’t “real” or as serious because they see rowers with shoulder injuries, back injuries, etc. Our overuse injuries are internal where they can’t be see so it’s up to you to be your own advocate and speak up when there’s an issue. Personally, I think that if you’ve got a sore throat and you continually go to practice and don’t do anything about the issue, your coach and boat have every reason to be pissed at you when you can’t cox on race day. Just like with the rowers, it’s irresponsible to not take time off when it’s needed because in addition to yourself, there are now four or eight other people affected by your choices.

Minimize how much you’re coughing

This sounds hard to do but when your throat is dry and you’ve got that scratchy tickle in there, but get something to drink instead of trying to hack up a lung. Dry coughs are the worst because not only can they hurt like hell and give you a killer headache (been there, done that more times than I can count), but they can also damage your vocal cords. Coughing regularly isn’t so much a problem, it’s when it becomes a repetitive habit that you can start to get the overuse damage to your throat. Before inducing a coughing fit to get the tickle out of your throat, try to drink something to lubricate the tissues.

Limit the amount of pop you drink

Before you go out and after you come in, try not to have a lot of caffeinated drinks. The caffeine in pop dehydrates you in general but it can also irritate your throat, especially if it’s already sore. When I was in high school I played the clarinet and we were always told to not drink any pop before playing because the caffeine swells your tongue (it’s not usually visibly noticeable) and makes it harder to enunciate the music, especially at a fast tempo. I did it anyways but … do as I say, not as I do. If you’re drinking a lot of pop and getting that swelling in your tongue, it actually can have an effect on your speech and your ability to rattle things off during a race. If you’re thirsty, try to always drink water.

To follow up on that last point, while I’m on the vein of what not to drink, if you’re one of those hot water-honey-and-lemon people, eliminate the lemon. The acidity from the citric acid combined with already dry, potentially damaged tissues can just irritate them more. Lemon is really only beneficial for sore throats when you have a lot of mucous and stuff because the acidity cuts through it and helps eliminate any lingering bacteria.

A good alternative to water or water and honey is chocolate milk. It’s a little denser than regular milk so it coats and soothes your throat. I have a constant tickle in my throat so I am always clearing it and I know up front that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate something coating it because it’d just make me cough more. If you’re like that, stick to the regular remedies but if you can stand it definitely try the chocolate milk.

Related: I’ve only been coxing for three years but I feel like it has changed my voice…do you feel like that? Like, I feel like I cant hit as many high notes when I sing in the car (haha) or is there something I’m doing wrong?? I lose my voice easily in races now, especially during the spring when we have like 3 races in a day. What can I do about this? Should I change the way I cox?

The best, most foolproof way to prevent losing your voice is to just be smart. Coxswains are typically talkative and social people so it can be hard to “rest” your voice when you’re always around other people but it’s a small sacrifice to make. Resting doesn’t necessarily mean taking a vow of silence either. Resting by just lowering your usual talking volume can be a good thing. For naturally loud people this can be tough but I promise you, it’s an effort worth making.

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