The Front End: Keystone of the Stroke

Craftsbury GRP Athlete John Graves in the single.

Note: Check out our Tech Tips Archive for content like this from past years, and subscribe to our Sculling eNewsletter to receive future editions in your inbox!

By Troy Howell, Managing Director COC Sculling Camps

Back around 2003, I was reading Brad Lewis’s coaching memoir, Wanted: Rowing Coach. One of the passages that was most memorable to me was his description of how he insisted that his crews always start rowing from the catch rather than the release. This was contrary to my own rowing experience; most of the drills and pieces that we did in college started from the release, for whatever reason – either the drill itself called for it, or it was justified by the release being a position of relative stability.

By Lewis’s reasoning, though, it makes more sense to start at the catch, because by doing so, you are effectively practicing a racing start every time you start from a dead stop. I later learned that Larry Gluckman was also an advocate of this approach. It was not until well into my tenure coaching at Craftsbury, though, that I began to see a multitude of reasons for doing it and prescribing it for well, pretty much everyone.

The fact of the matter is that the front end is the point in the stroke cycle where we feel the most vulnerable. The blades are close to the boat, the handles are outside the gunwales, and capsizing feels like a very real possibility. A few years ago, I asked one of our sculling guests to “come up to the front end and sit with your blades feathered.”  Her reply surprised me: “NO!” I asked her why not and she said “because that’s the scary place and I don’t want to go up there.”

Well, I sympathize with the sentiment, but here’s the thing: You’re going up there EVERY SINGLE STROKE, and if it’s going to scare you, you’re going to spend a lot of time being anxious and scared, and that’s no way to master sculling. My tech tip, then, is a pretty simple one: spend a little time doing stationary drills at the front end every time you go sculling, whether you do that as part of your warmup, cooldown, or between pieces.

Get your handles as far away from you as you can and sit there, feeling the boat under you with your ischial tuberosities (sit bones). If it makes you tremble or grip the oar handles, exhale, sit easy, and try it again. Blades feathered is the easiest variation. When that becomes not-scary, do it with square blades. When that becomes not scary, feather your blades again and let go of an oar handle (yes, let go – it isn’t your oars that are keeping you upright – it’s where your weight is and how your sit bones and nervous system manage the boat – standing up and walking was a similar neuromuscular challenge for you when you were a toddler so experiment in that spirit). Now wave – Hi, Mom!  When that becomes easy, do it with square blades. And when THAT becomes manageable, do the tapping drill, tapping the handles down simultaneously so the blades leave the water completely. If your tapping is simultaneous, it will stabilize the boat. If they’re not, it will roll to port or starboard.

Make up your own front-end drills. The more comfortable you get there, the more confidently and rhythmically you will scull, because you won’t be in a rush to get in and out of “the scary place.”  It is a simple thing that pays enormous dividends.

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Hill Training: Making Friends with Hills!

​From Craftsbury Running Camp Director Heidi Caldwell

David Sinclair and Adam Martin (L to R, 1st and 2nd in the Hill Farmstead Half Marathon) climbing steadily and showing good form for uphills

Saturday’s point-to-point half marathon from Craftsbury Outdoor Center to Hill Farmstead Brewery brought runners over a grueling 2,000 feet of elevation gain. To top it off, the final miles of the race had stretches of leg-slamming downhills, putting the hurt on already tired legs. Days after the race, hills are still on the mind. How do you run hills efficiently? How can you incorporate hills into your training? For those living in the Northeast Kingdom, hills are a mandatory element of most every run. The downside – it can be hard to get into a rhythm or give your legs a break. The upside – running a hilly route on an easy run can help improve general strength and form.

Adding a hill-specific workout into your training plan can bring further benefits. Hill repeats provide many physiological benefits, such as building strength, improving running economy, and increasing stamina. Shorter hill workouts (30-60 seconds of sustained hard effort up hill) work to improve speed and boost anaerobic capacity. Longer hill repeats (2-4 minutes of sustained hard effort) help build endurance and mental toughness. For form, focus on standing tall, driving your hips forward, and lifting your knees. “Hands to pockets” is a helpful queue when thinking about arm placement and driving your arms. Introduce hill workouts gradually, allowing the volume and intensity of the workouts to increase over time.

As our recent half marathon highlighted, hill training means focusing on both uphill and downhill running. Downhill running is an important component of a hill workout, building strength key to injury prevention. When running downhill, lean slightly into the hill and “let it fly”! Try adding downhill running repeats to your next hill workout.

Remember: Mixing it up is key to running training. Just as different types of workouts (interval, fartlek, tempo, etc.) are complimentary, so are different terrains. Depending on where you live, this may mean finding a flatter or hillier run once week.

Moral of the story: Hills are friends, not foes!

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Summer snow storage

We’re excited to be working with UVM geology on a snow storage test. UVM professor Paul Bierman brings us up to speed on the state of the snowpack.

The snow pile just below the solar panels with its new sensors (measuring chip temperatures) just as the last of the manmade snow melts away.

As the last little bit on snow melts away from the upper snowfield pile, Craftsbury hasn’t lost all of its snow. Nope. It’s been piled up and buried by Keith Woodward under inches of wood chips. The goal here is to see if we can store snow over summer and eventually use it to cover the trails and start skiing in November. How long will this summer’s piles last? June? July? August? How about an epic BKL snowball fight on Labor Day! We don’t know. This is a first time experiment so far south and so low in elevation.

This odd looking contraption holds the sensors used to measure temperatures within the chip layer.

If you look next to the training hill, just below all the solar panels, you’ll see the first pile covered in chips. What you don’t see are lots of temperature sensors monitoring the ground temperature nearby, the temperature in the soil below the pile, and the temperature within the woodchips and in the air just above the chips. These are the data Hannah Weiss (a UVM graduate student) needs to test predictive models of snow melt over the summer so please, look – but don’t touch so she has the best data possible.

Hannah doing the snow density dance on Wilbur’s Pond snow pile.

Down off Lemon’s Haunt, in Wilbur’s old pond site is another Keith creation. A second pile. It too is fully instrumented and Keith’s moved one of the weather stations nearby so we can compare pile shrinkage to all sorts of variables including wind speed, humidity, temperature and sunlight.

Not an alien invasion but the UVM/NSF LIDAR set up to survey the Wilbur’s Pond snow pile just after Keith covered it in wood chips.

Over the summer, Hannah will be out weekly with the LIDAR survey gear mapping the piles and watching them shrink (hopefully not too quickly). Some days we’ll be uncovering a little snow to measure its density. Feel free to ask her or any of us about what’s going on. We’d be happy to share what we know and what we are doing. You can see lots of photographs of the whole process at the UVM Geology page.

It’s cold under all those chips even if the air temperatures are tropical just above the snow piles (those are Celsius temperatures).


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Technique Tips: Singletrack Running with Mindfulness

Workout from Green Racing Project skier Caitlin Patterson, who also has legit running creds – she represented the US at World Mountain Running Championships in 2017

Trail running can be a straightforward and nearly mindless workout – just lace up the shoes, find a local trail and go. However if you approach it with mindfulness, it can also be a great way to work on agility. Singletrack running requires pushing off to the side, turning corners, and varying stride length and tempo to accommodate features of the trail. Here are some suggestions, and questions to ask yourself, as you work on running flow and agility with mindfulness.

Workout: distance running at an easy pace with a few accelerations.

Select a small section or loop that you could repeat a few times. If you’re not used to running on singletrack, try to choose a smooth section with corners but relatively few tripping hazards, or you could even mimic singletrack by zig-zagging back and forth across a wider trail.

Start the workout by jogging for 10-20 minutes on easy terrain, to give your ankles and lower leg tendons a chance to warm up. Head to the singletrack and jog your chosen segment, to acquaint yourself with the turns and features. Then run the loop or section of singletrack again – bring your pace a little higher for a 20-30 second focus area. Instead of expecting to feel muscle burn or to be breathing too hard after this small acceleration, seek efficiency of foot placement and a feel of flowing around the obstacles. Repeat the segment a few times and experiment! Here are a few questions to contemplate:

  • Can you get to a point where your eyes and feet are synchronized, where it doesn’t take conscious effort to decide where to put each foot? Are you scanning ahead to anticipate the upcoming terrain?
  • Are you still breathing well?
  • Is your upper body relaxed? Do the arms stay relatively close to the body and with a stable torso? If your arms do some light flailing or wind-milling when running downhills, that’s ok, but your shoulders should never be pulled up towards your ears or locked in position. A relaxed upper body is one of the keys to comfortable and fast downhill running.
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Marathon Tapering with Heidi Caldwell

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The VT City Marathon is coming up on May 27th! Craftsbury Running Camp director Heidi Caldwell, coming off an impressive run at Boston, shares her best tips on how to taper for a marathon.

Heidi smiling her way through a wet Boston

In theory, tapering sounds great. After months of powering through tough workouts and high mileage, it’s time to give the legs a break and take a breath. You get to run workouts designed to make you feel fast and fresh rather than push you to your limit. You get to feel what it’s like to have energy again rather than falling asleep half way through the work day. All good things, right?

In practice, tapering can be challenging and even, for some runners, daunting. The transition from clocking steady mileage to easing up on the legs can be off-putting, both physically and mentally. How do you know if you’re running too much or too little? How do you taper without losing fitness or feeling flat? Dropping your mileage and intensity too sharply can lead you to feel slow and lethargic, while not decreasing your training load enough means you might show up on race day tired. To keep from feeling flat, drop your mileage but keep some intensity in your week’s training plan. If you do a track workout every Tuesday, still do a track workout but lower the total mileage and intensity. It’s important to keep your legs moving but to not dig yourself into a hole.

For a marathon, the taper period typically begins three weeks out from race day, after your longest long run. The three-week timeframe allows for a gradual taper, steadily decreasing weekly mileage and intensity. Three weeks out, decrease your mileage to ~80% of your highest mileage week. Two weeks out, decrease to ~50%. In the final week of tapering, keep your runs short and take a complete rest day two days before the race. Remember: the goal of your tapering weeks is to minimize fatigue, not increase fitness.

Another point to keep in mind: it takes time for your body to adapt post-workouts. Although the number of days it takes for your body to feel the benefits of a specific workout depends on many factors (e.g. how much work you put in prior to and proceeding the workout), a good rule of thumb is it takes ten days for your body to fully adapt to the workout. In other words, you’re not going to gain race-day fitness by squeezing in extra hard workouts in the ten days leading up to the race. Tune-up workouts will help your body feel fresh and prepped, while high-mileage, high-intensity workouts will leave you tired and will not boost your fitness on race-day. Trust the months of training you’ve put in!

Finally, even though you’re running less, make sure you are fueling and sleeping well! Your body still needs to recover from the high mileage weeks in order to be energized on race day.

Key takeaways:

  • You won’t lose fitness tapering.
  • The goal of tapering is to minimize fatigue; rest is more important than work during this period.
  • Trust your training!
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Dynamic Erging: How to Row when the Arms or Legs are Long

Note: Check out our Tech Tips Archive for content like this from past years, and subscribe to our Sculling eNewsletter to receive future editions in your inbox!

From Steve Whelpley, GRP Rowing Coach 

Especially those of us counting the days until a thaw, it is critical to use the erg in full consciousness of the rowing you intend to do in the near future. It is often not what drill we do, but how we do it. While “top quarter” and “arms only” are far from revelatory drills, I want to take a new look at them through the use of a Concept2 Dynamic erg. There’s an exchange in both drills between one aspect of our body holding, while our other half moves. There’s a purposeful play and tension between the concepts of dynamic and static within our own bodies that is always at work throughout the stroke. However, during a given stroke cycle or drill, that play may be a mirrored image of itself. When we row top quarter, the hands need to follow the legs. In contrast, when we row arms only, the legs must follow the hands.

Those of us in Vermont are forced to think seasonally about our sculling, while those in warmer climates get to continually embrace it. Even so, we can all use ergs for something more than just a physiological tool when appropriate. When using a tool, it is important to use it for its strengths and intended use. Many times, we grab a convenient flathead when we really ought search for a Phillips head. Stumbling through the unscrewing of a Phillips head with a flathead, we shame ourselves, retrace our steps in hindsight, and hopefully learn for the next time. So, make the most of your time away from the water by recognizing the capacity of the tool you’re sitting on.

While rowing ergometers are physiological tools for all, each rowing machine may offer particular insights as a specific tool for your rowing. The best tool for this prescribed “work” (aka drills) is the Concept2 Dynamic Erg. That’s not to say other dynamic rowing systems wouldn’t be passable tools for this as well, but the unique construction of a C2 Dynamic accentuates the nuances of the drills and serves as an exceptional fit for the head of the screw.

Rowing machines nowadays adopt the common contrasting language of “Static” and “Dynamic.” It could be argued that a rowing stroke on the water must embody both “static” and “dynamic” qualities during the course of a stroke cycle. Coaches often reference the concept of leaving your hands outside the gunwales for as long as possible, assuming your blade is in the water, in an effort to not miss connection at the front end. This language of “leaving the hands behind” suggests a static effort in the hands as we attempt to redirect our bodily attention to the hips. At the same time, coaches often drill rowers to have fast hands into the body in order to keep up with the connection at that point in the stroke. Coaching for the quick movement of the hands into the body is a call to be dynamic in a part of our anatomy that once was asked to be static at the other end of the stroke. Now, the door begins to open so that we may try and take this attention to the erg.

On dynamic rowing systems, the scissoring action of the rowing stroke as hands and legs move in opposite directions is magnified by the fact that the connection moves around the rower rather than the rower moving around the connection (aka your center of mass moves very little). The magnitude to which is this is true on the C2 Dynamic is why it makes such a good teacher of the top quarter and arms only.

Top Quarter

When rowing “top quarter” slide on a dynamic erg, you simply try to execute the first quarter of your drive. Often, coaches use it to try and weed out opening with the shoulders or grabbing with the arms. Often, rowers are more prone to these mistakes during the drill than not. On a C2 Dynamic, you can do this drill with a little more accuracy because you can strive more directly to “leave the hands behind.” Attempt to row “top quarter” on a C2 Dynamic without having the handle move at all. Let the legs take the full work of the top quarter. It is a bit of a trust fall because you will not feel an immediate, dummy-proof hook up of the connection. This is why people often tend to grab or open on the C2 Dynamic. Feeling nothing on the handle, they hurry the connection in an effort to find tension in their hooked grip. Do not let the handle move, simply move the legs for what you imagine would be the top quarter of your leg drive, and observe how you might feel the connection in a new, subtler way.

Take a look at the supporting video and see how good of a job the athlete does of keeping the handle in one place. The gridded bedsheet helps to draw out reference points. You could effectively accomplish the same thing by adding “curb feelers” to your erg. Use zip ties to mark the handle at the catch and attempt to keep it there as you execute top quarter. Make sure your shoulders are stable and ready to transfer the will of the legs.

The front end is all about static hands and dynamic legs as we search for the most natural connection possible.

Arms Only

There are very few people in the world that actually maintain connection with the arm draw. Typically, we spend 80% of the rowing stroke chastising ourselves for prematurely using the arms. We crave that tactile sense of connection and often bring it in not for the sake of boat speed, but for the sake of nurturing our ego, that either wants to feel engaged or is panicked about the process of being engaged.  Either way, we tend to hurry the hands through the top quarter and the mid-drive. Then, when we’re finally allowed to make appropriate use of them, we rarely do.

It is quite a thing to keep up with the speed of our own connection. The faster the boat, the harder it gets. The building of a drive leads through a cascade in the body that is constantly accelerating. As a result, by the time the drive arrives at the back end, the hands need to be flying. One of two things often happen: 1. the hands do not move fast enough and the deceleration of the boat starts while the blades are still in the water or 2. the hands do in fact accelerate but as the blades emerge from the water causing an unloading of the blade as the loom hurriedly sweeps to the stern.

On a C2 Dynamic, you can practice arms only more effectively than anywhere else. Take your arms only stroke, but with the intention of moving your feet to the stern as you do. The closer you draw the handle to the body, the further you must send the foot stretchers in the opposite direction. As the legs are long, you must keep them strong. In order to transfer the energy of the arm draw to the boat, it must get to the footboard. This comes by way of keeping the legs engaged even once the leg drive is done, staying firm and supported in the core, and dynamically utilizing the arm draw in accordance with the movement of the boat (or foot stretcher).

Again, look to the supporting video for the arms only strokes. In this case, the athlete is coming down from full slide strokes, so the first few must be taken simply to keep up with the speed of the flywheel (or boat). Once that happens, he takes care to try and work the foot stretcher as far away from as possible on each arms only stroke. You can use the grid to gauge how effective his transfer of energy from the handle to the feet is on each stroke.

This happens on the water as well, but it is made more challenging to observe by the fact that the boat is moving as well.


There is symmetry and balance in many aspects of our sport. The scissoring dance of the drive is illustrated by watching an athlete execute these drills on a C2 Dynamic. While the hands are static and the legs dynamic at the front end, the tables turn by the backend allowing the hands to be dynamic and the legs static. Similarly, when the arms are long, they work to be static, stabilize, and transfer the dynamic energy of the legs. When the legs are long, they work to be static, stabilize, and transfer the dynamic energy of the arms. With time, a rower grows more adept at harvesting connection at each end of the stroke (and in between), cutting down on the amount of time it takes to find the flywheel or the water. Until then, it is important to recognize the shift in how the body makes connection possible at both ends.

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Dan Cnossen Wins Six Paralympic Game Medals

Dan on his way to a silver medal in the 7.5k cross country race (Photo TeamUSA).

Dan Cnossen, who is currently in the running for “Best Male Paralympic Athlete of the Year,” won an astounding six medals at last month’s Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea! We have had privilege of having Dan train with us at the Outdoor Center on and off for the past several years, both on the ski trails and on the shooting range.

Dan is a retired Navy SEAL officer, two time Paralympic competitor, and Harvard graduate school student. To dive deeper into his history, check out this conversation that Mary O’Connell had with him last winter. At the time of that publication, Dan was focusing primarily on cross-country skiing. Over the past year, Dan broadened the scope of this training and racing to include biathlon as well.

Dan is currently based out of Boston while studying at Harvard Divinity School and at the Kennedy School of Government. While in Boston, he frequently ski trains at the Weston Ski Track. In order to pursue biathlon, he needed a location with both shooting and skiing facilities, and Craftsbury fit the bill. Dan uses an air rifle to shoot, so a special air rifle range was constructed for him on the upper field here at the COC. An air rifle range is smaller than a .22 range and special, smaller, air rifle targets are used.

Dan is part of the US Paralympic team, whose coaching staff is based out of Bozeman, Montana. During his time at the Center, Craftsbury biathlon coaches Ethan Dreissigacker and Sam Dougherty worked with Dan, in close conjunction with the National Team coaches.

Thanks to Dan’s hard work over the past several years, he had a very successful Paralympics, medalling in each of the six events that he entered. Dan kicked off the Games with a win in the 7.5k biathlon race, missing only one target. The next day, in the 15k cross country race, he was 2nd place. After one day off, Dan was again 2nd in the 12.5k biathlon race, hitting each of the 20 targets. The following day was the 1.1k sprint race. Dan qualified in 5th and finished the day in the bronze medal position. Two days later, Dan raced in the final biathlon race of the week, the 15k. Here, he missed only one shot and finished 2nd. Dan’s last race of the Games was the 7.5k cross country race, where he finished with a silver medal. You can see full race results here.

Congratulations to Dan on an excellent Paralympic Games! It has been wonderful having him around the Center and we hope to see him again soon. Watch this video from WCAX to learn more about Dan’s time at the COC and how it helped with prepare to race in Pyeongchang.

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2018 Rikert Eastern High School Qualifier Gallery

Our Craftsbury Junior Nordic Ski Club racers were out in full force at the Eastern High School Qualifier in Rikert, VT President’s Day weekend. Click through to see the best shots from Craftsbury parent Chris Young, or click on any image to enlarge! Results from the qualifier are available here.

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2018 UVM Carnival/Eastern Cup- Photo Gallery

A collection of photos of our CNSC juniors from the UVM Carnival/Stowe Eastern Cup on February 10-11, which ended up being moved to Craftsbury. Click on any image to enlarge. All photos thanks to photographer Dave Priganc!

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2018 Craftsbury Marathon Ski Festival pb Fischer – Marathon Gallery

First round of pics from photographer Kris Dobie from Saturday, January 27th’s 37th annual Marathon!

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