Racing to the Line: The Art of the Sprint Finish

Written by Concept2 NZ on June 28th, 2018.

Fresh on the heels of another exciting world rowing cup regatta, it only seems fitting to dedicate an article to an aspect of racing (on show over the weekend) that has defined some of the most memorable rowing races in recent memory- the come from behind sprint finish. Everyone loves a tight fought race, but a come-from-behind victory has a thrill to it that endures in the minds of spectators and fans. We take a look at some of the factors that can make or break a final sprint, how you learn to sprint, and share some of our pics the most memorable finishes in recent rowing races. (warning NZ crew bias ahead!)

What Makes a Sprinter?

Whether or not you choose to work a final sprint into your race plan may not be a choice at all. Physiology plays a big role in whether or not an athlete is better to plan their race around a finish line sprint, or to seek a winning margin earlier in the race. Generally, rowing is considered an endurance sport, meaning even the quickest sprinters have to pair this ability with endurance efficiency- not something sprinters in the traditional sense - 100m track athletes for example- have to worry about. But the sprint potential of a rowing athlete (or any athlete) is significantly influenced by the ratio of slow-twitch muscle fibers, and fast twitch muscle fibers.

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Athletes in sprint-specific events require a very high ratio of fast twitch muscle fibers

To put it simply, every muscle is comprised of a combination of slow-twitch and fast-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch muscle fibers are more efficient at using oxygen to fuel continuous muscle contractions over a longer period of time and are very useful for endurance sports events- the longer the race the better. On the other hand, fast twitch muscle fibers fire much more rapidly, using anaerobic metabolism to generate fuel to be supplied to the muscles. Fast twitch fibers generate the same level of force as slow twitch, but the force is delivered much more quickly compared to the controlled release of slow twitch fibers, making them very useful for quick movements and accelerations.

Athlete or not, every person is born with a specific ratio of slow and fast twitch fibers. Studies suggests there may be a way to train fast twitch fibers to act as slow twitch (although not the other way around) but the research is still ongoing. Generally speaking, the ratio of an athlete’s slow twitch/fast twitch muscle fibers plays an important role in whether or not they will be better at sprints or endurance, whereby athletes with a higher proportion of slow twitch fibers will be better suited to lower intensity, long-distance endurance, while athletes with a lot of fast twitch fibers will be the better sprinters. As we know, rowing requires a combination of both to be successful, but within the range of successful rowers those with more fast-twitch fibers are more likely to be the ones we see sprinting for the line, while those with more slow-twitch fibers might have greater mid-race speed and efficiency.

Sprinting as a Crew

Unless you are in a single scull, rowing is about much more than just one athlete’s physiology. A crew is only as fast as the sum of its parts, meaning that race strategy is decided by what is best for the crew as a whole. This may be one reason why we see some of the best come-from-behind sprint finishes in small boat races, where individuals or pairs of similar physiologies can clash dramatically with individuals and pairs at the other end of the fast twitch/slow twitch spectrum.

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Zoe McBride and Jackie Kiddle have a sprint on their hands in the 2017 world championship final of the lightweight women's double sculls

More so than singles or two-person crews, the bigger boats tend to even out the skill set of the athletes within them, although sprinting ability may play a role in the seating arrangement of the crew. Some coaches opt to put good sprinters in the stroke seat, allowing them to initiate the sprint and increase stroke rate for the rest of the crew to follow. In other cases, a coach may opt to put his/her best sprinter in the bow to call the race for their stroke and support them to lift the intensity coming into the last 500m. There are of course other factors (technique for one) which may determine which athlete sits where in a crew, but physiology and sprinting ability is certainly an important one.

How to Sprint

While influenced by physiology, being able to sprint is also very much a skill that can be refined by training and practice. The ability to accelerate and increase intensity and stroke rate dramatically depends on precise technical application, often under immense pressure both physically and mentally. In on-water rowing terms, it is no use to have the fast-twitch fibers to react without the technical aptitude to time the stroke correctly and remain connected to the water throughout the drive. We have found that athletes learning to sprint are often better to learn to change pace progressively, to ensure technical proficiency as the stroke rate increases, and avoid trying ‘too hard’ and dismissing technique completely in favor of rating. For Indoor Rowers this is more or less true too, although free of the added complications of handling oars and balance. To help you find your sprinting form, give the following exercises a go on the Indoor Rower:

30 Stroke Builds

These will help you practice stepping up the stroke rate gradually while maintaining form.

10 strokes @30 SPM, 10 strokes @32 SPM, 10 strokes @34 SPM

2mins easy rowing

10 strokes @32 SPM, 10 strokes @34 SPM, 10 strokes @36 SPM

2mins easy rowing

  • To move the rating keep the handle moving away fluidly at the finish and increase the intensity of acceleration on the leg drive
Top End Speed

Once you have got the hang of 30 stroke builds, give this top end build a go.

10 strokes @34 SPM, 5 strokes @36 SPM, 5 strokes @38 SPM, 5 strokes @max SPM

  • Use the same technique to move the rating as in the 30 stroke builds, as you reach the higher ratings you can shorten the stroke a little to help you get up to speed.

For more information on accelerating stroke rate, check out our guide HERE

Top 5 Come-From-Behind Sprint Victories

If you are looking for inspiration for you race plan, or in developing your own sprint finish; there is nothing better than seeing an awesome sprint in action. With that in mind, here is our list of just a few of the unforgettable come-from-behind sprinting victories in recent memory, that have had the crowd on the edge of their seats, and the athletes at the edge of their limits!

London 2012 Olympic Games, New Zealand Men’s Double Scull, Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan.

A stand-out sprint if ever there was one, the NZ Men’s double of Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan came through 4th at 500m, only to go on to claim gold in a performance that would earn them the Halberg Award for New Zealand’s favorite sporting moment of 2012.

Watch the race here:

Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, New Zealand Women’s Double Scull, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell.

The defending Olympic champions in the women’s double, Caroline and Georgina Evers Swindell had a tough world cup season leading into their second Olympics together but timed their sprint in the final to perfection, moving through the leading German crew while holding off another fast finishing crew in Great Britain. A second Olympic Gold for the twins, and a fitting end to their glittering rowing careers.

Watch the race here:

London 2012 Olympic Games, South Africa Men’s Lightweight Four, Sizwe Ndlovu, John Smith, Matthew Brittain, James Thompson.

To break up our bias for New Zealand crews, it seems fitting to include a come-from-behind victory in one of the events that has provided some of the most exciting finishes over the years- the men’s lightweight four. While we won’t be seeing this event in the Olympics again any time soon, we can always reflect on South Africa’s incredible come-from-behind win in London 2012, the underdogs in an accomplished field rowing through the legendary Danish crew to claim their country’s first Olympic rowing gold.

Watch the race here (skip ahead to 10.45min):

Karapiro 2010 World Rowing Championships, New Zealand Men’s Pair, Eric Murray and Hamish Bond.

While the dominant Kiwi pair is renowned for a crushing pace over the full 2000m, there was a time early in their reign when the British Pair of Pete Reed and Andrew Triggs-Hodge came very close to tarnishing what would become an impeccable winning record. In the world championship final on home water in 2010, the Kiwi pair was trailing the British with 500m to go and had a fight on their hands to come through and claim the gold by just 0.32 of a second.

Watch the race here:

Linz-Ottensheim, Austria 2018 World Rowing Cup 2, New Zealand Men’s Single Scull, Robbie Manson.

To finish our list, we look to the most recent world cup regatta, and it is hard to go past the men’s single scull. German sculler Tim Ole Naske held the lead for the first 1500m over compatriot Oliver Zeidler, with the high rating Kiwi coming into a narrow second with 500m to go. The ensuing sprint through the last 500m gave Manson the victory by just over a second, while Ole Naske narrowly held off Zeidler’s challenge to take silver. With such close early racing, there is no doubt this event will have even more exciting battles in store for us as the season progresses!

Watch the race here:


There have been many exciting sprint finishes over the years, this is but a small list of favorites.
Let us know which races have been the most memorable for you in the comments below!