Rowing as a group increases pain thresholds

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You may have seen rowing before, but I guarantee you that you know little about the sport unless you went to university at Cambridge or Oxford. There you will find a subspecies of human known as the “boatie” who seem perfectly happy to gather en masse at godforsaken times of the morning to paddle about on a river. In the rain. In winter. With a hangover. Later, in the pub, they will spend innumerable hours discussing their training schedules, talking about “catching crabs” without a hint of irony and comparing blisters.

For those of us who wondered what could possess grown men and women to forgo the comfort of a bed for several painful hours in the company of eight grunting companions, Emma Cohen from Oxford has some answers.

Group activities, such as rowing in an ‘eight’, increases the pain thresholds of the individual athletes, compared to rowing alone. These raised thresholds are probably the result of endorphins, natural pain-killing chemicals that our brains release when we exercise. Endorphins also produce a light euphoria and a sense of wellbeing that is important for bonding with our friends and peers, and gluing a group of rowers together, despite the smell and pain. 

Cohen worked with a dozen men from the University’s rowing squad and asked them to complete 45 minutes of continuous rowing on an ergometer – a gym machine that simulates the rowing experience and that crews use to train out of the river. They rowed for two sessions, either alone or in a “virtual boat” consisting of eight athletes using ergometers side by side.

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Before and after their 45 minutes, Cohen measured the athletes’ pain threshold by inflating a blood pressure cuff until they felt discomfort. Their answers clearly showed that the rowers coped with almost twice as much pain when they worked in a squad than when they rowed alone, even though all the athletes were doing similar amounts of work.

So training as a group raises a rower’s pain barrier compared to training alone. Cohen pins these raised thresholds on the effects of endorphins. Obviously, there’s no way of measuring the levels of these chemicals directly while the rowers were exercising; the only option would be a lumbar puncture, and they might just have objected. Nonetheless, measuring pain thresholds is a standard way of estimating endorphin levels – the two are so closely linked that one can predict the other.

Teamwork clearly matters. Winning a rowing race isn’t just about pulling the oar with the most power; all eight boatmen need to synchronise their strokes. Whether it’s this coordination or the feeling of jointly achieving the team’s goals that churns out extra endorphins and raises pain barriers is unclear. Certainly, the physical nature of the activity could be important, for studies have suggested that two people are more likely to bond as friends if they engage in coordinated physical activity than if they share more sedate activities.

Whatever the case, Cohen suggests that other shared activities like laughter, music or religious rituals, might encourage us to bond with our peers through the release of endorphins. It’s our equivalent of the grooming rituals that provide the social glue for ape and monkey groups.

Reference: Proc Roy Soc B doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0670

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