Monday, May 01, 2006

Dress like a rower

Since I started rowing again, I've been giving some thought to the specialized clothing for different athletic activities. These clothes are mixture of function and fashion—for example, basketball shorts. The change from the teeny-tiny shorts of the 1970s to the large baggy ones of contemporary times has very little to do with function. It's 100% a fashion statement.

Rowing has specialized clothing as well, and it also combines fashion and function.
  1. Shoes. There are no shoe requirements! In rowing, you don't wear shoes. You wear your shoes—and they may be sneakers, flip flops or boat shoes (topsiders—remember those?)—down to the dock. You then take them off and either leave them on the dock (definitely if you are racing) or put them in the boat. Your feet are then covered by wool socks. Cotton socks in a boat are just silly. You ALWAYS wear socks, though. The feet are placed in either "boot stretchers" which are boards with some kind of lacing on top (rarer these days in the new boats) or sneakers. The sneakers are large and fastened to a board.

    So, no shoes, yes to socks—but the socks are specialized (hiking socks are typical). There is some fashion/peer pressure element in what shoes are worn to the dock, but not much on the socks. The big, thick wool socks are recommended for safety reasons. You are supposed to fasten the boot stretchers tightly, but if you are wearing a large, thick sock, you could scoot your foot out easily in an emergency. Wool because--they stay warm when wet.

  2. Shorts. A big mistake novice rowers make is wearing baggy shorts in the boat. Baggy or loose anything in the boat is a big no-no. Why? The seat slides on metal tracks. Any loose clothing near the tracks will get caught and ruined. If it happens when you're rowing, it can stop you dead, which can cause problems for you and the rest of the boat.

    Most rowers wear tight, bike-style shorts to practice. If you ever wear baggy shorts in the boat, it will only be once.

    There is actually a rowing-only piece of specialized clothing in this category. They are called "trou" (short for trousers). Trou look like bike shorts—but do not be fooled, there is no padding in trou. The specialized nature of these shorts is a double layer of fabric in the rear. This is to protect against the hard seat (but no padding! rowers are tough!) and potential tears caused by the tracks. You can wear padded bike shorts, but the padding may become uncomfortable because it's not in the right place for rowing.

    When I started rowing, I always wore unpadded bike-style shorts. Sometimes I'd wear two pair. I bought one pair of trou, which I always wore to races.

    With the advent of "capri" length, snug-but-not-tight exercise pants, I've found a great compromise. This length pant covers and warms the knee, which is nice while it's still a little chill. And, they protect the back of the calf, which is also prone to getting cut up on the tracks (this is called "track bite"). (You will sometimes see rowers wearing a high sock on the leg that gets cut on the track or a piece of tube sock on the upper calf. I don't know why, but one calf usually gets cut, while the other is only bruised.)

    A triumphant day for me was when my coach said, "You're bleeding." "What? Where?" He pointed to my left calf, which was, in fact, sending a steady but small trickle of blood down my leg.

    "You didn't notice?" Coach said.

    "I didn't feel it." I smiled. Track bites are a total badge of honor. The bloodier and more scabbed the better. We all had scars by the end of the season.

  3. Shirts. There are no shirt requirements, but there are practices. When I started rowing, all of the women on the team wore the same outfit: an extra-large t-shirt, spandex shorts and running shoes. (I might have been the only one wearing boat shoes and wool socks, but I knew more than they did. I eventually switched to sneakers—peer pressure.) As soon as you got in the boat, however, you had to tuck that huge t-shirt into your tight shorts. The tail of the shirt could get caught in the tracks.

    Why didn't we wear tighter, shorter shirts? I don't know, but I couldn't imagine running around with my spandex clad butt hanging out—and none of the other women could either, regardless of how fit and trim they were.

    What I find amusing is that I no longer wear extra large t-shirts to the gym. I wear slim-fitting, short t-shirts. All of my current t-shirts work just fine for rowing, with no tucking required. And, while I do favor baggy exercise shorts, which are a no-no in the boat, my slim-fitting short pants work just fine.

    Once, during my second spring training, when I was on the varsity crew, we were stunned to see the novice women wearing nothing more than their sports bras and tight shorts in the boat. Some of our jaws must have popped open. We'd been rowing together for almost a year and a half and none of us would have dreamt of rowing without our shirts on (except for Rhonda who rowed in her bikini top because she was trying to get a tan). I wouldn't have done it because I burn easily, but I was also too modest for this kind of display—and so were my teammates. But not those novices. (They did put their shirts back on before getting out of the boat.)

    There is one kind of specialized shirt for rowing—the racing jersey. It is a tank with your school/team colors that is ONLY worn on race day. The tank is the traditional rowing shirt because it leaves maximum freedom for arm movement. They are cut for men and women, with the men's shirts having much larger arm holes. You may wear a long sleeve shirt underneath for fall races (I always did).

  4. Hat. Of course, hats are not required. But I always wear a hat. It keeps the sun off my face and the sweat out of my eyes. I don't think I can row without a hat anymore. Visors and hats are common in the boat.

  5. Hair. A non-issue for most men. Most women wear their hair in a pony tail. I always have. It was so common on my UNC team that when we saw each other with our hair down, we didn't always recognize each other.

  6. The unisuit. Ah, the unisuit. For all the reasons mentioned above, a unisuit makes a lot of sense for rowing. I've mentioned the tracks, which can catch loose shirts and shorts. Loose clothing can also get caught on your oar, which brushes the body as part of the stroke. Thus, a unisuit is the ultimate rowing outfit. You will never see me wearing a unisuit.

  7. The jacket. When we came back for our second year of crew at UNC, we had the opportunity to purchase a varsity jacket. Every single one of us got one. The rowing jacket will usually have the name of the team printed across the back and the emblem for the team embroidered on the front along with some crossed oars (at least that's how mine is). It's common for the jacket to have two colors (mine is navy blue and sky blue). Rowing jackets always have an extra little flap at the back that you may sit on if you wear it in the boat (it doesn't work well in practice). They are pullover style, with a half-zip front and extra room at the shoulders to allow for freedom of movement. I stopped wearing my rowing jacket when I stopped rowing. When I started rowing last week, I got it out of the closet where it's been hanging all these years. I don't feel silly wearing it anymore.

Grateful for: knowing what to wear.


  1. i just wanted to thank you for this very informative and entertaining write-up on rowing apparel. my 12-year-old son is starting crew on thursday, and in trying to educate myself about what his apparel needs will be, i was most grateful to stumble across this. very, very helpful! now i won't be the ill prepared mother who ran out and bought him all the wrong stuff. ya know... these sensitive almost teenagers :)

    and you should probably sport a unisuit one day just to shock your rowing companions :) hehe.

    thanks, again. my son thanks you, too! or he will eventually when he sees the experience and the sense in it!

    take it easy,

    -cynthia (tanner's mom)

  2. Cynthia--this is great! I hope tanner has a great time rowing. I should probably update this post because these day some of the new boats require that you wear special shoes that sort of latch in. Other than that, I think it's all still accurate. :)

  3. Great post! Aren't you glad you got back into rowing? I wear my vibram five fingers in the shell now. They fit all sizes of boat-shoes and don't slip out of the larger men's sizes. I am an 8.5 and I suspect anything larger than a ladies 9 might not work.

  4. I too wear the classic vibram five fingers. They are a nice snug fit in the shoes and fine when wet.

    I've just recently switched to wearing a rowing trou after having my athletic shorts caught in the tracks a couple times. I managed to go about 6 months before getting my shorts caught. I'm told that was something of a miracle.


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