My name is Erin Smeijsters, I am a 23-year-old full-time Pharmacy masters student from the Netherlands. Last summer I had the pleasure to meet an amazing group of people while traveling and trekking in India with my girlfriend, which is probably indirectly the reason for me writing this. And yeah, I am also a pretty high-level competitive rower, which I am trying to combine with finishing my master’s degree, a girlfriend, a social life, family, a full-time research internship and lots of other activities.
In the Netherlands, a lot of students join a student society. This is a great way of meeting new people while starting off a new chapter in your life and maybe moving to a new city or university. There are different kinds of student societies. If you like to combine it with sports, a students rowing club is by far the most popular. Rowing is a big sport and very competitive with students in the Netherlands.
There are a lot of different levels to compete at, so whenever you fancy rowing once or twice a week and doing other activities apart from rowing, you could. I am, on the other hand, crazy enough to row for about 7-8 times a week, minimum. The fun part about rowing is, whenever you start at a late age, it is still very much possible to reach the highest level like the Olympic games, in a relatively short amount of time. All you need is dedication, perseverance, a little bit of talent and good physic (which helps but is not necessary to start).
Rowing is the ideal combination of endurance and raw strength. The main muscle groups used in rowing are your legs, very important during the drive of the rowing stroke, the core and back/shoulder muscles. Rowing is rated as the second toughest sport in the world, just behind biathlon (crazy Scandinavian cross country skiing, for hours, while simultaneously shooting at very small targets with an air-pressure gun. I wouldn’t dare to try though). Back to rowing, as many of you might know it is in a boat, on the water. Crews consist of 2, 4 or 8 crewmembers sometimes combined with a coxswain, someone who steers the boat and encourages the rowers with technical calls, depending on the boat type. Every movement of the crewmembers needs to be exactly in sync for the boat to move as fast and efficient as possible. Most races are two kilometers long, in which boats are aligned next to each other with about six boats per race. With rowing, you are sitting with your back towards the way your boat is moving (if that makes sense) so whenever you are beating your opponents, you can directly look down on them. As far as I know, rowing is the only sport where you can directly see the opponents that you are beating! These two-kilometer races take around 6-7 minutes, a full 6-7 minutes of intense pain. The first 500 meters feel easy, you are full of adrenaline from the start, you are still burning easily accessible energy resources in your body and everything feels fine. After those 500 meters the pain kicks in, lactate acids start to build up and an aching pain throughout your whole body is starting. Halfway through the race, everything in your body is begging you to stop. When you finally cross the finish line, your legs, core and back are burning from pain, your lungs feel pulverized and the taste of blood remains due to the immense effort your body had to do to consume enough oxygen to power your heart and muscles. But you also feel fulfilled, mainly whenever you cross that finish line first. All those early morning practices in ice-cold conditions, hours in the gym and on the rowing machine are forgotten at that very moment and everything seems worth it.
When I joined my student’s rowing club, I was out of shape, overweight (105+ kilograms) and had bad eating habits. To put it bluntly, I was fat and not very happy with myself in my current condition. So rowing, exercising, combined with meeting new people and studying seemed like a great idea. I started off moderately, I joined a crew and we had around 5-6 weekly practices and were also active in other activities. A great way for me of getting in touch with the sport and making lifetime friends. The greatest change for me was getting into a stricter rhythm and being more conscious about my diet. I cut away all sugary drinks, I limited snacking and started eating more healthy, protein-rich and good high-carb dinners. By the end of my first year, I dropped down in weight from 105+ kg all the way to around 79 kg. This, on the other hand, is kind of light for my size, I am almost 2 meters tall. So it was important for me to gain weight, but more importantly, gain effective muscle weight. Fast forward a couple of years and I am now training for about 7-8 times a week minimum. While it is very cold outside here in the Netherlands and waters are frozen so rowing outside is impossible we do a lot of weight/strength training in the gym during the preseason to get stronger and gain effective weight.
Training is very important in improving, but equally or even more important is good nutrition. As a rower, I burn quite a lot more calories than your average Joe. A rowing practice takes around 1,5-2 hours of intense exercise. To fuel my body and retain my muscle/weight without breaking them down I consume between 5000-6000 kilocalories a day, that is 2-3 times the average calorie consumption. Good calorie dense and healthy nutrition is key. After every practice, I consume at least one protein shake to minimize muscle breakdown. During the day I try to consume enough clean and lean protein in every meal like chicken, tofu and beans. Energy sources like carbohydrates are very important as well, one of the major changes in my eating habits is that I only consume good whole grain, long-lasting carbohydrates, for instance, brown rice and whole grain pasta. Good healthy food doesn’t have to taste bland, as long as the cornerstone of your meal consists enough protein, long-lasting carbohydrates and loads of vegetables. An Indian or Thai curry or Italian pasta sauce is a great way of enjoying a healthy meal (Nivvi’s recipes are also delicious healthy meals to fuel your daily exercises).Recipes – Good Food is Good Mood