Woman's Single arriving at the start Credit: Toby Louch

Over-40 and looking to keep fit? Ever thought of rowing? If so, you’re not alone, you might be surprised to learn that plenty of middle-aged folk enjoy it. Toby dropped into the Masters Championships a competition for older rowers at Holme Pierrepont and spoke with event organisers and a sports scientists about rowing for older athletes.

The most staggering thing when you arrive at Holme Pierrepont – The National Water Sports Centre – is the lake itself. In Britain, it’s unusual to see two kilometres of straight water. There are the lochs in Scotland and the lakes of Cumbria but as natural formations these don’t look out of place. When you stand on the edge of the jetty at Holme Pierrepont and see two kilometres of straight water, carved from the earth, stretching so far that the end is obscured by haze. It looks almost alien.

Normally this stretch of water serves as a training ground for elite water-based athletes. Built in the 1970s, it has since served as the home of British Canoeing and a centre for GB Rowing.

On Saturday June 6 this usually quiet training facility was quite the opposite. The lake had been descended on by rowers from across the country like a barbarian horde hungry for a spot of socially distanced sport. Holme Pierrepont was being used as the venue for the British Rowing Masters Championship, a national rowing event for athletes over the age of 27.

Last year’s event was cancelled and Kenny Baillie 45, The Director of Partnership and Communication for British Rowing says amateur sport continues to be affected badly by the pandemic.

To get this year’s championship to go ahead in a safe manner they have had to focus mainly on how people gather.

“We took the decision to stop competitors doubling and tripling up,” he says. “This is when competitors race in more than one category and we did this so athletes spent as little time at the venue as possible.”

Woman’s single scullers Credit: Toby Louch

So what is Masters Rowing?

Each year British Rowing hold three main championship events. One for juniors (under 18s) one for seniors (18-27) and one for masters (27+).

Juniors and seniors race over the standard Olympic distance of 2km. At these two events you will find future and current gold medal winning rowers.

The Masters Championship is a 1km point to point race, with boats across 6 lanes racing side by side – fastest boat wins.

The skill level at all three rowing championships varies wildly and at the Masters Championship you will find competitors who have only been rowing a few years racing side by side ex-Olympians.

While many sports hold separate events for older athletes the strong integration of masters rowing within the structure of British Rowing means it is a constantly growing community. Just as much effort is placed into masters events as those for younger athletes.

This year senior championships will not take place as many athletes will be competing at the Olympics. British Rowing has continued to hold socially distanced events for younger and older athletes clearly showing that older competitors are not forgotten about.

British Rowing Logo Credit: Toby Louch

Why is rowing so popular for over-40s?

Rowing is unusual in its high uptake among older athletes Kenny agrees. “The sport of rowing really lends itself to athletes of any age. At the indoor championships the oldest person we have had was a 92-year-old which is quite remarkable,” he adds.

There are numerous reasons for this older uptake from the comradery of being part of a crew to the low impact nature of rowing compared to other high cardio sports. Many take up the sport in later life due to taking their children and deciding they may as well give it a go instead of waiting on the river bank all afternoon.

Rowing is quite an unusual movement, for a beginner it will not feel natural at all, because of this everyone starts at the same level. At beginner ‘learn to row’ ses “It’s really a sport that you can pick up in your middle age or older” says Kenny “With some time you can find yourself getting to a level where you are competitive among your peer group,” he added.

Andrew Fletcher 24, a sports scientist from the University of Newcastle says “Strong evidence suggests regular physical activity amongst the elderly is a protective factor for noncommunicable diseases.”

These are diseases that are not contagious but are potentially life threatening such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and some forms of cancer.

“Regular physical activity is also associated with improved mental health, lower risk of depression, delaying the onset of dementia and reducing the risk of falling” says Andy.

With regard to rowing specifically Andy says “It provides a low impact cardio alternative that reduces strain on potentially weak or vulnerable joints while also stimulating bone grown and density.”

Traditionally rowing has been one of Britain’s most successful Olympic sports with Team GB bringing home at least one gold medal in rowing at every Olympics since 1984. Rowing legend Steve Redgrave won gold consecutively at five separate Olympics between 1984 and 2000 making him the only endurance athlete in history to do so.

While you might not be the next Redgrave the mental and physical health benefits of rowing are undeniable. With the Tokyo Olympics ready to begin there is no better time to jump in a boat, get out onto the water, and try something new.

Men’s quad warming up Credit: Toby Louch