Rowing: Cambridge rely on economy of effort: Light Blues seeking to eclipse Oxford with well-honed technical skill. Hugh Matheson reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN Cambridge took everyone by surprise 12 months ago and won the Boat Race - something they had been losing for nearly 20 years - there followed a desperate search for explanations. The general conclusion was that it was a triumph based on economy of effort.

The sparse and efficient Cambridge style had been developing for a number of years, but reached its fruition in last year's victory when a well-matched crew of lesser men beat an Oxford crew which included two Olympic champions.

The method comes from the Cambridge coaches, Harry Mahon, from New Zealand, and Sean Bowden and John Wilson, from Nottingham, who believe their technique is more important than any past achievements by the athletes. They have the confidence to reject any candidate who does not want to do it their way.

The triumvirate believe that, although rowing is about huge energy being spent getting from here to there as fast as possible, it is still better to do less if you can. The Cambridge crew, who compete for the Beefeater Trophy this Saturday, have won most of their private races with the medal-winning cream of British rowing by being more economical with the brawn.

To use the rowing jargon, it all comes down to 'in' and 'out'. In recent years, as the men have got bigger and stronger, there has been a tendency to emphasise the catch, or the beginning of the 'in' part with an explosive application of power. In Cambridge, the coaches have spent the last six months trying to make the catch an almost invisible part of an endless cycle. As Bowden told Will Mason, who rows at No 2 this year, after being the stroke man last year: 'If you spend too much time thinking about the catch, you've probably missed it.'

Their way means constant testing to control the progress of the training. The oarsmen undergo three lactate tests in the six-month Boat Race programme. This test measures the threshold at which exercise forces a body to build up lactic acid in the muscle so that it eventually becomes unsustainable.

Almost all modern crews do most of their training just below their aerobic threshold, with a view to raising its level so that they can do more before pain and exhaustion take over. The convenient way to identify the threshold is to measure heart rate with a monitor strapped to the chest.

To get the best out of the training, the coaches use various devices to measure compatibility. Strain gauges are fixed to the rowlocks, the amount of power coming from an oarsman measured, and a curve drawn to show how it is built up and released. The aim is to get all the curves alike so that all eight blades are working together, and no single one is carrying the boat alone. This data is put into a bank so that changes on the power application can be watched over the season.

The coaches use video film of model crews, principally Mahon's 1983 world champions from New Zealand, to drill and demonstrate what is wanted. There is extraordinary unanimity between the three coaches about the best way to make boats move, although they were recruited at different times from different places - indeed, Wilson was the professional at Oxford, who failed to renew his contract after the 1991 race.

The crews at Cambridge are selected on the basis of the information coming from ergometer tests, races in coxless pairs and from seat racing in coxed fours, where two oarsmen are swapped back and forth in crews which otherwise remain constant.

Mahon insists that this process means that the decisions are clear cut, and that he only uses his subjective experience to set the order in which the men sit.

He also uses a London nutritionist, Justine Cotterill, to devise an affordable, quickly prepared, high carbohydrate diet. She prescribes something over 5,000 calories a day, which is about six times more than the other 'Cambridge Diet'.

The coaches believe that if they do their job right, and the crew are as well-prepared as they can make them, there is less need for the intrusion of flair and personality in the final preparation. The unit will develop their own rhythm and pace and express themselves not only in winning, but in the manner of their success.