Hamburger Hands. Shredded Meat. Craters of the Moon. Rower hands. Oysters.
Call them what you want, but it’s all the same. Blisters. If you row, you have blisters, and calluses, too.
One week as I walked around my classroom, a student asked, “What’s that on your hand?” I immediately started looking for marker or dry erase smudges on the outside of my hand, until he said, “No, on the inside.” I flipped my hand over.
“Oh, that’s just from rowing,” I said, and turned my hand so he could see the swollen red bulges on my pinky and right ring finger. This is a student who eats paper and pen caps, smears ink like finger paint all over creation, and makes farting noises, but he was grossed out by two blisters on my hands.
Google “rowing blisters” and a plethora of websites appear espousing on the need to keepclean oar handles, wash hands, and whether or not to pop those swollen masses. (The majority seem to say popping with a needle, draining, applying sterilizer, followed by band-aid or wrapping is the best option, but I am not a medic and prefer to leave mine intact, if possible.) But none seem to address the question–what do your blisters say about your stroke?
We all know blisters form from repeated friction. As rowers, sometimes blisters on heels, toes, and yes–even our tight, round, gluteus maximi are subject to blisters. Yeowch! But most of us form our blisters on our hands. What exactly can those blisters say about our rowing stroke?
Some coaches will tell you to relax your grip. Blisters form from holding the handle too tight. It’s true–a relaxed grip is necessary in order to move the blade correctly through stroke and recovery.
The more we row, the more our skin toughens. Some blisters are simply because our hands haven’t endured the stresses of a twisting shaft for kilometer after kilometer. As our hands firm up, the likelihood of those fluid-filled friends decreases. For instance, since I sweep plenty nowadays, I have acquired a lovely set of sweeping calluses across thepalms of my hands and base of my fingers. Not that I am guaranteed to escape a sweep-row blister free–several weeks ago, a blister I had popped mid-row, and the raw skin underneath was worn down to the point it started bleeding on the oar. It’s just my hands are more conditioned for the rigors of sweep rowing.
However, since I don’t scull as often, I know I am guaranteed to walk away with blisters from a sculling row.
Have blisters or calluses on the pads of your thumbs? Clearly, you are a sculler. Blisters along the base of your fingers? Sweep rower. A line of blisters in the second joint on one hand? That’s your outside hand. If you have blisters in the palm of your hand or the span of your thumb, you’re holding on too tightly.
What other knowledge can be gleaned about the stroke from your hands? For instance, when I scull, a massively painful blister forms on the inside on my right hand ring finger. This is an area you’d normally believe protected from touching the oar. Even after several rows paying attention to hand placement and keeping the fingers on my right hand together, I cannot discern why a blister forms in that particular spot. I also form more blisters on my right hand than on my left.
In terms of treatment, the best I’ve found for raw open blisters is antibiotic ointment. It prevents the skin from drying out while killing off bacteria that may have found its way into the wound. I’ll dab it it on several times a day when I have a sore blister. When skin tags form, I cut them off to prevent the skin from peeling off a fresh layer of skin during the next practice. I also apply a blister balm made by another rower to hardened calluses at the roots of my fingers.
People ask, “Why don’t you wear gloves?” I’ve tried it and found that for me, they create as much of a problem as not wearing gloves. I also lose the sensation of pressure in the oar and slip more with gloves than without. I opt for glove-free.
And yes, sometime as rowers, we think people who wear gloves are sissies. Part of the camaraderie of rowing is in sharing the pain of blisters. It’s the sport’s form of hazing. It can even be a bit competitive to see who sports the worst set of blisters after a hard row. Blisters are part of the price we pay for the sport we love.