Rowing Blisters

Hamburger Hands.  Shredded Meat.   Craters of the Moon.  Rower hands. Oysters.

Right Hand Blisters

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.

And switching sides creates a whole new set of blisters. 

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.

About camckenna

I write; I row.
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4 Responses to Rowing Blisters

  1. mbcrower says:

    Wear your blisters with pride! Gloves are pretty much a no no from where I come from. I like the fact that blisters and runner bites mark me out as a rower. Strange but true.

  2. boppininboston says:

    I love your blog! I just started rowing a few months ago but I love it. How long did it take you to get to the competitive level? I’m working primarily on technique but I’d love to compete at some point next year! Any tips for a novice like myself? Rock on (or row on, I should say!)

    • camckenna says:

      Well, when I first learned it was studying abroad in college. After 8 weeks I had to race at Torpids. About three years passed before I rowed again. At that point, it was about 8 months before I started racing again and in the last two years I’ve become more competitive. I would say as a novice rower the key is to start by refining the technique. The swing, having a quick entry, and clean release are the most important aspects of the racing stroke. I’d also do Head racing first. It’s much more forgiving as a novice competitor.
      I’m glad you’ve fallen in love with the sport! Good luck with your training.

  3. Laurence Wagner says:

    Rowing blisters are an unnecessary act of near insanity. They can be fixed with a few changes. I have been rowing since 1970, with blisters being rare in any year. Think I did not row hard in University ? Piss ant excuse to maintain your blisters. I rowed heavyweight at 145 pounds, and essentially stole a seat in a heavyweight Varsity 4+ during open seat races. I was supposed to be one of the guys maintaining boat consistency. But the boat I was in won every heat during the challenge, or had the fastest times, no matter what seat switches took place, including switching me between boats, or out of the boats.

    How ?

    1) Slightly altered hand/wrist grip. Your grip MUST have a straight wrist while pulling the oar. If not, the harder you pull, the more the wrist tries to straighten, forcing torque in the fingers gripping the oar. Your skin loses. The grip must be a “J”. Curled fingers, straight wrist, no slip. No slip, no blisters. With a straight wrist, you can pull harder. Why ? No hand or finger pain.

    2) A wet, sweaty oar handle will always slip slightly in your grip over the course of many strokes. Anyone who has rowed many hundreds of hours knows this, and has taught themselves to sense any slippage or movement of the oar out of perpendicular in the water before it is detectable, and adjusts their finger position whatever fraction of an inch micromovement is required to get back to a straight wrist and oar perpendicular to the water for the vast majority of strokes. Practice this rowing while lightly. It may take HOURS over many weeks, but is well worth it. It should come quickly.

    3) I now row with gloves. A Canadian glove company makes a leather work glove with a seamless one piece palm and fingers, and mesh back. I now not only have no blisters, I do not even have any calluses.

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