Rib injuries are the most mysterious and frustrating of rowing injuries. They nag slowly and face the rower with a difficult decision. Push through the pain or stop training until it’s “gone.” They crop up seemingly expectantly, they involve obscure muscles, they can’t be treated and a the rowing world still doesn’t know that much about them.
According to World Rowing, rib injuries have increased significantly since the 90s. Boat technology has moved away from more springy wooden shells and oars to stiffer composite material and shorter oars which contribute to heavier loads and more strain on the body.
The erg also plays a role in the rib drama. Since stationary rowing is now an inescapable part of training, rowers have to spend more time pushing against a machine that doesn’t move. Put a modern training plans with higher volumes that put more strain on bodies and leave less time for recovery and you’ll get a perfect storm for rib problems.
Rib injuries can also come from an increase in training volume, switching sides, switching from sculling to sweep or doing long hard pieces at low rates.
I know you’re dying to know exactly what’s happening in the body when this happens, so with no further ado, here’s my quick-and-dirty, biomechanical summary of what’s up, according to StrengthcoachWill who wrote this article for Row Perfect last January.
To the left is the serratus Anterior muscle. It surrounds the ribs and moves the arm forward. At the front end of the rowing stroke, the SA flexes and picks up the load of the boat. As the rower continues throughout the drive, the SA stays flexed and releases at the finish when the oar leaves the water. It’s work isn’t over though: On the recovery the SA has to contract as the arms move away from the body. The entire time the rowing motion is happening, the SA is cycling through a contraction pattern. It works tirelessly and is generally neglected. One of the reasons that rowers have characteristically hunched shoulders is because of tight SA muscles.
The other part of this story has to do with the muscles that oppose the SA. The rhomboids balance out the SA and prevent torque from being placed on the lower ribs. Without the rhomboids to pull against the force that the SA produces and stabilize the ribcage, the rib bones would be twisted and pounded until they start to splinter.
When the rhomboids aren’t strong enough to match the power of the SA, the ribs experience something like a runner getting shin splints. The rower will have throbbing or soreness when reaching for a doorknob, turning over in bed or breathing deeply. At this point the ribs are just stressed. If the rower keeps training, the ribs will start splintering into little micro-fractures. If the rower pushes through the pain the cracks will get larger until the bone officially fractures. According to rowers I know who have broken ribs, you’ll probably know when the bone breaks because you’ll feel a pop. Fun stuff right?
The only way to treat the rib injury is to stop putting stress on it so that the bone can heal. If it’s the finals of the IRAs, Worlds, Olympics, whatever, a rower can get away with rowing on stressed ribs. They could tape it up with KT tape but the only way to get rid of it is to stop rowing for a length of time (anywhere from days to months depending on how bad it is.) The longer you try to row on an injured rib, the longer the rehab period will be.
The best way to prevent rib injuries is through stretches and strengthening exercises. This article from Princeton University does a really good job of summarizing preventative measures. I was happy to see that most of these exercises are included in our team’s regime—so thank you coaches.
Since I wrote this article I have gotten a rib injury (9/17/17). I took a month off after U23 Worlds (where I had been rowing the 8) and started rowing full time in the single. My lats were started getting really sore about 3 weeks into training and I thought that’s just what happens when you scull.
I rowed about 80k past normal soreness, which was stupid. I stopped when it felt like my bone was separating from the muscles in my side.
I had given myself a stress response in the bone. It had splintered but it hadn’t yet broken. Because I stopped before I heard or felt a “pop” I will be able to cross train for one or two weeks and hopefully be ok.
Importantly I learned:
DO NOT TAKE ANY ANTI-INFLAMMITORIES: IE ADVIL OR ICE THE AREA
You want to site of the bone to stay inflamed so that it can heal. If you do either of these things you inhibit the body from sending blood and other helpful biological healing mechanisms to your rib.
I also learned the National Team trainer’s theory that rib problems come from weaknesses in the shoulder or upper torso. I had tolerable shoulder pain for most of my senior year of rowing, my trainers treated it, but never addressed the root issue. It developed into having tendentious in my rotator cuff so if you’re having other issues get that taken care of too. Compensating for a larger problems created the stress on my ribs.
At the end of the day, the main lesson with rib injuries is don’t be a dummy. If you start to feel pain in your ribs at the beginning of the practice, stop. If it hurts to breathe, tell your coach. If you’re rowing the opposite side, make sure you’re doing extra strength and stretching. Go forth and use this knowledge to make sure you’re not the one sitting on the launch watching practice because of something as silly as a rib fracture.