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Coxing A Head Race

In the fall, races are generally time trials, which are longer races where each boat starts one after the other. The boat with the fastest time on the course wins the race, regardless of what order they started in. These races, called “head races,” are fun and exciting, and require a different type of a skillset from the coxswain seat than a 2k sprint race in the spring. Steering and strategy come into play for fall head racing, and being well prepared is a huge advantage. In this post, I go into into the most important things to think about before and during your head races this fall….

What to expect when coxing a head race:

Head races are typically 3,500-5,000 meter long races, with a few turns along the way. The boats are “started” about 15 seconds apart, and each boat races against the clock for the fastest time. Boats row into the race one by one, rather than starting from a complete stop all at once like in the spring. The winner is determined after all of the boats have completed the race, and the boat with the shortest time from start to finish emerges victorious.

Before the start:


As you warm up, you will row from where the launching spot is (usually around the finish line) to the start line. Pay attention to the landmarks, bridges, turns, any debris in the water, or anything else that might be important to be familiar with during the race. I like to point out the important landmarks to my crew and let them look at them on the warmup so they also can feel comfortable with the racecourse. It is important for you and your crew to get to know the waterway so you are comfortable and know what to expect on the way back down the course.

Your coach will help you make a warm up plan to for the row up to the start line. I like to do some drills with pauses or row by 6’s when there are lots of other boats around me in the first ~10 minutes of the warm up, creating a little distance between my boat and the boats in front of me by half way up the course. Once you have a little space, you will have the room to go all 8+, and do some power 10’s and full speed work without getting stuck right behind another boat and having to immediately stop, pause, or slow down.

Make sure you are familiar with your warmup plan before you launch, having it memorized or written down on a piece of tape. It is important to get in as many of the drills and pressure work in your practice plan as possible for your boat to be ready to go by the start.

The Start Chute:

Every fall race has an area above the start for the boats to get lined up. Every boat will have a bow number, which is a little marker that clips into the bow of the boat so the officials can time each team’s boat accurately. When you get up to the starting line, you will want to start looking for the other boats that are around your number so you can get in numerical order in the waiting area and get queued up.

For example, if you are bow number #11, you will want to keep your eyes out for #9, #10, and #12 as you get close to the start. Once you find them, you will want to tuck in right by your number order boats so when the race is ready to start, you are perfectly positioned and don’t have to worry about navigating to get in a good spot. Things happen quickly once you are in the chute, so always be aware of your surroundings and make sure you are ready to go once you are queued up so your start can be seamless.

When the officials start to call you forward, and the boats in front of you go full speed, you want to pick it up slowly at first, and then all 8+ or all 4+ and begin building to full pressure. There will be officials on the water giving you instructions on where to pull it up to and when, so just keep your ears and eyes out.

Starting Chute Tip #1: Make sure to be full speed by the time you cross the line to help your boat achieve the fastest time!

Starting Chute Tip #2: Try and keep your boat warm in the warm up area.. sometimes there can be a lot of sitting when you get to the start as the officials get all the boats in order and ready to go. If you can keep your boat moving around and staying warm, this will help your rowers be best positioned to take on the race.

Coxing your best race:

When coxing a fall race, information is your best friend. Coming into the race well prepared is the best thing you can do from the 9th seat. During the race, I like to think about interlacing data and information with technical and motivational calls, rather than planning out a “race plan”. Because you never know what will happen, it is impossible to prepare a script. I think the best approach is to think about 6 types of information that your rowers should always know, and then using that as a framework to structure your race and calls. I like to think about these as the 6 Key Pillars, and will tell you a bit about each below!

The 6 Key Pillars:

  1. Distance
  2. Time
  3. Rate
  4. Split
  5. Margins
  6. Conditions

Pillar 1: Distance

Head races are long races, and are usually on unfamiliar waters. Your rowers are going to want to know how many meters have elapsed and how many are left in the race. I like to learn the meters between different landmarks and bridges to give my boat smaller goals, rather than just saying “1,000 meters down, 3,500 to go!” which is daunting and not so motivational. I always take some time before the race to study the course map, or even clock meters between bridges and landmarks on the warm-up row so I can give my boat accurate meter markers during the race.

Example: Here are the first few landmarks of Head of the Charles. This is how I like to think about prepping for the race, so then during it I can make calls for getting to each check point.

  • Start
  • 250 meters – BU Boathouse
  • 550 meters – Magazine Beach
  • 300 meters – Riverside
  • 350 meters – River St.
  • etc..

Giving accurate meters during a long race builds trust with your rowers, and helps make the race more digestible. Rowers are giving all of their energy and strength during these long races, so being empathetic and putting yourself in their shoes will help the boat manage their effort, and get the best possible result.

Pillar 2: Time

Just like meters, time is a crucial datapoint to call off of. Keep your boat just informed enough that they know what is going on, without talking about time too much that the amount left sounds overwhelming. When I talk about time, I work to find the balance to make one long piece feel like multiple shorter pieces, rather than 1×15 minutes. Breaking it up to feel conceptually like 3×5 minutes instead of 1×15 for example will make it feel much more approachable, digestible, and doable for your rowers.

Example 1: Breaking it up

  • Say “Ok boat, we just closed out the first 5 minutes. Let’s attack this middle 5 together!”
  • NOT “we are 5 minutes down, we only have 10 minutes left!”

Example 2: Positive framing

  • Say “We are 7:30 in, coming across the halfway mark.. push us to 10 minutes”
  • NOT “ok 3 minutes down.. only 12 minutes to go!”

In terms of coxing with empathy, picture yourself in your rowers’ shoes when it comes to time. Imagine how you feel when you go for a 30 minute run. If you are anything like me, you will want to know how close you are to the finish many, many times during the workout. Keep this in mind when calling time during the race, framing it as positively as you can. Your job is to inform and motivate, not bare bad news…

Pillar 3: Rate

Especially in the fall, it is important to be thoughtful about rate. Finding a number that is low enough to be sustainable for a longer race, but high enough to keep your boat competitive is the name of the game. Communicating rate clearly and often is the best approach, since you can see every time you bump up or down a beat on your Coxbox, but the rowers don’t know the small changes unless you tell them.

When it comes to rate, I recommend being very explicit about what you want. If the boat is on rate, perfect! If the rate is too high, rather than just saying “bring it down” you need to tell them exactly how and where for it to be the most effective. If you can be clear from the coxswain seat about how you want a change made, there is a way better chance that the boat can implement it on the first try. I like to give a technical area to focus on for the shift, and give my boat 2+ strokes to prepare so they can do it effectively and together.

Examples of rate feedback:

  1. If rate is on: “we are sitting at a 32.. it feels good here”
  2. If rate is too high: “we’re at a 33.. let’s lengthen out on the front end a little to let the boat run on each recovery a bit more”
  3. If rate is too low: “we’re at a 31, and I think we can get a little more out of it. Let’s build up to a 32 through the leg drive.. use that extra beat to get a little more kick and send”

Pillar 4: Split

Just like rate, from the coxswain seat you can see the split changing every stroke on the Speedcoach, but the rowers can not. Give your boat lots of information about their split, and then layer feedback on top of it. Use technical focuses and motivational calls to drop splits when you need to bring it down. When the split is good, or even great, make sure to tell your boat that to build excitement and confidence!

Your thought process when calling split:

  • What split are we going at?
  • Where do we want to be split-wise?
  • How are we going to get the split we want?

Examples of split feedback:

  • “We are currently at a 1:50 – let’s push off the front end to go for a 1:48 for 10, on this one…”

Thought process after the call:

  • Did we make the change?
  • If not, what needs to happen next?
  • If yes, how do we maintain it?

Pillar 5: Margins

Fall racing is all about .. racing! From the coxswain seat, it is important to be strategic to get your boat from the start to the finish as quickly as possible. Know what boats are starting around you, and what their team names and blades are so you can accurately call margin during your races. It can be hard to see the other boats in some fall races, but if you have boats around you, talk about the few boat length margin and about walking seat by seat. If you are in a part of the race by yourself, it is important to keep up the urgency and race feel. Remind your boat to be thinking about other teams in the race, giving them motivation by helping them visualize walking them as if they were next to you.

Give your boat big and small margins to keep them invested, and give them goals that feel possible:

  1. “I want us walking a few feet every move until we close that gap”
  2. “This race is going to come down to a few seconds, so lets move on our rivals through the middle here even when they are not next to us”

When you have a boat that you are trying to pass, call as much margin as possible. Use any boat next to you as a tool to pick up speed, hype up your boat, and walk through them quickly.

  1. “we are bow to stern on XX team. Power 10 to get me half way through their boat”
  2. “we are dead even, I want to get this bow in front. let’s walk on the legs now!”

Pillar 6: Conditions

In terms of conditions, it’s important to remember that although you can see everything from the coxswains seat, the rowers are sitting backwards and only can see things when they are behind you and in front of them. I like to give my rowers warning about conditions so they can prepare both mentally and technically for whatever is coming. Whether it is a wake, a gust of wind, or even a calm spot, it is helpful for the rowers to know how the conditions are going to change to give your boat the best opportunity to not just handle it, but to capitalize on it.

Examples of calling conditions:

  1. A gust of wind is approaching, help your boat prepare:
  2. Ex. “I see a big gust coming in 2 strokes. Lets keep the shoulders loose and the blades direct on this one..”
  3. If you see a wake coming, warn your boat:
  4. Ex. “A launch wake is coming on port side first in about 5 strokes.. lets stay horizontal and try and keep the set as we row through it”
  5. If the water is getting choppier, tell them how to handle it well:
  6. Ex. “We are about to hit a choppy patch.. lets keep the blade work clean and tap down a little extra to keep the boat set”
  7. If you find a flat spot, make the most of it:
  8. Ex. “Ok boat… we are coming into a protected part of the river.. lets move here while we are out of the wind…. Lets take a 10 to take advantage of the good water”


In Summary, fall racing is exciting but unpredictable. Preparing well from the coxswain seat, controlling what you are able to control, and being able to relay the relevant information to your crew is key for getting the most out of your race. If you can have a good pulse on The 6 Key Pillars, and connect motivation and technical calls to them, you are going to cox a great race.

If you have questions about any of this information, or want to strengthen your ability to read a situation in the boat and make calls in the moment, reach out to me! I would love to set up time to to work 1:1 and help develop the tools you need to call your best head races yet… Shoot me an email at for more information.

Izzi Weiss is the owner of Inside Turn and a contributor to Rowers Choice.

You can find more information at and connect with her at