When Your Hands Ain't Happy, Nobody's Happy

Here’s a topic that’s on my mind this time of year: blisters.

As in, my hands are killing me.

I’ve been on the water about six weeks, switching between rowing sweep (one oar) and sculling (two oars), and also doing pull-ups and other CrossFit craziness. My hands are the worse for it.

Most rowers suffer with blisters when they start rowing--either for the first time ever or when they start up after some time away from the water. It happens at regattas, too, when you are maybe wringing the oar with a little more vigor. And if you go to a rowing camp and row 2-3 sessions a day? Yep. Blisters can happen then, too.

I’m thinking, dear Novice Rower, that as you start your rowing journey, your hands might be feeling a little tender. Perhaps knowing that it happens to every rower might make you feel a teensy bit better. And perhaps knowing what to do to be more comfortable would help, too.

Before we begin....

Disclaimer #1:  This is a post on rowing blisters without grotesque images of peeling palms. You're welcome. (If you like photos of a zombie apocalypse, you’ll love Google-ing “rowing blisters.” Gah!)

Disclaimer #2: There are as many blister treatment philosophies as there are rowers.  I can only tell you what's worked for me. Please keep in mind that I’m the furthest thing from a doctor you’ll ever find. So do your research, consult your coach, and get sound counsel from those who study this stuff.

And now, here are some thoughts on dealing with these inevitable owies.

If they aren't icky, leave 'em alone. I used to grab a needle and…well…stab and poke at them. Mine seem to heal faster if I just let them be. 

If they are icky, bandage 'em. Sometimes I rip blisters while I’m rowing, so they can't be left alone. I’m known in my house as “The Band-Aid Queen.” I have a bandage to fit every size ouchie, and even every mood (“Shakespearian Insult” bandage, anyone?). Wrapping blisters up has the added bonus of keeping my mind off of them, and also keeps my non-rowing friends from being overly concerned/weirded out/grossed out. 

(Pro tip: always bandage open blisters before showering or washing your hair. Open blisters + water = pain that defies description.)

Tape ‘em. If your blisters aren’t icky, this is the way to go when you row—just tape ‘em up and you’re laughing.

If they are bandaged, before you row, tape over the bandage. Despite having tried every sort of adhesive bandage in the free world, I’ve yet to find one that stays put when I row. But tape? That’s another story. My favorite tape, hands down (ha!), is from a lovely Minnesota company called 3M. (Yep…that 3M.) They make a first aid tape that’s stretchy, cushiony, waterproof, and breathes. Best. Stuff. Ever. 

Sand ‘em. When your blisters become calloused (a happy day!), grab a nail file and file them down. This keeps callouses from catching and re-opening. It also makes your hands much smoother. Your significant other will thank you.

I row barehanded. I have a few rowing friends who row taped up all year round, and swear by it. That’s cool. However, I am NOT an advocate of rowing with gloves. Gloves are not cool.

There’s a movement afoot to make gloves ok in the rowing world, but at this writing, dear Novice Rower, gloves are the mark of an amateur who isn't to be taken seriously. Is this silly? Yes. Is it smart to ruin your hands? Likely not. But you can't mess with tradition, and bare hands are good enough for world class rowers. 'Nuff said.

As one of my teammates put it as we sized up our competition before the start of a race at USRowing Masters Nationals, “We’ll totally take them. See? They are wearing gloves!”

They were. And we did.

Don’t be those rowers.