Keeping Fit in the Middle of the Ocean

Coxless Crew on the OceanPhysio Skills To Stay Strong For Pacific Rowing Challenge

So many of us make excuses to avoid exercise – we don’t have enough time, we don’t have the right equipment, the gym is too expensive. Spare a thought then for British physiotherapist, Laura Penhall, who managed to stick to her exercise regime while rowing across the Pacific, despite being confined to a 29 foot boat with a cabin the size of a two man tent!

You might think that rowing 30 miles a day would provide all the physical activity needed to stay fit and strong, but this is really not the case. As with all endurance exercise, there is a risk of muscle decline (muscle atrophy) when you perform the same restricted movements over and over for hours on end. To compensate, it is important to exercise all the body’s muscles, however, when space or movement is restricted this can be very difficult. Physiotherapy exercises are key to maintaining strength, flexibility and stamina.


Laura was captain of the ‘Coxless Crew’ – the first all-female team, and the only four-person crew of any gender, to row across the Pacific Ocean. Setting off from San Francisco last April, Laura and her three team-mates completed the 8,446-mile-voyage in nine months, arriving in Cairns, Australia in January of this year.

While it is undoubtedly an amazing achievement, rowing over such extreme long distances can be very taxing on your body. Some rowers, as Laura did, experience severe sea-sickness, particularly in the early stages of the journey. Rowers also tend to suffer from sleep shortage and are often in calorie deficit – both of which can have an adverse impact on their strength and stamina.

Furthermore, with limited space to walk around and stretch your legs, one of the most common risks for long distance rowers is long-term muscle atrophy. As the former lead physiotherapist with Team GB Paralympic Athletics, Laura was aware of this risk and knew that keeping up a regular exercise regimen was key to avoiding it.

The question is, how do you find the space and time to exercise when you’re trapped on a 29-foot boat called Doris with three other people?

This is where Laura’s skills and experience as a physiotherapist came in handy, as she was able to call on a range of exercises that focus on core muscle groups and don’t require a wide range of movement.

Exercises that require you to lie flat or open out your hips, such as movements targeting your hip flexors and quads, were difficult to carry out in the cramped space. However, other exercises such as kneeling lunges could be carried out effectively on deck.

By improvising in this way, Laura was able to continue exercising regularly. This helped to ensure that she stayed strong and healthy, and able to complete the huge challenge she’d set herself.

Benefits of Physiotherapy

While few of us are likely to find ourselves on a rowing boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there are lessons we can take from Laura’s experiences.

A lack of space does not have to mean a lack of exercise. Physiotherapy can be used to great effect to improve both muscle strength and movement, even when confined to tight spots. This also proves true for people who are unable to move freely, perhaps due to injury or illness.

Laura Martin, a physiotherapist at Physio2Fitness, backs this up: “We all know that exercising regularly is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but for people with restricted mobility this is not always easy. Physiotherapy enables people to exercise safely to their own physical abilities, helping them to build up their strength and improve their fitness over time.”

Many of the exercises used by physiotherapists to improve muscular strength and flexibility are similar to those from Pilates. Applied physiotherapy is certainly not only for people who are in recovery – the exercises can be used by the fittest and strongest people to ensure that their body stays in top form.

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