Training for Rowing

Monitoring Recovery

Training without monitoring your progress is like driving with your eyes closed, you will get somewhere but you can’t be sure where or what shape you’ll be in when you arrive. Through daily monitoring you will be able to make the fine adjustments to your program that allow you to continue to progress and recover at the fastest rate possible.

Although many people dislike math or the thought of math, numbers are your friends when it comes to developing rowing fitness. Recording time, rate, speed, bodyweight, and heart rate provides a basis for measuring and monitoring training sessions and the program as a whole. The numbers are not the whole story, they will tell you what is happening in a training session but don’t help explain why, you need to combine training data with recovery data that measures sleep, soreness and other physiological parameters that will show whether you are heading towards an overtraining state or not.

Over the years many physiological tests have been developed to try and measure recovery and guide training programs. Blood urea, creatine kinase, hormone levels and ratios, and blood amino acid profiles are just some of the tests that have been used. If you are an elite professional making millions of dollars per year and have access to top medical and physiology labs and consultants these tests are probably worth using. For everyone else there is a much simpler way that has been shown to be as effective as all the expensive blood work; the recovery questionnaire.

The Recovery Questionnaire


The recovery questionnaire is filled out every day of the week whether there is a workout scheduled or not, you want to be able to measure the effect of a day off as well as a training day. A 2-3 week baseline should be established in the off-season when you are doing little or no training. The baseline is used to measure how far from a fully recovered state you are moving as a result of training and will be referred back to every week so keep the baseline numbers handy.

Each of the items in table 1 are rated on a scale of 1-10, using half points as well as whole numbers. Low numbers are better ratings for example a rating of 1 on quality of sleep means you had a great nights sleep, a 10 might mean you were up most of the night. The ratings are based on how you fell when you first wake up and get out of bed in the morning. Be honest with yourself, as you will use this information to adjust your program. Body weight should be measured after voiding and before breakfast so that conditions for the weigh in are standardized. Morning heart rate is measured as soon as you wake up. Keep a watch by your bedside and take a 30 second heart rate count and multiply it by two to get the number of beats per minute.

Table 1. Recovery Questionnaire

Item Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat Sun Average Baseline
Hours of Sleep                  
Sleep Quality                  
Muscle Soreness                  
Joint Soreness                  
General Fatigue                  
Desire to Train                  
Morning HR                  


Using the Data to Adjust The Program


All data is compared back to the baseline established in the off-season. No single variable can assess recovery; the power of the questionnaire comes from the use of multiple variables simultaneously. If you see an increase of two points on the unshaded variables, compared to the baseline, on three or more variables two days in a row you need to take a day off or cut both the volume and intensity of the day’s training in half. If the week average of three of the unshaded items increases by three or more points you need to schedule a recovery week, even if one is not planned in the program.

Morning heart rate and body weight are not included in the daily and weekly analysis because changes in these items are much more gradual than the other factors that are being monitored. Increases in morning heart rate of more than 10 beats per minute for a week or more should be looked at closely, if it is occurring without changes in any of the other variables it may signal a loss of aerobic fitness which may or may not affect your performance depending on the endurance demands of your sport. If the weekly average is increasing and morning heart rate is high you need to consider planning a recovery week.

Unintentional decreases in bodyweight are one of the early signs of overtraining. Body weight can fluctuate daily because of hydration levels and what you ate and drank the previous day. Very large athletes can see their weight change by several pounds from day to day; because of this it is better to use weekly percent changes in body weight to assess your long-term weight profile. If you see a weekly-unintended weight loss of more than two percent something needs to be adjusted in training or diet. First increase fluid intake to see if you are dehydrated because of the week’s training schedule and insufficient fluid intake. If the weekly average of other variables is increasing and bodyweight is decreasing there is a good chance that you are beginning to overtrain and need to schedule a recovery week.

Regular monitoring of recovery will help you adjust your training program and give you an idea of the effect that various workouts have on your body. Combining recovery measures with the information on boat speed, perceived intensity of a workout and work time will allow you to dial in your training program and ensure the fastest rate of progress.


March 12, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Research Review #4

It is often difficult for coaches and athletes to keep up on the latest training innovations and findings. The purpose of this column is to review and comment on research that is currently being done on rowing and training for endurance sports. I will try to make a link between the research and practical application for the rower.


Reviewed Study


Specific respiratory warm-up improves rowing performance and exertional dyspnea. Voliantis, S., McConnell, A., Koutedakis, Y., and Jones, D. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 2001. Volume 33(7) pages 1189-1193.

 Pre training and pre-competition warm up is now the norm rather than the exception in most sports. While many rowers warm-up because they believe it will help prevent injuries warm-up can also have a positive impact on rowing performance. Warm-up styles have traditionally been placed in three major classes; passive, general, and specific. Passive warm-ups involve the use of saunas, topical rubs, massage or hot showers. These warm ups have little to no positive effect on performance. General warm-ups are usually moderate intensity and can incorporate either rowing or full body calisthenic exercise. Specific warm-ups are usually done after a general warm-up and include higher intensity short sprints to simulate race pace or the start. The purpose of this study was to examine the effects of three different warm-up protocols and determine if a warm-up of the respiratory muscles could enhance rowing performance.

 Fourteen competitive club rowers (7 male, 7 female), with an average age of 20 years volunteered for the study. The subjects, on separate occasions, performed all three warm-up protocols followed by a 6 minute all out test on a concept II to assess rowing performance.

 The three warm-up protocols were, a submaximal warm-up (SWU) that involved eight minutes of rowing at 65-70% of the subjects best power output in a 6 minute test. Stroke rate was kept between 22-24 spm. The rowing warm-up (RWU) was five minutes of light jogging followed by 10 minutes of stretching and rowing. The rowing portion of the warm-up was 1 x 12 min increasing rate from 18-24 followed by five progressively faster sprints with 2 minutes paddling between pieces. The rowing warm-up plus respiratory warm-up (RWUplus) was the rowing warm-up plus a respiratory warm up that consisted of  two sets of 30 breaths using an inspiratory muscle trainer set at 40% of maximum inspiratory pressure (the maximum pressure exerted when breathing in).

 The average power during the 6 min test was 3.2% higher following the RWU and 4.4% high following the RWUplus compared to the submaximal warm-up. The distance rowed was increased by 11 and 18 meters following the RWU and RWUplus warm-ups respectively, compared to the SWU.  Immediately following the 6 minute test the rowers were asked to rate, on a scale from 0-10, the effort required to breathe during the test. There was no difference between the SWU and RWU warm-ups, but the subjects reported that breathing was significantly easier following the RWUplus. Inspiratory muscle fatigue was also decreased only in the RWUplus group. Inspiratory muscle strength decreased by 10% and 11% in the SWU and RWU groups but only by 4% in the RWUplus group.

 The reasons why the combination respiratory muscle warm-up and rowing warm-up was more effective are unclear. The decreased breathing difficulty and lower pain associated with breathing are probably the main cause. Everyone has a threshold of fatigue and pain that they cannot push beyond. If the stress associated with breathing is decreased the rower is able to push their other systems a little further creating a better test score.

 It isn’t often that a training method or technology comes along that is as promising as inspiratory muscle training. This is the second study in the past 6 months that has found improvements in rowing performance through inspiratory muscle work during warm up or training. This is an exciting area that deserves more attention from both researchers and the rowing community. Work needs to be done with elite performers and masters athletes to see if they respond differently. We still need to learn which training programs are most effective for improving inspiratory muscle strength in rowers. I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has tried inspiratory muscle training as part of their rowing program.

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is Your Training Focused Properly?

Every year you spend countless hours rowing, erging, and lifting weights. You read all the articles and books you can get your hands on, you consult with coaches and other athletes on the best type of training and yet you are probably missing the most important piece of the puzzle. What do you as an individual need to train and how do you know if you are focusing your training properly.

 Rowing is roughly 80% aerobic and 20% anaerobic. So it would seem logical that you need to improve aerobic fitness to improve your rowing but what type of aerobic training should you do? I’ve already pointed out in prior articles that aerobic base building is very important for rowing as is improving anaerobic threshold. There is also some research that for big boat rowing VO2 max is very important. Determining where you as an individual need to focus is a matter of something I like to call proportional fitness.

 Proportional fitness is an examination of how peak anaerobic power, VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, and aerobic threshold compare to each other. In an ideal situation you would expect to see the following relationships: Anaerobic threshold should be 80-85% of VO2 max, aerobic threshold should be 65-70% of VO2 max and VO2 max should be 40-45% of peak power. The ideal way to determine these points and relationships is with a fitness test that includes both lactate and oxygen analysis. Since not everyone has access to these tests lets try to translate these relationships into something more practical.

Of course if you went to an exercise physiology lab and had all these variables measured you could get a very accurate picture of where you stand but this isn’t possible for everyone. Instead several simple tests you can perform on your own will give you a decent estimate of your proportional fitness. You will need to find all your data using the wattage setting on your erg  because it is much easier to do calculations with wattage than it is with time.

 VO2 max can be estimated as the average watts from a 1000m test. Anaerobic threshold is close to the average watts used during a 6k or 20 minute test and aerobic threshold is approximately the wattage that corresponds to a 75-90 minute steady state row. Peak power is the maximum wattage you see during a 30 second sprint with the erg set on it’s highest drag factor. Do each of these tests on a separate day so that fatigue from one test does not interfere with the results of another test. Let’s assume you do all the tests and come up with the following data:


Table 1. Sample Data



1000 m 400 watts
6 K or 20 minutes 295 watts
75 minute row 180 watts
30 second sprint 750 watts


From this data we can calculate:


Table 2. Comparing the Sample to the Ideal




VO2 vs peak power



Anaerobic threshold vs VO2



Aerobic threshold vs VO2




 Interpreting the Data

  To understand the data we need to understand the relationship between the physiological points we are discussing and the concept of ceilings. Figure 1 shows the relationship between the physiological points. Each of these physiological points can only get so close to the point above before you stop seeing progress. For instance if your anaerobic threshold gets to 85% of your VO2 max it becomes very difficult to move it any higher, this is not to say that you couldn’t get it to 90% but it may take years to get it to do so. You would probably get better race results by focusing your training elsewhere. Table 2 shows the results of our example and the ideal relationships between the physiological variables.

 Looking at the results we see that VO2 max is a higher percentage of peak power than it should be, 53% versus the 45% ideal, suggesting that this person needs to improve their peak power or they will have difficulty improving their time in a 1000m or 2000m race.

 Anaerobic threshold, as measured by a 20 minute or 6K test is 74% of VO2 max as opposed to the 85% ideal. This means the person in our example also needs to raise their anaerobic threshold.

 Finally we can also see that aerobic threshold, as measured by the 75- 90 minute test is 45% of VO2 max instead of the 70% ideal, indicating a need for more low intensity long duration work.


Setting Your Training Focus

 Now that you have the data and have determined what needs to be trained you can now set training priorities. Your first priority is to train the area with the biggest percentage difference between your score and the ideal. In the case of our example this would be aerobic threshold, which is 25% away from where it should be. Second priority will be anaerobic threshold and third is peak power. Fortunately training at low intensity, to improve aerobic threshold will have some carry over affect to anaerobic threshold, improving it as well.

 If all the variables are close to the same percentage away from the ideal use the following guidelines:

  1.  Work aerobic threshold first, particularly during the winter months. This will help get you ready for the higher intensity work to follow.
  2. Peak power is the second priority since it will limit everything below it. Raising peak power gives more room for everything else to move up. Keep in mind that it doesn’t take long to see improvements in peak power, 4-6 weeks of short sprint training combined with a year round strength program.
  3. Anaerobic threshold will be improved through the low intensity long duration work and only needs to be trained 1-2 times per week for everyone below an elite level.
  4. VO2 max will be improved through all of the above mentioned training methods and therefore doesn’t need a lot of focused training. Most research suggest that dedicating more than 5% of your yearly training hours to VO2 max level training may hinder your performance more than help.


  It is difficult for anyone to admit to weaknesses but in sport it is the only way to improve and reach your full potential. Identifying your training priorities will help you focus your training on those areas that are going to give you the biggest return on your training time investment.

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Maintaining Good Immune Function During Training

The arrival of fall ushers in the end of the rowing season and the beginning of cold and flu season. Endurance athletes area at greater risk of developing upper respiratory tract infections than non athletes, particularly during periods of heavy training and stress. Getting sick or injured can be one of the biggest impediments to a good winter of training. If you have an illness that drags on it may cause your training volume and quality to drop enough that your spring racing may be affected.


Besides avoiding all human contact, which is impractical and frequent hand washing, which we should all be doing there are a few training and nutritional practices that can help you maintain good immune function this winter.


Gradual Volume Increases

Sudden increases in volume seem to trigger greater immune suppression and increase the likely hood of injury. Most people will take a month or more off after their final race. Plan your transition period and the date when you start back into training early enough in the year that you can work back into training gradually. Start with about 60% of the peak training volume you used the previous season and build your volume each week. Maximum increase in training volume from week to week should not be more than 10% of the previous week’s volume.


Plan for External Stress

External stressors are a part of life and can combine with training stress to decrease immune function. Many of them are unexpected but there are those that can be predicted and built into the training plan. Exam periods for student athletes are set far enough in advance that they can be built into the training plan. Busy periods at work often can be predicted and planned. Holidays occur at the same time every year. Recovery weeks and decreased periods of training volume should be planned to coincide with these external stressors.


Vitamins and Minerals

One of the keys to maintaining a healthy immune system is to avoid deficiencies of the nutrients that play a key role in immune function. Deficiencies of vitamins A, E, C, B6, B12 and folic acid decrease resistance to infection, as can deficiencies in zinc, iron, magnesium, and selenium. Correcting deficiencies can restore normal immune function. Does this mean that you should be taking mega doses of vitamins and minerals? Definitely not. Magnesium and selenium deficiencies are rare. While zinc and iron deficiencies are common in athletes you need to be careful when supplementing these minerals, excessive zinc and iron can also have a negative impact on immune function. You can monitor your need for iron and zinc with simple blood tests, serum ferritin and hemoglobin for iron and erythrocyte zinc for zinc status.

If you are eating a well balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables you probably do not need a vitamin supplement; if you don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables a daily multi vitamin/mineral supplement will probably be beneficial. Excessive intakes of Vitamins A and E can lead to immune system suppression and other toxic effects. Vitamin C supplementation of up to 800mg per day does seem to have a beneficial effect on immune function during hard training or racing.



Getting adequate energy and carbohydrate are the most important factor in maintaining good immune function. When carbohydrate stores become depleted during exercise cortisol levels start to rise. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone in the body that breaks down various substances and tissues for energy. High levels of cortisol suppress immune function, decrease bone density, and break down muscle tissue. Consuming carbohydrates during and immediately post exercise can decrease cortisol levels and help maintain good immune health.  Consume 30-60g of carbohydrate per hour during training in a drink that provides 4-8g of carbs per 100ml.


The addition of protein to your post workout recovery drink will enhance the uptake of the carbohydrate and has been shown to decrease muscle breakdown more effectively than carbohydrate alone. The addition of protein also stimulates the development of new muscle proteins, which are essential for training adaptations to occur. Your post workout recovery drink should have approximately 1g of protein for every 2-3 g of carbohydrate.



It has been well established that an inadequate intake of protein impairs immunity. Many athletes become so focused on carbohydrate intake that they are protein malnourished. Extremely high volumes of training can also lead to protein malnourishment if protein becomes a source of fuel for training sessions. Early morning training, prior to food intake, and multiple higher intensity training sessions in a day are major culprits in the development of protein nutrition problems. Endurance athletes should be consuming 1.2-1.6 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you are training more than 15 hours per week your protein need may be even higher and should be determined by nutrition professional.

 Other Nutritional Substances

Other nutrients and nutritional substances have been promoted as having a positive effect on immune function; athletes and non-athletes frequently use Echinacea, glutamine, and oregano oil alike. The research on these substances is mixed; some studies show positive effects on immune function or in the reduction of upper respiratory tract infections while others have shown no effect. This may be due to differences in the quality of the product, dose size and immune status. Consult with your physician or nutrition professional before using these substances.

 Nobody likes to get sick. Following some of these suggestions may help you prevent illnesses this winter and still keep your training volume and intensity where it needs to be to row at your best next spring and summer.

August 11, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Research Review #3

The purpose of this column is to review and comment on research that is currently being done on rowing and training for endurance sports. I will try to make a link between the research and practical application for the rower.


Reviewed Study


Inspiratory muscle training improves rowing performance. Voliantis, S., McConnell, A., Koutedakis, Y., McNaughton, L., Backx, K., and Jones, D. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise 2001. Volume 33(5) pages 803-809.

 Breathing is something we take for granted, it just happens. At rest or during normal daily activity we don’t think about the work that goes on every time we breathe. During very intense exercise, like that experienced during a race, up to 15% of the energy produced is consumed by respiratory muscles. This is energy that isn’t being used to make the boat go faster.

 There are several respiratory training devices on the market that are designed to improve the strength and efficiency of the inspiratory musculature, those muscles that allow you to breathe in. They do this by increasing airflow resistance through a special valve. To date most of the research on these devices has been inconclusive. They have shown improvements in inspiratory muscle strength but no improvement in performance. Much of this is probably because these studies have used cycling or walking as the mode of exercise. Rowing, unlike cycling and walking, forces the breathing muscles to not only work for breathing but also to act as trunk stabilizers during the drive phase of every stroke.

 This study examined the effects of 11 weeks of inspiratory muscle training on rowing performance. The used a 6-minute all out test and a 5000 m test to measure rowing performance. Fourteen female competitive rowers who were all British National team candidates participated in the study. They were broken into two groups. The first, trained twice a day using 30 breaths per session at a resistance equal to 50% of the maximum inspiratory pressure they could generate (inspiratory pressure is the maximum pressure that can be generated when breathing in). The second group, a placebo group, trained once a day, 60 breaths with 15% of maximum inspiratory pressure, a training protocol that will not increase inspiratory muscle strength. The athletes were tested at the start of the study, four weeks later and again at the end of the study.

 The training group improved their 6-minutes test performance by 3.4% after four weeks of breathing training while the placebo group only increased by 1.1%. By the end of the 11 weeks the training group had improved by 3.5% and the placebo group had improved by 1.6%. The researches suggest that the difference of 1.9% improvement between the two groups is the result of the inspiratory muscle training.

 In addition the training group improved 5000 m test time by 36 seconds while the placebo group only improved by 11 seconds. These results were brought about by a 41% improvement in respiratory muscle function for the training group and 5% for the placebo group.

 While a 1.9% net improvement doesn’t seem like a lot many races are won or lost by much less than 1.9%. This is equal to almost seven seconds over a 2000 m course. One of the interesting things to come out of this study was that almost all of the performance improvements came in the first four weeks of the training program. This may be due to the fact that the resistance was not adjusted during the study to match performance improvements, suggesting that a training program for the breathing muscles should include progressive resistance in the same way a program would be designed for other muscles.

 While respiratory muscle training is not going to solve all your rowing problems the results of this study clearly suggest that a high level rower may benefit from respiratory muscle training. Whether these results can be applied to athletes with lower fitness levels remains to be seen, and there is still a lot of work to do to find the most effective training program for these muscle. Those of you who are looking for an edge and have a little extra money may want to give this a try.

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Research Review #2

The purpose of this column is to review and comment on research that is currently being done on rowing and training for endurance sports. I will try to make a link between the research and practical application for the rower.


Reviewed Study


I have chosen two studies this time since they are both done by the same people and are on the same topic.

 Enhancement of 2000-m rowing performance after caffeine ingestion. C.R. Bruce, M.E. Anderson, S.F. Fraser, N.K. Stepto, R. Klein, W.G. Hopkins, and J.A. Hawley. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 2000 Volume 32 pp. 1958-1963.

 Improved 2000-Meter Rowing Performance in Competitive Oarswomen After Caffeine Ingestion. M.E. Anderson, C.R. Bruce, S. F. Fraser, N.K. Stepto, R. Klein, W.G. Hopkins, and J.A. Hawley. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2000 Volume 10 pp. 464-475

 There is a tradition in rowing of training very early in the morning. It is not uncommon to see rowers showing up at the boat-house or gym carrying a cup of coffee. Is this coffee just a morning wake me up or will it actually make the training session better. Eight female and eight male competitive rowers participated in these studies. The purpose was to determine the effects of various doses of caffeine on a 2000 m ergometer performance.

 The subjects performed three 2000 m tests 3-7 days apart. The subjects consumed either 6 mg/kg of caffeine, 9 mg/kg of caffeine or a placebo that contained no caffeine. In both studies the consumption of caffeine improved 2000 m performance. The men improved by an average of 1.2% . The men responded best to the lower dose of caffeine where the average performance increase was 1.3%

 The women improved by an average of 1% with the greatest improvement coming from the higher caffeine dose. The total performance improvement was in the range of 4s for the low dose and 6s for the high dose. All of the improvement occurred in the first 500m.

 Caffeine has been used as a performance enhancing aid for many years. The performance enhancing benefits of caffeine in long endurance events has been well established. Caffeine enhances the use of fat as an energy source and helps prevent carbohydrate depletion, one of the main causes of fatigue in long endurance events.

A 2000m race is not long enough to cause carbohydrate depletion. The performance enhancement seen for a rowing race is more likely due to the effects that caffeine has on the central nervous system (CNS). Caffeine increases the number of motor units recruited, this means that more muscles are active during the race allowing the rower to pull a little bit harder. It has also been suggested that caffeine may affect the CNS in such a way that fatigue signals are over ridden.

 While these studies clearly suggest that caffeine can enhance rowing performance, this substance should be used cautiously. Caffeine is on the IOC banned substance list. A positive test will result when urinary caffeine levels exceed 12 mg/L. In these studies neither dose resulted in urinary caffeine levels of more than 8.2 mg/L for the women. The men on the other hand had much higher urinary caffeine levels. The higher dose, 9 mg/kg, resulted in urinary caffeine levels of approximately 14 mg/L, which is high enough to cause a positive drug test.

 There are still a number of questions that need to be answered about the role of caffeine in enhancing rowing performance. What effect does habitual caffeine use have? What is the optimal dose? How does gender affect the role of caffeine?

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Research Review #1

The purpose of this column is to review and comment on research that is currently being done on rowing and training for endurance sports. I will try to make a link between the research and practical application for the rower.


Reviewed Study


The Relationship between selected physiological variables of rowers and rowing performance as determined by a 2000-m ergometer test.

 M.J. Cosgrove, J. Wilson, D. Watt, and S.F. Grant

Journal of Sport Sciences, 1999 Volume 17 pp. 845-852

 This study looked at the relationship between body fat percentage, VO2 max, lactate threshold, lactate recovery, velocity at VO2 max, rowing economy and a 2000 m ergometer performance. The subjects were 13 male lightweight club rowers of varying ability with 1-9 years of rowing experience.

 The researchers found that the physiological variables that correlated most to 2000 m ergometer performance were VO2 max, lean body mass, VO2 at 4mMol of lactate (approximately lactate threshold) and lactate recovery. These findings are similar to what has been reported in some other studies.

 The researchers have suggested that based on these results lightweights who are less than the maximum allowable weight should consider adding muscle mass in order to improve their performance. I have to agree with this point. It is very difficult for a light lightweight to generate the same sort of power that someone who normally sits a few pounds above the category can generate. If you find yourself in this situation a greater emphasis should be placed on strength training during the first 2-3 months after the racing season.

 One of the conclusions of the study is that more time should be spent trying to increase VO2 max because it correlates best to ergometer performance. This is one of the few flaws in this study. While this study supports this view a single study does not look at the whole picture of what goes into designing a program or developing an athlete.

Typically, VO2 max is improved through high intensity interval training. There is no doubt that this type of speed work is important to rowers. However, increasing the time spent on this type of training will not necessarily improve performance. An aerobic base and the ability to remove lactate must be built first. Lactate removal is critical for interval training. During the recovery part of an interval if the lactate produced during the hard work is not removed the next interval will be done at a lower speed or power. If the speed of the interval decreases the interval becomes ineffective. Most rowers need to spend more time doing lower intensity base work. This type of training is common amongst the most successful international rowers who may spend as much as 80% of their training time developing an aerobic base and improving lactate threshold.

This is the first study to look at the effects of rowing economy on 2000-m ergometer performance. Rowing economy was assessed by measuring oxygen consumption at selected submaximal 500-m splits. Lower oxygen consumption at each split means the rower is more efficient at that pace. This is because the oxygen consumption is related to the amount of energy required to do the work. A more efficient rower will waste less energy. Only the efficiency at the highest workload was related to 2000-m performance. This shouldn’t be surprising since most rowers with at least a year of training will have fairly good technique during low intensity ergometer work, technical changes tend to show up at higher speeds where good technique has not yet been learned.

 This study confirmed other research that found that VO2 max is an important physiological variable for rowing. It added a new twist by assessing rowing economy. This is a variable that deserves more attention in future studies.

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Interval Training: Work and Rest

Interval training is a popular form of training amongst many athletes. While most rowers will use intervals at some point in the year few really understand the purpose of intervals or how get the most from this valuable training method.


Physiology of Interval Training

Interval training involves alternating periods of high intensity work with periods of lower intensity work, usually, but not always above and below anaerobic threshold. By alternating periods of higher intensity work with lower intensity work several things are accomplished:

 The amount of high intensity work is maximized. If you were to try to hold an intensity above anaerobic threshold for as long as possible you would fatigue in just over 20 minutes. If you were to do 6 x 5 minute work intervals with a rest period in between you would have done 30 minutes of work above threshold. Since the volume of work above threshold was higher it should give you a greater training effect. The same holds true for VO2 max and anaerobic intervals.

 During the work period of the interval you will be producing lactic acid and other metabolic products, which your body will have to deal with during the rest period. Active slow twitch muscle fibers are capable of using lactic acid and other metabolites as an energy source. Repeatedly exposing your body to moderate levels of lactate and other metabolites and then allowing it to recover gradually trains your body to become more efficient at lactate and metabolite removal as your body develops the enzymes necessary to convert lactate back to glycogen or glucose. This will translate into lower lactate and faster times during a race since you will be able to deal with the lactate and other metabolites as they are produced. Of course this training effect will only happen if you have done adequate base training.

 The aerobic capacity of fast twitch fibers is improved with interval training. The more often a fiber is activated the greater it’s oxidative capacity. Interval training is the only ways to activate the fast twitch fibers frequently enough to improve their aerobic capacity, making them behave more like slow twitch fibers.


Designing an Interval Training Program

 Interval training is high intensity and needs to be planned very carefully in order to avoid overtraining. The most important component of an interval program is the base work that is done prior to starting intervals. The initial 6-8 weeks of your training should be devoted almost exclusively to low intensity long duration training, 60 minutes or more per session. This will prime the slow twitch fibers and improve their fitness, so that they can accept the lactate that will be produced when intervals are started, allowing you to make effective use of interval training.


The Work Period

 The duration of the work period will vary depending on the intensity of the interval. A work load just above anaerobic threshold will need long intervals, 5-10 minutes, while higher intensity anaerobic intervals can be as short as five seconds. Consistency is the most important factor in interval training. The power output or split time should be the same for each work piece of an interval session. In other words if you are doing 5 minutes at 1:55/500 on the first interval all other intervals should be done at the same pace. This ensures that you are maintaining the appropriate intensity and recruiting the same muscle fibers in each interval, improving the training effect. It does very little for you to do an interval session where the first interval is 1:55 the next is 1:59 the next 2:02 etc. Be sure to choose an interval duration and split time that allows you to be consistent throughout the workout.

 Choosing paces for the work intervals requires a little up front work on your part. You need to have an idea of your splits for both anaerobic threshold and VO2 max.


The Rest Period

 The rest period is as important as the work period. The purpose of the rest period is to allow time to remove the lactate created during the work interval, and allow the anaerobic alactic energy system to replenish itself. During aerobic intervals, intervals longer than two minutes, the rest period is active, meaning you continue to row but at a lower intensity. The duration of the rest period will depend on the duration and intensity of the work period. Aerobic intervals will vary for a 1:1 to a 1:4 work rest ratio. Anaerobic intervals were covered last year in another article. When choosing the duration of your rest period, follow these simple guidelines: 1). The longer the work the shorter the rest

Longer intervals are normally done at lower intensity, requiring a shorter rest period. A five minute interval just above anaerobic threshold will produce moderate levels of lactate requiring less time to recover so a 1:1 or 1:1.5 work to rest ratio can be used. A higher intensity two minute interval will produce more lactate and therefore require a longer recovery. 2). Adjust the duration of the rest period so that you can maintain a consistent split during the work period. It may happen that you decide to do 5 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest, repeated 5 times. Half way through the workout you notice that you can’t hold the same work split. Finish the training session, coming as close as possible to the desired splits. For the next session increase the duration of the rest period by 50%. If you still cannot hold the desired splits for all the work periods drop the splits for the rest period by about 10% for the next workout.


Table 1: Work and Rest Period for Various Interval Intensities

Type of Interval

Work Period



Anaerobic Threshold 3-10 min 1: 1 or 1:1.5 Just above and just below threshold
Supra threshold-Sub Max 2-7 min 1:2 or 1:3 Halfway between AT and VO2 max. Recovery in CAT VI
VO2 max 1-4 min 1:3 or 1:4 Work at VO2 max recovery in CAT VI
Anaerobic Sprints 5-60 seconds 1:6 All out sprint passive recovery


 Most rowers who race 2000m will use some combination of all four types of intervals in their training program. For those rowing 1000m races the VO2 max and anaerobic sprints should make up the bulk of your interval training, while those doing only head races will focus their interval training on anaerobic threshold intervals.

 While interval training is a great way to improve speed, it is easy to overdo it and do yourself more harm than good so take it easy when starting by doing only one session per week and increasing by one session per week every two weeks until your are doing at most four sessions per week.

August 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Transitioning to the Head Race Season

For many the 1000m and 2000m seasons are drawing to an end and thoughts are turning to the fall head racing season. While many people will use the same program for both racing seasons there are several modifications that should be considered to make the head race season more successful.


The Transition

 The transition between racing seasons can be treated much like the transition between training years a short break will do wonders for you both physically and mentally. Consider at least a four day break from all training, use this time to make adjustments to rigging, confirm travel arrangements to races, take care of any minor injuries that may have occurred in the previous season, and perform a post season evaluation where you look back ion the racing season and honestly assess what went right and what went wrong, trying to determine specific physical or technical weaknesses that you may need to address. If your main races are late in the fall you may want to extend the break for another three days.


Build a Base

 Humans produce energy from two energy systems. The aerobic system requires oxygen to take part in the chemical reactions that produce energy. The anaerobic energy systems don’t require oxygen. The anaerobic systems produce energy at a much higher rate than the aerobic system but they have a limited capacity. In 2000 m racing about 70-80% of the energy used comes from the aerobic system and 20-30% from the anaerobic systems. A 1000 m race, which for the purposes of this article I will assume takes about 3:30-4:30 to complete, is probably about 50-60% anaerobic and 40-50% aerobic. During head races approximately 90-95% of the energy will come from the aerobic system and 5-10% from the anaerobic system. Because of the high aerobic demand of head racing a good aerobic base is essential. Typically, the last couple of weeks of the 1000m/2000m season will focus on higher intensity speed work at the cost of aerobic base training. The first 2-3 weeks of head race training should be focused exclusively on rebuilding your aerobic base with 4-5 long, low intensity, training sessions of at least 60 minutes per week. Try using a pace that is 13-15 seconds slower than your head race pace.


Technique Work

 The other advantage of spending time redeveloping your aerobic base is the opportunity it provides to work on technique. The turns and steering in head races can present challenges to rowers who have not practiced them during the 1000m/2000m season, costing valuable time. Use the time you are developing aerobic base to work on the turns you will need in your races.


Increase Threshold

 The body is always producing and using lactate. The rate of production and the rate of removal are normally equal so there is no build up of lactic acid in the blood or muscles. Anaerobic threshold is the point where the body starts to rely on fast twitch muscle fibers to maintain the higher workload. This causes a rapid accumulation of lactate and other metabolites in the blood and muscles contributing to fatigue. The majority of a head race will be done at or just below anaerobic threshold, the higher your threshold the faster you will be able to row the race.

 Most training at or above anaerobic threshold is done using intervals. The volume of high intensity work is the key to improving in this type of training. The recovery period between intervals lets the body deal with the lactate and other metabolites that are produced during the work period. This allows a higher work volume to be completed than if no recovery periods were taken. Recovery periods for aerobic training should not be less than 3-5 minutes. Using a 1-2:1 rest:work ratio will ensure adequate recovery between repeats. Work intervals for head race training are long, 5-7 minutes. The recovery period is active recovery, usually a light paddle.

One of the goals in preparing for a head race is to increase the amount of time that anaerobic threshold can be maintained. Threshold endurance training uses steady state exercise at anaerobic threshold for periods of 20-30 minutes. These training session are very similar to races and should only be done in the 3-4 weeks prior to the major race of the season. Training for threshold endurance more than once a week can quickly lead to overtraining.

Strength Training

 Strength in rowing is most important for the start phase of the race which can last 20-30 seconds. In a 2000 m race the start accounts for about 4% of the total race time. In the 1000 m race the start accounts for just over 8% of the race. This means that a competitor has less time to overcome a poor start in the 1000 m race. In a head race the start accounts for about 1.5% of the race. Provided you concentrated on building strength over the winter, strength training during the head race season should focus on maintenance and injury prevention. Train twice a week doing 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps, using a variety of exercises that work the right and left sides independently, with a special emphasis on developing the abs and lower back.

 While there are many similarities between head race training and 1000/2000m training there are also some differences. Creating a plan for attacking the head season will pay off with better times and more fun.

August 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How Do Rowers Compare?

Recently a newspaper article suggesting that, in the opinion of the author, rowing is not a sport has caused quite a stir in the rowing community. I even heard some people claim that it would cause the downfall of collegiate rowing. Of course this is ridiculous, articles like that have been written about every sport at one time or another with the sole purpose of starting lively debate. Most are written as opinion pieces with no fact or science to back them up other than a dictionary definition. It does raise an interesting point however, if we get right down to how do rowers compare to other athletes? Over the past 15 years I have worked with athletes from 17 different Canadian Olympic and professional sport teams doing physiological monitoring and strength training. During that time I’ve compiled an extensive database on the physiology of the athletes in these various sports so let’s take a look at a variety of physiological parameters and see how elite rowers compare to elite performers in other sports.

 Aerobic Fitness

 Let’s start in the obvious place aerobic fitness. With 80% of the energy required to do a 2000m race provided by the aerobic energy system rowers have high levels of aerobic fitness. VO2 max, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and use is a common indicator of aerobic fitness. Elite heavyweight males are capable of consuming 6-7 litres of oxygen per minute. By comparison cross country skiers and cyclists will typically use 5-6 L/min although some have came come close to 7 L. So it appears that rowers are the most aerobically fit athletes right? Well let’s take another look. Heavyweight male rowers tend to be quite a bit larger than cyclists or skiers and this has an impact on VO2 max when it is expressed in absolute terms (L/min). If we take into account body weight we see a different story. Rowers have VO2 max scores in the 60-65 ml/kg/min range while cross country skiers and cyclists will get into the 75-85 ml/kg/min range and some of the top European skiers have tested in the 90-100ml/kg/min close to major competitions.

 By either measure, rowers are much more aerobically fit than athletes from the major team sports. Football, baseball, and hockey players usually have VO2 max scores in the high 50’s or very low 60’s with the occasional hockey player getting into the high 60’s. Of course those sports rely predominately on the anaerobic systems for energy production so you would not expect high aerobic fitness scores from those athletes. Interestingly the aerobic fitness scores of rowers are very similar to those of  heavyweight boxers, both around 7L or 65 ml/kg/min.

 Anaerobic Fitness 

Anaerobic fitness is often measured using a Wingate test. The Wingate is a 30-60s bike all out bike sprint using a resistance that is determined by the athlete’s body weight. In a previous edition of the rowing news I wrote about a modified Wingate test for rowers. Peak anaerobic power for rowers various depending on gender and category but top scores occur during the first 10 strokes and are between 1000 and 1150 watts. This is very similar to the scores that cyclists, hockey players and alpine skiers generate.


Strength is most important during the start spurt of a race. Rowers are strong compared to normal people and other endurance athletes. Some rowers are capable of squatting and deadlifting close to twice their body weight. Some HWM can squat over 400lbs (this means a full squat, below parallel not those half squats that a lot of people do). These are the sorts of strength levels that would make many baseball, basketball, and some hockey players envious but they can’t compare to the scores of athletes who specialize in strength sports. Currently the superheavyweight world record in the squat is above 1100 lbs. Olympic weightlifters routinely squat 700+lbs in training, many football players routinely squat in the 500-600 lb range. The world record for deadlift is closing in on 950 lbs while the record in bench press has just recently exceeded 900lbs.


 Face it folks rowing is a slow sport. Stroke rates of 40 can’t compare to the 120 rpm of cyclists, the 95 mph fastballs of pitchers, the 130 mph club head speed generated by golfers or the 4 punches per second that boxers can throw. What is interesting about the speed component of rowing is that rowers maintain similar power outputs (300 watts at anaerobic threshold) as other endurance athletes at much lower turnover rates. This is one of the reasons that rowers need to be stronger than other endurance athletes, their power comes from the strength side of the equation not the speed side. This low speed power creates some rather unique adaptations in rowers that aren’t seen in any other sport. Rowers have very large slow twitch fibers. In most people the fast glycolytic muscle fibers are the largest and slow twitch are the smallest. The high volumes of low rate high force work that rowers perform hypertrophies their slow twitch fibers at the cost of the fast fibers, creating an adaptation that is suited only to rowing.

 What does it all mean?

 While there are differences between sports due to the inherent demands of the sport if we group the sports into endurance, major team, and strength and power we see that there are more similarities within each group than differences. So the physiological abilities of rowers are very similar to those of other endurance athletes and very different than those of strength and power athletes. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other or that one sport is harder than the other. It only means that athletes adapt to the demands of their sport and training and rather than compare sports to try and find which is harder or better we should spend more time learning from other sports to see which of their training methods and philosophies can benefit rowing.

August 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment