What I learned from the rower

Today I’m going to tell you about my short-lived indoor rowing career. I used to spend my lunchtimes at the gym, warming up on the Concept2 rowing machine before I lifted weights. One day someone pointed out there was a leaderboard for how fast people could row 2,000m and, being my typical competitive self, I decided to give it a try and clocked something like 7min11 (the exact time is lost in the dusty corners of my memory).

I was informed by a friend, Gary, who happened to be a member of a rowing club, that getting under seven minutes is considered a good time. I don’t know whether that’s true because the world record is 5min35 and there was a tall, thin guy called Pete at the top of the leaderboard who’d rowed 6min30ish, but I was motivated to see if I could knock those eleven seconds off.

Now given this occurred around the turn of the millennium and the internet was still a new thing, I was very lucky to have access at my desk to the World Wide Web (as we called it then) and was able to research rowing training. After all it was more compelling than doing actual work!

The Concept2 Model C ergometer – an indoor rowinng mahine

I came across a website called Masters Athlete Physiology and Performance (MAPP) created by Dr Stephen Seiler which was fantastic in its detail on the effects of exercise on human anatomy and how rowers trained. Seiler was a Masters rower and a university academic who studied endurance sports. Although he had sections on cross-country skiing, running, cycling and swimming it was the Human Physiology and Rowing sections that I was most interested by. In particular he put forward a theory called “The Waves of Change” where he proposed how to develop as an endurance athlete.

  • First Wave is spent building VO2max – the ability of the heart to supply oxygen to the working muscles. VO2max can be fully developed in a year and is achieved through hard intervals and speedwork.
  • Second Wave is spent building Lactate Threshold – the ability of the muscles and surrounding tissues to extract and utilise the oxygen. This takes three to four years to completely develop and is achieved by running at a pace just below the LT to push it up.
  • Third Wave is spent improving Efficiency (aka Economy) and can carry on for years. Unfortunately no-one knew what training did this other than it appears to happen through repeated high volumes of training.

Having just completed my degree in Sports and Exercise Science this was fascinating stuff to me. I’d heard of VO2max before and even measured mine on a treadmill test during my second year studies but at that time, I wasn’t at all interested in the physiology. I was more interested in knowing my numbers.

With a concrete goal of breaking seven minutes, I lapped up the pages of Seiler’s website and I’d say it was the first time I ever tried to train systematically. I set myself up with a weekly programme of two hard interval sessions, two days where I rowed easy for recovery and then on a Friday evening an hour’s row at a significantly slower pace. I can tell you all the sitting led to a very numb bum!

It’s worth explaining at this point that 2,000m is the typical race distance for rowing at the Olympics and World Championships. Where runners tend to think in terms of 400m laps of the track, rowers work in 500m efforts and the Concept2 rowing machine displays paces and lap times against this distance. I calculated that if I wanted to break seven minutes for 2,000m then I needed to row 1:45/500m and this is what I set out to do on my intervals.

I began my hard intervals with eight efforts of 500m with 1-min recovery aiming for 1min45. I don’t know why I decided to do eight but the distance, recovery and pacing are all fairly explanatory. The other joy of the Concept2 was being able to programme this workout into it and having it show heart-rates alongside all the time, distance, pace, stroke-rate type information. I got into a habit of taking a pre-printed form with me to each session where, during the recovery, I would scrabble to pick up my pen and note down how long the effort had taken me and the starting and ending heart-rates. Looking back it was all rather nerdy and yet, these days a good GPS watch will do this for you and upload the data straight to Strava.

To begin with, I found my heart-rate would gradually creep higher and higher with each successive effort ending up somewhere in the high 180s. Meanwhile during the one minute recovery phase it would drop back to the 120-130s. So I’d row my 500m gasping for breath, watching heart-rate quickly ratchet up from 120 to 180 and then drop back to say 125 during the recovery. The next effort and recovery would see the same pattern. After seven intervals I’d be gasping for breath but go all-out on the last effort to simulate a final surge to the finishing line.

After a few weeks of this I began to find it getting easier so of course, I did what any competitive person would do and turned the screw. I changed from eight at 1:45 to four at 1:45 followed by 1:44, 1:43, 1:42 finishing all-out. A few weeks later I started doing four at 1:45, three at 1:40 then all-out. Next I started to reduce the recovery period as a minute seemed too long so I brought it down to 45 seconds and then, a few weeks later to 35-seconds.

I was certainly getting fitter. My stats showed I was covering the entire session in a shorter time both during the efforts and when you added in recovery time. I watched as the numbers on my spreadsheet gradually reduced.

Sample of my rowing spreadsheet from 2003.
Not the original one from my sub-7 training schedule but equally nerdy!

But there was also a peculiarity I noticed. Where in the early days I’d been getting heart-rates up into the high 180s, by the final weeks it was impossible to reach this and I was only peaking in the high 170s. This occurred even though I was rowing faster with less time to recover. Even though I’d dropped the recovery time to only thirty-five seconds and my heart-rate only dipped below 160bpm, even on the hardest efforts it wouldn’t go up by much more than 15-20 beats. I was finding I could no longer work hard enough to get my heart-rate up to its max.

After two or three months of training I decided to have another go at the 2,000m time. I rested for a day or two and then went to the gym on a quiet evening intending to settle in for rowing at 1:45 with a fast finish to break the seven-minute barrier. The moment of truth had arrived. I began rowing. Immediately the pace was down to 1:40 and it felt easy. Far too easy but I couldn’t find a way to slow myself. I just hung in there as my breathing began to ratchet up while watching the distance count down. With about six hundred metres to go disaster struck. My right leg began to shake violently. I could barely push off for each stroke but I continued. The pace slowed and where I’d been on for a time of around 6min40, I limped through the final metres to a time of 6min51 and my goal achieved.

And that was it. For one reason and another I never had the dedication to indoor rowing again. But there was a side benefit. A couple of months afterwards I took part in a local 10K run. As always I started slowly clocking 8min15 for the first mile (for some reason the organisers used mile markers) and every mile afterwards came in at 7min15. An all-out surge to the finish line, gasping as I had done on the rower, and I’d set a new 10K PB of 45min50. Two minutes faster than I’d ever run before. I suspect had I warmed up and gone out hard from the beginning I would have run sub-45.

After this brief flirtation with indoor rowing, I returned to playing and coaching volleyball, took up golf and occasionally entered running races. Stephen Seiler’s Waves of Change theory stuck with me for the decade and I’d occasionally jump on the Concept2 and row hard intervals as a way to build VO2max as per his First Wave of Change. Then I’d run on the treadmill using an estimated Lactate Threshold pace to try and effect the Second Wave. Looking back it was never very successful because I wasn’t committed enough to running, but it did get me thinking about how to train systematically.

I occasionally revisited Stephen Seiler’s website until it went offline but his academic studies have since gone in a new direction and become highly important in the world of endurance training. It is his work with Norwegian cross-country skiers and cyclists that uncovered they train to the 80-20 rule with a Polarised training method.

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