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.

How to Improve series – part 6

In this final part, we’re looking at how to bring everything altogether for a running system geared towards long-term improvement and getting FITteR.

A quick recap. Back in the parts on Frequency and Duration I recognised you can make quick gains off relatively little training. But once this stalls, you have to get more sophisticated and increase frequency and duration. My suggestion is to aim to run five times each week for 4-5 hours.

Once you up your frequency, there’s no way you can do all your runs at higher intensities and be able to stick to the schedule for more than a month or two. Eventually you wear yourself down and start taking days off or even getting injured. Some of the runs have to be done at very easy, comfortable paces to allow you to get back out the next day.

Research has shown elite runners do 80% of their running at easier paces with only 20% of their time spent on hard intervals or effort sessions. This is often referred to as 80-20 running or polarised training. Unfortunately the majority of amateurs are closer to 30-70 running with the vast majority of their runs being harder efforts and if you’re only interested in shorter events like the 1,500m or mile you may be able to get away with this. Modern training methods have shown that the longer the event, the more mileage you need to do to reach your best.

Simply calculated the 80-20 rule suggests if you’re going to run five days per week then four of them should be easy runs. In the article on intensity I discussed different ways to identify your easy-paced runs and whichever method you use, they have to feel genuinely easy, produce very little sweat, never get hard on breathing and your heart-rate should remain low if measured.

Most runners think training for speed is the way to get faster at distance running, but I suggest it’s about building your endurance to hang onto your speed. By this I mean, most runners could quickly train up to run at 5-minute mile pace for thirty seconds but few train to be able to hold onto that speed for a two hour marathon like Eliud Kipchoge. Building speed can be done quickly, endurance training takes years.

Where many runners fall down is to keep working at speed rather than endurance to get faster. They peak after a year or two of pushing runs hard, progress no further and believe they’ve reached their limit. The majority of amateurs only do 30% of their training at easy paces and training for speed is training time wasted which could be better used on aerobic development.

How YOU can train to improve

Begin by getting yourself running five times per week. Make one of those runs last 1½ hours – you might need to build up to this by adding five to ten minutes each week.  If you’re doing all these runs at genuinely easy paces, I think you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to accumulate 4-5 hours’ worth of running. That it seems so easy may have you questioning what you’re getting out of these sessions and is a reason most people don’t stay with this training.

The first month is the hardest as the body gets used to doing more. It takes six weeks for the body to build each layer of fitness so it might take a while to start feeling comfortable. But within two months you should expect to feel better even if your times aren’t yet improving. What you’re doing in this period is preparing your body to go faster later.

I’ve often found within three to four weeks of starting this programme, my legs begin to perk up and are ready to run faster. Remember the 80-20 rule – you can afford to do one of your sessions faster. You could start to run a quicker parkrun or throw some speedwork in. Even just adding strides – picking up your pace for 10-20secs at 80-90% sprint – helps.

Progression isn’t always a straight line upwards. Day to day runs will fluctuate in pace and sometimes you might have a few days where the legs feel tired. I’ve often found this happens just before a notable improvement. Month on month you should see improvement in your general pace. If you don’t see progress, it’s almost certainly because you’re running your easy runs too fast, or more specifically not running them easy enough. When I struggle for progress going back to slower paces always solves all manner of ills.

There is a temptation once you get into this groove and things are progressing to do more speedwork or harder intensity sessions than one dose per week. Initially this will bring gains and you can quickly push the speed down by a minute per mile from two or three months of dedicated sessions and reduced easy running. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you acknowledge it’s for a limited time. But the experience of elite runners is they ‘go off the cliff’ with too much speedwork. Even if you don’t, you’ll find your progress stalls and maxes out at some point. And likely, because you’ve slipped into getting quick gains from speedwork, you’ll forget that it was the 80-20 running that got you there.

The bigger the gap between your race pace and initial easy pace, the longer you’re going to have to stay with this training before you see improvements in your race times. You’ve got to close that gap to create the headspace to run faster.

How I trained to get faster

When I first began working towards sub-20 parkrun; I’d been running sporadically from January through September. I’d accumulated less than 500 miles of training – roughly 10-15 miles per week – on the way to a parkrun PB of 20min42 and running a 5min55 mile. This was classic low frequency, low duration, high intensity running getting me to decent times and putting me up the front of Poole parkrun in its early days.

From October to December I started training regularly with only a fast parkrun every fortnight and keeping all my other runs easy. I logged 400 miles and within two months I was running forty-three minute 10Ks where I’d never broken forty-five minutes before and my parkrun was on the cusp of twenty minutes.

I then started to run hard three times each week and while I initially knocked another minute off my parkrun PB to get close to nineteen minutes; I spent the rest of the year running fast, feeling great but never quite improving. It was only when I went back to a block of endurance almost a year later that I turned up to parkrun one day and unexpectedly banged out a sub-19 with ease.

Let’s recap for the final time. All elite runners train daily – that’s frequency. The duration and amount of running they do increases as the race distance increases. Elite 800m runners do at least forty miles per week but as much as eighty if they’re also racing in the 1,500m. The best 5,000m runners in the world are closer to 100mpw while those doing the marathon can peak at 150mpw.

Extremely high mileages aren’t necessary for ordinary runners but they do need to get out and build their endurance through easy running. Using time to measure your runs is a way of seeing the mileage naturally increase as you improve. When the body gets fitter, you’ll automatically know when you can do more.

The training pattern of elite runners, who do 80% of their training at easy levels of effort, is the route to improving in the long term. When you run genuinely easy four times out of five times every week, you begin to enjoy your running not dread it. It starts getting easier to get out for every run and motivate yourself to do so. You might even begin to look forward to the faster sessions each week that are key to reaching your top speeds eventually.

At any time you can throw in more workouts but only for a period of up to three months. The experience of elite athletes shows this is the maximum amount of time they can peak before going off the cliff and having to rebuild their base. It’s good to come back to periods of easy running which might not entail any effortful runs.

Recovery is paramount to making progress. The easy sessions should allow you to both train yet paradoxically to recover from the harder sessions. One of the reasons training hard multiple times in a week doesn’t work is because there’s too much to recover from. This often begins to show up as aches and pains, or even injuries. Most runners interpret this as a sign of ageing or their body not being strong enough but really it’s a sign they’ve been doing too much, too soon, too hard. Easing up usually resolves aches and pains in a matter of weeks without the expense of going to a physio or other specialist.

It all seems too simple but it works. Most runners are too impatient believing in the old mantras of “you have to train fast to race fast” and “no pain, no gain”. Undoubtedly there are times when you should push yourself but following a good diet of easy-paced daily runs will make a world of difference for many runners without taking up huge levels of time or commitment.

What’s stopping you from starting?