Rowing training: how to maximise your 2,000m rowing performance

2,000m rowing is the ultimate test of power and endurance

2,000m rowing is the ultimate test of power and endurance, imposing a unique set of demands on an athlete’s body. As Terry O’Neill explains, successful 2,000m rowers need an organised approach to their training if they are to succeed and improve their rowing performance.

As sports go, rowing is not high on skill. The reason for this is that it is a ‘closed skill sport’, which means the rower only has to learn one simple sequence of movements in order to master the technique. However, although the rowing sequence is relatively simple, repeating it 34-40 times per minute for six or more minutes in a 2,000m race challenges every aspect of an individual’s strength and endurance. As well as being a closed skill sport, in a crew situation it is also a coactivity sport, where all the members of the crew have to do the same thing at the same time.

Rowing races are a test of power; crews start level and race over the same distance. The boats used are strictly controlled so crews have to do the same work, which is to get themselves, and their equipment from the start to the finish as quickly as possible. The crew that completes the course in the fastest time has therefore generated the highest power.

The standard international race distance for rowing is 2,000m and race tactics are pretty straightforward. In terms of duration rowing races take about the same amount of time as middle distance running. However, rowing differs because rowers travel facing backwards, so they can only see what is going on behind them. Also once a boat has reached race pace it is very difficult to make it accelerate further. In rowing, there is an advantage to be in front from start to finish so that you can see and cover any attack, whereas in running, the advantage is to be behind until the last moment. Rowing crews will therefore start as fast as they can and then try to settle at the highest sustainable pace through the middle and build up to the finish line. Usually, the first quarter of the race is the fastest followed by the final quarter, with the two middle quarters relatively slower.

Energy demands of 2,000m rowing

Rowers are able to apply the highest force on the first stroke where force in the region of 1,000 newtons has been measured(1). As the boat accelerates, the force that can be applied falls to around 250 newtons. The stroke rate typically climbs to around 48 stokes per minute in the first 45 seconds of the race before falling back to around 35 strokes per minute at around 90 seconds.

The net result is that the local supplies of both ATP and creatine phosphate (CP) become drastically depleted in a very short time. As energy demand greatly exceeds that which can be supplied via aerobic metabolism using oxygen, repeated muscle contraction can only continue as a result of glycolysis, which enables ATP to be generated in the absence of oxygen.

However, glycoysis results in the rapid accumulation of lactate in the muscles, causing extreme fatigue. If the duration of the race were only about one minute, the amount of accumulated lactate wouldn’t cause a problem; however, 2,000m rowers have to decide how much lactate they can tolerate and carry throughout the race, balancing the advantage of being ahead early on against the risk of complete fatigue due to excess lactate accumulation.

As the rowers slow down in the middle section of the race, they enter the aerobic phase where there is sufficient oxygen to metabolise the lactate produced and keep it at a managable level. Towards the race finish the rate of energy consumption increases again as do blood lactate levels. If you’ve timed it correctly, the last stroke of the race is the last stroke you are able to pull!

Physical demands of rowing

At the race start, the highest forces are generated, which require maximum strength. For the first 20 seconds, maximum power is required, which is supplied by CP stores in the muscle. From 20-45 seconds, the fuel for energy is supplied mainly by muscle glycogen broken down with insufficient oxygen, causing lactate acid accumulation. Energy supply is instantaneous but inefficient and unsustainable. From 45 seconds until the finish, energy is mainly supplied using aerobic metabolism; muscle glycogen remains the predominent fuel with some fat. Due to sufficient oxygen being available, low levels of lactate acid are produced.

To meet these physical demands training can be divided into the following training bands:

UT2: Endurance Training.


Total work time

Distance

Stroke rate

%Max Boat Speed

% Heart rate max

Lactate mmol/l

60-90mins.

15-25kms

18-20

70-75%

70-75%

2  or less

The training aim of UT2 training is to develop a sound aerobic base by continuous exercise for the prescribed time or distance. The biomechanical aim is to drive as hard as possible, resting on the recovery so that you remain within the aerobic limit. UT2 can be carried out throughout the year and is compatible with all other types of training. It can also be used as active recovery, either from a very heavy training period, or recovery from illness or injury. UT2 also offers the opportunity to develop technique.

UT1:Strength/Endurance Training.


Total work time

Distance

Stoke rate

%Max boat speed

% Heart rate max

Lactate mmol/l

30-60mins

15-20kms

20-24

75-80%

75-85%

2 - 3.5

UT1 training and biomechanical aims are the same as UT2. The training is carried out at a higher intensity and therefore is carried out in long intervals such as 2x20 minutes. The rest between the intervals should be long enough for the heart rate to drop to twice resting rate. UT1 can be carried out all year round, as it is compatible with most other types of training. However, it should not be mixed with high intensity training.

AT: Endurance training

Total work time

Distance

Stroke rate

%Max boat speed

% Heart rate max.

Lactate mmol/l

24-40mins

15kms

24-28

81-85%

>90%

3.5 - 4

AT is the highest sustainable training intensity that can be sustained before the onset of the debilitating effects of lactate accumulation. The session is broken up into medium length intervals such as 8-10 minutes segments. The rest periods should allow the heart rate to fall to twice resting. The biomechanical aim is to ensure that boat speed is proportional to the higher effort. AT training offers major benefits during the pre-competition periods, but can also be included in a limited form all year round.

TR: Development of the oxygen transport system

Total work time

Distance

Stroke rate

%Max boat speed

% Heart Rate Max

Lactate mmol/l

12’-20’

15-20k`

28-36

86-90

90-100%

4 - 6

TR is the transition point between the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Work at this intensity is carried out in intervals from 2-5 minutes, causing lactate to accumulate in the working muscles. Training in this band helps to develop a tolerance to high lactate levels and to increase enzyme activity, which acts as a buffer by metabolising some of the lactate in the working muscles. The biomechanical objective is to increase boat speed in proportion to the greater effort and to establish a good rhythm with a strong drive and relaxation on the recovery. TR is most effective in pre-competition and competition periods and should be interspersed with UT2.

AN: Anaerobic work - maximum physiological response


Total work time

Distance

Stroke rate

% Boat speed

% Heart Rate max.

Lactate mmol/l

12 –15 minutes

12-16k

Max

Max

Max

6+

Short intervals of 45secs to two minutes training in the AN band means that all energy systems are working flat out, causing high levels of lactate accumulation. The biomechanical aim is to get the boat speed above race pace in proportion to maximum effort. Rowers should ensure they have completed a good warm-up prior to commencement of AN work. AN work should be carried out with sessions of UT2 and is most effective during the competition period.

AL: Anaerobic Alactate


Duration

Distance

Stroke rate

%Max boat speed

Heart rate

Lactate mmol/l

10-12 sets of 7-15 strokes

8-12k

Max

Max

-

-

AL training is carried out in very short bursts and uses stored CP for energy so that there is no lactate accumulation. It can be carried out twice a week throughout the year by adding to the end of UT1 and UT2 sessions.

Periodising your training

The traditional rowing plan is an annual plan divided into three phases: transition, preparation and specific. The transition phase lasts for four weeks, the specific phase for 21 weeks and the remainder is the preparation phase. The specific phase is usually divided into two – pre-competition and competition phases with durations of nine and 12 weeks respectively.

Training to perform

Rowing is an expression of power and endurance. To simplify matters you can consider four areas that determine rowing condition: maximum power, anaerobic capacity, specific aerobic capacity and endurance.

  1. Maximum power – can be determined by a seven-stroke standing start on the Concept 2 rowing ergometer. With the monitor set to display watts, record the average watts over the seven strokes;
  2. Anaerobic capacity – set the monitor on the Concept 2 to one minute and record the average power in watts rowed flat out;
  3. Specific aerobic capacity – record the time taken to row 2,000m on the Concept 2 and the average power in watts;
  4. Endurance – as above, but over 5000m.
    The average maximum power of the seven-stroke test can be expressed as two values: the actual power and used as a ‘100% reference’, against which the other values are measured. As a rough guide in a rowing crew:
  5. The average anaerobic power measured over one minute should be between 90% and 100% of average maximum power;
  6. Specific aerobic capacity measured over 2,000m should be between 55-65% of average maximum power;
  7. Endurance measured over 5000m should be between 45-55% of average maximum power.

The table below shows an example of the test results from an eight-man rowing crew:


Name

Max Power (Watts)

Anaerobic capacity

Specific aerobic capacity

Endurance

 

Watt

%Ave.
Group

Mtrs

Watts

Time

Watts

Time

Watts

A. Brown

815w

112%

380m

712w

6.25

392w

16.49

340w

100%

87%

48%

42%

C. Dunne

750w

103%

365m

633w

6.31

375w

16.42

348w

100%

84%

50%

46%

E. Fish

649w

89%

358m

596w

6.46

334w

17.10

320w

100%

92%

51%

49%

G. Hall

764w

105%

376m

687w

6.20

408w

16.41

340w

100%

90%

53%

44%

I. Jones

698w

96%

365m

630w

6.29

380w

16.49

293w

100%

90%

54%

42%

K. Low

758w

104%

381m

719w

6.21

405w

17.31

301w

100%

95%

53%

40%

M. Newman

764

105%

376m

687w

7.15

272w

18.50

243w

100%

90%

36%

32%

O. Peters

623w

86%

361m

610w

6.45

337w

17.35

302w

100%

98%

54%

48%

Athletes whose power outputs are significantly below the rest of the crew in either the anaerobic, specific aerobic capacity or endurance measures (eg M Newman – specific aerobic capacity and endurance in figure 3) can then undergo training to bring them up to strength (within 5% of the team average).

Using the test data in practice

When gathering this information, there are a couple of points worth mentioning. It is quite common that with lightweight rowers, the average power level in the one minute test is higher than that in the seven-stroke peak power test. There are two reasons to explain this; heavyweight athletes who can generate high power levels tire at a faster rate than lightweight athletes who generate less power. The other reason is that most lightweight athletes do not have the outright strength to generate high power levels on the first few strokes and therefore with only seven strokes in the test the average is brought down.

Using the systematic to approach training described above, athletes displaying anaerobic weakness will need to bias their training sessions towards those involving short intervals and lactate tolerance ie from the ‘AN’ and ‘TR’ training bands. For those displaying aerobic weakness, the emphasis should be placed on over-distance ie sessions from the ‘UT1’ and ‘UT2’ training bands, and intervals at race pace from the ‘AT’ band. Strength training is most effectively dealt with through weight training.

Terry O’Neill is an ex-British and international rowing coach and now works for Concept 2 developing and promoting indoor rowing training

Reference
1. Int J Sports Med 1993; Vol 14. Suppl.1 dp S42-S45

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