The Pain and the Glory….

by Sara Bird

As the prospect of the club actually owning 6 rowing machines looms, this blog entry is a basic introduction to the horror, the joys and the benefits of rowing machine training.

The technical name for these machines is ergometer, often abbreviated to ‘erg’ or ‘ergo’. Concept II make by far the most reliable, accurate and popular machines so this entry is based on these – but any ergo is better than no ergo and others are available far more cheaply.

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Setting the ergo up
Every ergo has a different range of resistance, based on age and how well maintained it is, so setting 4 on one model is not always the same as on another. Before you start training, you need to set the ‘drag factor’, which is a measure of the resistance of the machine and used to standardise your training. It should be around 125 for women and 130 for men to mimic water training. On newer Concept 2 models this option is in the menu, for older models, press ‘ready’ and ‘rest’ buttons and the same time, then row. Then adjust the power setting until the drag reads about right – it’s usually about 3-5 on the power setting but can vary hugely. Training at higher levels is not hugely beneficial for cross-training for rowing.

Next you’ll need to set the feet height, which for gig rowers or less flexible people could be very low, but for power, the middle range is better. See the video above for other tips.

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Roles of the ergo
Ergo training is clearly useful for improving your strength, power, stamina and cardiovascular fitness, but is also useful for improving your technique, each of these issues is covered below. A combination of approaches is good to avoid boredom and improve all round ability.

Improving strength and power
A low stroke rate (e.g. 20 strokes per min) allows the ergo to lose momentum before next stroke, and means a heavier catch. By focusing on the classic ‘ratio’ stroke, i.e. very powerful then a very, very slow and smooth return, you help build the muscles you use in rowing. This type of training can be anything from 15 minutes to an hour depending on your fitness, so build up time on this, using a very motivating mix tape and occasional breaks for water. Your focus is one posture and power, rather than distance covered. This also helps build stamina and is great for burning fat.

Improving handling lactic acid
To help improve starts, you need to prepare your body for the pain (!) of lactic acid build up and to physiologically to break lactic acid down better, which requires anaerobic training. A typical routine for this is short, sharp, bursts of 1 minute ‘on’ (max rate max power) then 1 minute off, building up the number of times from, say, just 4, to 10 sets.

Improving over race distances
Building up longer intervals, e.g. 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 2000m, with correspondingly longer rest times of around 30s to 2 minute (see Pete’s plan below) helps to improve performance over race distances. However note that training above and beyond race distance/power is what really makes the difference to improving strength and stamina.

Improving your technique
Many people think that ergos do little for on-water technique, however used in the right way they can help embed technique changes that you don’t have enough time to build muscle memory, and indeed muscle power, for on the water. This involves a great deal of personal discipline to pay constant attention to your own posture and technique.

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So, imagine you are on the water. Things to practice are raising the hands towards the catch, ensuring you draw into body at finish, and lovely smooth returns. Focus on pushing through the balls of your feet, rather than pulling on the handle, and engaging the glutes with strong posture.

This video covers some common technique errors, though note this rower, even on ‘good technique’ has their back rather too rounded:

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The test
The ‘2K’ test is the worst of all worlds – lactic acid over a relatively short distance, but long enough to require ongoing power and endurance, however this is the benchmark for your progress. It is also the standard benchmark across lots of rowing disciplines, amongst both amateur and professional sports people. For women, ‘good’ is less than 8 minutes, for men this is less than 7 minutes, but it may take a while to work to this if you are new to erging.

Interestingly, there is a strong relationship between what can be achieved over an hour, in 20 minutes and 1 minute, and over 2K and 5K, so there is little benefit in doing one type of work out as multiple types are more interesting and support each other – so use long, aerobic rowing and short, anaerobic rowing, to prep for your 2Ks and avoid obsessively doing just 2Ks. It’s very dull and takes away the adrenaline and focus that can lead to a great 2K.Some other ideas.

Other tips
Ergos can be boring and painful, but are probably THE best way to measure your progress and improve performance on the water. Here are some ideas that may help provide variety:
Rowing ‘feet out’ (i.e. without the foot straps) is more similar to gig rowing, and helps improve connection to the stretcher that you may lose if you rely on the straps holding your feet in, which would actually catapult you off the stretcher in the boat and mean you are not levering the boat past the oar. Feel those abs…
Break your session into blocks of say 100 metres, or 10 or 20 strokes, with different things to focus on in each block. I alternate between 10/20 strokes focusing on a power issue (such as power through back muscles, glutes, thighs, or off stretcher) and 10/2o focusing on a technique issue (such as back posture, shoulder position, extent of lean forward, relaxing fingers).
Consider using a heart rate monitor: many plans target different aerobic and anaerobic states tailored to your heart rate and age, for really accurate training.
Play with it – there is a game on most ergs about chasing fish – or set yourself challenges. Over distances, the faster you do it the sooner you can stop…

Some other help
There is lots of advice on the internet for training plans, technique etc. Some you might like to try are:

Sign up for Workout of the Day via email from Concept 2 – a choice of short, medium and long every day
Try the Rowing Company’s interactive training programme
Investigate the ‘Pete’ plan – a continuous plan that revolves in 3 weeks cycles
Check out the rowing technique videos videos on the Concept 2 website

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