the joy of strength training


March 12th, 2008 at 12:46 am

Indoor rowing training

Joining a club is a great way to train for a new sport because you can rely on the club to set your training sessions and you get the opportunity to test your progress in competition settings.

rowing competition

However, you might not always have access to an indoor rowing club and you have to plan your training on your own. I have already covered the basics of indoor rowing technique. Following on from that, this post will help you to structure your rowing training and get the best out of the erg.

But before going into the workouts, you need to know how to set up the rower correctly and how to measure your efforts effectively.

Setting the damper correctly

The damper is the lever at the side of the flywheel with positions marked 1 to 10. You’ll often see people in the gym get on the rower, crank the damper up to 10 and start rowing. Actually this is not really what the damper is for, and higher resistance is not always better.

To understand this, think in terms of real boats. A setting of 10 is like a big heavy boat: it has the potential to cover a given distance faster than a lighter boat, but only if the rower is big and powerful enough to drive it. A smaller and lighter rower will do better in a lighter boat and will be able to cover the distance faster than they would in the heavy boat.

A real racing boat is equivalent to a damper position of 4. Rowers who race on water will do the majority of their training at this setting to replicate the river conditions. For indoor rowing, the most efficient damper position for you will depend on your weight, level of conditioning and what kind of workout you are doing e.g. sprint or endurance.

To set the right damper position, you need to test your ‘drag factor’ by rowing a few fairly hard strokes on the machine. The drag factor will display on the machine as a number between 100 and 150. The British Amateur Rowing Association has a list of recommended drag factors as follows:

  • Lightweight (around 61.5 kg or less) women performance athletes: 125
  • Heavyweight women performance athletes: 130
  • Lightweight (around 75kg or less) men performance athletes: 135
  • Heavyweight men performance athletes: 140

For normal trainees, I would knock 5 off these recommended drag factors. For example, if you are a lightweight woman doing a 5k row, go for a drag factor of 120.

How to set drag factor

Which buttons to press depends on what model of rowing machine you are using. On the Concept2 PM2 machine pictured below, press the RESET and READY buttons simultaneously. The drag factor will appear in the bottom right corner of the screen. On the Concept2 PM3, drag factor is one of the menu options. Row around 10 strokes reasonably hard and adjust the damper lever to get your desired drag factor. For most of my training sessions, I tend to go for a drag factor of 120 – which for me translates to a damper position of 5.

Using Split time

rower displayWhen I first started using the rower in the gym, like many people the numbers I used to track progress were distance, time or calories. These were things I understood – or thought I did. Then someone explained split time to me, which is the number labelled av/500m. This is short for “average time to row 500m” and is the standard method of measuring pace in rowing.

So if you row 2,000m in 8 minutes, your av/500m split time is 2 minutes over that distance. However, at any one point in time you may have been rowing a bit slower or a bit faster than your average. You would probably have started slower and got much faster in the last few hundred metres.

The rower’s readout can give you both your current split time and your average split over the distance. In the picture, my current split is the figure of 1:54 in the middle of the display. The lower that number goes, the faster my ‘boat’ is moving. However, I can only row that sort of split for a couple of minutes, so that would be a sprint for me.

Split time is used obsessively by on-water rowers and people who compete because it gives you the most important piece of information: how fast the boat is travelling. I use split time as my main benchmark, but it is acceptable to utilise calories, heartrate or other measurements as well. Crossfit, for example, often makes use of calories as a rowing measurement in its workouts.

Choosing stroke rate

Stroke rate is measured in “strokes per minute” or SPM. A high stroke rate, e.g. 35 SPM is not necessarily the most effective way to make the boat go faster, especially at medium to long distances. Many workouts will have a prescribed stroke rate range, such as 22-24 SPM.

Stroke rate can also be a matter of personal style or technique. For instance, I tend to row at a lower stroke rate than many lightweight women because I have powerful legs due to my weight training background. So I give an almighty shove with my legs, which generates a lot of power but means I move a little slower.

Standard distances

The most common race distance in rowing is 2,000m. Elite heavyweight men will do this in around 5 and a half to 6 minutes, elite heavyweight women in around 6 and a half minutes. Mere mortals will achieve around 8 minutes, or half a minute either side depending on sex, weight and fitness.

The 5,000m and 10,000m are common long distances. Popular sprint distances include 250m, 500m and 750m.

Putting it all together

rowingAll these settings and numbers might sound rather technical, but once you start rowing it is much easier to understand how all these factors work in tandem because you can see the effect on the computer readout in real time.

For any distance, it is important to pace yourself and not go off too quickly. It is very easily done as when you take your first few strokes on the rower, the wheel feels very light. Be warned, this feeling does not last!

For long distances such as 5,000m, it is advisable to use a slow stroke rate of 20-24 SPM until the last 1,000m or 500m when you can up the rate.

It is also good practice to pick a modest split time and try to stick to it consistently; for example trying to keep to a split of 2:15 for the whole distance, or upping your split every 1,000m. This is trickier than it sounds and is important for good technique.

For sprint distances, it is fine to increase the stroke rate and the damper position as you are not rowing for very long. A 250m sprint will take most people a minute or less. Sprint distances are useful for interval training.

Sample workouts

To train for my first 2,000m race competing at womens lightweight, I used some of the following workouts:

1. Medium distance steady row

3,000m steady row, gradually increasing split as follows:

  • First thousand metres @ 2:20 split, 22-24 SPM
  • Second thousand metres @ 2:15 split, 22-24 SPM
  • Third thousand metres @ 2:10 split, 26-27 SPM
  • Last 250-500m, push as much as you feel able

To replicate this workout, choose your own split but keep the SPM the same.

This kind of session trains you to row at a consistent, steady pace. It’s important to learn how to row at a steady pace because it is so easy to go out too fast and fade halfway through. The first thousand metres will feel very easy but you will start to feel it after the halfway point.

2. Long distance steady row

5,000m or more steady row at a consistent split. This is about getting your base distance in so that you can work on technique and endurance.

To find your steady pace, row 5,000m in any way you can. It will probably take you somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes. When you have finished, note your average split time over the entire duration. The next time you row 5,000m, try to keep to that average split time for the duration.

3. Intervals

1000m or 750m intervals off 4 minutes rest. Aim for a medium stroke rate of around 26-28 SPM and try to get faster with each interval. 2-4 intervals is sufficient when you first start doing these.

4. Sprints

It is useful to do the occasional sprint (especially against a friend) to get the feel of going flat out for a short distance.

Warm up and warm down

As with any workout, it is good practice to warm up and warm down. Spend at least 5 minutes on each. You can also use the stationery bike or cross trainer to warm up and down.

Further reading

Indoor rowing technique

Explanation of drag factor from Crossfit forum

Recommended drag factor settings from the Concept2 website

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