Peak Power: The limiting factor to rowing performance

Ed McNeely

We all have been told that rowing is 80% aerobic and 20% anaerobic which is why the majority of training time is spent doing aerobic training. Because everyone realizes the importance of aerobic fitness in rowing the aerobic system is generally quite well trained in competitive rowers. As the level of competition increases the difference in aerobic fitness between competitors gets smaller and smaller. At the international level the difference in aerobic fitness between first and last place crews is often less than the error in the machines used to measure aerobic fitness.

Because aerobic fitness is very similar amongst crews of similar competitive level there must be something else that gives a crew an edge. Outside of technique the one physical factor that is emerging as being the best predictor of rowing performance is peak power. There have been several studies in the past few years that have shown peak power is more strongly correlated to rowing performance than VO2 max or anaerobic threshold.

 Peak power, the highest wattage you are capable of pulling, limits your race ability by setting a power ceiling for your performance. For instance if you wanted to row a 6:00 2K you would need to pull approximately 475 watts for the entire piece. If the max watts you can pull is only 500, it is going to be very difficult to hold the 475 watt pace for very long. In fact if your target pace is more than 55% of your peak power you are going to have a very difficult time holding that pace.

 If your peak power is higher you will be able to work at a lower percentage of your peak power and still hit your target pace. This will make the race feel a little easier and give you a performance buffer if you need to make a hard sprint in the final 500.

 Measuring Peak Power

 Peak Power is measured with a 10s erg test. On a CII set the drag factor to 200. The high drag factor is necessary to provide adequate resistance so that you can hit a true peak power. Lower drag factors do not provide enough resistance and you will get lower peak power numbers. Warm up by paddling easy for 5-10 minutes. At the end of your warm up come to a full stop and let the fly wheel stop. Set your monitor so that you can see the watts for each stroke. From a stop row as hard and as fast as possible for 10 seconds, recording the highest power you see on any stroke. There is no rate cap but you must row as close to full slide as possible right from the first stroke, do not use a racing start. Rest for 3-5 minutes and repeat again. There is a slight learning effect when you first do this test so you might want to do it 2-3 times to get a true peak power score.

 Analyzing Your Data

Because body weight will have a significant impact on rowing performance power to weight ratios have been developed for men and women at different performance levels (table 1).


High School


Senior College and Masters


Elite International













These ranges have been developed based on the scores of top performers in each category. If you find yourself at the bottom of the range you should be working your way to the top of the range. If you are at the top of the range aim for the next level up, you can never have too much power.

 Increasing Peak Power

Power workouts are planned using sets and reps. Unlike strength training sets of power training are never taken to the point of muscular failure, making it more difficult to determine when you stop benefiting from the set. You can individualize the program to meet your current fitness level, state of fatigue and motivational level by basing the duration of a set on drops in power and energy.

 Energy is the limiting factor in all power activities. The amount of energy you can produce determines both the amount of and duration of work. During high intensity plyometric activity the body relies primarily on the ATP-CP, adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate, stored in the muscles for energy. The ATP-CP system is the most powerful energy system in the body, producing huge amounts of energy in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, the supply of ATP-CP is limited and the energy system is quickly depleted, resulting in a drop in speed and power. The rate of depletion of the ATP-CP system depends on the type of exercise but is generally limited to 5-15 seconds of continuous all out work. As this energy system becomes depleted there is a gradual decrease in power output, which can be measured as a decrease in performance.

 Power outputs below 90% of max are insufficient to create a speed and power training effect. Once power drops below 90% of max, the set should be terminated. Determining this power drop is a relatively easy procedure, requiring only a stopwatch, measuring tape, calculator and some good record keeping. Let’s look at an example:  After a good warm perform a 10s erg test as described above to measure your peak power.  Subtract 10% of this value and write the number down so that you don’ forget what you are shooting for. 

 Next you will perform all out 10s sprints with 200 drag factor and 60s rest between sprints. When the peak power on two consecutive sprints is below the 90% line the set is stopped. After a five minute rest perform another set until you once more fail to reach the 90% line then rest again. You may not get the same number of sprints in each set, this is fine since it represents the amount of fatigue that carries over from set to set. As long as you stay above 90% of your best you will be getting the speed and power training effect you are looking for and you have not taken your body to a fatigue point yet. Repeat this procedure until you have done a total of 20 sprints.

 The system outlined above uses the best score on each training day. An alternative is to use a 10% drop from the best score obtained during a scheduled test session. The advantage to this is that the calculation only has to be done once following the test session, making it quicker and easier to administer for coaches who are working with large groups of athletes. Unfortunately, relying on test results doesn’t allow you to adjust the program for the improvements you make between test sessions. If you decide to use test results schedule retests every four weeks.

 This type of sprint training is very high intensity and should be done twice a week to start and no more than four times a week. You will find that your peak power increases quite rapidly and you are also likely to see increases in 2K performance as well. Many masters and college aged athletes report 8-12s improvements in 2K time after 6-8 weeks of peak power training.

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