Planning Your Program: A New Look at Periodization

July 27, 2010

Periodization is the process of breaking the year into training blocks or periods. Each period has a set of goals and a training focus so that the physical qualities needed for rowing are developed in a logical fashion so that you peak for your main race of the season. Traditional periodized models for rowing focus on the development of aerobic base early in the off season, move to anaerobic threshold level work and then to specific race pace and speed work just before the racing season. While this progression works well for some it does not take into account your individual needs nor does it take into account what types of training you are most ready for. An alternative form of periodization that is becoming more popular is one I like to call Reactive Planning.

Reactive Planning

Reactive planning uses the results of a set of tests to determine training priorities and periodization. Tests are repeated every 8-12 weeks and new priorities are set. Reactive Planning is an examination of how peak anaerobic power, VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, and aerobic threshold compare to each other. In an ideal situation you would expect to see the following relationships: Anaerobic threshold should be 80-85% of VO2 max, aerobic threshold should be 65-70% of VO2 max and VO2 max should be 40-45% of peak power.

Of course if you went to an exercise physiology lab and had all these variables measured you could get a very accurate picture of where you stand but this isn’t possible for everyone. Instead several simple tests you can perform on your own will give you a decent estimate of your proportional fitness. You will need to find all your data using the wattage setting on your erg because it is much easier to do calculations with wattage than it is with time.

VO2 max can be estimated as the average watts from a five minute test. Anaerobic threshold is close to the average watts used during a 20 minute test and aerobic threshold is approximately the wattage that corresponds to a 90 minute steady state workout. Peak power is the maximum wattage you see during an all out 10 second sprint working against a relatively high resistance. Do each of these tests on a separate day so that fatigue from one test does not interfere with the results of another test. Let’s assume you do all the tests and come up with the following data:

Table 1. Sample Data

Test Wattage
5 min 400 watts
20 minutes 295 watts
90 minute 180 watts
10 second sprint 750 watts

From this data we can calculate:

Table 2. Comparing the Sample to the Ideal

Actual Ideal
VO2 vs peak power 53% 45-48%
Anaerobic threshold vs VO2 74% 80-85%
Aerobic threshold vs VO2 45% 65-70%

Interpreting the Data

To understand the data we need to understand the relationship between the physiological points we are discussing and the concept of ceilings. Each of these physiological points can only get so close to the point above before you stop seeing progress. For instance if your anaerobic threshold gets to 85% of your VO2 max it becomes very difficult to move it any higher, this is not to say that you couldn’t get it to 90% but it may take years to get it to do so. You would probably get better race results by focusing your training elsewhere. If your VO2 max scores gets beyond 48% of your peak power you will have a really tough time improving your VO2 until your peak power goes up. Table 2 shows the results of our example and the ideal relationships between the physiological variables.

Looking at the results we see that VO2 max is a higher percentage of peak power than it should be, 53% versus the 45% ideal, suggesting that this person needs to improve their peak power or they will have difficulty improving their VO2 max.

Anaerobic threshold, as measured by a 20 minute test is 74% of VO2 max as opposed to the 85% ideal. This means the person in our example also needs to raise their anaerobic threshold but it is not being limited by their VO2max.

Finally we can also see that aerobic threshold, as measured by the 60 minute test is 45% of VO2 max instead of the 70% ideal, indicating a need for more low intensity long duration work.

Setting Your Training Focus

Now that you have the data and have determined what needs to be trained you can now set training priorities. Peak power always becomes the top priority if it is not within the expected ranges, since it can limit all the other variables. The secondary priority is the area with the biggest percentage difference between your score and the ideal. In the case of our example this would be aerobic threshold, which is 25% away from where it should be.

In our example this athlete would be doing some short very high intensity sprints during their training. It does not matter what time of year it is, their performance is being limited by their peak power so it must be improved before the other variables can reach their full potential. This is not to say they will only do the sprints, rather they become a priority and focus for the next period of training. The other fitness variables like aerobic base, and anaerobic threshold still need to be trained but they are not the priorities. When the tests are repeated before the start of the next training phase there may be a completely different set of priorities.

Reactive planning allows you to modify the traditional periodized training model for endurance sports based on your strengths and weakness and the variables that will be most adaptable. This may mean doing more speed work in the early winter when you may be used to focusing solely on aerobic base building but without addressing your weaknesses first you can spend a lot of time training with very little improvement.

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Interval training

July 20, 2010

Interval training is a popular form of training amongst many athletes. While most rowers will use intervals at some point in the year few really understand the purpose of intervals or how get the most from this valuable training method.

Physiology of Interval Training

Interval training involves alternating periods of high intensity work with periods of lower intensity work, usually, but not always above and below anaerobic threshold. By alternating periods of higher intensity work with lower intensity work several things are accomplished:

The amount of high intensity work is maximized. If you were to try to hold an intensity above anaerobic threshold for as long as possible you would fatigue in just over 20 minutes. If you were to do 6 x 5 minute work intervals with a rest period in between you would have done 30 minutes of work above threshold. Since the volume of work above threshold was higher it should give you a greater training effect. The same holds true for VO2 max and anaerobic intervals.

During the work period of the interval you will be producing lactic acid, which your body will have to deal with during the rest period. Active slow twitch muscle fibers are capable of using lactic acid as an energy source. Repeatedly exposing your body to moderate levels of lactate and then allowing it to recover gradually trains your body to become more efficient at lactate removal as you r body develops the enzymes necessary to convert lactate back to glycogen or glucose. This will translate into lower lactate and faster times during a race since you will be able to deal with the lactate as it is produced. Of course this training effect will only happen if you have done adequate base training.

The aerobic capacity of fast twitch fibers is improved with interval training. The more often a fiber is activated the greater it’s oxidative capacity. Interval training is the only ways to activate the fast twitch fibers frequently enough to improve their aerobic capacity, making them behave more like slow twitch fibers.

Designing an Interval Training Program

Interval training is high intensity and needs to be planned very carefully in order to avoid overtraining. The most important component of an interval program is the base work that is done prior to starting intervals. The initial 6-8 weeks of your training should be devoted almost exclusively to low intensity long duration training, 60 minutes or more per session. This will prime the slow twitch fibers and improve their fitness, so that they can accept the lactate that will be produced when intervals are started, allowing you to make effective use of interval training.

The Work Period

The duration of the work period will vary depending on the intensity of the interval. A work load just above anaerobic threshold will need long intervals, 5-10 minutes, while higher intensity anaerobic intervals can be as short as five seconds. Consistency is the most important factor in interval training. The power output or split time should be the same for each work piece of an interval session. In other words if you are doing 5 minutes at 1:55/500 on the first interval all other intervals should be done at the same pace. This ensures that you are maintaining the appropriate intensity and recruiting the same muscle fibers in each interval, improving the training effect. It does very little for you to do an interval session where the first interval is 1:55 the next is 1:59 the next 2:02 etc. Be sure to choose an interval duration and split time that allows you to be consistent throughout the workout.

Choosing paces for the work intervals requires a little up front work on your part. You need to have an idea of your splits for both anaerobic threshold and VO2 max. Procedures for determining these points were set out in my article “Is Your Training Focused Properly?” published in IRN February 2003. Training splits will normally be set at anaerobic threshold, VO2 max or half way between.

The Rest Period

The rest period is as important as the work period. The purpose of the rest period is to allow time to remove the lactate created during the work interval, and allow the anaerobic alactic energy system to replenish itself. During aerobic intervals, intervals longer than two minutes, the rest period is active, meaning you continue to row but at a lower intensity. The duration of the rest period will depend on the duration and intensity of the work period. Aerobic intervals will vary for a 1:1 to a 1:4 work rest ratio. Anaerobic intervals were covered last year in another article. When choosing the duration of your rest period, follow these simple guidelines: 1). The longer the work the shorter the rest

Longer intervals are normally done at lower intensity, requiring a shorter rest period. A five minute interval just above anaerobic threshold will produce moderate levels of lactate requiring less time to recover so a 1:1 or 1:1.5 work to rest ratio can be used. A higher intensity two minute interval will produce more lactate and therefore require a longer recovery. 2). Adjust the duration of the rest period so that you can maintain a consistent split during the work period. It may happen that you decide to do 5 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest, repeated 5 times. Half way through the workout you notice that you can’t hold the same work split. Finish the training session, coming as close as possible to the desired splits. For the next session increase the duration of the rest period by 50%. If you still cannot hold the desired splits for all the work periods drop the splits for the rest period by about 10% for the next workout.

Table 1: Work and Rest Period for Various Interval Intensities

Type of Interval

Work Period

Work:Rest

Notes

Anaerobic Threshold 3-10 min 1: 1 or 1:1.5 Just above and just below threshold
Supra threshold-Sub Max 2-7 min 1:2 or 1:3 Halfway between AT and VO2 max. Recovery in Zone 1
VO2 max 1-4 min 1:3 or 1:4 Work at VO2 max recovery in Zone 1 VI
Anaerobic Sprints 5-60 seconds 1:6 All out sprint passive recovery

Most rowers who race 2000m will use some combination of all four types of intervals in their training program. For those rowing 1000m races the VO2 max and anaerobic sprints should make up the bulk of your interval training, while those doing only head races will focus their interval training on anaerobic threshold intervals.

While interval training is a great way to improve speed, it is easy to overdo it and do yourself more harm than good so take it easy when starting by doing only one session per week and increasing by one session per week every two weeks until your are doing at most four sessions per week.


Breathing Stronger

July 1, 2010

The regular use of strength training has been slow to catch on with endurance athletes. While there is evidence that strength training decreases both acute and chronic injury in these athletes, and improves running and cycling efficiency by 3-8% many endurance athletes simply do not enjoy lifting weights. This may be due in part to what is being trained. Traditional programs focus on the major muscles of the legs, hips, back, and shoulders of endurance athletes. A new trend has emerged in recent years that includes the training of the muscles used in breathing.

Breathing is something we take for granted.  We don’t think about the work that goes on every time we breathe, either at rest or during normal daily activity. During very intense exercise, like that experienced during interval training or racing, up to 15% of the energy produced is consumed by respiratory muscles. This is energy not used to make the athlete go faster and can put a pretty big dent in your body’s carbohydrate stores, requiring more fueling during the event.

There are several respiratory training devices on the market designed to improve the strength and efficiency of the inspiratory musculature, those muscles that allow us to inhale. This is done by increasing airflow resistance through a special valve.

A study from Great Britain examined the effects of 11 weeks of inspiratory muscle training on rowing performance as measured by a 6-minute all-out test and a 5000 m test both on the Concept II rowing ergometer. Fourteen female competitive rowers (All-British National Team candidates) participated in the study. They were broken into two groups. The first, trained twice a day using 30 breaths per session at a resistance equal to 50% of the maximum inspiratory pressure they could generate (inspiratory pressure is the maximum pressure that can be generated when breathing in). The second group, a placebo group, trained once a day, 60 breaths with 15% of maximum inspiratory pressure, a training protocol that does not significantly increase inspiratory muscle strength. The athletes were tested at the start of the study, at four weeks, and again at the end of the study.

The training group improved their 6-minute test performance by 3.4% after four weeks of breathing training while the placebo group only increased by 1.1%. By the end of the 11 weeks the training group had improved by 3.5% and the placebo group had improved by 1.6%. The researchers suggest that the difference of 1.9% improvement between the two groups is the result of the inspiratory muscle training.

In addition, the training group improved their 5000 m test time by an average of 36 seconds, while the placebo group improved by only 11 seconds. These results were brought about by a 41% improvement in respiratory muscle function for the training group and 5% for the placebo group, as measured by an increase in maximal inspiratory pressure.

While a 1.9% net improvement doesn’t seem like a lot, many races are won or lost by much less than 1.9%. This is equal to almost seven seconds over a 2000 m course. One of the interesting things to come out of this study was that almost all of the performance improvements came in the first four weeks of the eight week training program. This may be due to the fact that the resistance was self-adjusted during the study and not subject to a periodized plan.

While respiratory muscle training does not solve all an endurance athlete’s performance problems, the results of this study clearly suggest that a high level athlete may benefit from respiratory muscle training. Whether these results can be applied to athletes with lower fitness levels remains to be seen.  Additionally, there is still a lot of work to do to find the most effective training program for these muscles.

The main mistake that people make when using inspiratory muscle training devices is that they try to train while using the device. This is nearly impossible if the device is set up properly. These machines are meant to increase the resistance to airflow coming into the lungs. It is like lifting weights for your diaphragm and other breathing muscles; you wouldn’t try to do squats while riding your bike would you? Set up a training session using sets and reps just like weight training. Start with 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps, gradually increase the resistance on the inspiratory trainer over a period of 4-8 weeks.

Inspiratory muscle training is not going to suddenly cause huge changes in your race performances but it is one of the small things that you can do without a lot of cost or effort.  If you do enough small things they can all add up to big performance improvements.

(As a side note, personal communication with rowing coaches from Britain and Australia revealed that at least two medal winning boats from the Sydney Olympics included inspiratory muscle training as part of their preparation for the Games.)

References

Voliantis, S., McConnell, A., Koutedakis, Y., McNaughton, L., Backx, K., and Jones, D. (2001). Inspiratory muscle training improves rowing performance. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise. 33(5) pp 803-809.


Warm Up

June 22, 2010

Warm up is now considered an essential part of a workout or pre competition routine. While originally thought to be primarily a means of preventing injury, it is now commonly accepted that the main purpose of warm up is to improve performance with injury prevention taking a secondary role. The positive effects of warm up occur because of several mechanisms; increased muscle temperature, cardiac adaptations, injury prevention and mental rehearsal.

Increased Muscle Temperature

An increase in body temperature is one of the main physiological adaptations to warming up.  The increase results from unused energy and dissipated heat produced by friction from sliding muscle filaments during contraction. The elevated temperature results in a more rapid and complete dissociation of oxygen from hemoglobin enhancing oxidative processes in the muscle and increasing VO2 max. Increased body temperature stimulates vasodilation in the working muscle increasing blood flow through the muscle and reduced muscle viscosity increasing mechanical efficiency. Nerve conduction velocity is improved resulting in faster contractions and relaxation of muscles. The heart rate increases and lactic acid production decreases after warming up.  All these changes add up to improved performance following warm up.

Cardiac Adaptations

Heart problems such as myocardial ischemia, arrythmias, and sudden cardiac death can occur during exercise. These problems tend to occur most often in middle-aged and older men. When exercise is combined with other coronary risk factors such as hypertension, cigarette smoking, obesity, and high cholesterol the risk of exercise related cardiac problems increases.

Warming up, however, may help prevent serious damage to the heart. In one study it was reported that 68% of their subjects, men aged 21 to 52, experienced abnormal ECG readings when they exercised without warming up. Jogging easily for two minutes before the training session though eliminated the abnormal ECG readings in most subjects and reduced it in the others. Abnormal readings seen during training without a warm up have been attributed to the inability of coronary blood flow to meet the demands that the exercise session places on the heart muscle.

Injury Prevention

Preventing injuries, such as muscle strains and tears, is often suggested as one of the primary benefits of warm up. Even though most coaches suggest that warming up can help prevent injuries most of the evidence is empirical and that very few, if any, studies can show that warming up decreases the incidence of musculoskeletal injuries. This is in part because during a study a researcher would never set out to injure their subjects intentionally. It is hypothesized that warming up can help prevent injuries because it stretches the muscle tendon unit resulting in a greater length for a given load; this places less tension on the muscle-tendon junction reducing the potential for injury. However, the majority of musculoskeletal injuries occur because of strength or flexibility imbalances and therefore not affected by warm up.

Mental Rehearsal

Warm up provides an athlete the time to mentally review and prepare for the training session of competition that follows. Visualizing the activities to follow increases nervous system arousal, increasing the number of motor units activated, improving strength and power activities and enhancing skill acquisition.

Types of warm ups

There are three types of warm ups: passive, general and specific. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Passive warm up

A passive warm up increases temperature through external means. Massage, hot showers, lotions, and heating pads are common forms. Although these methods increase body temperature, they produce little positive effect on performance. Several researchers have compared the effects of active, passive and no warm up on physiological markers of performance. They found that the passive warm up did not increase VO2, or decrease blood lactate levels any more than no warm up. They did find though that the heart rate increased. A passive warm up, because of increased muscle temperature, may be suitable prior to a stretching exercise but should not be recommended as the sole means of warming up for intense physical activity.

General Warm Up

A general warm up increases temperature by using movements for the major muscle groups. Calisthenics and light jogging activities are most common. This type of warm up is meant to increase temperature in a variety of muscles using general movement patterns. This is a good warm up for a fitness class but should not serve as the sole form of warm up for athletic training or events.

Specific Warm Up

The specific warm up is designed to prepare the participant for the specific demands of the upcoming activity. The specific warm up helps psychological readiness, co-ordination of specific movement patterns, and prepares the central nervous system. A specific warm up usually consists of a simulation of some technical component of the activity at work rates that increase progressively. For example, an Olympic weightlifter will perform the snatch with heavier weights progressively until reaching 80-90% of the opening attempt. Because of the rehearsal component of this type of warm, it is the preferred method for sports activities, particularly high speed and power activities.

Designing a warm up

A good warm up has both a general and specific component and may include a passive component if the athlete feels they perform better when they use some sort of a topical analgesic like Tiger Balm.

General Warm Up

Full body Calisthenics

A warm up starts with some full body calisthenics. Exercises like jumping jacks, rope jumping, push ups, sit ups, and lunges are full body exercises that will increase body temperature. These exercises should be done for only 1- 2 minutes at a time as the goal of warm up is to increase temperature not create fatigue.

Stretching

Dynamic stretching is a more effective means of warm up stretching than static stretching, meaning that rather than holding a stretch for a period of time you move through a full range of motion and then back to your starting position immediately without holding the stretch. This is particularly true when you are doing power training. Several studies have shown that a static stretch immediately before power training can significantly decrease subsequent power development. This is because the static stretch decreases the effectiveness of the stretch shortening cycle.

Duration of General Warm Up

The amount of time needed to warm up depends on the type and intensity of the activity as well as environmental conditions. For someone engaged in a light jogging program 10 minutes may be sufficient for a warm up. Elite level athletes may require 30 or 40 minutes to warm up depending on the nature of the event, with higher intensity events requiring longer warm ups. Exercising in a warm environment requires a shorter warm up than exercising in a cold one. In a normal environment the onset of sweating is usually a good indicator that body temperature has increased sufficiently.

Specific Warm Up

The nature of the specific warm up depends on the activity to follow. Keep in mind that warm up is just that warm up not training, fatigue should be kept to a minimum during warm up otherwise the training session will suffer.

Warming Up for Strength Training

When weight training, do at least two sets, one at 50% and one at 75% of the work weight, before using the working weight. Very strong people need to do more sets. Many elite powerlifters and weightlifters use six to eight warm up sets prior to opening attempts in competition. Repetitions in warm up sets are low, 1-4, and done at a controlled speed. Warm up sets are done for every exercise in the program, not just the first exercise.

Warming Up for Speed, Agility and Power Training

As in weight training a warm up for speed, agility and power events or training uses warm up sets. Prior to each drill start with a walk through set that allows you to rehearse the drill in your mind and remind you of the movements and changes of direction that have to be made. Following the walk through perform two progressively faster trials, one at about half speed and one at three quarter speed. Be sure to focus on good technique during each of the warm up sets, the way you perform in warm up will be the way you perform in the training session.

Warming Up for Aerobic Training

Since most of the aerobic training you will be doing is low intensity there isn’t a specific portion to the warm up. If you were to do higher intensity aerobic intervals you would start with 10 –15 minutes of light jogging prior to starting the interval portion on the session.

A good warm up can make the difference between an adequate and a personal best performance. If you are having trouble int eh early parts of an event or seem to get a second wind take a look at your warm up it may need some fine tuning.


Training Volume for Endurance Sports

June 7, 2010

Training volume is the amount of work that is performed. Many coaches and athletes use the number of miles or kilometers covered as the measure of training volume. While this is an acceptable measure it does not always give the full picture of training. For example if athlete A does a 20 km workout in 90 minutes and athlete B covers the same 20 km in 60 minutes they are not doing the same workout and won’t get the same training effect even though the volume as measured by distance is the same. Time is a better measure of training volume as it is allows athletes of varying level to be compared on an equal level.

Annual training volume has a direct effect on performance. For many athletes work, school, and family commitments influence their training volume, limiting them to four or five hours of training per week. As in almost every sport you get out of rowing what you put in, your training goals and time commitment need to be compatible; expecting to win an Olympic medal by training six hours per week is unrealistic as is winning a national championship on three hours per week of training. Table 1 shows the desired training volume by competitive level. In order to continue to improve within your competition level or move to a higher level you must increase training volume from year to year. Even at the elite level there has been a steady increase in total training volume over the past 30 years, increasing from and average of 924 hours per year in the 1970’s to 1128 hours per year in the late 1990’s, a 20% increase.

Increasing training volume must be done gradually, rapid increases in training volume can quickly lead to overtraining and injuries; this is very common when an athlete makes the jump from one competitive level to another without having planned for the transition the previous year. High school students who jump to top college programs may experience a doubling of their training volume without being adequately prepared. A college student who makes the jump to a national team often finds himself or herself in the same situation particularly if they make the jump in an Olympic year when training volume tends to be the highest. As a rule of thumb annual increases in training volume should not exceed 5-10% of the previous year’s volume. If you are currently a high school athlete who eventually wants to row at national level it is going to take at least five years of progressive volume increases to get there.

Competitive Level Training Volume for Men (hrs/year) Training Volume for Women (hrs/year) Training

Weeks per year

Hours per week Days per week Sessions per day
Elite International 1000-1200 850-1000 48 21-25 6 1-4
National 800-1000 700-850 48 17-21 6 1-4
Provincial 600-800 600-700 44-46 13-18 5-6 1-3
Club 500-600 500-600 42-44 10-15 4-6 1
High School 300-500 300-500 10-30 2-10 3-4 1
Novice High School 100-300 100-300 2-10 1-4 1-2 1

Strength Goals for Mastes Rowers

February 19, 2009

 

Ed McNeely

This is the third part of the series of articles that started with How Strong is Strong Enough. You should refer back to that article for the background information on the development of  strength goals for rowers. The four points at the end of the article apply to masters as well as younger rowers.

Strength is important for rowers. It is even more important for Masters rowers. As I discussed in a previous article the start, where strength is most important, is a much larger part of a 1000 m race than a 2000 m race. You don’t have the time to make up the distance you could lose if you aren’t strong off the start.

The strength factor tables below are based on the ideal strength level of younger club rowers and corrected for age. This was done to accommodate the greatest number of masters rowers possible. Basing these strength goals on international competitors would not create a realistic picture of the strength level a masters rower needs to be competitive against their peers.

Men

 

35-39

40-44

45-49

50-54

55-59

60-64

65-69

70+

Squat

1.37

1.30

1.2

1.15

1.03

0.95

0.82

0.60

Deadlift

1.37

1.3

1.2

1.15

1.03

0.95

0.82

0.60

Bench Pull

1.02

0.98

0.94

0.88

0.78

0.71

0.62

0.45

Women 

 

35-39

40-44

45-49

50-54

55-59

60-64

65-69

70+

Squat

1.22

1.16

1.08

1.00

0.91

0.80

0.72

0.50

Deadlift

1.22

1.16

1.08

1.00

0.91

0.80

0.72

0.50

Bench Pull

0.93

0.88

0.82

0.76

0.69

0.60

0.55

0.38

 

Using the Tables

To use the table take your body weight and multiply it by the appropriate factor. If  you were a 200 lb. 53 year old male rower you should be able to bench pull 176 lbs. one time (200 lb. Bodyweight  x 0.88 strength factor = 176). If you currently are able to meet these goals you can focus your training on other areas. If you can’t meet these goals strength may be one of the things holding back your performance.

Strength Concepts for Masters

1.                  Balanced Approach

 

While there are only strength factors for three exercises it doesn’t mean these are the only three exercises that you do.  Rowing strength exercises can be broken into two major categories, Specific and General. I will provide a brief outline of these categories in this article and provide a more detailed look at the exercises in the near future.

Specific exercises are those that are intended to strengthen all or part of the rowing stroke or that improve explosive power that can be converted to boat speed. Specific exercises can include traditional weight room exercises and rowing simulation exercises like a can or bungee row.  Specific weight room exercises include cleans, deadlift, squats, front squats, bench pull, back extensions and seated row. It is tempting to build a program using only specific exercises. After all, these are the exercises that simulate part of the rowing stroke. Specific exercises will only improve rowing performance when they are balanced with the proper mix of general exercises.

General exercises help prevent injury and develop stability and balance. Muscle imbalances, either bilateral (differences between right and left side) or agonist/antagonist (muscles that are on opposite sides of a joint), have been implicated in the development of injury. Several studies have found  that a muscle imbalance of greater than 10% increases the risk of injury by 20 times. Other researchers found that all their subjects with a strength imbalance of 25% or more developed an injury in the weaker leg.

Muscle imbalances are a serious problem for rowers. Sweep rowing in particular causes the oarside leg to become stronger and non-oarside trunk muscles to become over developed. The quads and hip flexors become strong and inflexible while the glutes and hamstrings remain relatively weak. The same thing happens with the back and abs.

The number of general exercises that can be done is almost limitless. Stability ball exercises, step ups, split squats, snatch squats, bench press, arm curls, tricep extensions, rotator cuff exercises, trunk rotations and leg curls are some of my favorites.

 It is important to include a specific and general exercises in a program. Choose exercise  for the muscles on both the front and back of the body. Always make sure to train both the right and left sides equally. If you are strength training 3-4 times per week you don’t need any more than six exercises per training session. Select two specific and four general exercises.

2.                  Machines vs. Free Weights

From the e-mail I have received I get the impression that many Masters use machines for strength training.  I am not a fan of most strength machines for rowers. Some like a lat pulldown machine, seated row or leg curl have their place but they should not make up the majority of a program. The movement path is fixed in machines this means that the muscles don’t have to work to stabilize the weight during exercise. The small deeper layers of muscle that provide balance and stability in the boat never get trained with machines. These small muscles become the weak link in your rowing strength and prevent you from transferring the strength you develop in the weight room to the water. In addition, most machines don’t allow the right and left to work independently. The stronger side will often take more of the load, leading to greater and greater muscle imbalances and increasing your risk of developing an injury.

I understand that many people use machines because they are easier to use than free weights and they may not know the right way to do a free weight exercise. Others have been given machine exercises by the trainer at their local gym. It is in your best interest as a rower to take the time to learn how to do at least some free weight exercises. The balance, stability, and athleticism used in free weight training will have a greater impact on your rowing performance and injury prevention than any machine.

3.                  Strength Train All Year

If you strength train during the winter months and then stop once you get back on water any strength gains you’ve made will be lost within 6-8 weeks. This may be fine if you are rowing for fun and fitness but if you are competing and trying to improve your race times you need to keep your strength during the season. I have always found it a little strange that many rowers are their strongest on the first day they get on water and weakest for their final, and often most important, race of the year. You will need at least 16 weeks of winter strength training to see appreciable gains that will transfer to rowing performance. Once you get back on water you will need 1-2 days a week of strength maintenance training. If you notice the weight you are using during the maintenance training starts to decrease you are losing strength and will need to increase the amount of strength work for 2-3 weeks or until strength returns to normal.


How Hard is Hard Enough?

February 19, 2009

Ed McNeely

2000 m races typically last 6-9 minutes depending on the boat, age, and level of the competitors. This has lead many researchers to examine the role of VO2 max in rowing performance.  VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use. It is a measure of how efficiently the heart and lungs can deliver oxygen and how well the muscles can extract it from the blood and use it in energy producing chemical reactions. As a result of this many coaches and athletes feel that they are only going to improve if they perform high intensity training. While there is no doubt that this type of training does have a place in a rowing program the question is how much and when should it be done.

There have been several studies that have looked at the training programs used by the top rowing countries in the world. They have consistently found that the top rowers perform only 5-10% of their total training volume as higher intensity intervals. Increasing the volume of these intervals doesn’t seem to increase VO2 max or rowing performance any more than the lower volume. In fact many countries have their athletes spend more than 90% of their training time below anaerobic threshold, the point where lactic acid begins to accumulate and cause fatigue and discomfort.

The question many of you are probably asking is if racing is done at high intensity why train at low intensity. The answer is muscle fiber types. Depending on the analysis method there are usually three or four distinct types of muscle fibers. Their characteristics can be seen in table 1. While the general population has about equal numbers of slow twitch fibers and fast twitch fibers, rowers have a much larger proportion of slow twitch fibers. These slow twitch fibers are capable of using lactic acid as a fuel source. In other words, efficient, fit slow twitch fibers will eat up the lactic acid that your fast fibers are producing. This helps to decrease the impact of lactic acid on performance.

During exercise your body activates muscle fibers according to the size principal. The size principal states that motor units are activated from the smallest to the largest as intensity of exercise increases. Slow twitch fibers tend to be in the smallest motor units and are activated at lower intensities.

In addition to the use of slow twitch fibers low intensity training offers that advantage of allowing you to do a higher volume of technical work. Skill learning is most effective at lower intensities. This is because lactic acid and fatigue impairs the ability to learn skills. It is only once the skill has become automated, following 5000 repetitions done exactly the same way, at low speed that the skill can be successfully transferred to higher intensity training and performance.

So how do you know when you are training hard enough? There are several ways to do this and a couple that I would caution against. Let’s talk about heart rate first. In the August 28, 1998 issue or IRN I wrote an article on the rules of heart rate monitoring. One of those rules is heart rate must be used in conjunction with other physiological variables. In other words picking a heart rate or heart rate range doesn’t tell you anything about how the muscles are working. The generic heart rate ranges, that you see on charts at most health clubs or many training books, were developed as guidelines for improving cardiovascular health and fitness. They were never intended to be guidelines for improved performance. I would suggest staying away from heart rate unless lactate or oxygen consumption are also measured.

Lactate analysis is the best way to determine your training intensity. Lactate tests involve a drop of blood being drawn from the fingertip and analyzed. These tests are normally multi stage affairs where the intensity is increased after every stage. The draw back to this type of testing is that it requires a trained technician who has access to an analyzer. There are currently a couple of relatively inexpensive analyzers on the market that do a good job in the hands of a qualified technician. If you are serious about your rowing a lactate test or two during your winter training is a worth while investment. It doesn’t matter what boat or oars you have if you don’t have the fitness to make it go fast. If you do have a test done you want to spend about 80% of your training time at the power output or heart rate that corresponds to 2 mmol/L. 10% of your time will be spent between 2-4 mmol/L and the remaining 10% is higher intensity intervals.

A 20-minute performance test can be used to estimate training intensity. In the 20-minute test, the athlete is required to row as many meters as possible in 20 minutes.

Dr. Volker Nolte, former Canadian lightweight men’s coach and a professor at University of Western Ontario, has developed some guidelines for using a 20-minute test to predict exercise intensity. He has suggested that the average split from the 20 minute test plus 13-15 seconds is a good indicator of the intensity that corresponds to 2mmol/L of lactate

Estimates from a performance test to categories can be affected by several factors. Performance tests do not rely only on the physiological capacity of the athlete. A good score on a performance test is a function of physiological, mental, technical, and tactical components working together. There are many athletes who either under or over perform according to their physiological data simply because they did not treat the test like a race and were not properly prepared mentally. If you use this test be prepared to make some individual adjustments. You will have to adjust your pace down if you cannot maintain a normal conversation with out an increase in breathing rate when training at this intensity. It is very rare to have to adjust the intensity up. If you are ever in doubt, you are better to slow down rather than speed up.

Many rowers subscribe to the ‘NO Pain No Gain’ theory of training. These are the same people that struggle from year to year to make substantial improvements. Through a combination of skill improvement and development of the slow twitch fibres lower intensity training is the key to rowing success. To conclude, if you want to go fast you have to go slow.

Table 1. Muscle Fiber Types and their Characteristics

Charateristic/ Fiber type

Slow Twitch

Fast Oxidative Glycolytic

Undifferentiated Fast Twitch

Fast Glycolytic

Speed of Contraction

Slow

Moderate

Fast

Very Fast

Fatigue Resistance

Very High

High

Moderate

Low

Anaerobic Power

 

Low

Moderate-Low

High

Very High

Aerobic Capacity

 

Very High

High-Moderate

Moderate-Low

Very Low