Training Alternatives: Rowing Ergometer Training For Endurance Athletes

Monday, February 24, 2014 | By Jake Shuppe
 
 
 
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Training Alternatives: Rowing Ergometer Training For Endurance Athletes

Whether it’s because you’re traveling, your local gym is packed with people, or you’re just looking for a break from riding a trainer or running on a treadmill, a rowing ergometer can be a great option for a cyclist, triathlete, or runner.

The rowing movement activates over 90% of the body’s musculature and promotes the strengthening of the smaller stabilizing muscles throughout the abdomen, back, and hips. Strength and stability in these areas helps athletes maintain proper cycling, running, and swimming form, which can be a factor in maintaining higher paces and power outputs for longer periods of time.

For endurance athletes however, the cardiovascular component of rowing may be more important and beneficial than the opportunity for muscular development. While many people look at rowing as a power sport, the muscle fiber typing in trained oarsmen resembles those of a distance runner, and elite collegiate rowers can attain VO2 max values between 75-85 ml/(kg/min).

If you’re also looking to drop a few pounds, rowing delivers great bang for your buck in terms of energy expenditure. Since rowing involves muscles throughout the body, caloric expenditure rises quickly. During maximal 6-minute efforts, athletes have recorded caloric expenditures of 36 kcal/min. While this may be achievable in other sports, cyclists should keep in mind that the the full-body nature of rowing means you’re burning more calories at any given effort level compared to cycling.

For those athletes who are not familiar with rowing, here’s a primer on the terminology and basic techniques.

Catch: defined as the beginning position of the rowing stroke.

  • Head up and chest up
  • Lower legs perpendicular to the ground
  • Straight relaxed arms and loose grip
  • Forward bend occurs in hips, not back
  • Strong back
  • Position should be comfortable. You should be able to stay in this position for a prolonged period of time.

The Drive: defined as the primary work phase of the rowing stroke.

  • The only thing that should be happening is leg extension
  • Maintain forward bend of upper body from the hips
  • Head and chest up
  • Straight arms and relaxed grip
  • Relaxed shoulders

Finish: defined as the end of the rowing stroke and is an extension of the drive phase.

  • Once legs are completely extended, extend back into a reclined position
  • Chest and head up
  • Once back is extended you pull with arms into chest
  • Flat wrists with elbows pointed behind and slightly away from you

Recovery: defined as the motion of returning to the catch position

  • Recovery occurs in the opposite order from drive phase
  • Once at finish, you extend your arms, rotate your back forward from hips, and begin to move up the slide bending your knees until you reach the catch position

Stroke Rate: defined by the number of complete strokes that are taken within one minute

  • Usually seen as S/m, strokes per minute
  • Located on the upper right hand corner of the Concept 2 rowing ergometer (most common rowing ergometer)

Split: defines the pace you are rowing by the time it would take you at that moment to row 500 meters. Example: 1:45/500m

  • On a Concept 2, this number appears as the large number in the middle of the screen

Flywheel Damper

  • Controls the rate at which the flywheel within the ergometer slows down. Essentially you will interpret this as the resistance you feel from stroke to stroke.
  • Ranges from 1 being the easiest to 10 being the hardest
  • The damper is set based off the specific purpose for training with an ergometer
    • For our purposes the damper should be set low, between 1-3. This decreases the likelihood of injuries occurring to the lower back since you’ll use less force per stroke. This setting also encourages the use of high stroke rates, increasing the cardiovascular demand.
    • Collegiate and national team rowers will train mostly on a damper between 4-6. This setting most closely resembles the resistance they feel while rowing on the water during competition.
    • Anything above 6 is very difficult and promotes more muscular strength over cardiovascular ability. You will see a lot of CrossFit athletes at these damper settings because they specifically train to build muscular strength, and they use ergometers for very short periods of time during competition.

Your Workout: Progressive Pyramid

The Progressive Pyramid workout is a good starting point because it helps you practice the technique of rowing and get a feel for different intensity levels and stroke rates. Later on, one set of the pyramid can be used as a great warm-up for a more specific workout.

Intensities and Warm-up

  • 4 minutes at 25% pressure—stroke rate of 16-18
  • 3 minutes at 50% pressure—stroke rate of 18-19
  • 2 minutes at 75% pressure—stroke rate of 20
  • 1 minute at 90-100% pressure—stroke rate of 22

Do a total of 10 minutes. This is a great way to focus on technique. These are at a low rate and allow time for you to think about every movement of the rowing stroke, while getting the body progressively warmed up by increasing intensity.

This warm up can also be adapted into a great workout. You can repeat the cycle to match any specific time requirements you have for your workout that day. For example:

  • 4 minutes at 25% pressure—stroke rate of 16-18
  • 3 minutes at 50% pressure—stroke rate of 18-19
  • 2 minutes at 75% pressure—stroke rate of 20
  • 1 minute at 90-100% pressure—stroke rate of 22
  • 2 minutes at 75% pressure—stroke rate of 20
  • 3 minutes at 50% pressure—stroke rate of 18-19
  • 4 minutes at 25% pressure—stroke rate of 16-18

Total time of 19 minutes. This may be repeated as necessary to reach desired total time.

Full Workout Example: Progressive Pyramid Intervals

Once you are comfortable on the ergometer and with the technique, the following workout is a great way to increase strength and cardiovascular efficiency. For simplicity’s sake we will refer to these iterations of the workout as Progressive Pyramid Intervals.

Intensity of this workout is between 6-8 RPE (threshold workout).

  • 4 minutes at a stroke rate of 16
  • 3 minutes at a stroke rate of 18
  • 2 minutes at a stroke rate of 20
  • 1 minute at a stroke rate of 22
  • 2 minutes at a stroke rate of 20
  • 3 minutes at a stroke rate of 18
  • 4 minutes at a stroke rate of 16

3 minutes of rest

  • 1 minute at a stroke rate of 16
  • 2 minutes at a stroke rate of 18
  • 3 minutes at a stroke rate of 20
  • 4 minutes at a stroke rate of 22
  • 3 minutes at a stroke rate of 20
  • 2 minutes at a stroke rate of 18
  • 1 minute at a stroke rate of 16

3 minutes of rest

  • 1 minute at a stroke rate of 22
  • 2 minutes at a stroke rate of 20
  • 3 minutes at a stroke rate of 18
  • 4 minutes at a stroke rate of 16
  • 3 minutes at a stroke rate of 18
  • 2 minutes at a stroke rate of 20
  • 1 minute at a stroke rate of 22

The rowing machine can be a very effective tool in your training. In less than an hour of work you can build your aerobic system and increase strength at the same time. So the next time the treadmills are filled or you’re on the road, look to the rowing machine to keep you on track.

  1. Hagerman, C. Fredrick. “Applied physiology of Rowing” Journal of Sports Medicine July 1, 1984. Vol 1 (4) P303-326. Springer International Publishing

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