Miles Before Speed

I substituted in another boat this week. I didn’t mean to be rude, but when asked how it was, I answered, “It wasn’t a good workout. I’m going to have to go home and erg.”

Which led to this reputation that I like erging, which is like saying I love brussels sprouts and peas. Or that I like eating dirt, which is what peas taste like.

It’s about training. When you have a goal in mind, you have to train to make that goal. Some people have asked where I’m getting my training routine from, since I’m going uncoached. My training routine is a cake. It’s a floury base of the last four years of head seasons, gelled together by saved workouts from a previous Masters coach extraordinaire , sprinkled with the powder of notes from a sculling workshop a year ago, and spiced with my personal rowing and training philosophies. Here’s my training in a nutshell.

1) The Goal

The goal sets the purpose for the workouts. It’s head race season. That means 5000 meters of torture. But you can’t just train for 5000 meters–you really have to train to survive 10,000 meters because you need to row down to the starting line first. So rows have to be long distance.

Head season isn’t my goal. Stetson’s 15k race at the Fall Rowing Rendevouz is my goal. That drives my workout. Any head races are a by-product of said goal.

2) Miles before speed

It doesn’t have to fast, it just has to be long. That’s my personal head season motto #1. Rowing 10 k translates to 6.2 miles, or over 1,200 strokes in a single. That’s 1,200 strokes of friction rubbing into your hands, 1,200 dead lifts and leg presses of 145 pounds, 1,200 times your bum rolls back and forth on a hard, plastic seat. Your body must be conditioned to survive that distance. It craves the callouses, the memory of good strokes, and lung power to endure. If you don’t put in the miles, you can’t survive.

Plus miles are the only way to get better. I went from rowing a 8+ with tiptoes in the 1x here and there for the last few months, to all 1x. It’s the first time I’ve devoted myself to the 1x. The only way to improve my catches, releases, balance, and steering is to row. That philosophy comes from my workshop notes. You have to put the time in to get better.

Last reason for motto #1: Miles build a cardio base.

2) Build distance slowly

I’d would have loved to jump out there and started rowing 15k’s right from the start. Part of me wanted to. The more logical little angel said no, that’s how you hurt yourself and cut your season to shreds. So I started slow. I aimed to row five days a week with two long days and three short days all the way up to my first 15k. I alternated the days by 4k. For example, my first week of training was 8k, 11k, 9k, 11k, 8k. I added 1k every week until the long rows were 15k. That was last week. Now I’ve made the switch to continue increasing my overall mileage while building the distance methodically.  That means three long days and two “power” days. Of the three long days, one is long distance. This week’s schedule: 13k, 10k, 16k, 10, 13k. All the way up to 20k. Sometimes out on the water I feel great and would love to just keep on going. If I gave in, I’d be a recipe for injury.

3) Power over rating

Motto #2: Power before rate. The last day on the water in 1x the Prana rower and I did a 20-strokes contest to see who could row the furthest in 20 strokes. I knew she’d clobber me; I just didn’t know it would be that bad. At twenty I let my oars fly and she continued another three strokes. In essence, I was understroked. It was a good lesson and reminder: What’s the use of a high stroke rate if you don’t increase your boat speed? Save your effort and settle in at your most powerful rating. That’s not to say I don’t believe in stroke rate. I don’t intend to race at an 18. But racing at a 26 isn’t going to do me any favors, either. The key is power. Every stroke should connect and the legs should push that shell through the water at a consistent speed. I can hit and maintain 14 kph at a 20. That’s pretty fast in a little 1x. On my short days, I focus on building that power in my leg drive. Yes, I’m working on rating, too, and how to maintain that same power at the higher rates to really move that shell. Power builds strength, no matter the rate.

4) Work in cycles

I draft my workouts in three week cycles. In each cycle I work on something. Cycle 1 I focused on getting used to rowing the 1x. The single is a completely different mind game. I needed time to mentally adapt, to get a feel for the shell, to adjust to sculling. My back was weak and uneven. In cycle 2 I started working on that top end and cleaning up the release. I focused on steering straighter and remembering to look to steer. Now in cycle 3 I’m thinking about the consistent outward pressure and how it applies during every phase of the rowing stroke.

The cycles are nice because they feel like phases. Short-term goals help motivate me. I like to know where I’m going in the long term and short term. Long term: 15k race. Short term: This week row 16k and start to work on building that stroke rate. Increase power. Stop less.

The other part of cycles are consistency. For two weeks the power days have the same workout. What’s the use of moving on to the next workout if you haven’t mastered the one you are on? Again, it’s my philosophy about adapting the body to the challenge. Today we didn’t row because of fog, but I did the workout I planned to do on the water: five 5-minute pieces with 3 minutes rest at a 22 rate with power. Next week I’ll do the same workout on the same day. The third week, I’m adding a minute of rowing. You have to survive and push through the five minutes before you can build to six.

5) Say no

Sometimes I feel guilty about this one. I understand the desperate, last-minute need and would like to help a boat out as a pitch sub or coxswain. But people need to understand: I have a goal and a schedule. Being the substitute or pitch-coxswain helps you, sure, but it’s not helping me. In order to reach my goal, I must be selfish. I have to weigh the benefits of skipping or adjusting my workout versus being a team player and helping others fill a seat. So chances are, if what you’re doing doesn’t jive with my plan, I must say no. But I won’t regret it later when I’m racing 15k and others are not.

6) Other things

I believe in weightlifting! Rowers need power and to balance out our bodies. Right now I don’t have access to weightlifting. I do aim to stretch every morning before and after I row, focusing on lengthening out my back and my legs. And I believe in the core. Rowers need a strong, powerful core to connect our leg drive with our swing. I tend to slack off on this one, but I wrote it into my schedule in this third cycle to remind myself: take 15-20 minutes and do some core exercises. Not just crunches, either. I mix it up with pikes, planks, superman, push-ups, bridges, stability ball, and throw in my IT band work while I’m at it.

Furthermore, I don’t believe in being stupid. Sometimes we train well before sunrise. We’re coming back in just as the sun is stretching up over the horizon. But we don’t take stupid chances. If it’s too windy, we scratch it. I drove all the way to the boatyard this morning just to stare out at the reflection of the marker light blipping in the distance haloed in a ring of descending fog. Row cancelled.

If I hurt, I don’t push it. I pulled a muscle in my rib cage three weeks back. I twisted to the left for a peek back just as I took a beautifully connected stroke at the front end and voila! Felt the darn thing give and everything. Luckily it happened the last day before my two days rest, so I had rest time. I iced it and when I resumed rowing, instead of looking on the stroke, I stopped to look just to make sure I didn’t stress it anymore. I rowed with less pressure for a day to feel it out. I also worked on turning right and not just left. I spent a few rows taking long looks to the right and quick, short distance peers to the left. I’d use a mirror, but it’s too dark.

That’s it: my training philosophy in a nutshell. With head races, it’s about miles, consistent power, and keeping your head in the boat. I do what I can to stick to the schedule. Sometimes that means not doing a favor, or it means booking an hour-plus torture session on the erg.

For a different take on rowing training, check out this interview with Esther Lofgren. She rowed in the gold-medal Olympic women’s 8+.

And that means you know my goal: Stetson Fall Rendevous 15k. If I hit 20k in the coming weeks, which I should, I might go ahead and just row a 21,049, which is a half-marathon, just because I can.

I have a second goal, too, but I’m waiting on a certain regatta to quit being a turkey and to post their event schedule to see if it’s possible.

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About camckenna

I teach; I write; I row.
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3 Responses to Miles Before Speed

  1. David Bonnell says:

    I like the post but peas don’t taste like dirt, they’re sweet and my favourite vegetable. And if you cook brussels sprouts properly (blanch them, then saute them over a high heat so you get a bit of charring) and when sauteing them add something to sweeten them like balsamic or maple syrup and add bacon, they’re great.

    • camckenna says:

      To me, peas do taste like dirt. And my husband, who loves brussell sprouts, has made them many different ways to try and woo me towards them. His favorite way to cook them is to sprinkle them with olive oil, salt, and roast in the oven. They get a little charred that way, too. I still don’t like them. I promise I have made a good faith effort. Science has shown that everyone’s taste buds are a little different. See this article.

      • David Bonnell says:

        Fair enough too, I like that you have science on your side. You know that way your husband prepares brussels sprouts, you can do that with broccoli and cauliflower and that is our favourite way to eat those now.

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