Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter Workouts: Why do Rowers Fear the Erg?

Op-Ed from the RowingRelated Editorial Staff

Friend. Not foe. (Illustration: B. Kitch)
I am really frustrated by our sport when it comes to the erg being viewed as a torture device rather than a helpful tool that people can enjoy. This negative mindset, which is extremely contagious, plagues the sport, preventing athletes from training to their potential and possibly serving as one of the reasons that careers in rowing, at every level, are often so short.

When compared to other endurance sports, I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such fundamental mental and physical endurance training.My main problem is that everywhere I turn in the rowing community, whether it's high school rowers, college athletes, or even national team hopefuls, I hear of people dreading the erg. I've never heard about a cross country runner 'dreading' a track workout. True, basketball and football players may dread running wind sprints or other such conditioning activities, but I can live with that because those are not endurance sports. In other words, when strength, power, endurance, mental toughness, and monotonous activity are the bread and butter of your sport, it seems wholly inappropriate to create a culture that disdains such fundamentally important and central activities.

When compared to other endurance sports like cycling, running, swimming, etc., I have not encountered an equal level of disdain for such fundamental mental and physical endurance training. A track runner might complain if he or she had to be on the treadmill all winter long, but the idea would not strike fear into his or her heart, as track athletes are forced to be accountable at all times. I don't know why, every winter, I have to go on row2k and read ROWING Magazine to find out about "How to get through winter training," or "How to find ways to spice up/find alternatives for the erg." Why can't people just say, "Time to erg? Okay great. What is the workout, what am I trying to accomplish and what is the best way to do that in this workout?"

Another issue: rowers complaining about mysterious injuries that only seem to affect performance on land. How common is it to have an injury that allows you to row on the water but not on the erg? I think that, in actuality, such injuries are exceedingly rare. I've had a number of athletes tell me about an injury they have, but somehow that injury only comes up on the erg. Rarely do I hear about an injury when coaching on the water. It is all too common for people to say, "but it doesn't hurt in the boat." Really? You mean that when you have to carry a heavy load, rowing by pairs, fours and sixes in an eight, have to twist out to one side with your torso and overload that side (all of this in a potentially unstable environment), that it doesn't hurt, but that when you are on a stationary machine that is completely stable and balanced, with a resistance setting that you can control, then it hurts? It seems very unlikely. I have a hypothesis: either it doesn't hurt on the water because you aren't pulling very hard, or it's because you aren't really injured and don't know the difference between pain and injury, or a combination of both. Again, track athletes are held accountable 100% of the time. The coach is standing there with a stop watch. When a rower is on the water, it's up to him or her to "give full measure."

"I'm just not good on the erg, but I'm good on the water." Nonsense.I have a simple solution to this: you can't erg, you can't row. It's amazing how many less injuries occur when this is the policy. Also, I don't care how hard you work when running, cycling, swimming or doing whatever cross-training you might be doing—you aren't going to be in very good rowing shape based on your potential without the sport-specific training development.

Another common phrase: "I'm just not good on the erg, but I'm good on the water." Nonsense. Sure, you might be able to beat someone on the water with a better erg score, but that is because that person is not technically skilled, and thus isn't able to utilize the extra power and fitness that they have. It's not complicated. I don't boat based on erg scores, but I give people with erg scores the presumption—they must lose a seat race to a weaker teammate in order to lose their seat in the boat. If that happens, it's not a good thing. It just means the rower with the stronger erg score is not technically skilled. Show me any good Olympic boat and I will show you a boat with great erg scores. Hamish Bond and Eric Murray of New Zealand are excellent rowers with great boat feel and technical ability, but they also have tremendous power and fitness. What about Mahé Drysdale, or Olaf Tufte, or Xeno Muller? Tremendous erg scores. Sure ergs don't float, but they don't lie either. If you can't pull an erg it means you have no engine. I don't care how beautiful, sleek and aerodynamic your race car is, if it has V6 engine, then the only way it is going to win a race against a race car with a V12 engine is if that V12 is in an extremely inefficient car.

Now, I understand people might have a problem with the erg because it doesn't perfectly simulate the rowing stroke, and can, undoubtedly, end up rewarding things that will hurt boat speed on the water (like rushing the slide). I don't have a problem with those people, because that, to me, is a valid concern and viewpoint. These people are not afraid of the erg and it doesn't cause them mental distress that affects their ability to perform and achieve their best. However, I think it's time for the rowing community, beginning at the high school level, to be more willing to embrace the ergometer as a training tool, rather than coming up with millions of reasons to fear the machine and letting it play games with our minds. In my opinion, this attitude, which is perpetuated year after year in programs throughout the country, creates mental blocks and leads people away from the training intensity they need to achieve their best possible results.

This may be, in part, the result of coaches requiring athletes to go too hard on every workout on the machine. Sometimes, workouts should be easy. I suspect that if one went around to various rowing programs to find out how their 'steady state' speed on a 10k erg piece compared to their 2k or 5k time, and then went around to cross country and track coaches to find out what pace they had their runners run on a typical easy or steady state run, one would find that the rowers work much harder. For instance, let's say a runner runs a 5k in 18:36. This works out to six minute pace per mile, and 1:51.6 per 500 meters. According to the McMillan Running Calculator, easy steady state runs should be done at 2:02.5-2:06 per 500 meters and easy/long runs should be done at 2:18-2:27 pace per 500 meters.

Take a rower who pulls an 18:36 for 5k, which is that same 1:51.6 pace per 500 meters. I bet many high school and college coaches would have that person doing their steady state erg workouts at 1:58-2:00, and would never have them go as slow as the running calculator recommends on the easy/long runs.

Rowers should look at both kinds of training as equally difficult. For this to happen, coaches must bring a balanced approach to both land and water training.It's possible that because rowing is so low impact as compared with running, rowers can handle a faster pace for all of their workouts than runners and still recover. But this is a difference of 8-18 seconds per mile, which would be 45 seconds to a minute and a half difference over 10k. Finishing a 10k a minute faster than someone else is a pretty significant difference, especially if done day after day and week after week. The cumulative effect on the body wearing down could potentially be significant, as the body's physiological systems would be constantly over-taxed. Perhaps this is why so many people hate the erg and "burn out" in rowing—far more often and much earlier in their careers than the majority of runners. Many coaches seem to adopt the approach that Olympian and running coach Jack Daniels refers to as the "Eggs Against the Wall" theory of coaching, which he defines as the metaphysical act of throwing a basket of eggs against a wall and hoping one of them doesn't break. When you train as hard as most coaches recommend, the few, stellar athletes that can handle the training will succeed, and some of them might even go on to compete in the Olympics. What about all the rest? They will burn out, get injured and leave the sport. The key is balance: your training program needs to be well thought out, with enough days of easy, longer training to complement the extremely demanding sessions. If the erg is used purely for the most difficult of training sessions, it will not only solidify a negative mindset regarding the machine, but also, unintentionally, contribute reduced accountability on the water. If water training is looked at as 'easier,' you will undoubtedly underachieve when it comes time to race. Rowers should look at both kinds of training as equally difficult. For this to happen, coaches must bring a balanced approach to both land and water training.

Finally, I think many rowing coaches fall victim to creating a crutch when it comes to an erg workout, rather than dealing the fundamental, underlying problem. Here is a common example of the kind of patchwork solution to a more serious problem: steady state erg workouts broken up into intervals like 4' on, 1' off when such rest is not needed to accomplish the physiological goals of the workout. In my mind, that type of rest should be used for speed intervals (in other words, when you actually need the rest to recover between intervals). I don't think if you are trying to keep your heart rate at between 60-80% of your maximum, for example, that having a minute off every five minutes will help keep your heart rate down over the course of the workout. At that intensity, if you are in good aerobic shape, you will not notice much variation in your heart rate between an hour straight through and an hour of 4' on, 1' off if it is done at a consistent 'steady state' effort (steady state being heart rate between 60-80% of its maximum). To me, this is appears to be another way of perpetuating the problem of disliking the erg, as it is clearly a concession to the idea that the erg is difficult to deal with mentally.

This belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I wonder how many running coaches would say to their athletes, "Today we are doing an easy steady state run of eight miles, I want you to run at your easy/steady state pace for four minutes and then stop, walk or jog for one minute before resuming your steady state run pace until you complete the eight miles." I don't believe many running coaches, anywhere in the world, at any level, would do this. I think they would say, "Today we are going to do a steady state run of 8 miles at your easy/steady-state pace to work on aerobic development. Stay within this zone by running 'x' pace and I will see you when you get back."

Maybe running is in the dark ages and rowing is just ahead of the curve on this one, but somehow I think it might be the other way around.

-The RR Team


  1. Fantastic article. That's all that can be said.

  2. Truth. I didn't see great improvement until I lost the fear of the erg.

    It would seriously benefit for mid-level programs to erg "smarter" so athletes aren't lost because of the erg or are resentful of the erg, but also getting the gains coming from the land training.

  3. Fantastic article! Indeed, it should be something that rowers should embrace and get excited about.

    I think a lot of the "fear" comes less from the pain but more from the anxiety of being assessed every 2 or 3 seconds. The pressure to perform on every stroke can be quite distressing to some, particularly where you are trying to PB/maintain a particular split. Once you realise that a few strokes at a worse split is not the end of the world - seeing predicted time/distance can help with this. Just like one dodgy stroke won't necessarily make or break a race on the water.

    I am not sure I agree 100% with the notion that people are being pushed too hard on the erg - there is a lot of discussion at the moment whether or not ergs should be assessed on a fixed split or fixed heart rate, and how these should be determined. I think a lot depends on your long term goals and how frequently you train. Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you for this insightful article

  4. AMEN! As the owner of an indoor rowing studio I see this every time I ask a rower to check out one of my classes. My clients are 90% non-rowers, and guess what? Many of them are rowing better than the rowers I know. Why? They don't have any preconceived notions of what the erg is all about. They love it. Fear of the erg is a significant symptom of an athlete who does not trust their fitness, has not been given an understanding of proper training principles, and who has not been given an understanding of how what they do on land can translate to the water. I place the blame on the coaches of these athletes. We all should be erging more, at different intensities, and for technique too! Bring on the erg!

  5. Great article! It's absolutely something that a lot of rowers need to get over. The erg makes you faster, it's gonna help you win races. Get on, strap in, and shut up.

    The one point I'd contest was the mention of steady state work. And it's not really a criticism just more of an addition. When doing steady state, the guys tend to base it more off heart rate than anything else. Depending on the day, someone who has a 1:51.6 5k might throw in some aggressive steady state work and pull 1:58s. But, to build a base effectively, it's important to explore the range that even your base has. Relish the 150 bpm heart rate days. Relish the 155 bpm average over two hours of work. As soon as you're going over 165-170, you're not really training at that cardio base that will extend your fitness. Granted, the 1:58 for someone in college (guys in this case) is hardly gonna overload their cardio system. But basing SS on splits without the cardio info can lead to inefficient training.

  6. I think erg is good if you do it on the right one. Rowers should fear going to the hospital and dstroying their back for the rest of their life. Also rowers should fear to be tested on a machine that doesn't difference body weight with the split and doesn't punish technical errors. All said, erging on the right machine and pushing hard makes you faster on the water.
    Check and see today's video talking about this.

  7. While i agree with the overarching statements here, there are some pretty basic things being ignored or addressed in the wrong ways.

    First: his example of steady state training is flawed on so many levels it's not even remotely a good example. Comparing running and rowing in that respect was a huge mistake. Runners don't run a huge amount slower than race pace because it's the best way to get faster, they do that because its the best way to run more (which is how they get faster), and is a lower injury risk. I'd also argue that most high school kids never really run all that easy but thats another argument. Rowing, like cycling and swimming, is a much lower stress activity and thus can be done at a higher % workload more often without as much risk of injury (yes there still is some, but wildly less than the example of running).

    Second: Basing training off heart rate, when you have a power meter in front of you, again is another fairly large issue for most people considering i've yet to see a single team outside of the national team, and two top universities EVER do that right. Outside of those teams, athletes are assigned HR numbers and told to work at them, which is about as effective as giving them random splits for workouts drawn out of a hat. HR is 100% specific to each athlete. 150 may be easy for one person and nearing Vo2max for another. In addition to this, temp, food, caffeine, sleep levels, stress, time of day, etc, ALL have an effect on HR at any given work level.
    HR in combination with the power numbers is a lot more useful, but overall, you have two tools in front of you, one is a measure of work being done, the other is a measure of the effects of work being done + many other factors. I can tell you which i'd choose if I could only use one any day.

    To the poster above me saying training at a higher HR wont keep the cardio gains coming, that is about as far from the truth as it can be. assuming the athlete can hold onto that HR for a given time, it will 100% keep it going, and probably faster than a lower HR assuming he can actually keep that pace up.

  8. Hi David,

    Firstly, thanks for your comment, and the feedback is appreciated. Secondly, I must say I find it curiously emphatic and slightly ill-informed. The parallel between running and rowing is not nearly as flawed as you suggest, though it is by no means exactly analogous, nor do we make that claim–this is something that we point out in the article. Here is a direct quote from the original article above: "It's possible that because rowing is so low impact as compared with running, rowers can handle a faster pace for all of their workouts than runners and still recover." However, it is commonplace to hear about back injuries sustained while rowing on an indoor rower–it is not an injury-free activity simply because of the lack of impact.

    You then go on to say that runners run at a slower pace to avoid risk of injury–evidently you don't feel that this could possibly apply to rowing? It seems worthwhile to entertain the idea that making use of lighter sessions could help athletes develop both physiology and technique without putting themselves at risk.

    The original article does not suggest making sweeping generalizations about heart rates for athletes–it simply refers to well-known procedures and parameters that can be applied to fit the needs of specific athletes. Evidently you believe that only 'two top universities' are capable of ascertaining and managing heart rates correctly–upon what experience is this based?

    The biggest issue with your comment, however, is that it in no way refers to or addresses the main point of the article, which is to ask why rowers fear the erg. The goal of the article is to suggest alternate training methods, which make use of the best available cross-training tool (the ergometer), that foster an appreciation of the machine rather than a hatred of it. It seems from your comment that you would prefer to maintain the status quo.

  9. Hi, this is a very true story, but for the maths and physics of training intensities.
    The ergometer is a very useful tool for improving rowing power, and fearing it is quite inadequate for a rower.
    The main difference when considering training intensities of running and rowing is in physics, and not in the impact-level of the movement.
    Running is a strange activity: expenditure of an extra 10 % power, experimentally measured as a 10% increase in oxygen demand, gives you 10% extra speed. A speed of 15 km/h becomes 16.5 km/h with only 10% extra power applied. In running most of the energy is spent moving the legs fore and aft, and accelerating the body upwards at every step, and air resistance accounts for a small percentage of the total energy expended.
    Most activities we like to endure, like rowing, cycling, kayaking, speed-skating, make a more efficient use of the limbs, letting them move more slowly, which leads to a lower cost of accelerating and decelerating them. These activities have to be performed against a resistance mainly of fluids: of water and/or air, and most of the energy is spent in overcoming this resistance. If wave-making-resistance is insignificant (this may not be the case in kayaking) then resistance is proportional to speed squared, and the power (phys) to maintain a certain speed is proportional to the third power (math) of speed. A 10% speed increase results from an increase of the power (phys) by 33%. A 10% increase in power gives a 3.2% increase in speed. This is why rowing regatta's usually do have close finishes and running races don't.
    An ergometer is a good imitation of a rowing-shell in that its resistance is that of a fluid (in this case air) and its resistance increases as the third power of speed.
    When running or ergoing 1:51.6/500m (111.6s/500m) over about 20 minutes, a 30% decrease in power to an easy steady state leads for running to a pace of 2:25/500m and for rowing it leads to a pace of 2:01.8/500m. A McMillan Rowing Calculator, adapted accordingly, will prescribe long steady rows at a pace of 2:00 to 2.02/500m. As we see, 1:58/500m is indeed a little too fast for a long row.

    1. I loved reading the hard math on this. Thank you for taking the time to do it.

  10. Great article. I needed to read this. I agree with Chiara that a big part of erging anxiety is the constant assessment. On my crew, and I'm sure it's the case for many others, we are ordered on the ergs by our scores, so everyone knows where you "rank" in speed. While it's good to be competing for better times next to those with similar scores, it also creates a lot of "psyching out." On the water, much more is taken into account about a rower's aptitude than just how much they can pull, such as their technical skill. On an erg, it's really just about your split, which can become discouraging to rowers who feel that they are "slow." I just try to remind myself that while I am by no means in the upper echelon of rowers on my crew, I am still capable of physical and mental endurance that many others are not. That alone keeps me going when I feel like giving up.

    I also want to say that I agree with you about the interval erg training. I have a hard time with it and have wondered if it's "just me." Part of it is mental, I'm sure. I always do very well on my first short piece, whether it's 1000 or 2000m. Then my splits always seem to go down significantly on each successive one. However, if I row the same total distance without stopping, my splits are usually much better than the average of my interval pieces. While pausing, it's almost like all the endorphins from exercise start to kick in and I feel mellowed out. It's harder to start another sprint once that happens. It's a lot like running for me in that way. Or maybe my stamina just sucks. :) An actual experiment on that would be interesting though.

  11. I think that the reason that rowing on the urg is so bad is that practically all that is focused on is the number in front of you gradually decreasing. You are in a hot room full of sweaty people and all you do is stare at walls.
    When you are in the water, you feel alive. The wind goes through your hair and the water splashes your arms.
    I know that you have your opinions so for now, let's agree to disagree.

  12. Love this article, so accurate.

    We've been looking at ways to change the culture of my club to ensure ergs are seen as a critical part of training (including the rule that if you can't erg, you can't row) rather than an optional extra.

    Part of this was writing a blog about the "10 most painful ergs" just to get a gauge on what sort of tough workouts there are out there. This might seem counter intuitive, but it has brought our development athletes along for the ride to see that what they are doing is a proportion of what the elites are doing, and everyone - from first year athletes to the world champion Kiwi Pair - who contributed to the article - erg.

    The athletes who spoke most passionately about their fears were those who were being tested - not for speed, but for athletic ability, usually under test conditions by an institute. This, to me, seems to be the dark side of the erg.

    For all the other athletes, feedback was overwhelmingly positive with lots of fun ideas for erg sessions and quirky names. This ultimately has become a bit of a challenge to complete the bucket list of tough sessions.

    Articles like this help newer athletes understand that ergs are part of rowing: they are relevant, accurate, and useful training tools.

    You don't have to love them, but you do have to appreciate that what happens on the erg is relevant on the water.

    If you're interested, this is our list, including some thoughts from the Kiwi Pair and Kim Crow.

  13. I agree to some extent. However fearing the erg makes you disciplined, you can hate the machine, and accept that it will put you through pain, you can almost take the anger of the machine out to improve ergo score. I do agree the erg is a good indication of how good you are but many don't take important factor like WEIGHT. Many people just believe the stronger the fast. That is not at all true.

  14. Callista Bella LieApril 30, 2014

    Really well written and honest article. I agree with the fact that doing ergo is a little bit dull, especially if you're doing long pieces by yourself, staring on a single wall. It seems like you've been there for ages! I am very grateful to have come across this. Definitely needed the motivation and the extra push for the season. For me personally ergs are scary just because it give me an honest direct feedback on my splits and inconsistencies. I think these are the major reasons why I try to avoid an ergo session, even though I know that an ergo session will do nothing but help me during water sessions. Thank you for this beautiful article.

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  16. Patrick CraigJanuary 11, 2015

    yea i do agree but then at the same time i feel there is a certain difference between water and land rowing. On the water you row as a crew and with the land moving around you but on the erg its you vs every one else (this can be the coaches fault.) on the erg as well generally you are in a room where you are surrounded by walls and you feel trapped. Personally as well especially when doing 30-45 min ergo i feel 'bored'. the repetition gets tedious and if you come continuously second it is a horrible feeling however on the water you can beat the better person