How to Handle Volume, Part 2: Intelligently Sculpting Your Aerobic Base

"Last 10!" (Photo: B. Kitch)
Volume and technical practice can, and often do, coincide. If we are talking about a coaching a team boat, and the need for technical development, there can be obvious reasons to go out and row a lot of meters on the water if it is going to lead to better boat feel or better boat moving skills. However, from a purely physiological perspective (in terms of training the aerobic system to be as fit and efficient as possible), it is important to make sure that the added volume is quality mileage.

One of the reasons people fall into the training trap of 'junk mileage' is that they have to reduce the intensity in order to be able to handle the volume without breaking down physically and/or mentally. Instead of logging 20-30k in a single session each day, it can be better to split that volume into two sessions of 10k-15k each, with a period of rest in between (i.e. one session in the morning and one at night).

There are three reasons behind the double. First, it just gives you two separate times during the day when your heart rate is elevated and your body is working to try to adapt and become more efficient. The cumulative effect of two workouts in a 24 hour period is slightly greater than the effect of one long workout, because after each workout your body is in a state of recovery and is continuing to work. The second (and arguably more important) reason is that it may allow you to go slightly faster, and not have to dig as deep as you might have to in one, long session.

Remember, you are training to go fast for 2,000 meters. The longer you go in a workout, the more you create, work, and develop slow twitch muscle fibers and endurance capabilities. This is not necessarily a good thing, as you don't want it to take away from your power, which is generated by fast twitch muscle fiber. You want your 2,000-meter time to be your relative strength. If you trained for power and speed all the time, you might be really good for 100-500 meters, but you might lack the endurance to pull a good 6k-10k. Conversely, if you're doing 15 and 20ks all the time with no speed work, you might become really good at 6k, 10k 15k, but you might lack the speed to have a great 500-meter and a strong 2,000-meter piece. The point is that you want to develop your aerobic base without neglecting or softening your speed and raw power. The third and final reason behind the double-day is that shorter pieces are easier to recover from, as they will not take as much out of you. It is much harder to recover from a 20k than a 10k. Also, in a 20k, in addition to running the risk of overdeveloping slow twitch muscle fiber and endurance at the expense of power, you may start utilizing muscle for fuel toward the end of the session, once your glycogen stores are depleted (assuming you aren't stopping your row to consume carbohydrates to replenish the glycogen). Obviously, you want to utilize as much glycogen and fat for fuel as possible without having to get into using muscle tissue.

That being said, the long steady state is a very valuable tool, and I do not think it should be done away with altogether. However, it is important for athletes not to go overboard, and end up dulling the edge on their speed/power, especially when the body is already struggling to recover from a great deal of quality volume. To further illustrate my point, an elite 100 meter sprinter like Tyson Gay or Usain Bolt wouldn't want to do a 5-10 mile run everyday, as it would (gradually) start to convert some of his fast twitch muscle fiber into slow twitch. Obviously, this is an extreme example, because these are purely anaerobic athletes, whereas rowers require great endurance and aerobic capacity, but even in a 2,000 meter rowing race, the need for power and the anaerobic component is significant. If we look to the build and the ability of the best rowers in the world, it is equally important to have power and endurance in rowing. We know that rowers must have great endurance and be very fit to excel, but we also know that they must have raw power and speed. Too much of one might take away from the others and we want to make sure they aren't working against each other.

Ultimately, the best way to get faster is to have 2-3 really high quality, high intensity speed or lactate threshold sessions a week, with everything else being about managing your aerobic development while letting your body recover on the easy days. It is much better to really bring it for those 2-3 sessions a week in which the intensity is through the roof, and go slightly easier on the easy days to allow yourself to do that, than it is to have 'mediocre' intensity everyday. Long aerobic training sessions definitely have their place when there is not time to train twice a day or in certain times of the year in one's training cycle (the further from the peak one is the more the long sessions can have their place), but mileage should still be carefully controlled and technique always monitored.

-Justin and the RR Team


  1. Justin et al, this is an interesting post. As a masters sculler, I have been experimenting with incorporating CrossFit workouts into rowing training and specifically in implementing CrossFit Endurance workouts on the water. These workouts generally fall into what we as rowers would consider lactate tolerance workouts - max intensity interval training of 5-20 mins total work where the rest intervals are shorter than the work intervals. I'd be interested in your opinion on the following: If you recommend 2-3 high intesity sessions per week for rowers focused on 2k racing in order to balance speed/power with aerobic capacity, how would this change for masters rowers focused on the 1k distance, which would tip the scales even farther toward speed/power, but who need longer recovery times than college-age athletes? I still see a lot of masters rowers focused on volume/distance and the longer erg tests such as 6K, when in reality the competition distance in the summer season is quite short and 50% of the race distance is covered in "start" or "sprint" mode? I have found that as I move into my 40s, two short workouts per day are much more effective for me in terms of recovery than one long one, as you state in your post. Just interested in your thoughts and experiences. Thanks, Marc

    1. Hi Marc -- below is Justin's response to your questions, in two parts. Thanks very much!

      Justin: Thanks Marc, you raise some very interesting points and pose important questions for anyone seeking to optimize their training and performance for 1000 meters.

      The first thing I think about when trying to understand the difference between becoming an athlete that specializes in 1000 meter racing vs. 2000 meter racing, is that the profile of the rower would change slightly in terms of the athlete's build and physiological makeup. A rower training to go his or her fastest for 1000 meters would be a bit stronger and probably heavier than a 2000 meter racer because there would be more of a focus on having raw strength and power than on having endurance. Your fast twitch muscle and explosiveness/power would become much more important on a relative scale than if you were racing a longer distance like 2000 meters. However, it is not completely anaerobic and would still require endurance and over-distance training to build stamina and aerobic capacity. The aerobic capacity is most necessary to be able to sustain a higher percentage of your raw power for longer. To get from 400-500 meters into the piece to 800 meters in, would require aerobic development. Here are some examples of what type of athletes will excel as the distance gets shorter:

      Not only does the body type and internal fitness change as the distance decreases, but the technique (length of stroke and stroke rate especially) might change to optimize performance. I suspect that most people you are around train like they did for 2k racing just because that is what they always have done and that is how they think about training for rowing. It is only half the distance! Maybe one should only do half the volume they would do for a 2k training program? Certainly the volume could be less in training for 1k than for 2k, however I would still recommend longer aerobic training 3-4 times a week. The distances would just go down slightly, so instead of doing 60-75 minutes SS, one might only need to do sessions 30-45 minutes or 8-12k in length rather than 15-20k.

    2. Part 2 of Justin's Response:

      There is another interesting component to the questions you raise because you are addressing masters rowers who are going down in distance. As an athlete gets to their mid-30s, they start losing fast twitch muscle and explosive power potential at a much faster rate than their endurance. So it is already hard enough to maintain similar strength power and endurance into your late 30s, 40s and beyond, but more of it is require if you go down in distance from 2k to 1k as you get older. Both the age and the change in race distance mean that a significant emphasis should be placed on power.

      In training for a 1000 meter performance, I would do much more interval work in the 100 to 250 meter range than I would for 2000 meter racing. I might do workouts with 'short' intervals less than 800 meters totaling just 1k-2k in total volume such as 10 x 250 w/ 1 minutes rest, 600-500-400-300-200-100 w/ 3 min rest down to 1 minute rest by the end, 12 x 150 w/ 30 sec rest, 2 x 10 x 100 w/ 15 seconds rest and 3 minutes between sets. I would also do 'medium' length interval sessions of 2-4k in total volume such as 4-8 x 500 w/ 3 min rest; 1250, then 4 x 250 w/ 3 min rest after the 1250 and 1 min rest after each 250; 2-4 x 750 w/ 3-5 min rest; 4 x 600 w/ 3-4 min rest; 2 x 800 w/ 3 min rest; 2-4 x 1000 w/ 3-6 min rest; 1500 all out plus 4 x 100. I would also do 'long' intervals such as 3-5 x 1500 w/ 3-5 min rest; 2 x 2000 w/ 6-8 minutes rest; 3-8k hard effort at just slightly slower than an all out pace for that distance (1-3 seconds slower on the average split)

      I would touch power in this manner much more often (perhaps up to 4-5 times a week) but be careful not to over do it. More is not always better and harder is not always better. I would still do just 2-3 main intensity sessions per week (once or twice a week I might do just 4-8 x 100 or 150 at 1k pace or 1 second per 500 meters faster which might be in addition to those 2-3 quality hard sessions). The shorter the distance, the more precision and attention to detail is involved (1st stroke doesn't matter in a 10k piece, but it certainly would matter a TON in a 100 meter piece. In this way 1k piece is a lot closer on the spectrum to the 100 meter piece) much more precise in terms of being at 1k race speed, faster than race speed and slightly slower than race speed in training in order to develop the control, comfort and precision at those paces to execute in races and workouts. It would be much more important to be more accurate in hitting very specific paces. Don't just think 'okay, I will take a power 10.' What does that mean? Right now for many people it might just mean take 10 strokes pretty damn hard and get the split pretty low but the specific goal and the pace might be very imprecise. You should pay more attention to hitting specific targets and being able to really control yourself as you reach your upper most limits.

    3. Part 3 of Justin's Response:

      I believe there is a need to shift the paradigm and expand repertoire in this distance as a coach with more precision and learn to manage the whole race. In other words, don't just treat it like an all out blast or a start, some high strokes, settle for a few strokes and then sprint. Get more sophisticated than that.

      400 meter runners don't think of a 400 meter race simply as an all out blast as fast as they can go, they break it up and have pacing/strategy. Just because many rowers think of 1000 meters as short based on focus on 2k, 6k, etc. as a reference point doesn't mean a 1k race cannot or should not have strategy. Imagine how someone that raced 100 meters on the erg would think of a 1000 meter piece- it would seem long.

      Because the intensity in training and racing is so high, it is important to do a long, gradual warm-up to adequately prepare the muscles for very hard work and maybe even take days off instead of doing just an easy recovery day.

      Intensity is so high with faster racing, so recovery is difficult and even more important than in 2k training. The higher the intensity, the harder it is to recover from a hard session.

      Feel free to let me know if you have any further questions.


    4. Sorry, should have read, "in three parts."



  2. Wow THANK YOU for the detailed response! I appreciate the detail you provided and will link to this for readers of my own blog. I completely agree with the precision argument on the 1K piece - to the point where one needs to plan out the race and rehearse it stroke by stroke for ~130 strokes - the margin of error is very slim. I have found that the technical aspects of maintaining a high rating and power output in the 1x especially are quite different from "routine" rowing at say a 26-28, and doing the type of interval training you describe not only increases physcial capacity but also increases technical proficiency at the higher ratings involved in 1K racing. Thanks again for the insight! - Marc

    1. No problem! Thanks for the questions, and appreciate the shout out on your blog!


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