A Year in the Life of an Ergomaniac

In my work, I speak to clients every day about transformation – that is, initiating and undergoing a programme of change that results in a marked improvement to their organisation.  Nearly a year ago to the day, I decided to kick off my own personal programme of transformation, recognising that the years were drifting by and that middle age spread was catching up with me (much to my annoyance).

12 months, 1.4 million metres and over 15kgs (3st.) later, I can look back and pat myself on the back for a decision well made.  However, the achievement didn’t come easy – it was a year of incredibly hard work.  Initially, I set out with the aim of losing weight and simply ‘to get fit’.  By the end of the year I found myself with a change of wardrobe, an entry ticket to the British Rowing Indoor Championships and a new objective – to row for a long and healthy life.

I’ve learnt lots along the way – about my own physical abilities, about the emerging sport of indoor rowing and also about living a healthier lifestyle in general.  More recently, a new phase of my journey has begun – to learn more about myself when the going gets tough on the erg! I’m really hopeful that this mental toughness training will benefit my rowing as I go forward and perhaps I’ll take some aspects of this learning into other areas of my life.

What I can tell you today is what I know from 12 months of hard graft.  So for now, let me share with you some thoughts on what has worked and what hasn’t over the course of the last year.  Maybe some of it is relevant and will help you on your journey – perhaps other bits are a well-trodden path that has lead you to where you are today as well…

Life Can Get In The Way, But That’s Really OK!

In the beginning it was easy – Personal Bests (PBs) fell like snowflakes in the winter months when I first took up rowing.  It seemed like every week I was able to scratch out a new time in my logbook.  I was learning stuff fast from the Forums and Facebook Group that I had joined – pacing, technique, time trial strategy and all of that baseline knowledge helped me to progress relatively quickly.  Then rather suddenly, it became harder – a lot harder.  Not only to pop those PBs, but to actually get on the machine and find the motivation to train.  I soon recognised that I needed some structure to give my training purpose and a direction.

I took the decision to join the Fitness Matters online rowing plan, with its mix of challenging sessions and community feel, it was a revelation in my training and I soon found that progress with my endurance and speed was picking up again, to levels that I had not previously thought possible. The only issue was, I had also picked up a lot more work and was travelling a fair bit. This got in the way of my rowing routine and I felt that I had to make sacrifices to even maintain the level I was at. I started to beat myself up about not spending enough time on the erg and what was a pleasurable pursuit started to feel like a bit of a grind, with a dash of guilt trip on top.
fullsizerender-19That’s when I began to realise that this journey that I was on, this pursuit of ever decreasing split times wasn’t where I should be headed. Mostly because it is not sustainable! I’d found something that was way more beneficial than a quick route to getting fit, losing weight and climbing up the rankings – I realised that rowing is something that you can work on for life. As a low impact, high calorie burning activity that can support increased flexibility and a stronger core, I needed to put into perspective the constant pressure of achievement and switched my focus to the long term benefits. Once I accepted that I didn’t have to make every session on the plan and that I didn’t have to break every PB I’d ever set from one month to the next, I found myself in a much happier place. I accepted that it really is ok for life to get in the way. Rowing became part of my routine, not contrary to it. I fitted in sessions at hotels where I could and got up at 6am just to get that buzz that would carry me into the long day ahead.

Make Middle Distance Your Friend…

Quite early on, it was rather challenging to master sitting for those long laborious sessions. You know, the 8, 10 or 12 kilometre sessions at a fixed stroke rate that just seem to take forever to get through. The mind wonders, the buttocks go numb and all you want is to finish up and go do something else. The sets of ten counted strokes just seemed to go on forever and I always rejoiced at the end.

Then I found a couple of things that helped change my view of these sessions. Firstly (and probably most obviously), my aerobic capacity improved significantly. I found that I wasn’t getting out of breath on the big hills where we walked the dog and also, I wasn’t sweating anything like I used to for pretty much any kind of task or activity – sport related or otherwise. I even jumped on a 30 min treadmill session randomly for a run (I hate running, this was the first time in years) and I just ate it up. This was all down to those long laborious rows transforming my fitness levels and body response under load. This in itself felt like huge progress.

fullsizerender-18I also picked up from some of the guys on the plan and in the team forum that ‘blind rows’, that is covering the average pace and focusing on consistency in stroke quality and power could change the way I experienced these long sessions. With some rate changes thrown in to boot, I found myself craving 10 kilometre sessions in contrast to some of the shorter sprint training that I had been doing. Also, I noticed that the time on the rower just flew by – my perception of time had changed and I began to find them enjoyable. Over the course of about 3 months, my acceptance and hunger for middle distance grew, culminating in the completion of a half-marathon (21,097m) on Christmas day. I no longer fear/dread these distances – although I wouldn’t say that I am craving a full marathon just yet!

In retrospect and in recognition of the sound advice I have received, a little bit of everything is probably good for you and the switch between sprints and middle distance to longer pieces is an important spectrum for any lifetime rower to play amongst – if not only for the variety and change of landscape. The truth is, a strong aerobic base is good for tackling most sessions that are put before you and outside of rowing, mastering these sessions can really make you feel fitter, healthier and stronger in your daily life.

Remember – It’s The Journey That Counts

At times, I have found myself becoming disappointed or frustrated by being overly critical on individual session outcomes. Did I push myself hard enough? Why didn’t I keep stoke rate for that split? How come that PB attempt resulted in a HD? (A Handle Down – withdrawal from the session). All of these micro arguments and torments are valid in the context of the moment, but it’s important to realise that it’s not just a single performance that counts for everything. It’s not necessarily about where you’re going, it’s about where you’ve come from. Take time to look back over your shoulder from time to time. You’ll find that you’ve come a long way!

fullsizerender-16There will be good days and there will be bad days. You have to remain realistic about your near and long term goals, whilst also being conscious of your periphery physical and mental situation/condition. Should you really be tackling that free rate sprint session at 6am with no food inside you? Probably not. Should you sit down and attempt to row a half-marathon after having only had 4 hours sleep? Maybe think again. Take responsibility for your training schedule and remember that whilst a plan is there to be followed, you’ve got to be selective in the sessions that you target to ensure you get the most out of your time on the erg.

I’ve also learnt that progress comes in waves and that these cycles are driven by your own physical condition, your state of mind and everything else that is going on in your life. It takes time, but it’s best to be in tune with this rhythm, to seek out the peaks and drive for your best performances on the crest, rather than push yourself in a trough to do a session that you end up resenting or worse still, not finishing. Play the long game. Take stock of what you’ve achieved from time to time and be thankful for the journey. There are lots of people out there that will never feel the buzz that you get after hitting negative splits from the last session you just nailed!

Never Underestimate The Power Of Shared Objectives

On this theme, one of the most gratifying things that I have found whilst being on the FM plan is experiencing the journey with other like-minded folks. People with shared objectives and an ethos of continual improvement. Surround yourself with people who are going forward and onwards and that positivity will rub off on you. Have a fall or a bad workout and you can be sure that the group will be there to patch you up, pimg_9275ut you back on the rail and set you off again. It the dark corners of the pain cave, erging can be an incredibly lonely pursuit, but in a shared group where expectations and accountability are running high, only good things can happen.

I take inspiration from my peers as to how they have performed or tackled certain sessions in any given week. I try to take strength from their achievements and embrace their virtual support when the going gets tough. I honestly do not think that I would still be rowing as consistently as I am today without the support and camaraderie from the group. Working largely independently as a consultant, it does feel like the team are with you wherever you sit down to row, either in a new gym or hotel. Very empowering stuff!

And Where To Now?

So, what now? Where will this next year of ergotastic pursuits lead me? Who knows in truth…? As mentioned at the start, I’ve recently become captivated by finding and pushing my own boundaries in training terms (not necessarily focussing on a PB). I’m hopeful that this is where my journey will take me next – to darker places, becoming more accustomed to the pain…  There are also a stack of race and other sociable events in the calendar that will provide an opportunity to meet more of the growing virtual erg community at Team FM. For now, the comfort of knowing that I’ve found something positive and beneficial from a health and longevity of life perspective is enough to carry me into another year of hard graft and beyond… What will inspire and motivate you in 2017?

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Author: Eddie Edwards