It has been a while since I have written anything meaningful down in a full blog, and as I look back now it has been a pretty rough 2 or 3 years in terms of rowing performance since I was peaking in 2016. This is of course all relative, but for a good few years I’ve known my performances had been on the decline.
Whilst it is widely accepted that after a peak our results will eventually start to drop off, the point at which this happens depends on several factors. These include how long we have been rowing and what our fitness levels were at the start point. For example, if you are relatively new to the sport then beginner are easier to come by as opposed to someone who has been rowing 20 years where gains are marginal and require huge effort and sacrifice to see improvements.
A few years ago I wasn’t ready to start my decline. Everyone has a story to tell, but looking back to the moment I turned 40, things started to head in that direction and most of the reasons seemed unavoidable. I may have been getting older, but I was completely motivated and on the brink of WR age group performances with no reason for that to change. It was seemingly at that point though that my past career (rugby) and lack of any real regard for protecting my body that things started to break down (back and arms primarily). After a period of hope/denial, doing my best to fight the situation and trying to build initial momentum, this eventually resulted in extended durations of doctor enforced rest from rowing, and ultimately surgery. I had reached a point during an interval session that I actually couldn’t row. As strange as it sounds, that was a positive for me at the time as it was a chance to draw a line in the sand to work forwards from. I obviously kept myself fit and in good condition throughout, (cycling, weights and general conditioning) knowing that when I had fully rehabilitated and healed I would have a strong body again to push forward with.
Well, that didn’t happen quite as I thought. I got back to 70-80% health fairly well which is a trait I have had most of my competitive life, but things really started to stutter then. My training performances were very up and down with frequent negative reactions to rowing and one injury leading to another, or a reccurrence of a previous one. I did manage to put a short training spell together at the end of last year to give myself a chance of competing, but this turned out to be a false dawn with the outcomes mixed. This proved neither mentally or physically good for me as, despite doing my best at the time, I hadn’t really given a true account of myself. It left me with more questions than answers and given my style of leadership is through actions and results, I became increasingly frustrated as I just couldn’t see a clear path to achieve this. Something had to change.
What did I need to do then?
I finally accepted that I had to change something. I faced the choice of throwing in the towel or remaining patient and finding a way to approach things differently. I guess there was only ever one outcome here so went with the latter, knowing at some point I’d be faced with the same choice again if I didn’t.
Genuinly accepting where I was at was crucial and my starting point. It wasn’t acceptance that I was finished, more that I wasn’t what I used to be and that could be where I ended up. That is the hardest thing for anyone, but I knew it was the only way for me to build some momentum, albeit on a different path. My challenges changed daily and I hoped that trying to row more often, with less volume, intensity and pressure would help me get back my consistency. I know that being fit, active and healthy is the most important thing so putting less pressure on myself to perform could in the end aid my performance.
I had to step out of my comfort zone in a different way, leave any ego at the door and employ a different type of mental strength, removing any self-doubt and resentment to where I was at because of what had gone before. In the last few months, I pledged to myself to row at least 5km per day, as part of my overall training. However uncomfortable things were, I figured I could muddle through 5000m. It didn’t have to be fast, nor in one sitting, and I have since found many inventive ways to hit 5 km during a session and rowing wasn’t the main focus very often. They have not all been straight forward, but I have stuck to it and I can feel a little momentum behind me now. I am not symptom-free, but I feel more confident and happy on the machine again. The exact reasons for that I will never quite know as there are many balls in play, but I’m in a better place now and performances are definitely heading in the right direction.
There are continually aspects of lifestyle and training to work on and only time will tell where this journey leads. Training feels important to me again, but it is more important because other aspects are under control. I have started to make progress and that is a better feeling than continual frustration and resentment. I’m not there yet but are we ever actually there….?
Whatever your challenges are, never give up. Change, modify or do whatever it is to keep things going and slowly you will start to feel the momentum shifting. You may not know when that shift will happen, but it will happen at some point if you keep going. Giving up, on the other hand, leaves you exactly where you are now.
I have been injured for the last 9-12 months or so to the point where I had to find an alternative means of testing and pushing myself as I’ve been unable to use the rowing machine. For the most part that has come in the form of the Wattbike (WB), an indoor static bike, and weight training. This is a fantastic piece of gym equipment and offers a huge range of session options that hopefully keeps me in decent shape when the time comes I am able to re-introduce the rower to my training. My aim and targets, medium and long term, are very much still rower focused when my body allows.
A few weeks ago now I took delivery of the latest piece of equipment that Concept 2 has produced. It is called the Bike Erg (BE) and operates using the same flywheel system as both the Ski Erg and the rowing machine. It sounded an intriguing prospect for many reasons, not least because I was interested to see how it matched up, and differs from, the WB. In the last few weeks 75% of my sessions have been on the BE and I have mixed their style up so as to get a balanced opinion on it.
The two bikes are able to produce a similar amount of power (recorded in watts) as one another, but the feel of this process is very different between the bikes. I feel the WB is more like cycling on the road whereas the BE is not so much like cycling. You could liken the WB to a sports car, quickly up to speed and very smooth. The BE, more of a grind, like a powerful 4 x 4 that would be great using its power to tow a trailer. Petrol Vs Diesel perhaps. Both very powerful for different purposes.
When you are on the bikes, particularly a short interval session, the WB is far easier to get up to speed than the BE. It’s almost instant. This does mean on the short sessions the watts are higher on the WB, but both leave you with a savage leg burn. As a rule, I have found that the output (watts) is far more even the further distance you cover. To make an even better direct comparison you would have to compare a timed session rather than distance session (below) as the pace/km is about 20s faster on a WB for the same output in watts on the BE.
Both of these machines can be a brutal workout and as an experience can’t really be compared. I’m not sure spending time on one would necessarily help the other, similar to cross-training to improve rowing. Whatever it is you want to improve is the activity you need to spend nearly all your training time on. Sounds obvious, but diversifying may help training stimulation and interest, but sticking to the piece of equipment you want to improve on is the way to go….more so the closer to your limits you get.
At less than £1000, the BE is less than half the price so there is an issue here definitely. I would say if you hadn’t ever been on a WB then the BE would be the best bike you could own, certainly at that price point. Both are also easy to use, however, the WB offers far greater feedback which would be useful to a more experienced rider. If you are aiming to train hard then both can deliver that for sure, but in a way, you will only understand by trying both. In my opinion, the BE is more brutal, it takes no prisoners and Concept 2 really have created a rowing machine, and all the fear that holds, in a bike format! Here are 2 opposing style sessions for a quick comparison of the two bikes. The first is an identical interval session (most other things equal) I did on the respective bikes on following days this weekend and the second is a comparable effort distance session.
1 – 400m x 12 (rest 90s
WB – about 24s per rep (ave pace 59s/km) and an average of 774w.
BE – about 33s per rep (ave pace 1m 23s/km) and an average of 596 w.
This highlights the higher output and faster pace on the WB. Both hurt a lot, but I was in real trouble on the BE. Maybe that was because it was several seconds longer, but it was horrible.
332 watts, 40m 21s, (ave pace 1.20.7/km)
30km Bike Erg
321 watts, 51m 28s, (ave pace 1.42.9/km)
Similar feeling effort on these two sessions, albeit a nicer experience on the WB.
I will shortly be releasing a cycling plan that can be adapted to both bikes, but to put it bluntly both will keep you very fit. I think when the dust settles the two bikes will end up in different commercial sectors. In my opinion at this point, however, the Wattbike would be a more comfortable and luxurious way to die than the Bike Erg!!!
***This comparison/blog is based on my own experiences***
With my enforced hiatus from indoor rowing set to continue for a while yet, I found myself in danger of becoming frustrated and losing my way a bit so I needed a new focus until I could make a sensible return to rowing. Whilst all my main goals ultimately remain erg related I have poured my physical efforts into improving my indoor cycling on the Wattbike. These are great machines and can be every much as brutal on the body, albeit in a different kind of way, but I hope that on my return the carry over to rowing will have been beneficial. I am still able to weight train more and more effectively again as my back injury continues to improve after careful treatment and monitoring. So there are loads of positives in my training at the moment despite several challenges and limitations.
I’ve set my sites on making myself a ‘monster’ on the bike in a world where I am fast realising there are some real monsters! I use this term lightly of course, but I am seeing consistent improvements through structured training and hard work. In my session this morning I was able to not only ride further than before, but also cruise at a pace that only a number of weeks ago would have felt nearer my maximum. Sessions don’t often feel that much easier as we simply push harder, but it does mean results improve along the way making motivation to hurt yourself more appealing.
I am not totally sure how long this focus will last as it will depend on how my body responds to treatment, but whilst on this journey I am using the time to develop a training plan on the bike that will use many of my principles from my FM Rowing plans. These will be aimed at the general fitness and health enthusiast, but can be adapted whether you are a beginner or an athlete. My first thoughts were that heart rates on the bike are lower than on a rower and I was able to hold a conversation during a perceived higher intensity session. Now as I have progressed however, I am finding my lactate tolerance is increasing allowing me to keep pushing harder and my heart rate is starting to hit higher numbers.
I would encourage you all to trust your own journey. Training and life will never always be straight forward and there will always be new challenges and opportunities there for us if we are prepared to tackle them with a positive approach. Our mindset is more powerful than we believe.
To keep up to date with all my training away from rowing, follow me on instagram @samblythe.
There are many things that motivate me to write my next blog and at times it isn’t always following a positive experience. I think the clue is within the title here and I’m hoping I am able to turn a frustrating situation into a positive.
As is the case with any athlete, or recreational exerciser, it is very likely that at some point they will have to deal with injury. Some more than others depending on many factors, but I am sure you can all relate to it in some way. There are also many variables here of course and every individual will have their own way of dealing with it from complete rest to working through it at all costs and ignoring symptoms.
Over the course of my professional career you may be able to guess which camp I fell into as I have had multiple injuries and operations, maybe not more than average, but certainly my fair share. As a younger man I had no real regard for my body and in many ways that trait has been hard to shake off as I have got older. My approach to their rehab is not necessarily the advice I would give to others in the same situation as I have trained relentlessly for the last 25 years and am dealing with a very real addiction. I will continue to exercise in any way I can until I am unable to do so. My compromise is that I will alter things if necessary, but I will never rest. This has obviously got me a fairly long way, but has also put me in several difficult situations.
Most of us have had some sort of back complaint in our lives and I am no exception here, but have always seen and felt the symptoms early enough to be able to manage things. Well a few months ago I had a few back twinges, nothing out of the ordinary. I followed this with a few long drives which seemed to be the start of my decline now that I look back on it all. It was bearable (drugs are amazing things!) so I continued to row for the next 6 or 7 weeks until 12 days ago where I simply couldn’t pull a single stroke without pain on the drive and extension. What also was apparent that training through the injury initially had developed a painful left elbow issue where I was obviously compromising my rowing technique. With race season fast approaching this wasn’t great timing and very frustrating for me, although technically I promised myself and a few people close to me that I wouldn’t be racing for a while and It seems that I will end up being true to my word now! However in the scheme of life this was really not important and I needed to find some positives and refocus myself.
I have an MRI scan pending in a few days to give an exact diagnosis and I will continue on my treatment plan. Mentally and physically I have stepped away from the rower and am fortunate to able to swap it for time on the Wattbike which, in the absence or rowing, is an excellent replacement and gives me no obvious pain other than a savage leg burn during nearly every session!! I am working at a high enough intensity and building up a resistance on it that will hopefully ensure I don’t lose too much rowing power if and when I am able to return. In addition I am still able to do weights for conditioning, although the pool of exercises currently possible is shrinking somewhat !
I know my way of dealing with things is far from conventional and I have consequently left myself in a difficult place so my mindset had to change. I now look forward to my sessions and progressing on a different piece of kit believing that this enforced time away from rowing, however long or short, can ultimately bring me back hungrier than ever to make progress. So the next time you are in a rowing session and wishing it away because it is too painful, remember when the option is taken away from you that you will more than likely want it back.
I am very often asked about weight training and its effectiveness for improving indoor rowing times. To answer this correctly, in my opinion, I need to know more about the individual asking the question as it is rarely a one size fits all scenario. It is a really grey area as there have been very fast rowers who have never lifted a weight and there have been very fast rowers who include plenty in their training schedule, and many combinations in between.
There are generally 2 categories of people asking the question. The first are those who have a very limited exposure to weight training in their life and they have started to plateau with their rowing times. They want to know if becoming stronger will give them a further boost in improving their times. The second type are those who have a longer history with weight training and want to know if they are doing too many weights sessions or the wrong type which are potentially getting in the way of progression.
I personally fit into the second category, where for the most part of my adult life I have probably lifted weights 5 times per week – with varying goals. For me to incorporate those levels into my rowing schedule was too much and never allowed me to be fresh enough to progress my rowing. So I slowly lowered the frequency and have settled on 2 sessions per week. I briefly flirted with 3 again, but it was clear to me that upset the training harmony so 2 it was. One of my sessions is more strength based – higher weight, lower reps and longer rest. The other session is more conditioning based – lower weight, higher reps and less rest. I always train with compound movements and both sessions will utilise my whole body including pushing movements that are not necessarily used in rowing, but give your body an overall balance. This system has allowed me to keep the vast majority of my strength, stay in decent shape whilst not impacting my rowing negatively. This feels perfect for me at this stage.
Those who fit in to category 1 would almost certainly benefit from being stronger. However this isn’t an overnight process and needs guidance and structure to achieve, choosing the correct exercises best suited to those muscles used in rowing is very important although with no previous experience this may be preceded with a period of conditioning so your body adapts. Then ideally training would be periodised so that strength was a priority at set times and rowing was very much secondary. Clearly rowing is still a good idea, but excelling on the rower at these times will be unlikely. These gains are best achieved in the off season then the frequency and volume of weight training would decrease as rowing performance becomes more of a priority. Hopefully at this point the increases in strength can be felt resulting in further gains on the rowing machine.
To summarise, and in simple terms, the longer your history and experience with strength training, the less the need for them to help improve your rowing times and potentially they may hinder your progress. Conversely if weights are a new thing then, if done correctly, they may really help you progress. In either category, I am speaking in general terms and it would also need to be considered the distance the individual was training for. Raw strength for a 500m is more relevant than that for a marathon. However, as with most things, it comes down to priorities and consistency is the best approach.
Most decisions we make are a combination , sub consciously or consciously, of head, heart and gut. Well it seems I’ve had a weekend long battle with these three. I have trained very well this week. It has been very hard, but I have hit some very good numbers. However, of late I have not been enjoying longer rows particularly so yesterday I decided to do an interval based Half Marathon ladder session. It broke the session into decreasing bite sized chunks which got faster, but would hopefully allow me to stay more interested and hit a session with plenty of volume.
It was a nice day so I set the rowing machine up outside with the following session.
It was mid morning and I felt OK so off I went. (I put my HR on, but kept it covered to look at afterwards). The first two intervals were not deathly, although I did feel more tired than I should have done the further they went on and I was very hot, but mentally after 2 reps in this session you are past half way so cracked on (revealing the HR after did show my HR was high). Well not far into the 4km R22 it was definitely taking a fair bit more out of me than it should have so I was starting to consider my options. Heart wanted to continue, but my head and gut said stop and bank the relative quality up to that point. I compromised by adding a split to my target for a while, but that had little bearing on how I felt and mentally I then questioned the point of it. So I stopped half way through that R22 as the clock ticked on.
This is where the mental battles began! I finally decided to switch the monitor off and do the other half of the session the following morning if I felt fresher, but it had definitely not sat well with me that I didn’t finish there and then.
I woke up this morning feeling tired, but surely 10km would be fine so I set the monitor for the remaining metres and got started. Very soon into the first interval I realised I didnt feel great still so swapped it for a Watt Bike interval session. Got that done, but there was still a part of me that wasn’t happy the original session was not complete! A few hours later and my eldest daughter offered to look after the other kids so I could train again and I was determined to get the job done however I felt. Well I managed it, the numbers were not special as such, but completing this was about way more than numbers after 24 hours wrestling with my head, heart and gut.
Whether it should have been as big a part of my weekend as it was is another debate, but these things are never straight forward and now at least after it I can stop thinking what is the right thing to do and put this session to bed.
‘It’s OK for you, you are good at rowing – you love it’!
I have heard people say these things to me on many occasions. Whether they are true or not is a different story, but what is certainly true is that we are not born with these qualities. They are developed over time with effort, discipline and personal experiences.
In rowing terms mental toughness is often attached to those individuals who keep going when things get tough and where others would perhaps give in. I think it is widely accepted that rowing performance is at least as much a mental battle as it is a physical one, if the brain starts to give in then the body will nearly always follow. A positive (and realistic) mental approach will not guarantee success, but a negative one will almost always lead to a struggle and this is something that we are in control of. I have had many days where I have had a double session scheduled and the morning felt terrible so I feared the evening, yet it went well. This has taught me that there are so many variables in how we feel and perform that we must aim for a mindset where we take each session as it comes. Work with facts and not emotions.
Why do we feel we need to stop?
Putting the handle down (HD or stopping) is common terminology in the rowing community. Some people are more guilty than others, but we are all human so I think it is a situation and subsequent feeling we can all relate to at some point. Generally after an HD we feel angry and wish we had carried on as the pain of giving in is mentally far harder to deal with than the short term pain at the time of the physical effort. Nearly always this is NOT because of the pain that we are in, but because of the perceived pain that lies ahead. It happens far less in training sessions than it does in a time trial when we see our target time drift away as things get tough and the doubts set in. Yet we have been in as much, or more pain, in many training sessions before. The danger of stopping is that will slowly become a habit and more acceptable in the long term
The desire to stop also happens more as our individual performances improve and we near our capacity. The margins we are chasing become finer, meaning the greater the mental and physical effort that is required from us to hit our targets. With improvement and experience also comes greater expectations from ourselves and/or others. With so many variables (energy, mood, nutrition, sleep, hormones, hydration, time of day, health) these fine margins are easily effected so the need for mental toughness grows to ensure those and those greater expectations don’t seem further away.
So what should we do to start to overcome this?
The biggest factor (not easy at all) is to try and work with facts at the time and not your emotions of what you perceive to lie ahead. Be mindful. The pain will rarely be as bad as we imagine and when it does hit, you are close enough to the end by then for us to embrace it and get across the line. There is a critical point (often half way, but not always) where the finish line goes from seemingly miles away to within our reach. This is the first point to aim for when we start to struggle as getting to that point changes our outlook. If the desire to put the handle down is still too big then rather than stop, just back off the pace for a short while. Count strokes in groups of 10 then reassess, even take it a stroke at a time if necessary. These tactics will have a far greater effect on recovery than you think and will also get you mentally and physically closer to the finish.
What happens if we still get the same mental block repeatedly?
If you have applied all the above then quite simply you must at some point carry on when you want to stop. Nobody else can do this bit for you. Even if it means slowing down to below your target. This builds belief for the next time that you can get through also and perhaps at a faster pace. Toughing it out through the hard sessions is in fact building our future performances and the sessions we struggle in are far more important than the straight forward ones for building our physical and mental strength.
Mental strength comes in many forms, from having the discipline and consistency to train when it feels like the last thing we want to do, to not stopping at those vital times when we desperately want to. One thing for sure is that becoming mentally strong doesn’t happen overnight, but takes time to build. We also must recognise that many of these mental hurdles that present themselves will not go away no matter how experienced we get, it is a case of learning how to best deal with them. The good news is that you can make a start with your very next session.
I was recently asked my opinion on the very general topic of ‘Top Tips’ for rowing. Rather than focus on issues related to the use of the machine or technique, I instead focussed on a lifestyle approach to answering the very pertinent question ‘What are the things that are going to contribute to motivation, progress and sustainability when it comes to rowing?’. Essentially ‘How will you keep going?’.
1.The most important thing for me is consistency. Sporadic, short term goal focussed training won’t equate to much in terms of long term overall progress. Initially of course if you’re new to the sport, short term gains can be massive . Over time however the margins dwindle and it can get difficult to stay patient and consistent with your journey. Dip in and out like a yoyo dieter and your results won’t be sustained and you also won’t progress further. Find a level of training that is sustainable and enjoy the effort and discipline required to execute it.
2. Be clear about the reason you’re rowing. This will be the ultimate motivation for keeping going. What’s your end goal? It could be to get faster, be as competitive as you can, improve general fitness, relieve stress, or a whole host of other personal motivators. Whenever motivation starts to waver look beyond what’s difficult in the moment and remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Focus on all the things that were important to you in the moment you decided to give this a go. You’ll likely find that although something is telling you it’s easier not to train right now, there was a really good reason you decided to row, so commit to it wholeheartedly and train regardless (blog – What’s Your Goal).
3. Deal with adversity. Acknowledge and accept that the journey will not always be smooth. Some days are far harder than others for no apparent reason. It’s these days more so than the easier ones, that contribute to growth both personally and athletically. Insightful athletes train smart and know that progress comes in many forms. In my experience training gains come and go in waves . Giving up when things are more difficult simply delays the next wave of progress even further. Surf the urge to give up and you will be rewarded far sooner (blog – Catching a Wave).
4. Aim to complement exercise with a healthy lifestyle. The two go hand in hand and addressing both will multiply your chances of success. Prepare in advance for your sessions, recovery and nutrition. Sleep more, hydrate better. The more we want something, the more perceived sacrifices we will need to make. In time those sacrifices bring reward and no longer seem such a big ask. Lifestyle changes are fundamental to success.
5.Have a structure or follow a training plan. Be accountable to, and motivated by yourself and others. Random, unstructured, mood dependent training is less rewarding and by no means yields the same results. It’s like taking the scenic route in the dark. Know yo
ur destination, plan your route and stay patient with your j
ourney (blog-The Importance of a Training Plan).
In a highly competitive world where athletes are bigger, better, faster, and stronger than ever we feel it is necessary to increase our volume and length of workouts to reach optimal performance. While one on the outside looking in watches professional athletes working out multiple times a day has to be reasonable and understand that they have the highest standard of care between workouts, best supplements, and have the time to do what it takes to rest accordingly. As a very competitive person and Cross Fit athlete this has been an exceptionally hard pill for me to swallow. However, I know it is best thing we can do for our self is not over thinking our training and to trust the process.
In all honesty I have fallen in that way of thinking only to be dissatisfied by the outcomes. I was mentally motivated to be better, but my performance were on a downward slope along with life outside of the gym. Health is so much more than physical. Mental health needs to be in a homeostatic state or it will be a dull, dry, unfulfilled, and empty process.
When working out our muscles break down, our central nervous system is working in over drive, tendons strained, glycogen, and electrolytes depleted. Our body enters a catabolic state where we are breaking down enzymes, proteins, and nutrients. When working out our hormones (Cortisol) fight the stress that is produced in our body to build it. Cortisol is necessary for immunity, gluconeogenesis, metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. When we are constantly in a stressed state we never produce enough cortisol which will decrease all the above functions. This depletion of hormones can also cause levels of testosterone and estrogen to deplete which can decrease libido and cause depression. With proper diet, nutrition, and rest our body is able to be in an anabolic state to which we can perform optimally and actually benefit from our hard work. To which, our endeavors can be rewarded. With the less “stuff” in our life. We have a clear mindset and can focus on the things that mean the most and are most beneficial to our happiness.
All in all more is NOT more and realizing that has improved EVERY aspect of my life. It has especially helped me mentally. I am not anxious in my day or wandering off wanting and feeling I need to be at the gym to be getting better. The best programming and hardest workouts in the world will not better you. Your work ethic and intensity for the hour of the day you set aside will be what you need to be the best you.
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.
That’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.
I 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!
There 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, put 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?