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.
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.