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.
‘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.
Comments Off on Keep Going at Rowing … Sam’s 5 Top Tips
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 journey (blog-The Importance of a Training Plan).
Comments Off on 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.
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?
Obviously there are multiple answers to this question, but most of you reading this will relate to it in a training capacity. Sessions we’re familiar with or find easier to complete are definitely in our ‘comfort zone’, whereas those we find physically or mentally demanding are clearly outside it. From my own perspective I’m learning a whole new answer to this question.
Before I started any form of rowing coaching I was your regular competitor. Although there’s plenty to dislike about racing in my opinion, it was effectively my comfort zone. I have often wondered why I do it to myself , but up until recently carried on regardless. Competing has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It’s what I do. Putting myself in these positions has over the years not only become the norm, it’s also become what people expect. More recently as my coaching role has developed I have participated in events on more than one level, as a coach, a cox AND as a competitor aiming for the podium. All within the same event! This isn’t an impossible task but it does involve the need to divide attention and also gives a very different feel to race day. On these occasions, making my way home, I have often wondered whether I could have been any better at any, if not all of the roles I tried to fulfill during the day. I’m yet to reach a conclusion on that one.
Up until this point despite the task of multiple ‘hats’ being a large one, there’s always an element of comfort in knowing that I’d compete…the bit that I do…the bit that I know well. Last week however, I was able to try something new. To step outside my comfort zone, which is ironically the opposite to a lot of people’s! The British Rowing Indoor Championships (BRIC) took place at the Olympic Velodrome and I had initially planned to race when I entered well in advance of the date. A few months prior however I took the decision not to compete until after Christmas. It felt like time to change tack. Largely as a means to encourage growth and personal development. I was asked the question many times before, during and after the event as to why I wasn’t racing when there was essentially a medal for the taking. My answer – My focus is currently elsewhere in relation to rowing and as I always like to be totally prepared for an event I didn’t feel like this was the right time. That isn’t to say things will ever be perfect on the day, but I always aim to give myself the best chance. The real test for me was to show up and tolerate the discomfort of not doing what I usually do as a way of being able to maintain my focus on the other goals I have in relation to the sport. I recently chose not to compete at the Welsh Indoor Championships for similar reasons but wasn’t exposed in the same way as I wasn’t able to be there on the day. BRIC was my first opportunity to stay away from the race floor, focus on coaching and generally enjoy the day.
When I arrived I realised, unknowingly, that I had stepped firmly out of my comfort zone. No race environment and prep to fall back on, no nerves or apprehension, but still the lure of a medal. Thankfully my category was early in the schedule and my race came and went without temptation lingering for too long. Once I’d surfed that temporary urge from there on in I focussed on enjoying the races, seeing so many people take themselves outside of their own comfort zones, with many experiencing the unique race environment for the first time. The day was a great success and ended with a night out in London of the highest quality. The indoor rowing community really are a great bunch.
Was I glad I did it this way? Well I definitely didn’t miss the race build up! I’m proud I stuck to my plan and stayed true to the journey I have currently put myself on, but perhaps there’s a part of me that was left wondering what might have been (that ‘familiar’ part of me). Either way I have a deeper understanding of myself which is great from a personal development perspective. I’ve now experienced all three scenarios: competing, coaching and competing, and just coaching.
When I honestly reflect on my experiences, I don’t think I’d agree that progress (in performance terms) is purely to be found outside of comfort zones. From a personal development perspective however what seems to be the case, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is that once something becomes routine it’s probably time to look beyond. What I’ve also found after avoiding taking this step for quite some time is that often that place beyond isn’t nearly as daunting as you first think. One thing’s for sure if we want to change and make improvements in our life we need to find the courage to take that first. There’s a whole lot to experience out there.
Comments Off on Victoria Taylor – Indoor Rowing Champion
Victoria Taylor, indoor rowing champion, writes about why indoor rowing works for her.
This article was originally published on FM Rowing.
My introduction to indoor rowing was random in the sense that I never had any exposure to rowing as a sport until rowing machine intervals formed part of a programme I did at the gym with a PT I was training with. He happened to comment that I was “naturally good” at rowing, something which is a bit of a novelty for someone of my height, as with many of the sports/fitness ventures I enjoyed it was usually a disadvantage! He suggested I take it a bit more seriously and check out a few online groups centred around indoor rowing. I posted my first 2k attempt on Facebook and almost immediately had a number of teams messaging me about the option of joining, willing to assist with my training and motivation. A month later I was part of a team and I’d entered the British Rowing Indoor Championships which despite going against my predisposed self-conscious nature, was actually the start of what has so far turned out to be a fairly successful indoor rowing career.
Indoor rowing is the perfect tool for improving both my physical and mental strength. It teaches me to focus, tolerate and challenge doubts, which in turn helps me build self-confidence and competence, whilst also de-stressing. On many occasions the physical gains have been of secondary importance to me. Like an added bonus rather than the main focus. I will however admit that I like the feeling of being ‘strong’ and rowing definitely enhances that. I’ve also found that as someone with a busy work and family life, it is one of the most time efficient forms of training I have ever come across!
I’ve met plenty of female indoor rowers during my time involved with the community. Their backgrounds are incredibly varied, as are their goals. I’m always keen to encourage greater female participation in the sport and particularly at indoor rowing events. In my experience women are more reluctant to attend events and participate competitively in the online challenges available. With a bit of direction, encouragement and team support however, they demonstrate a great capacity to confront any insecurities and develop a real passion for all things indoor row. There’s a real sense of being ‘in it together’. Whether it’s a speed or distance goal they might hold, they’re equally valid so regardless of gender, age or ability, everyone has a valuable contribution to make to the sport and the community that surrounds it. There are a lot of busy, hard working women, with family responsibilities, who are very dedicated to the sport.
I find people who demonstrate ‘strength in adversity’ and qualities such as determination and unwavering commitment inspiring. David Smith MBE (www.davidsmithmbe.co.uk) former Team GB athlete in Karate, Bobsleigh, Paralympic rowing and now cyclist has one of the most inspirational life stories I’ve ever come across. On a day to day basis, my coach at Fitness Matters Indoor Rowing, my team mates and the community inspire me to keep going, be better and step outside of my comfort zones.
The one piece of advice I would give to someone who wasn’t sure if they wanted to take part would be to go for it – the rewards outweigh any imagined risks and everyone inspires someone. This could be your thing! And you might be all someone else needs to see to be inspired to take the plunge themselves.
The next British Rowing Indoor Championships is taking place on Saturday, 10 December at the Lee Valley VeloPark. Entries are now open via indoorchamps.britishrowing.org.
In short, it really depends on whereabouts in your rowing or exercise journey you are at. The further along you are, the more important it becomes for a few reasons. I have trained for lots of different events in my life, most recently they have almost exclusively been indoor rowing events and I have always planned my own training in advance depending on what the goal was and made sure sessions were specific to it. This sounds obvious to me, but it far more common that people will not do this. Whether they are not sure how to, or don’t feel the need I am not sure.
The most important thing is that people are staying fit and active and introduce exercise into their lives in an enjoyable and sustainable way as without this the next level can’t be reached. However, as we become more experienced and interested in a sport very often we want to progress and following a plan brings a structure, focus and accountability to help this. Very often there are ups and downs along the way, but remaining consistent at what ever level you are at will always bring you the best chance of improving. Having a plan at this point is vital to remain on track especially as those margins for improvement become finer and the level of effort needed to achieve will increase.
If you feel you need some structure then I would encourage you to take a look at the many plans out there. This year I have developed a plan myself with a system for all abilities to follow. It is a generic plan that provides individual targets, feedback and motivation via a group of like minded people with a common goal. Details can be found at www.fmrowing.com/rowing-programme/.
Consistency will always be the stand out factor for me when trying to make progress, but following the structure of a plan will make that task a whole lot easier.