Sam has a well established background in the sport of indoor rowing both as a performer, competitor and coach. Earlier this year he took steps to expand the rowing side of his personal training business and Fitness Matters Indoor Rowing was founded. He currently now offers a wide range of services which include training and coaching (both 1:1 and virtually), operating a growing number of social media communities, as well as Captaincy of the FM Indoor Rowing Team, and hosting 2 increasingly popular events on the race calendar.
Increasingly recognised for his consistent results and relentless attitude to training, Sam’s blog will cover a range of topics including his own experiences along with his mental and physical approach to reaching his targets. Take a look at his biography here https://fmrowing.com/team/sam-blythe/. Follow Sam’s rowing journey on Instagram @samblythe and Twitter @FMPTExeter
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.
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.
I actually wrote some of this short blog in reverse as I started to get some clarity on a very mixed morning. I am not sure what purpose it will serve other than knowing that on this occasion it’s intended to make me feel better! I’ve had a great weeks training. Hard but good, and although there are probably a handful of reasons why my session didn’t go to plan, the overriding harsh reality is that today the margins just felt too fine.
As we progress in our training and over time get faster, many people think rowing gets easier. It doesn’t. The margins get smaller and the effort required to improve gets much greater. I’m now in a place where I know what I can achieve and what I’m currently training for, but the margins I’m working with mean that timing is fundamental to success. Mind and body need to align. I thought that today was the day, but only a very short way into a time trial reality hit and I realised it wasn’t to be.
The reason TT’s can be so hard mentally is because we have an element of expectation, usually as a combined result of factors such as past performances, certain personality traits and what we perceive others expect from us (the latter to a lesser extent in my case). This creates added pressure, often taking the anticipation, stress and expectation past the point of being productive. If at any point we have the thought that our target isn’t achievable like I did today, we leap ahead in our thinking to the end of the session where we perceive failure in all it’s ugly glory, with every negative emotion that goes with it. So we decide to stop…because what’s the point? May as well feel crap without the effort! Without those expectations however, we’re much more able to carry on regardless, step into the unknown and see what lies ahead. The vast majority of these processes are subconscious.
When I stopped I was angry, really angry. Something which I rarely am because it doesn’t work for me. A quick check in with my inner sports psychologist simply told me ‘Do not dwell’. That was going to be hard. In many ways harder than the training I have completed this week! The easiest option would have been to walk inside and sulk for the rest of the day, but that wouldn’t be fair on my family. So instead I attempted to move on and jumped on my trusty alternative, the Wattbike and dispatched myself accordingly with a 6 x 5000m (rest 2m) session. That made me feel a little better, because as punishing as it sounds I actually find it very rewarding.
Being passionate and caring about things as much as we do most of the time drives us forward, but caring too much can really hurt when things don’t fall into place. Nobody died today and this effort will clearly keep for another day. I know this. It’s important to me yes, but in the grand scheme of things it’s very much a #firstworldproblem. When I walked back into the house and my son Zach said ‘I love you Dad’ I was instantly reminded of what really matters. That’s what’s important. That’s persepctive…I will live to train another day.
I have had several questions recently about how to control stroke rate and the importance of accuracy. In my training, and the plans I write, many of my (longer) sessions are controlled by stroke rate and pace targets in an attempt to make every metre rowed a productive one. I’m aiming for a consistent stroke profile and power delivery that can be transferred through the rates. In simple terms the lower the stroke rate, the slower the pace/500m should be. This sounds obvious to me as I write it, but more and more often I see people overloading their stroke which in my opinion doesn’t result in faster times.
There are of course many different and effective ways to train. This system however allows everyone regardless of ability, to follow the same core principle without the need for individual physiological assessment, planning or heart rate monitoring, which is very costly and not readily available. I have for a while now referred to this system as ‘gearing’ as it encourages people to hold a higher and more powerful stroke for a longer period. The analogy being that you wouldn’t want to drive your car for long periods at high speed in a low gear just because you could, in recognition that this wouldn’t be efficient, wouldn’t transfer to any greater speed in top gear and could potentially cause damage.
A good example of this can be seen in my session below which was the FM Rowing Workout of the Week. As the stroke rate increases so does my pace/500m. Of course there is a calculation to get the right numbers for all the varying sessions, but you will get the idea. All the stroke rates are correct for each 5 minute period.
So how important is this as a consideration in training? I think it is incredibly important for a few reasons. It shows discipline and ensures we focus on quality during any given session. It allows for direct comparisons with future or past sessions at the same rate in the knowledge that they are accurate. It encourages consistency by ensuring that the correct pressure is applied at each rate as often as possible. The more consistent we are the better quality we produce, the greater the training effect, the more controlled we are at pacing sessions and so on. Obviously there’s some room for movement, but as a rule our ‘gears’ should be within certain parameters. Gearing is the foundation on which all of our FM Training Plan sessions are built.
How do we hit the correct stroke rate each minute? Everyone has a preference on this. There are numerous ways of achieving the same goal in this instance. It’s important to add that it won’t make or break your training if this isn’t bang on every time, but it will also help to pass the time in longer drawn out sessions! The simplest way is to watch the ‘spm’ in the top right of the monitor and keep to a rhythm at the desired rate. Personally I count strokes each and every minute following the format below.
R18 – 3 strokes every 10 seconds. So the first of each 3 is on 0/10/20/30 seconds and so on.
R20 – 1 stroke every 3 seconds. So stroke on 0/3/6/9/12 seconds and so on.
R22 – 11 strokes every 30 seconds. So the first of each 11 is on 0 and 30 seconds and so on.
R24 – 6 strokes every 15 seconds. So the first of each 6 is on 0/15/30/45 seconds and so on.
R26 – 13 strokes every 30 seconds. So the first of each 13 is on 0 and 30 seconds and so on.
R28 – 7 strokes every 15 seconds. So the first of each 7 is on 0/15/30/45 seconds and so on.
R30 – 1 stroke every 2 seconds. So stroke on 0/2/4/6/8/10 seconds and so on.
Our journey to the City Regatta final at the Guildhall in London started about 3 months ago when I asked 3 other guys to join me in an invitational 4-man team to race others over 1000m. Graham Benton, Dave Marshall, Dan Stanley and I formed, on paper, what looked like a pretty solid crew. This offered us a chance to compete in a unique environment as a team in what is essentially an individual sport.
Bristol City Regatta
Our first assignment was to race in Bristol back in August at one of the 4 regional events hosted by the sponsor Investco Perpetual. The other 3 venues in London, Edinburgh and Leeds were equally as impressive a set up as ours was in Millennium Square, Bristol. The outdoor race atmosphere was great and no expense was spared as the event ran very smoothly. We had 3 heats which we came through relatively comfortably, easing through the gears and opening up a little in the final with a 2 minute 58 second effort.
Winners at Bristol Regatta
We had a few months then until the final and, after chatting things through, we decided we would prepare thoroughly. On the day the 4 of us all travelled from different parts of the country and met up at the hotel accommodation that had been generously provided by the sponsor. Off to the Guildhall yard we went, arriving about an hour before the start time. Following a warm up, where I’m not sure how warm we were given it was pretty fresh outside at 5.30 pm, we watched the ladies final and then we were ready to race.
Collecting our trophy
We were very fast out of the blocks and immediately opened up some distance between us and the rest of the field. We kept full pressure on until around the half way mark with the team averaging around 1.25/500m, giving us decent buffer. Whilst we didn’t ease off totally, we then came home a little more comfortably than anticipated in an overall time of 2 minutes 53 seconds which was 10 seconds ahead of second place. The whole race was a bit of a blur like they can be, but we definitely got a decent blow on, a bit of leg burn and a touch of ergers’ cough!
Winning team’s oar.
Suited and booted
The rowing was over, but it was back to the hotel, dinner jackets on and just the start of the evening ahead which was quite spectacular. Multiple Olympians were among 400 guests seated in the Guildhall at the event hosted by Sir Steve Redgrave. A fantastic and memorable evening was a fitting end to this year’s journey, one that, as a 4, we have agreed we will be defending next year. For me personally I am glad to see the back of that style of training for a while and excited to focus my attentions elsewhere.