How to Prepare for and Row a 2k ERG Test

Introduction

One of the biggest challenges for rowers is the 2k test. Despite how important it is, there is a seems to be a sever lack of information on how to prepare for and row a good 2k. Rowers often think that 2k speed comes down strictly to fitness, but I would argue that rowers can see huge gains in speed if they refine their race plan to be more efficient with the power they do have. This philosophy extends beyond simply execution during the 2k, but also how a rower should prepare for the 2k. In this guide I will go over what the ideal 2k race plan looks like, the philosophy behind it, and how to apply this in your training so you can PR on your next 2k.

Philosophy of a 2K

When we think of a 2k, we think of a rower pushing themselves to their absolute limit. But pushing the envelope isn’t about seeing red and going all out. A 2k must be controlled and well executed if the rower is going to obtain their fastest time. Because of this, a 2k must first and foremost be about efficiency. We are all familiar with the fly and die, so we know that you can go too hard too fast. You also never want to leave anything on the table. What we are looking for is that sweet spot, the place in the middle where you run out of energy right as you cross the finish line.

Lactic acid is created when you push yourself from the aerobic zone to the anerobic zone forcing your body to activate your muscles without enough oxygen. Put too much lactic acid in your system and it gets harder to activate your muscles and you will lose speed. In this way, a 2k becomes a test of how well can you manage lactic acid. Like I said earlier, you have to hit that sweet spot between going to hard, and not going hard enough. Early on we want to control the pace so that we are keeping lactic acid production to a minimum, but still running close to the red line so we are getting the most speed we can. As we get further on, we can push ourselves past the red line knowing that the finish is nearing and we want to expire as we hit 2k. This strategy is called negative splitting.

At the core of our strategy is maximizing the efficiency of our pace. One of the biggest issues I see in rowing is incorrect application of power or undue tension. This desire to push hard translates into a grabby upper body or an overly tense drive. Cutting out that tension, relaxing, and focusing our power through the legs can save us a lot of energy which we can then use to great effect to stay clean and finish the piece strong. A big part of proper training and execution for the 2k is practicing being relaxed and efficient at your goal pace. Being comfortable seeing those low 2k numbers and getting used to the rate you want to pull will mean you can relax out. When you are looking to increase speed on margins as small as 5%, removing that tension can make the difference.

What the Ideal 2k Looks Like

So what does the ideal 2k look like? What I would like to do is give you a quick overview, then break it down into parts and talk about each part in more detail.

Overview

As I said earlier, the 2k is all about efficiency. We want to start slower so we aren’t producing too much lactic acid, then ramp up speed as we get closer to the finish. So the slope of our 2k should looks something like this:

Now, we are not going to get a little faster each stroke. Instead, there will be specific parts of the piece where we will shift for more speed. This makes shifting for more speed easier to achieve. I recommend rowers first trying out this method start with a two shift race plan, which would look like this:

Finally, we want to add the start and the sprint to our race plan. A classic start will quickly ramp up the pressure, have a high 10–20, then shift out into the starting base pace. A classic sprint will usually ramp up to a high speed after crossing the last 250 then go for broke in the last 100. Adding these into our race plan, the final result looks something like this:

Again, this is the most basic strategy and the best race plan to start with. If you have a good amount of experience, you might already have places you would prefer to shift or have a sprint that has a lot more shifts for more speed. You might hate sprinting and not have much of a sprint at the end or like to start slower and shift harder in the last 500. These little adjustments are up to you but should be made once you have an understanding of the basic structure and know what you like and don’t like about your race plan.

The Plan

One of the easiest ways to think about negative splitting is that you are taking time early on that you will need to pay back later. When I put together a race plan for junior rowers, I show them something like this:

You can see that the early 250s are slower than goal pace and we make that up by going faster in the later part of the 2k. If you are going to make up your own race plan, you can use this method to make sure you will hit your goal pace. As long as the numbers in the far right column add up to 0, you’re on target. I also use this on the fly in my 2ks. If I go a split slower than I wanted to for 250, I know I need to go a split faster for 250 later on to make up for it.

A quick note, the first 250 is faster than your base because the start will average you lower. You still want to hit your base pace after the first 15 strokes.

The Start

Starting with the start makes sense to me, so that will be the first part we go over. Unlike an on the water start, you do not have to have set slide lengthens for each on of the strokes, but I do recommend a ¾, ½, ¾, lengthen stroke, and full stroke progression for the first 5. What matters is that you are building speed in the first 5 strokes, seeing higher rates and faster splits each stroke. I personally like to keep a shorter peak in my start as I do not want push myself too hard in the beginning and pay for that later on. I peak around the 8th stroke and then lengthen out into my base pace slowly over the next 5 to 7 strokes, hitting base by about the 15th stroke into the piece.

This is the part of a 2k where new rowers make the biggest mistake of going too hard too early. You will feel very good after your start and it is very easy to overestimate your strength at this point in the piece. Do not deviate from your race plan. If it turns out you are having a really good day and can go a lot faster than you planned, make that decision after 1000 meters, after you have really gotten into the piece and will know if you really do have extra gas in the tank. I take that feeling of being stronger and focus on using it to make sure I am confident and relaxed at my base pace. If you are extra efficient it means you are saving energy you will be able to put in later in the piece.

The Base

The meat of the work in a 2k is done in the middle 1500. Your goal here is to balance efficiency and speed so this part really comes down to three things: Good form, controlled intensity, and relaxation.

Form

This isn’t a technique guide so I’ll keep it simple by saying focus on the leg drive and keep the arms relaxed and core engaged. The legs are the power of the stroke so rely on them to do the work. Being tense and pulling in the upper body will only wear you out faster. Sit up tall, keep the spine from curving, and keep the shoulders back. This will provide you a stronger structure to apply pressure. It will also open up your chest so you can get big lung-fulls of air in. Hold the handle loose and don’t jam it into the body at the finish. Just focus on the impulse with the legs and keeping everything moving fluidly. You will want to be at a fairly high rate so quick but not rushed hands will be important.

Controlled Intensity

As we talked about earlier, the 2k is all about managing lactic acid by sitting just inside your anerobic threshold. You don’t want to go so hard your body is flooding with lactic acid, but you don’t want to go soft so you are leaving speed on the table. This is probably one of the most important things you can practice before 2ks: finding the right intensity by doing pace work. Once you have found the right base pace for you, the first 1000meters of a 2k should feel much more manageable. The right intensity is also important to find as you will be able to be confident in your plan being right for you which I think is the single most important thing for the mentally of a 2k.

Relaxation

Once we have good form and the right intensity, we can feel confident that we are where we need to be as we execute our race plan. This should allow us to relax. Meaning looser shoulders, less unnecessary adrenaline in the system, lower heart beat, steady breathing. This is being in the zone. All the unnecessary parts of your body shut down or work in the most efficient way so the parts of your body that need all the energy can work at maximum capacity.

Shifting

The next element of base work is the shift. While you might think going from one base speed to a faster base speed is easy, this can be the place where race plans fall apart. First, commitment to the new speed is key. You should count down the last 3 strokes before your shift then make the shift quickly and effectively. Use rate. You should increase at least a beat if not two when you shift. This rate shift should stick. If you slow down in the rate after a shift, your split will too. Practice shifting between bases. I will talk more about practice later, but this is something you should also be very comfortable with and know exactly how to do.

The Sprint

This is probably the most fun and most painful part of the 2k. Everything you have been doing in the 2k so far is to set you up to hit your PR and you do that in the last 500 meters of the piece. For me, the sprint is all about being on the offensive. We don’t survive 2ks, we attack them. You get aggressive. If I am sprinting right, I am tapping into something primal. I feel pins and needles through my body and my hair stands on end. I am no longer thinking about the pain, I am thinking about how much I can punish the ERG and drive home those final meters. Letting out a war cry as your jack the rate is completely acceptable.

Most if not all rowers have that beast mode inside them, and can tap into it. So more often than not, the success of the sprint isn’t about going hard but about getting to the last 500 with energy and momentum so you can go hard. If you where efficient and negative splitted through your piece, you will set yourself up to have a good sprint. The key to a good sprint is being able to increase the rate and power without losing technique. Don’t go for broke right away and don’t lose complete control, start ramping up at about 400 to go. By the last 100 meters I am literally driving as hard as I possibly can with the legs. I want to start to fade in the last 2–3 stokes because then I know I left it all out there.

Practicing

Overview

As we have talked about, 2ks are composed of a few distinct parts and you should practice each one of those parts so you know how to execute come race day. We have talked about the importance of being confident and relaxed so you can be efficient and get the most speed for your energy. Confidence comes with practice. There is no magic substitute for a well thought out plan that has been practiced thoroughly. So I want to give you a few thought and workouts I use when preparing myself or others for 2ks.

Base Work

I am starting with base work first because it is by far the most important. The better you get at hitting your base pace and being efficient and relaxed, the much more likely the rest of your 2k will go well. You will step up to the ERG on race day knowing you can get yourself through the first 1500 no problem and will just have to dig deep and attack strong in the last 500.

To practice base pace, I suggest a few different workouts. The key to each is not going all out, but hitting the numbers and rates you want to see. The other part is plenty of rest between pieces. The idea of these workouts is not necessarily to make you tired, although you can get that out of the workout if you are looking for it, but to practice base pace and make it second nature.

1–3 sets of 8x250m on, 1’-2’ off

The first workout is a simple 1–3 sets of 8x250m on, 1’-2’ off with 8’-12’ rest between sets. Each 250 do as if it was the corresponding 250 in the race. So first 250 is starting 250, second 250 is 250–500, last 250 is the 1750–2000 sprint, and so on. Your goal is to hit your target pace in each 250 as exactly as you can, using as little energy as you can. It should not be hard at all to hit the number but finishing with as much energy in the take as possible will be a fun challenge. This workout allows you to practice your race plan and your pacing at the same time. If you want to practice shifts and normally shift on the 250 intervals, shift everything 125 meters later so you are shifting in the middle of your pieces.

There are two iterations of this workout that are good to note. Instead of 8x250m, you can do 4x500m with longer rest between pieces. You can also add another two 250m pieces or one 500 meter piece at the end of each set as a repeat sprint piece in order to turn the workout into a high intensity training piece. You can also shorten the rest between pieces to increase the intensity. 2 sets of 10x250m on 1’ off with the last three 250m all out sprints is probably one of my favorite training workouts.

Starting 1500, Middle 1000, Finishing 750 with 6’,4’ rest

This workout is probably the best at giving you an idea of whether or not your pacing is realistic. If you can barely finish the 1500, you know you need to go slower on your base. It is also great to really get into the rhythm of your base and practice the shifts. Rest is negotiable. You should have caught your breath and feel good to go by the start of each piece.

Start Work

The start is all about getting out of the block quickly than finding base. You want to be long and powerful those first few strokes letting the rate build. Then a few strokes later you are lengthening out and finding the most relaxed and efficient base rhythm you can. You should get enough practice with the start just doing the 8x250m pieces, but if it is a problem for you for some reason, I would suggest 8xstarting 200m with 1’ rest. You should be shifting to base pace for the last 50 or so meters.

Sprint Work

As we talked about earlier, the sprint is all about tapping into the primal rage, but maintaining enough control that your technique does not fall apart. If this is something you want to practice, I suggest 1–3 sets of 10x45” on 15” off starting at rate 26 and going up one beat each piece with the 45” on at 95% pressure. This workout is hard and will wear you out so think of it as a high intensity piece that really improves your high end. You should one of these for every 2–4 base workouts you do. They really should not be something you do too often with the idea they will improve your 2k. Focus on base.

Warm Up

I like to finish strong, so I saved one of the most important things about a 2k for last: the warm up. Having a warm up routine is essential to having a good 2k. You want to do something you know will get your body ready to perform at its highest level both physically and mentally. This means not only warming up the muscles, but also practicing base pace and shifts. I will share with you the warmup I use every time I get ready for a 2k.

First, I get on the ERG and start to paddle lightly. I ignore the monitor and if you have trouble with that, just push it down. The idea is to let your body warm up slowly of its own accord. As the muscles warm up and stretch out, the stroke will get longer and more powerful. About 5–7 minutes in you should be around your normal steady state pace, maybe 2/4 beats slower. From there you want to get in 3–5x10–20 stroke pieces at base. I personally do 3x12 as it is what I need to get to base and be comfortable and familiar. That’s the key though: get in enough strokes that you know where base is and you feel comfortable with it. Between pieces make sure to paddle very lightly. You do not want to tire yourself out at all. Save that for the 2k test. After that, I get off the ERG and do some dynamic stretching, but whatever stretching is most comfortable and effective for you is what you should do. Finally, I get back on the ERG, warm back into base which takes between 3–5’ then do 2 more base pace pieces before I am all ready to go.

Feel free to iterate on this, but the core elements are warm up slowly and take strokes to familiarize yourself with your base pace. I suggest doing this before every high intensity workout that has anything to do with your 2k. The more familiar and comfortable you get with this warmup, the more confident you will be that it is the right thing to be doing before your 2k.

Wrap Up

I hope you enjoyed this guide and got something from it. I am putting this information up on the internet for free with the hopes that it will be used to help rowers improve their performance and will answer a lot of the standard questions I see on the rowing forums. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me james@projectrowing.com I am happy to share my thoughts and opinions. If you would like to support me, I am putting together a patron page as well and I will edit that in when it is up.

Thanks for reading and looking forward to writing more guides soon.