Way Enough! Conditioning with HUMON for increased performance in Rowing

Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. Unlike most sports, which draw primarily on particular muscle groups, rowing makes heavy and repeated use of virtually every muscle in the body, despite the fact that a rower, as Al Ulbrickson (American rower who competed in the 1952 Summer Olympic ) liked to put it, “scrimmages on his posterior annex.” And rowing makes these muscular demands not at odd intervals but in rapid sequence, over a protracted period of time, repeatedly and without respite.

Below is the best written description of competitive rowing I have found to date! — Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

“When you row, the major muscles in your arms, legs, and back — particularly the quadriceps, triceps, biceps, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, abdominals, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles — do most of the grunt work, propelling the boat forward against the unrelenting resistance of water and wind. At the same time, scores of smaller muscles in the neck, wrists, hands, and even feet continually fine-tune your efforts, holding the body in constant equipoise in order to maintain the exquisite balance necessary to keep a twenty-four-inch-wide vessel — roughly the width of a man’s waist — on an even keel. The result of all this muscular effort, on both the larger scale and the smaller, is that your body burns calories and consumes oxygen at a rate that is unmatched in almost any other human endeavor. Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race — the Olympic standard — takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.

A well-conditioned oarsman or oarswoman competing at the highest levels must be able to take in and consume as much as eight liters of oxygen per minute; an average male is capable of taking in roughly four to five liters at most. Pound for pound, Olympic oarsmen may take in and process as much oxygen as a thoroughbred racehorse. This extraordinary rate of oxygen intake is of only so much value, it should be noted. While 75–80 percent of the energy a rower produces in a two-thousand-meter race is aerobic energy fueled by oxygen, races always begin, and usually end, with hard sprints. These sprints require levels of energy production that far exceed the body’s capacity to produce aerobic energy, regardless of oxygen intake. Instead the body must immediately produce anaerobic energy. This, in turn, produces large quantities of lactic acid, and that acid rapidly builds up in the tissue of the muscles. The consequence is that the muscles often begin to scream in agony almost from the outset of a race and continue screaming until the very end.

And it’s not only the muscles that scream. The skeletal system to which all those muscles are attached also undergoes tremendous strains and stresses. Without proper training and conditioning — and sometimes even with them — competitive rowers are apt to experience a wide variety of ills in the knees, hips, shoulders, elbows, ribs, neck, and above all the spine. These injuries and complaints range from blisters to severe tendonitis, bursitis, slipped vertebrae, rotator cuff dysfunction, and stress fractures, particularly fractures of the ribs.

The common denominator in all these conditions — whether in the lungs, the muscles, or the bones — is overwhelming pain. And that is perhaps the first and most fundamental thing that all novice oarsmen must learn about competitive rowing in the upper echelons of the sport: that pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.”

Competitive rowers rely on old true methods of conditioning in order to increase/delay the threshold of pain, while achieving a better Split Time while decreasing Stroke Rate. More about these important numbers in future blogs. Until recently, rowers had very little insight to their body other than heart rate and watts burns during a conditioning piece on the ergometers (Yep! that apparatus that measures work or energy expended during a period of physical exercise). What competitive rowers (indoor and/or outdoor water) such as myself, really want to know is how I can train to push out/delay the onset of lactic acid build up. If competitive rowers had this specific insight they would be able to condition wisely because they would know how to plan their power/energy utilization during a piece (endurance or interval). For example — The 2k erg test is a specific 2000 meter piece which begins with the rower starting his/her first 500m has hard as they can go (low split time and high stroke rate) before lactic acid begins and then achieving a fast steady pace for the next ~1000m (maintaining low split time while decreasing stroke rate to conserve energy), and then steadily increasing the power for the next 250m and then full pressure for the last 250m (low split time and high stroke rate). If one can train by having knowledge of their specific lactic threshold, they would know when to go full out and when to conserve and leave some “energy in the tank” to finish the piece. I believe Humon is on the right path to solve this exact problem and if they can fine tune the algorithms for rowers, we will be eternally grateful.

Cheers,

Pete

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