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How Hard is Hard Enough?


February 19, 2012 by peakcentre

Ed McNeely

2000 m races typically last 6-9 minutes depending on the boat, age, and level of the competitors. This has lead many researchers to examine the role of VO2 max in rowing performance.  VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use. It is a measure of how efficiently the heart and lungs can deliver oxygen and how well the muscles can extract it from the blood and use it in energy producing chemical reactions. As a result of this many coaches and athletes feel that they are only going to improve if they perform high intensity training. While there is no doubt that this type of training does have a place in a rowing program the question is how much and when should it be done.

There have been several studies that have looked at the training programs used by the top rowing countries in the world. They have consistently found that the top rowers perform only 5-10% of their total training volume as higher intensity intervals. Increasing the volume of these intervals doesn’t seem to increase VO2 max or rowing performance any more than the lower volume. In fact many countries have their athletes spend more than 90% of their training time below anaerobic threshold, the point where lactic acid begins to accumulate and cause fatigue and discomfort.

The question many of you are probably asking is if racing is done at high intensity why train at low intensity. The answer is muscle fiber types. Depending on the analysis method there are usually three or four distinct types of muscle fibers. Their characteristics can be seen in table 1. While the general population has about equal numbers of slow twitch fibers and fast twitch fibers, rowers have a much larger proportion of slow twitch fibers. These slow twitch fibers are capable of using lactic acid as a fuel source. In other words, efficient, fit slow twitch fibers will eat up the lactic acid that your fast fibers are producing. This helps to decrease the impact of lactic acid on performance.

During exercise your body activates muscle fibers according to the size principal. The size principal states that motor units are activated from the smallest to the largest as intensity of exercise increases. Slow twitch fibers tend to be in the smallest motor units and are activated at lower intensities.

In addition to the use of slow twitch fibers low intensity training offers that advantage of allowing you to do a higher volume of technical work. Skill learning is most effective at lower intensities. This is because lactic acid and fatigue impairs the ability to learn skills. It is only once the skill has become automated, following 5000 repetitions done exactly the same way, at low speed that the skill can be successfully transferred to higher intensity training and performance.

So how do you know when you are training hard enough? There are several ways to do this and a couple that I would caution against. Let’s talk about heart rate first. In the August 28, 1998 issue or IRN I wrote an article on the rules of heart rate monitoring. One of those rules is heart rate must be used in conjunction with other physiological variables. In other words picking a heart rate or heart rate range doesn’t tell you anything about how the muscles are working. The generic heart rate ranges, that you see on charts at most health clubs or many training books, were developed as guidelines for improving cardiovascular health and fitness. They were never intended to be guidelines for improved performance. I would suggest staying away from heart rate unless lactate or oxygen consumption are also measured.

Lactate analysis is the best way to determine your training intensity. Lactate tests involve a drop of blood being drawn from the fingertip and analyzed. These tests are normally multi stage affairs where the intensity is increased after every stage. The draw back to this type of testing is that it requires a trained technician who has access to an analyzer. There are currently a couple of relatively inexpensive analyzers on the market that do a good job in the hands of a qualified technician. If you are serious about your rowing a lactate test or two during your winter training is a worth while investment. It doesn’t matter what boat or oars you have if you don’t have the fitness to make it go fast. If you do have a test done you want to spend about 80% of your training time at the power output or heart rate that corresponds to 2 mmol/L. 10% of your time will be spent between 2-4 mmol/L and the remaining 10% is higher intensity intervals.

A 20-minute performance test can be used to estimate training intensity. In the 20-minute test, the athlete is required to row as many meters as possible in 20 minutes.

Dr. Volker Nolte, former Canadian lightweight men’s coach and a professor at University of Western Ontario, has developed some guidelines for using a 20-minute test to predict exercise intensity. He has suggested that the average split from the 20 minute test plus 13-15 seconds is a good indicator of the intensity that corresponds to 2mmol/L of lactate

Estimates from a performance test to categories can be affected by several factors. Performance tests do not rely only on the physiological capacity of the athlete. A good score on a performance test is a function of physiological, mental, technical, and tactical components working together. There are many athletes who either under or over perform according to their physiological data simply because they did not treat the test like a race and were not properly prepared mentally. If you use this test be prepared to make some individual adjustments. You will have to adjust your pace down if you cannot maintain a normal conversation with out an increase in breathing rate when training at this intensity. It is very rare to have to adjust the intensity up. If you are ever in doubt, you are better to slow down rather than speed up.

Many rowers subscribe to the ‘NO Pain No Gain’ theory of training. These are the same people that struggle from year to year to make substantial improvements. Through a combination of skill improvement and development of the slow twitch fibres lower intensity training is the key to rowing success. To conclude, if you want to go fast you have to go slow.

Table 1. Muscle Fiber Types and their Characteristics

Charateristic/ Fiber type

Slow Twitch

Fast Oxidative Glycolytic

Undifferentiated Fast Twitch

Fast Glycolytic

Speed of Contraction




Very Fast

Fatigue Resistance

Very High




Anaerobic Power





Very High

Aerobic Capacity


Very High



Very Low

Questions or Comments?

ninety five − = eighty nine


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