Improve your Stamina in Rowing

Recently I read a very interesting book on rowing that I highly recommend: “Advanced Rowing : international perspectives on high performance rowing” co-authored by Dr. Charles Simpson and Jim Flood. This book gives an overview of the different ways of training around the world. Obviously it is not exhaustive, the authors have not gone everywhere, but it is an opportunity to learn a little more about the Danish, Norwegian, Swiss and New Zealand system. It is also an opportunity to understand the very collective functioning of university teams and British-countries clubs.

This book includes a part about aerobic training which is very interesting. In this part we are interested in the aerobic system which is divided into three zones of intensity:
Low intensity training: constant exercise carried out below 2 mmol/L of blood lactate concentration.
Threshold training: exercise performed between 2.0 and 4.0 mmol/L of blood lactate.
High intensity training (HI): exercise performed above 4 mmol/L of blood lactate.

A bit of history, first of all we learn that between the 1970s and the end of the 1990s elite rowers significantly increased their VO2 Max and erg performances while their size did not change significantly. The same studies that observed these changes in the world’s top rowers observed the following changes in training content:

– Total training volume to increase by 20% – 57.9% increase in low-intensity training volume. (38 to 60 h/month)
– 30% decrease in the volume of high-intensity training (40 to 28 h/month)
– The ratio between high- and low-intensity training went from 50/50 to 25/75 between the early 1970s and the end of the 1990s.

They go on to explain that during these years the volume of threshold training decreased and that the world’s rowing elite trains with a polarised distribution. Polarised training corresponds to a distribution of training volume that is overwhelmingly focused on low intensity, then on high intensity (about 15% of the volume). Finally, the threshold is the intensity in which the least time is spent (about 8% of the total volume). Another very popular model is the pyramid drive in which the place of the threshold and the high intensity are reversed.

That’s where it gets interesting! The rest of the chapter praises this polarised distribution of training. The authors review four studies that compare the two distributions. The protocols of each study are slightly different. The training periods are more or less long, the volume distributions according to the intensities change a little bit, but the comparison between the polarised and the pyramid model is always the focus of the studies. All of them show that the polarized method obtains better results.

In all the studies mentioned, the improvement of VO2 max and/or MAP is greater in the group using the polarized training. However, these studies have field limitations and relatively small populations. For those reasons, we are then presented with two similar studies on other endurance sports with larger populations and sometimes longer and more demanding protocols.

The first study sets up periods of de-training. In this way, the researchers ensure that the athletes have the same physiological demands before they train in one way or another. Once again, progress is significantly greater in the group using the polarised distribution.

Finally, the last study that we are being proposed is interesting because the population is 41 athletes randomly divided into four groups. This is a very large population for a field study in sport science. All the groups have the same training load but this load is not distributed in the same way between the groups. There is a “Volume” group, a “Threshold” group, a “High Intensity” group and finally a “Polarised” group.

In this study the results are quite impressive. Athletes in the “polarised” group showed the best progression in VO2max. Their improvement is +12%, against +5% for the “high intensity” group, which comes second, +3% for the “volume” group, and finally -4% for the “threshold” group. The “polarized” group also shows the best progression in maximum power during the PMA test. On the other hand, the “threshold” group shows a much better increase in the lactic threshold. Even if it is not a direct performance factor, having a higher lactic threshold is very interesting for a competitive rower. He will be in a better position to consume his fat, he will be able to handle a higher training volume and he will delay the accumulation of lactate during the effort.

These are only a handful of studies but they all point in the same direction: to increase the VO2max of our athletes it is preferable to use a polarised training distribution. Obviously it would be interesting to carry out studies in rowers with more demanding protocols and larger populations but this is still very difficult to implement.

Nevertheless, the following lessons can be drawn from the studies presented in the chapter:

  • 80/20 (low intensity/threshold and high intensity) seems to be the most common distribution among successful elite rowers.
  • A large volume of training at low intensity (2mmol/L blood lactate) is absolutely essential to develop the physiological adaptations necessary for performance. Ideally, 120 to 200 km per week should be done.
  • Competitive rowers are more interested in doing high-intensity work rather than threshold work to maximise adaptations, especially during competition.
  • The ideal polarized distribution has not yet been established for the rower. It can of course be variable depending on the athletes and the time of year.
  • Polarised training is very effective for elite athletes but also gives very good results at national, club or university level, compared to a pyramidal approach where the proportion of training at the threshold may be too high.
  • Regular monitoring of the training intensity, perception of effort and fatigue of the athletes are important for a good distribution of the training load. It is recommended that training sessions are categorised according to the targeted intensities, that they are well distributed in the training programme and that the athletes perform the sessions with the required intensity. The heart rate is a very good tool for monitoring effort and rest.

It is interesting to compare this with the French programme. We could say that we only do work at low intensity or at the threshold (B1/B2) but we also do C2 (in the gym). Of course it’s not on water training but it is a session that involves a high energy intensity. So according to the writings of Dr. Charles Simpson and Prof. Steve Seiler, if we take as an example a high level rower who trains 11 to 12 times a week, he would have to do three sessions of C2, one or two sessions of B2 and nine sessions of B1 or various aerobics at low intensity.

Conclusion :

In my opinion, several points can be discussed here. B2 can have other interests in addition to physiological progression, so it might make sense to do it more than once a week. But the point that appeals to me most, personally, is doing a lot of the aerobic power work (high intensity) in a weight room. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do C2. It’s a very interesting workout. I am asking the question about the value of doing high intensity aerobic work also while rowing. My opinion on the question is that it is very beneficial to work at high intensity on the water and with the ergo to improve certain physiological, technical and mental aspects. But like everything else, in programming you need balance. You must not do it all the time. It is better to concentrate on it at the right time in the season, and it is necessary to have acquired a solid technical and physical basis

Do not forget that if you want to improve your personal performances as quickly as possible you need a programme adapted to your profile and goals. For this nothing could be easier: Contact me!

See you around,
Jean for the Lynx performances’ team


Bibliography :

1) Driller M « The effects oh high-intensity intervals training in well trained rowers » Int J Sport Physiol Perform 4(1) p110-121. 2009

2) Ingham S « Physiological and performance effects of low versus mixed intensity rowing training » Med sci sports and exercice 40(3) p579-584. 2008

3) Fiskerstand A, Seiler KS « Trainings and performance characteristics among Norwegian internationals rowers 1970-2001 » Scand J Med Sci Sport 14, p303-310.  2004 

4) Neal CM « Six weeks of a polarized training intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclist » 2013

5) Richer SD « Effects of novel supra-maximal interval training versus continuous training on performance in collegiate, national and international class rowers » J strength cond res, 30 (6) p1752-1762. 2016

6) Simpson C, Seiler S, « Training intensity for rowing » Advanced rowing : international perspectives on international rowing, Bloomsbury publishing. p149-170. 2017

7) Steinacker JM, « Training of rowers before world championship » Med Sci Sports Excerc, 30(7) p1158-1163. 1998 

8) Stevens A « Incorporating sprint training with endurance training improves anaerobic capacity and 2000m erg performance in trained oarsmen » J strength cond res 29(1), p22-28. 2015

9) Stoggle T, SperlichB « Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variable than threshold; high intensity or high volume training » Front Physiol 5, 33. 2014