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How fit are rowers?

by Mark Clarke June 09, 2013

How fit are rowers?


The feeling of trepidation began to grow on my way to visit James Bailey, Q-Power's team manager. I was booked to test him and three of his athletes for VO2max and training zones. I’ve not done much work with elite rowers in the past, but the ones I have tested have been high performance machines. My previous experience involved testing James Cracknell, double Olympic Gold medallist, so the benchmark is set pretty high! James goes to some lengths to acknowledge the vast gulf between the GB water rowing team and what is a strictly amateur indoor rowing team. However, even being amateur's, they have set 26 national records in 4 countries in the last year - not too shabby at all!

Whereas runners, cyclists and triathletes can bury themselves, rowers bring a whole new meaning to “checking into the Pain Hotel”. I knew that these guys would push themselves to the limit and beyond. My palms were sweaty as I pulled into the drive ….

I was introduced to the team members who were being tested and began to worry that my neck would soon start aching from looking up so much. These guys were huge.

  • Ollie Osborne - 6’2”, 100kg and small by the standards of top-end rowing; UK champion and 5 th in the World Indoor rowing champs last year; Royal Marine Commando and chiselled out of a block of prime English beef. My knuckles cracked as he shook my hand.
  • Eddie Ventress -6’6.5”, 120kg and a mountain of a man; relatively new to rowing and already one of the fastest over-50's in the world.
  • Jo Allsebrook - UK champion and a lightweight rower weighing in at under 61.5kg. Apparently there are 2 categories in rowing, lightweight and everyone else. You really don’t want to be in the “everyone else” category unless you're a monster and have been genetically gifted with huge levers and phenomenal strength.

The exercise test itself was straight-forward. James calculated everyone’s 500m splits and what time they would have to pull each minute. The times start off at a pleasant pace then steadily get quicker every minute until the athletes can’t hang on any longer.

The guys are in “base phase” which means they are focussing on long, steady volume training to promote physiological changes such as increased mitochondrial density and increased intra-muscular capillary beds; the aim is to minimise the neuromuscular stress on the body and build core stamina and endurance. It is this massive endurance base which endurance athletes spend years developing, that provides the core engine to power the high performance training.

Without giving away any trade secrets, Ollie pulled 1.29/1.30 splits in his previous test just after the World Championships. Given that he was in peak performance for the champs and he’s done little/no high intensity speed work since then, it was natural to expect top-end power to be reduced for this latest test. Nothing could be further from the truth! Ollie produced a comparable performance for his final split and then sprinted to 1:24 which is scarily quick, especially given he (and everyone) is in “base” and they’ve not done any speed training (yet).

The breath-by-breath test data is analysed post-test to determine each athlete’s optimum base training zone. The VO2, VCO2 and VE numbers are fed into an analysis protocol developed by Q-power with VT1 and VT2 zones generated (example graph below – this is NOT one of the Q-Power athlete’s).

Q-power VO2 max diagram

There is a wealth of research and evidence supporting the benefits of polarised training for speed-endurance athletes, i.e. training easy or hard, with very little in-between. VT1 assists in defining the target HR for easy training while high intensity is done above VT2, the relevant HR being determined for the athlete in question.

Each athlete did their test and performed better than expected, pulling extremely fast final splits. Bearing in mind their aerobic capabilities comes only from base training, I shudder to think what these guys will be like when they start to dial-in the power!

Mark Clarke
Mark Clarke


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