Sunday, 27 November 2016

Drilling down on technique

by Sara Bird

As we start winter training, now's the time to focus on technique and distance in the boat - while building up power and endurance outside the boat. It's a great opportunity to reintroduce drills, work on the feedback from Autumn selections, break down bad habits, and have some fun on the water. Your brain should hurt more than your body after boat sessions at this time of year.

First you need to know what makes 'good' rowing at each part of the stroke - so here's a break down of the technical aspects we're looking for:
Technical aspects of the gig stroke

Next, you choose at least one drill, and work it into your long row. The cox needs to introduce the drill, explain the purpose of the drill, demonstrate it, and give it time to bed in - rowers may struggle for a few minutes but the outcome is worth it. Provide feedback and practical tips, and recognise positive change.
Drills for every part of the stroke

Ideally, you'll keep cycling through these drills right up to competing - technical issues are magnified with power, and even Olympic rowers do drills to keep bad habits in check and provide variety.

Match these drills with the spreadsheet in the previous post for more detail about how to do them - and keep an eye out for future posts as we focus each week on a different aspect of training, right up to May. If you have any questions, ask the selectors.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

There's a drill for that...

by Sara Bird

About 2 years ago I spent several weekends compiling the longest list of rowing drills, adapted to gigs, that I could create...and then I lost it.

But in a recent computer clear out - look what I found!

Catches too slow? Got a drill for that.
Feathering an issue? Got a drill for that.
Crew uncoordinated? Got a drill for that.
Timing out? For a drill for that.
Hands too slow/fast on the finish? Got a drill for that.
Too deep, too shallow, too slow, too quick...? Got a drill for that
Want to build power in every part of the stroke? There's always a drill for each.

And, in most cases, more than one...

Drills are great to help build and improve technique, to relieve the boredom of long rows, and should be used by any level of crew - high performing crews build drills into their warm ups if there's a niggle they know they need to sort.

Combine these with high power rowing in other sessions and out of the boat training for the perfect combination of power and technique across your training regime.

However - coaching drills requires explanation, demonstration and feedback - watch out for more posts on this.

Download the whole list at - and contact me or add comments below to add more or ask questions.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The unwritten rules of BGC training sessions:

Some do’s and don’ts for when you’re in a training boat

By Sarah Gosling

When I was first selected for a crew, I was pulled aside by a kind, experienced BGC member. She explained that there are a few ‘unwritten rules’ that, if followed, allow your rowing sessions to run smoothly and without risk of upsetting anyone else. I thought it might be nice to pass them on to other rowers reading this blog. I hope they help you achieve perfect crew zen in your training sessions :-)

  • Listen to the cox - they can see a lot more from their position than you can, and have an important job in keeping you and the gig out of harm’s way. Always stay attentive to their instructions, particularly when launching and coming back into land. 
  • Only stop rowing if you are told to do so - if you need to move your stretcher/seat, take off your coat, need a drink etc., just shout down the boat to your cox and they will usually organise a quick break so you can readjust. Don’t just stop rowing without saying anything. It tends to throw the smoothness and timing of the whole crew whilst alarming the cox (something must be terribly wrong if you have had to suddenly stop rowing!) and maybe skewing the boat round at a vital moment...
  • Stay quiet during training pieces - there is nothing more off-putting to a cox or other rowers than 2 rowers having a conversation in the bow. Save conversations for rest periods and before/after your session. 
  • Only drink water during rest breaks - this is a controversial one, but also something that can really upset people. If stroke side are working hard to pull a boat round a turn, bow side rowers should look attentive and ready to come back in at any time as a courtesy and out of respect for the effort the stroke side rowers are putting in. Similarly, in drills where some crew members are rowing whilst others are sitting out, the resting rowers should not be drinking water and having a break, but instead watching to gain tips and lessons from those currently rowing. Make sure you show support and respect for your crew. Always arrive well hydrated.
  • Don’t worry if you make a mistake - there will be sessions where everything seems to go wrong, but take these as ‘off days’ and move on. Deal with issues one at a time, and don’t worry if changing one thing makes everything else fall apart- no one else will mind. Eventually it’ll all come together. 
  • Stay positive and supportive of others - you are literally all in the same boat. If someone is rowing particularly well, compliment them. If they are having a hard time of it, try not to get annoyed with them as they smack you in the back for the 20th time. A happy boat usually leads to a well rowed boat, so try to keep patient and work on your own technique. 
  • Keep your focus in the boat - Rowing as a crew means that you have a responsibility to other rowers around you. When your big power puddles fade as you rearrange your hair (yes boys do this too!) or try to get a look at what the men/women’s A crew are up to, the rest of your crew will have to put more power in to make up for it. Share the load by keeping your focus purely on your oar and the current drill.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

13 weeks...

Planning your Crew's Training

So, selections are complete. You know your crew. Time to get in a boat and thrash it until the Scillies, right? Wrong.

Building a successful crew is about more than power: indeed, power alone can break a crew. If each crew member is heaving on their oar, out of sync, out of breath and out of their minds with frustration at the rest of the crew, the resulting rowing will be dismal.

So, you need a training plan that brings you together as a crew - and aims to 'peak' at the world champs. Such a peak should be unsustainable for more than a few weeks - you would be exhausted otherwise.

Therefore your plan aims to develop technique, power and crew mentality through the various means available to you, only aiming to weave it all together in the last month of training to produce the performance you desire in the boat, on the weekend that it counts.

13 weeks is not long: ideally you have used the autumn to work on your personal technique, build up ergo time and enter the spring ready to take it a level higher. But whatever stage you're at, these are the common recommended phases:

Weeks 1-4

In the boat: build crew technique - syncing technique across the crew during slow rowing, drills
On the ergo: build power and cardiovascular endurance - up to 10K at low rate, high power
In the weights room: build muscle - focusing on glutes, lats and quads
On the floor: build your core - through yoga, pilates or self guided core exercises

This is the time to build power, muscle, and cardiovascular capacity OUTSIDE the boat - while building cohesion, smoothness and technique INSIDE the boat. The temptation will be to set baseline times over certain distances in the boat, by which to measure your progress - but these times are meaningless as they will quickly be beaten as you get used to each other, and competing against each other in the boat can demolish long term gains in technique. Instead, refuse to take power up in the boat until technique is practically perfect at low rate (and decent pressure) for long periods - which should take two or three weeks. Use drills to establish good habits and bring the crew together - and videoing to review. Then, only hold power/rate until technique starts to deteriorate (maybe only 20 strokes). Then drop the power, regain technique, and go for it again. Coxes' role is to encourage each crew member to adapt to the rest of their crew and establish new habits. Meanwhile, outside the boat - GO FOR IT. Aim for long ergo distances at low rates but high power, interspersed intervals sessions of bursts up to 1000m and 2 min rests. This is also the time to build your crew: have meals together, make plans together and establish what you all expect of each other.

Weeks 5-9

In the boat: build crew technique with power - long distance, medium power, lots of drills
On the ergo: maintaining power and endurance, and building sprint ability
In the weights room: build muscle - increasing reps
On the floor: build your core - through yoga, pilates or self guided core exercises

Inside the boat, crews should be experimenting with power, coxes critiquing how power may disrupt smoothness and flow, and working on longer and longer power sessions, easing the rate up, focusing on technique still. Use drills to warm up and establish good habits before applying power. Keep videoing yourselves. Now's a good time to set time goals, but to review what falls apart at power and improve upon this each time. Outside the boat, you start to work on sprints, with repeated shorter distances and short rests, to start building your capacity to handle lactate (the painful acid that builds up during anaerobic activity). Continue with weights and core, focusing on areas that let you down at power, and building reps and endurance.

Weeks 10-12

In the boat: work with your race cox - plan your race, race your race, drill where necessary
On the ergo: visualise your race, get used to the distance, plan your race, row HARD
In the weights room: get the glutes firing

These are the weeks to focus on the race itself: what's your best start? What's your exact plan as a crew? What calls will you want from your cox? What happens if you clash? And to ensure you know exactly what to expect, how it will feel, and how to squeeze the very best performance from your crew and yourself on the day. On ergos and in the boat, practice each section of the race and then bring it together - videoing and critiquing yourselves as you go. Use drills to keep technique tight - consider working really useful ones into your warm up. Focus on positive crew support. Make sure your stretcher, seat, clothes and nutrition are tested and exactly how you want them for race day. The final weeks before your pre-race week should be the hardest weeks of your training calendar.

Week 13:

Pre-race week is a time to lighten the load - low weights, smooth rows with only occasional bursts, giving your body a chance to rest tired muscles from the previous 2 weeks and get ready to rampage during your racing. Eat healthily, sleep lots, and take time to reflect on how much you have achieved with your crew. Mentally visualise what's to come: prepare your race day kit.

Race Day

We'll come back to this nearer the time: but remember, every painful muscle now, every burning lung of air, every blister from long sessions will prepare you to achieve your very best on race day.

This advice comes from my own training for the British Universities Rowing Championships (winning silver and bronze medals in eights and quads), and thanks to my coaches at that time.
Further support for this strategy is available at:
1) World Rowing's Club Training Programme:
2) Rowing Ireland's Club Training Programme

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Mind over Matter: planning your 2K ergo test

by Sara Bird

Tackling a 2km, or any other, ergo test is as much about your mental preparation as your physical prowess. So here are some suggestions for how to ensure you’re prepared for the challenge, and some tools to help tackle the common issues of ergo tests. 

This post is more from my personal experience of ergo tests (and indoor champs) over the last decade or so, so please do use the comments below to add your suggestions and help your fellow ergers with your tips.
Let’s start with perhaps the most important one...

The Digestive System

My most common issue during ergo tests is a desperate desire to jump off the machine mid-sprint and run to the bathroom... The adrenaline hits, blood heads to your limbs, and your digestive tract resorts to fight or flight and decides now’s the time to evacuate. 

So eat a good, bland meal well ahead, 2 hours-ish - avoid anything that could upset your stomach or cause nasty eruptions from either end. Fill the gap with a bland snack if you need it (and we’re hungry rowers so of course we’ll need it). And, before you start rowing, go to loo: empty the system.

Ensure you are well hydrated - but coffee or another caffeine source can help too. Studies show that a little bit of caffeine can boost performance, but as caffeinated drinks can also dehydrate and create an urge to poop, you need to ensure you’ve planned ahead. 

Clothing, hair and sundries

You’re on course for the best 2K ever, you’re 300m from the end…and your top/shorts catch in the rollers. Even being distracted by a floppy fringe, a migrating headphone or sweaty mascara can slow your time so make sure you're happy with what you’re wearing - no hair in eyes, shoelaces that stay tied, a top that doesn't ride up, shorts that don’t work their way down your bum...

Setting the machine up

Next, ensure the ergometer is set up to give you the best chance to perform, and provides a time that reflects your true ability. Check the feet are the right height for you, that you have the right screen setting, and set the drag factor. About 125 for women, 130 for men. Also check your environment - that the room is not too hot, you’re not in a blinding sunbeam, that you’re able to focus - and that your head isn’t centimetres away from a wall or railing at backstops.

The Warm Up

I prefer a longer warm up than usual for ergo tests: at least 2500m over two bursts on the ergo. I start with the usual technique-building warm up of about 1000m with bursts of higher power. I then stretch, to open up the hip joint, get ankle mobility, shoulder mobility and posture. Then I get back on the ergo but focus more high rate, high power bursts that seriously tax the muscles and get me out of breath. Online, serious ergers recommend at least 15 minutes warm up and even up to 30 minutes. This gets the blood flowing, your body ready to handle lactic acid, your muscles prepared for hard work, and your technique all set. Skipping on the warm up is one of the most common 2K mistakes. 

The Plan

In BGC we rarely use detailed plans for races, let alone ergos: but they help. Plans provide a focus when all you might think about is pain, and take decision-making out of moments when your brain is getting very little blood. For me, 2K is almost exactly 200 strokes, and before I start I know what I will do with every single one: and I've often used a post-it (and large writing) on the monitor to remind me.

I start with a racing start of around 20 strokes to get the erg spinning, lengthening over 10 from short powerful strokes to long, fast strokes, then holding it for 10, reaching my fastest split of the test. Just as the lactic acid starts to bite I...

...dramatically slow the rate to my race pace and breathe deeply: this is my most powerful sustainable rate for the majority of the test. Over time this has gone up from rate 24 to 26/27/28 but it will vary for everyone. During this stage I change my focus every 10 strokes, from quick catches on my toes, to using my glutes, to sitting up tall, to a powerful hip opening, to back/finishes (working from my toes up my body). Repeat that cycle 3 times and we’re ready for the finish...

…at about 300m left to go, I dig deep and go for it. Often focusing on 10 on the legs, 10 on sitting tall/ opening the hips/using my shoulders and then 10 all out, with a last few strokes if needed, building power with every one. And then I sit there wheezing and wondering if I’m going to throw up. 

Every person will have a different plan, a different number of strokes, a different length of start or finish - but knowing what’s coming helps deal with the pain and scrutiny, and brings out your best rowing. Plans develop over time, so try one out, see how it goes, improve it next time. 


Take the time to cool down on the ergo and shift that lactic acid. Ignore people comparing times. Be proud of improvements. Don’t beat yourself up if it didn’t go to plan, learn lessons and use them next time. Stretch. Stretch again. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Ergo Warm-Up

As we start introducing ergo training to the club, this warm-up is recommended as a great way to
- build your stroke, posture and technique each time
- get the feel of ratio, ideal for when we get to power pieces
- warm up cardiovascularly

By the end you should be 'puffed', and then have a quick stretch before commencing your 'pieces' for the day. So, set your drag factor to 125-130, and off you go...

10 strokes arms only
10 strokes with body lean
10 strokes half slide
10 strokes full slide
10 strokes rate 20 low power
10 strokes rate 20 high power (ratio change)
10 strokes rate 24-26 low power
10 strokes rate 24-26 high power (ratio change)
10 strokes rate 28+ low power
10 strokes rate 28+ high power (ratio change)
10 strokes taking it down

So, to summarise, build the stroke, then do 10 each of low power and high power at low rate, medium rate and high rate - should take about 5 minutes. 

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The pain and the glory...

by Sara Bird 

As the prospect of the club actually owning 6 rowing machines looms, this blog entry is a basic introduction to the horror, the joys and the benefits of rowing machine training.

The technical name for these machines is ergometer, often abbreviated to ‘erg’ or ‘ergo’. Concept II make by far the most reliable, accurate and popular machines so this entry is based on these – but any ergo is better than no ergo and others are available far more cheaply. 

Setting the ergo up

Every ergo has a different range of resistance, based on age and how well maintained it is, so setting 4 on one model is not always the same as on another. Before you start training, you need to set the 'drag factor', which is a measure of the resistance of the machine and used to standardise your training. It should be around 125 for women and 130 for men to mimic water training. On newer Concept 2 models this option is in the menu, for older models, press 'ready' and 'rest' buttons and the same time, then row. Then adjust the power setting until the drag reads about right - it's usually about 3-5 on the power setting but can vary hugely. Training at higher levels is not hugely beneficial for cross-training for rowing.

Next you'll need to set the feet height, which for gig rowers or less flexible people could be very low, but for power, the middle range is better. See the video above for other tips.

Now you're set to row.

Roles of the ergo

Ergo training is clearly useful for improving your strength, power, stamina and cardiovascular fitness, but is also useful for improving your technique, each of these issues is covered below. A combination of approaches is good to avoid boredom and improve all round ability.

Improving strength and power

A low stroke rate (e.g. 20 strokes per min) allows the ergo to lose momentum before next stroke, and means a heavier catch. By focusing on the classic 'ratio' stroke, i.e. very powerful then a very, very slow and smooth return, you help build the muscles you use in rowing. This type of training can be anything from 15 minutes to an hour depending on your fitness, so build up time on this, using a very motivating mix tape and occasional breaks for water. Your focus is one posture and power, rather than distance covered. This also helps build stamina and is great for burning fat. 

Improving handling lactic acid

To help improve starts, you need to prepare your body for the pain (!) of lactic acid build up  and to physiologically to break lactic acid down better, which requires anaerobic training. A typical routine for this is short, sharp, bursts of 1 minute 'on' (max rate max power) then 1 minute off, building up the number of times from, say, just 4, to 10 sets.

Improving over race distances

Building up longer intervals, e.g. 500m, 1000m, 1500m, 2000m, with correspondingly longer rest times of around 30s to 2 minute (see Pete's plan below) helps to improve performance over race distances. However note that training above and beyond race distance/power is what really makes the difference to improving strength and stamina.

Improving your technique

Many people think that ergos do little for on-water technique, however used in the right way they can help embed technique changes that you don't have enough time to build muscle memory, and indeed muscle power, for on the water. This involves a great deal of personal discipline to pay constant attention to your own posture and technique. 

So, imagine you are on the water. Things to practice are raising the hands towards the catch, ensuring you draw into body at finish, and lovely smooth returns. Focus on pushing through the balls of your feet, rather than pulling on the handle, and engaging the glutes with strong posture.

This video covers some common technique errors, though note this rower, even on 'good technique' has their back rather too rounded:

The test

The '2K' test is the worst of all worlds - lactic acid over a relatively short distance, but long enough to require ongoing power and endurance, however this is the benchmark for your progress. It is also the standard benchmark across lots of rowing disciplines, amongst both amateur and professional sports people. For women, 'good' is less than 8 minutes, for men this is less than 7 minutes, but it may take a while to work to this if you are new to erging.

Interestingly, there is a strong relationship between what can be achieved over an hour, in 20 minutes and 1 minute, and over 2K and 5K, so there is little benefit in doing one type of work out as multiple types are more interesting and support each other - so use long, aerobic rowing and short, anaerobic rowing, to prep for your 2Ks and avoid obsessively doing just 2Ks. It's very dull and takes away the adrenaline and focus that can lead to a great 2K.Some other ideas.

Other tips

Ergos can be boring and painful, but are probably THE best way to measure your progress and improve performance on the water. Here are some ideas that may help provide variety:
  • Rowing 'feet out' (i.e. without the foot straps) is more similar to gig rowing, and helps improve connection to the stretcher that you may lose if you rely on the straps holding your feet in, which would actually catapult you off the stretcher in the boat and mean you are not levering the boat past the oar. Feel those abs...
  • Break your session into blocks of say 100 metres, or 10 or 20 strokes, with different things to focus on in each block. I alternate between 10/20 strokes focusing on a power issue (such as power through back muscles, glutes, thighs, or off stretcher) and 10/2o focusing on a technique issue (such as back posture, shoulder position, extent of lean forward, relaxing fingers). 
  • Consider using a heart rate monitor: many plans target different aerobic and anaerobic states tailored to your heart rate and age, for really accurate training. 
  • Play with it - there is a game on most ergs about chasing fish - or set yourself challenges. Over distances, the faster you do it the sooner you can stop...

Some other help

There is lots of advice on the internet for training plans, technique etc. Some you might like to try are: