How to build your 2k erg race plan

Using data to go faster isn’t rocket science, but it requires three things to be effective: (1) start with a question, (2) make a decision based on your analysis, and (3) move on. In this post we look at the question…

How should I plan to take my 2K on the erg?

Fortunately, plans aren’t this complicated. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Before we begin: the most important characteristic of a race plan is that you feel at least 80% confident you can achieve it. You want there to be a little uncertainty because you want to push your limits, but you don’t want too much because that doubt can creep in during the piece and undermine your performance.

In this post, we will use the data from over 1000 2K erg pieces (784 pulled by men, 306 by women) from junior/youth rowers to see if there are any patterns or anti-patterns which should inform our plan. This data has been collected by the RowHero app over the past several seasons.

Principle #1: Set a goal split.

Set a goal. Set a goal. Set a goal.

Was I clear on that?

If you don’t get anything else out of this post, at least set a goal split. This will help you regulate your energy at least over the first 1500m so you don’t go out too hard.

Here are a few tips in case you have NO idea where to start:

  • Your coach can help. Ask them first.
  • Check out “2K pace predictor” workouts. Warning: they are hard. Not 2K-hard, but hard.
  • If you have a recent 2K, use that split as a starting point. Then be realistic about how much you can improve (or not) based on the volume and intensity of your training now vs. before that last 2K.
  • If this is your first 2K, recognize there will be many more and be conservative — it is better to start out too slow and sprint hard at the end than it is to start out too hard and be unable to hold your pace. Starting out slow gives you a better chance of predicting where your next 2K goal should be.

Principle #2: Set a goal split for each 500.

A 2K is 4 500m pieces rowed back-to-back. Since you’re not a robot (I hope), you will probably find some 500m sections to be faster than your average and some to be slower. Unsurprisingly, the rowers in our dataset also executed their 2Ks the same way. Here’s a breakdown of how athletes paced each 500m relative to the overall average split:

The y-axis illustrates how far from the overall average each 500m section was e.g. a value of -1 for the first 500m means that the first 500m was 1 second faster than the average split of the entire piece. Speed percentages are partitioned by gender so there is an equal representation of boys and girls.

Immediately we can make a couple of interesting observations:

  1. Pacing strategies vary between U-shaped (Fastest 10%) and reverse J-shaped (Slowest 50%).
  2. The slowest 50% of pieces tend to have more spread between their fastest 500m and slowest 500m (5.7 seconds), compared to the average (4.2 seconds) and the top 10% (2.5 seconds).

What the data doesn’t show: there is a wide variation in how each group takes these pieces. Even among the top 10%, some people prefer starting hard and finishing slow (J-shaped); some prefer starting conservatively and finishing hard (reverse-J-shaped), and some (like the line shown) prefer starting hard, finishing hard, and easing off in the middle (U-shaped). The graph below shows the same blue line but with variation to show the range that most of the pieces lie between.

Even among the fastest 10% of pieces, people are successful with negative splitting and even splitting, but rarely do athletes positive split.

“Ideal” pacing is complicated, and often we will find that what works for us doesn’t work for others. The key here is to experiment with what strategy works best for you, but do it in a way where you don’t veer too much away from your overall average in any particular 500m section.

Caveat: just because top performers (like Josh Dunkley-Smith’s world record 2K below) do this, it does not mean you will become a top performer just by adopting their pacing.

The current 2K world record held by Josh Dunkley-Smith. Notice how close to the average every 500m was. Photo credit to Concept2.

The Start

High 10? High 20? High 14 and a half? Often this is up to personal preference. However, you do need to align this decision with your 500m pace plan. Let’s look at what other top performers do.

Principle #3: Plan the number of strokes in your start.

The following graph shows the most common number of strokes that athletes take in their starts. Pieces are divided into 5-stroke buckets e.g. between 0 and 4 strokes, between 5 and 9, between 10 and 14, etc.

Out of 903 pieces with starts faster than the average split of the entire piece.

Over 50% of pieces saw athletes take < 15 high strokes and then get into the body of the piece.

This makes sense because our energy stores allow us to sprint “without consequences” for 10 seconds as our other energy systems boot up in preparation for the rest of the 2K. (A discussion of energy systems is beyond the scope of this post, but you may read more here.)

A non-trivial number of athletes did not take start strokes at all (not represented in this graph). Don’t do this! Take advantage of your sprinting energy, if only for 10 seconds!

Principle #4: Plan the average split of your start.

Pay attention to the average split on your monitor when you start:

The circled number is perfect for tracking your average split during the start.

What you’re looking for is how many seconds below your goal split you should take this before you gradually settle to your average pace. As expected, athletes have a lot of different preferences on how fast they take the start:

While it might feel good to be 15 seconds below your goal, it’s not sustainable. Limiting this graph to the top 10% of performers, you see most athletes cluster around 1 to 5 seconds below their average:

Well that’s great, but how fast should you be?

Practice that start to find out. Choose the number of high strokes to take, how you will transition to the body pace, and your goal split for the first 500. Set the monitor for 500m and practice how you want that to look until you hit your targets.

If you’re looking for an estimate, check out the “Deep Dive” section below

Deep Dive: Estimating Your Start Pace

For example, let’s say your goal split for the whole 2K is 2:00 and your pacing strategy is { Avg – 1, Avg + 1, Avg + 1, Avg – 1 }. You want to try a 15-stroke start.

This means your first 500m should be at a 1:59 and the middle 1000m of the piece will be at a 2:01.

Your first 500m will be around 55 strokes (based on the average of the pieces in this data set).

You’ll need to transition between your start and the body of the piece, too. Some people transition in one stroke; some transition over a longer period of time. For this example, let’s assume you take 10.

So we can figure out our start pace for the first 15 strokes based on this formula:

Goal 500m pace = Start Pace x % of 500m in the start + Transition Pace x % of 500m in transition + Body Pace x % of 500m in the settle

Transition Pace = (Body Pace + Start Pace) / 2

1:59 = Start Pace x (15 strokes / 55 strokes) + (2:01+Start Pace / 2) x (10 strokes / 55 strokes) + 2:01 x (30 strokes / 55 strokes)

Start Pace = 1:55.5

This is a starting point only! Keen readers will recognize our percentages aren’t quite right because the start is at a different stroke rate from the body. However, this should give you a rough estimate of where your average split needs to be at the end of your high strokes.

Principle #4: Plan when to start your sprint.

While it may be tempting to look at data to decide when to sprint, I would advise you to base this on how long your finishing kick is. If you don’t know, defer to default guidance from your coach (usually somewhere between 250 and 500m) OR when you normally sprint on the water.

But say you want to optimize your sprint based on you know about your body. How do you know when you empty the tank? Here’s an easy way to check.

During your sprint, the only way you get faster is if your stroke split is below your current average, right?

Well, if the piece is done, and you could pull at least one more stroke faster than your average split, then you didn’t empty the tank.

Spoiler: most of us will not empty the tank.


In case you’re curious, here’s how much distance athletes are giving themselves to sprint:

All pieces

And on the fastest 10% of pieces:

Fastest 10% of pieces

Caveat: These graphs do not take into account multi-step sprints, which is another reason why not to look too deeply into them.

Limitations

It’s a confidence boost to know that you developed your plan using the same strategies as a top performer, but just having that plan does not automatically make you a top performer! It requires practice, patience, and a willingness to adapt when things don’t go the way you want.

Additionally, the data used in this post is from high school rowers only. Collegiate or masters rowers should take the principles here with a grain of salt.

Coaches and athletes: if you’d like an app that helps you evaluate 2Ks based on the plans you create, check out RowHero.

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