In addition to feeling good about yourself now that it’s over, you get one of these pretty pictures of your day…

But really, so what?

Analytics systems are designed to help you train more effectively, but when you try to dig into how that actually works for rowing, it’s not clear. There’s little in the way of metrics you can use to track your progress over time in most systems, and because of the uniqueness of the environment and devices we use in rowing, the data collection process is also a pain. Ever taken a photo of the erg summary screen? Exactly.

(PS This gap between pretty pictures and useful information to act on is what we are solving with RowHero. I’ll have more to share soon.)

So let’s forget the stats, graphs, and limitations for a minute and go back to a core question.

Why are you and your team working out?

Dumb question? Maybe. Beyond the desires to help your teammates succeed and to make the “A” boat yourself, it really comes down to one thing on a competitive team:

Create the fastest boat possible on race day.

The more important the race, the more diligent the preparation, so let’s work backwards and understand the preparation. How do we make fast boats?

Personally I break it down into three categories athletes and coaches have control over, and every athlete sits somewhere on each scale.

  • Technique/Efficiency: How efficiently an athlete applies their own power to move the boat and how they move the boat together as a crew. Efficiency also includes rigging changes designed to help rowers harness more (or less) power.
  • Fitness/Freshness: How much power an athlete can sustain for a specific amount of time (the length of the race), along with how fresh they are to apply that power. If an athlete is overtrained, they will not be as race-ready as if they were well-rested.
  • Grit/“X Factor”: How well an athlete copes with the pressures of competing and performing well at a high level, and how well the athlete impacts their team’s ability to perform.

Obviously, then, workouts are designed to tune one or more of these three pillars. The next step is to measure changes in each of them.

Grit and “X Factor”

I’m won’t spend much time on grit and other psychology here — developing this in a team demands the right balance of empathy, encouragement, and tough love from a coach, as well as the right internal motivation, passion, and humility from an athlete. Turns out that coaches typically have a good sense for who has it and who doesn’t.

Power = Fitness and Technique/Efficiency

If an athlete can’t move a boat, they can’t win a race. And how do you move a boat? You put an oar in the water, push against the footboards while hanging off the oar handle, and repeat. Easy enough, right?

Now how do you measure an athlete’s ability to move the boat? You can watch the distance puddles travel at a certain rate, sure, but how do we get more precise than eyeballing? Let’s start with a quick physics review.

Rowers must expend energy to move the blade through the water. A part of that energy is transferred into the foot stretchers and the oar. This is Work, which is the same value as the area under the force curve on a Concept2 and RP3. When you account for the rate at which this work is done per stroke, you get Power.

Power is measured in watts, which should be familiar to Concept2 rowers. Fortunately there are now device manufacturers starting to produce and sell power meters for rowers. As more come out I expect we will see the price drop, at which point will make more sense for programs to buy these in bulk.

Using power as a metric has a number of advantages. First, it’s already something we use with erg performance, either directly or indirectly through sister metrics like split. Second, we can measure each athlete’s impact on the boat. Finally, since power measures the work that the athlete puts into the equipment, it does a better job at normalizing for wind and current than a metric like boat speed.

How well it normalizes in practice remains to be seen as we gather data from these devices. Since power is not a measure of the athlete effort, there will still be ambient conditions where an athlete must expend much more energy than “usual” to hit the same power targets (think of strong headwinds where the recovery takes much more effort to keep control of the blade). It is important not to be a slave to the power metric especially in inclement conditions, but the more time an athlete spends on the water, the easier it is to see a consistent trend in power over time.

We haven’t distinguished between fitness and technical efficiency in this section, and that’s okay. Power directly correlates with both, and we can approximate fitness using performance on the erg.

The goal now starts to reveal itself: maximize the amount of power a rower can sustain in the boat for the target race time. Put another way, if an athlete can sustain an average 300 W for a 6-min 2K on the water, then growing their ability so they can sustain > 300 W for the same time is an objective.

Training Intensity Distribution

There are a number of philosophies on how best to achieve that maximum power, and no doubt you have your own, so I’ll not play the fool by recommending any specific training plan — the chance to experiment and learn with your athletes is part of the joy of being a coach.

Instead, I’ll recommend a framework for taming your experiments. Here’s what we have so far:

  • Training Plan: this is what you change to have the intended effect on an athlete
  • Change in Power per Rower: this is what you observe to understand the impact of your plan

Training plans can be very detailed, so we need a way to easily compare between two plans. The first step is a measure of how much time each athlete spends in each workout intensity band. Physiologists call this training intensity distribution. You can then use this measure on a weekly basis to compare between your plans.

First you’ll need a framework of workout intensities that match with your workout planning background. Here are a few examples:

  • USRowing: U2, U1, AT, TR1, TR2, AN — loosely described below (excerpt from USRowing Level 2 Coaching Clinic Manual)

Once you choose a framework, the key is to quantify the time spent in each of these zones for each athlete so season after season you can make comparisons in the impact of your plan on your athletes.

Be aware this only covers cardiovascular intensity. Often, workout plans include strength training and other ancillary workouts. For strength training it’s best to categorize these workouts by the number of reps/sets and muscle groups being worked.

Not a sport of individuals…

Power is a great metric for individuals but comes with drawbacks due to the nature of our sport for two reasons.

(1) People weigh different amounts and power is not directly comparable between two rowers of different weights when putting a boat together. All other things being equal, a 80-kg person pulling 250 W per stroke will make a faster boat than a 90-kg person pulling 250 W. Power-to-weight ratio — measured in watts/kg — easily accommodates this and can signal to coaches the real boat movers (on the water) and potential boat movers (on the erg).

(2) Eight rowers applying power by themselves will not move a boat; they have to do it together. This is slightly more difficult to measure. Where are the right places to synchronize? How do we measure this? There was a proposal posted some years ago to standardize the points of a stroke to synchronize — you can read more here with a case study in its application here, but this is a place that will likely undergo some experimentation as more devices come onto the market capable of measuring this. For now, the coach’s eye is the most widely accessible piece of technology out there.

Freshness

With power and training intensity distribution behind us, let’s shift our attention toward preparation for race day. A lot of coaches tend to stack a very hard set of workouts the week before the competition and then progressively back down the intensity in the days leading up to the race. This is not a coincidence.

Future Performance = Initial Performance + Positive Adaptive Effects of Training – Fatigue Effects of Recent Training

This is a simplified version of Dr. Eric Banister’s “impulse-response model” equation, which distills the effects of training on the human body.

Intuitively, we’ve all felt this. After a hard week of training we feel beaten up, and more hard workouts show that our performance declines. But after a few days of light activity, we feel more recovered and increasingly ready to perform at the top of our game.

If we think of “positive adaptive effects of training” as fitness and “fatigue effects of recent training” as freshness, then Banister’s model becomes simpler:

Future Performance = Initial Performance + Fitness + Freshness

Or

Future Performance = Initial Performance + Fitness – Fatigue

The team behind TrainingPeaks has applied this theory with a metric called Training Stress Balance (TSB), which can be monitored to determine when athletes are on form ready to compete. The rowing community will need to come to some agreement on how best to translate their model to the demands of our sport. If you are interested in learning more, I suggest you check out their blog post on TSB.

Putting it all together

The concepts take time to understand even in isolation, so I’ve attempted to place them back into the big picture. Wrestling all these concepts into a single model gives us the picture below.

Below I review each of the metrics for your reference:

Training Intensity Distribution

The total time spent in each training zone by each athlete, expressed as a % of total time.

Measured in: mins in zone, % of mins in zone
Example: 45% at U2, 40% at U1, 0% at AT, 10% at TR1, 5% at TR2
Granularity: Per team, over any time range (but usually weekly/seasonally)
Why?
Understand if your crews hit your own expectations for time in training zones
– Adjust future training plans based on impact to rowers’ power

Power-to-Weight (Erg)

The average amount of power put into the rowing machine for every piece, divided by that rower’s mass in kg.

Measured in: Watts/kg
Example: 4.7 W/kg
Granularity: Per athlete, per piece, over time (depends on erging frequency)
Why?
Understand the improvement in fitness on pieces you repeat based on your training plan
– Identify athletes who may be underperforming or overperforming relative to the rest of the group to learn from and take corrective action
– Identify athletes who are not on track to hit ancillary targets (erg scores for college recruiting)
– Adjust future training plans based on impact to rowers’ power

Power-to-Weight (Water)

The average amount of power put into the oar and foot stretcher for every piece, divided by that rower’s mass in kg.

Measured in: Watts/kg
Example: 3.2 W/kg
Granularity: Per athlete, per athlete per lineup, per piece, over time (weekly with enough rowing), and compared against stroke rate
Why?
Understand the improvement in fitness and technique based on your training plan
– Correlate with changes in power-to-weight on the erg to determine if efficiency is improving or falling
– Identify athletes who may be underperforming or overperforming relative to the rest of the group to learn from and take corrective action
– Discover optimal stroke rates for a crew based on where their power falls off

Power Profile (Erg)

The total power put into the rowing machine at various target times e.g. 10 seconds, 60 seconds, 2k, 6k, 60 mins.

Measured in: Watts vs time
Example: 633.6 W for 10″, 560.3 W for 60″…
Granularity: Per athlete, continuously over time (as new pieces are done)
Why?
Understand the strength and weaknesses of an athlete (sprinter vs endurance athlete), so the training plan can be individualized
– See progress over time with every piece

Crew Synchronization (Avg time difference)

The average difference in time between the stroke seat and the rest of the boat at any of 12 different points in the stroke (definitions).

Measured in: milliseconds
Example: -13ms at the catch (13ms early), 17ms at the finish (17ms late)
Granularity: Per piece, per piece per point in the stroke, compared against stroke rate
Why?
See how close to the stroke seat a lineup is at various points in the stroke
– Evaluate a lineup’s effectiveness, but current and potential.
– Adjust technical coaching to address the mismatch
– See the tipping point where a crew really starts to fall apart such that it negatively impacts boat speed

Crew Synchronization (Standard Deviation time difference)

A measure of consistency: the standard deviation of the time differences between the stroke seat and the rest of the boat at any of 12 different points in the stroke. The closer to 0, the more consistent the execution is, but it could be consistently late (so average > 0ms), consistently early (avg < 0 ms), or consistently in sync (avg ≈ 0ms).

Measured in: milliseconds
Example: 62.5ms at the catch, 5ms at the finish
Granularity: Per piece, per piece per point in the stroke, compared with stroke rate
Why?
See how consistently the crew executes their stroke relative to the stroke seat
– Evaluate a lineup’s effectiveness, but current and potential.
– Adjust technical coaching to address the mismatch

Training Stress Balance

A measure of an athlete’s preparedness to put forth a peak performance.

Measured in: Number, no units
Example: +5
Granularity: Per athlete, after every workout
Why?
Mitigate risk of injuring or overtraining athletes
– Provide individual guidance on how best to taper for important races.

Speed/Split

I’m sure you’ve noticed that I haven’t talked about speed, and with good reason — it’s impacted heavily by the environment we row in which makes it lousy as a measure of progress over time.

BUT — that doesn’t mean we should throw it away. It’s completely possible that a crew who generates 5 W/kg per stroke can outpace a crew rowing 5.1 W/kg over the same distance due to differences in equipment and efficiency, and until we have better ways to measure these idiosyncrasies, speed will have to help us understand how impactful power really is for each crew.

Limitations

Peak performance is a journey with skilled coaches and athletes using the metrics we have available to us. We can measure, instrument, collect, and analyze as much data as we want, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that teams are people first, not numbers. The metrics I’ve discussed don’t account for athletes not eating right, not sleeping enough, or even going through tragedy. If an athlete is lagging in their progress compared to the rest of the crew, then you must as a coach decide on the next step. Identification of a problem is only half the battle.


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Have a great day!

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