Reflections on a 5K Erg Piece

It’s decided. I’m going back to the FISA World Masters Regatta next year to defend my gold medal in the Mixed A 2x from 2018. This means it’s time to shift from maintenance training (steady state for days 🙃) to harder work.

More of these please.

A few days ago, I pulled a 5K erg “test” at rate 24 to establish a benchmark. No surprise: I’m pretty far away from my personal best.

But in reflecting on the piece, I realized something pretty amazing that I hadn’t internalized in over 10 years in this sport.

Some days ago I asked if RowHero fans were interested in how I reflect — the answer was an overwhelming yes. I use the same process every time, and lucky for both of us, this time led to a big breakthrough.

Below I’ll walk you through my actual journal entry. The magic only comes at the end!

Date: Sat, Nov 30, 2019
Time: 8:15 AM

What did I do?

Commentary: These are “facts” — as well as I can remember them, informed by other data like RowHero’s stats and graphs. You can’t reflect if you can’t remember what you did.

Warm-up. Standard race-day warm-up with one exception: spending 10 minutes instead of 5 on the bike since it was 24°F (-4°C) outside!

5′ on the erg: mix of drill work (reverse pick) and building up to steady state pressure. Drag felt good at 110.

6 x 30″/30″ at max pressure going from 18 to 28 spm. Saw some decent splits for my fitness level (thanks Epic Mountain Rowing!). In some cases I’ve done 10 of these intervals, but due to the rate cap, I felt 6 was sufficient.

5′ break (bathroom and ran into a friend in the hallway) and then started the piece.

RowHero piece stats

It’s been a while since I pulled a 5K/6K at max pressure. Maybe 3 years? I didn’t know what split to start at. I don’t remember ever pulling a rate-capped 5K/6K, so I was definitely winging it.

First 250. No start or high strokes. Straight to 24 and go. I started around 1:50. As expected, this was the easiest part of the piece.

250–1000m. Splits slowly settled between 1:52 and 1:53. By the end of the 1K mark I knew I should feel some fatigue in my legs, but I felt more than I thought I should. I was concerned with holding the split the whole way.

1000–4000m. Held 1:53 for most strokes. Would see 1:54 every once in a while. Tough but not untenable. (Thanks rate cap!) This was also my first sign that I didn’t go hard enough for the first 4K. I didn’t feel that I wanted to quit with 2000–1500 to go. For me, that means I could go harder.

4000–4500m. My average crept up to 1:53.0 by the time I hit the 4K mark, so I decided to bring it back to 1:52.9. I pulled 1:52s until 4300, then 1:51–1:52 until 4500. These weren’t “calculated” moves, just what my intuition told me.

4500–4600m. Where I thought I started my sprint. Looking at the data, it took me this 100m to make a decision to step down from 1:52. An opportunity for improvement.

4600–4750m. 1:50–1:51. A tentative sprint, keeping the rate at 24.

4750–5000m. 1:48–1:50. Actual sprint, still at a 24. Finishing stroke at 1:48.

5K piece stroke-by-stroke. Average (1:52.7) in orange.

What should I celebrate?

Nothing this time.

Commentary: I am a harsh self-critic, so building the habit of recognizing real accomplishment is important for me. If I don’t ask the question, I won’t think about it. At the same time, “celebrate” is a strong word. Not every workout is about proving or testing yourself. If I write something here, it has to be something I’m legitimately proud of accomplishing. If I write something for the sake of writing it, it devalues the meaning of “celebration” or being “proud.”

Another way of putting it: I celebrate something only if I exceeded my own expectations.

What can I improve for next time?

Oh, so many things.

Choose a target split of 1:52.7 from the beginning. I wasted energy through the first 1K figuring out what split to maintain — now that I have this benchmark, I’ll start the next piece with the average of this test (1:52.7). Because I’m doing this piece again about a week later and my training load is not exorbitantly high, I know I can handle this.

Know the pain you should feel at the 1K, and you need to be in more pain at the 3K mark. I have a much better sense of how much pain I should feel and at what point in the piece to expect it. More importantly, I know I can sustain more. Slight fatigue from my quads (around my knees) is something I should expect at the 1K mark. While I was tired at the end, I didn’t need to collapse and catch my breath. Part of this is the rate cap, but I’m sure I lost a non-trivial amount of speed not pushing hard enough.

My personal breakthrough

Sprint earlier — you had energy left in the tank. It’s that eternal question we face as endurance athletes — did I give everything I had? My intuition says no, but I can tell that easily with the years of experience I had. What’s a better question?

Well, I stumbled on one, and it creates clarity unlike anything I’ve asked before. Better yet, it doesn’t rely on you having a lot of rowing experience either:

Could I have pulled one more stroke faster than the average split of the piece?

If the answer is yes, then I didn’t go as fast as I could.

This is rowing 101. Pulling strokes below your average split drops the overall average. You shouldn’t be able to get a faster split for a 5250m piece than you do for a 5k.

So instead of finishing your piece at the fastest split possible, in theory you should finish it at the point when you can no longer pull strokes consistently under your average.

Check this out — my original piece is on the left, and a model of what I’m talking about is on the right. I moved the sprint from 4600 to the 4000m mark, and then simulated a slow fade back to the average.

Original piece on the left. Simulated piece on the right, aiming to hold the split below average as long as possible. Pieces are the same up to the 4K mark.

A 0.3-second faster overall split just for a little bit of extra pain. This flies in the face of what most of us do: finish the piece at ridiculously fast splits compared to what we pulled for our average, sometimes 10+ splits below!

I’m sure we sprint this way because we want to bring the split down as low as possible, and we don’t want to run out of energy before the end.

But I contend that most of us are missing free speed at the expense of a little bit more pain.

Long story short: could I have pulled one more stroke below 1:52.7? Yes.

So did I live up to my potential? No.

That’s okay, though. I’m grateful I have such an easy way to get better.

What are you going to do next time?

To make this knowledge effective, I need to know how long I can actually hold onto a sprint.

To do this, my next 5K will be two pieces:
5000m, with 0 seconds rest

I will pace the 5K like before, but I won’t stop at the end. My job is to hold my sprint split below my 5K average as long as possible. When I see 3 consecutive strokes above the average, I’ll stop. That should tell me how much earlier I can afford to start my sprint during the next sprint.

This is the theory! I aim to update you on how it goes next week.

If I don’t try to learn something from every workout, then I’m squandering opportunities to get faster.

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Have a great day!

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