Saturday, November 21, 2015

How to game rowing in a competition

A while ago, I wrote a long piece on how the amount of energy it takes to go fast on a rowing machine. I'd like to use that article to help you in a competition. Just about every sport-of-fitness (read: CrossFit) competition that I've seen has rowing on the C2 as part of at least one event, so it's important to know how to get the best time while saving energy.

There are two ways that rowing shows up in competition: meters or calories. Row meters for time, or max meters in a given time; row calories for time, or max calories in a given time.

tl;dr - 1) pace your self (a lot!) when rowing for meters, 2) go hard when rowing for calories, 3) always keep a constant pace.

Let's start with meters, it doesn't matter if we're going for time or going for max meters, the goal of a workout is the same: get as many meters done as quickly as possible - row as fast as possible. The catch is that the time you save by going faster may cost you more in the rest of the competition. Let's use a 500m row as an example. To go from 2:00 to 1:45 you have to use 30% more energy. That is, to go only 14% faster and save 15 seconds, you need to pay 30% more energy. (And if you care, it's 50% more average power!)

What are you going to do if a couplet of 3 rounds of 500m row and 21 pull-ups is your next event? Row a 2:00 and then immediately do 21 unbroken pull-ups? Or row a 1:45, stand around for 20 seconds to catch your breath, and then split up your pull-ups? Keep your composure on the rower and you'll always come out ahead. When rowing for meters, you spend more to go faster than you get back by going faster.

But what about a row for calories? Since calories are a unit of energy, it all comes out even: you'll get back in performance the same effort you put into the rower. So if you see 21-15-9 row for calories and pull-ups, you don't really need to pace yourself on the row. When the C2 measures the force you put on the flywheel, it can use that to compute how much energy you're putting into the machine and reports that as calories. So rather than worry about saving energy on the rower, go ahead and go hard. Treat a row-for-calories like you would any other movement and focus on where your skill will do the best for you.

Let's compare three different workouts:
A) 21-15-9: deadlifts and pull-ups
B) 21-15-9: row for calories and pull-ups
C) 210m row, 21 pull-ups, 150m row, 15 pull-ups, 90m row, 9 pull-ups
What's the right way to partition your energy on Workout A? It's up to you and your relative skill on deadlifts and pull-ups. Personally, I'd put my energy into deadlifts because I'm stronger at those. But someone really fast at pull-ups may put their energy there. There's no right answer. The same goes for Workout B. If you're a good rower, row hard, or if you're good at pull-ups, put your energy there. But in Workout C, the right answer is to save yourself on the row. The extra energy to go faster will take more out of you than the benefit of going faster.

Let's also look at what to do if rowing is the only movement in an event: say a 2k row. Can we use this to help there too? Since you have to pay more to go faster than you get out of going fast, that naturally means that we don't want to have spikes in our speed. A spike in our speed means that we spent extra energy to go faster, but if we just spread that energy out over the whole race we would have gone even faster in total. Think of it this way: do you get better gas mileage driving at a constant 50mph, or alternating between 30 and 70 (or 0 and 100)?

Real world example: let's look at a 7:20 2k row where the rower started out hard and died at the end (like my last 2k). Let's say the 4-500m splits for the 2k are: 1:40, 1:45, 1:50, 2:05. That 1:40 took more than 50% more energy than the 2:05, even though it was only 25% faster. What if that energy could have been more evenly distributed? Rowing four consecutive 1:48's would take the same energy and you'd be done in 7:14. You'll go faster overall by maintaining a constant pace than you would by having peaks in your speed. The higher the peaks, the lower the efficiency.
I skipped a lot of the math here, but that's my favorite part. I love mixing math and physics into the world of fitness. If you ever really want to talk about the subtleties, just ask!