Eric Murray talks technical on indoor rowing
Eric Murray, New Zealand’s World and Olympic Champion rower and indoor rowing specialist exposes some of the secrets that have brought him success - not just on the ergometer - but also on the water.
Martin Cross talked to Murray just before he was about to undergo a 2000m ergo test.
Martin Cross: So with a 2k test tomorrow Eric, how do you feel?
Eric Murray: I guess it comes down to the fact that I’ve done so many. When you’re younger, that’s when people have a fear of the erg whereas the more you do them, the better knowledge you have about how you can actually do and what score you’re likely to get.
MC: And how much 2k prep have you been doing?
EM: The key to doing well is having done some specific training. We don’t just turn up and go for it. To start with we do the occasional 500m piece, then build in quite a lot of specific stuff. In a typical week we’d probably do at least three sessions and vary the distances too. We’d put in some 250m sprints, try a 1250m at pace, or even some 2k stuff. We’d vary the pace too, maybe doing 500m at 1:35 pace, then dropping it to 1:32 and then 1:26 in the last half. You have a pretty good idea of the score you’re likely to get in the test.
MC: How do you feel about the 2k distance?
EM: My pb (personal best) over 2k is 5:41.6. I’m at the point where I’m not going to get any faster. Over the last four years, I’ve pretty much done the same time. No matter how much fitter I get, or harder I go, I don’t seem to be able to find that extra second or two. So in that sense, I don’t like doing them. I guess there’s also the worry that if you get it wrong, you might end up three or four seconds off your pb.
MC: So you’ve never imagined doing a sub 5:40 then?
EM: I have occasionally. The problem that I see with the: ‘sub 5:40’, is it that it probably can only be done in the (European) summer - when you’re at your peak for racing. I think last year, when (Conlin) McCabe and (Josh) Dunkley-Smith went under 5:40, they did it in the summer. In New Zealand, we do one now, another at the start of trials (end of February). In the summer, when we’re overseas, erg training’s pretty limited – we spend most of the time on the water.
MC: How do you look to pace a 2k erg test?
EM: I’ve always thought the way to do a good erg was to even-split. So I might be on 1:27s the whole way, rating 35 to 36 strokes per minute. Towards the end the rate creeps up to 37 and 38 but you don’t increase your speed because you’re pulling max watts. I’ve tried to let it slip up and then wind it to 1.24 splits at the finish, coming in at a high rating like 46. But if you blow up in last 500m you lose.
MC: Describe the different parts of a 2k?
EM: At 300m gone, I’m thinking: ‘I’d really like to stop right now’. Between 700m gone 'til about 700m to go is tough. The first 500m I’m working towards the 1k, trying to hold speed and my breathing. As I’m working through the 1k I’m thinking: ‘sweet, its downhill now’. I generally start counting it down at 700m to go. Then as soon as I see 599m, a mental barrier's gone. I try to find my rhythm so I’m right on the tipping point of being out of control. What helps there is to focus on how well you’re rowing. So I ask myself questions: 'Is my right shoulder loose at the catch? Am I wasting any energy trying to pull myself up the slide? Am I pulling with the arms? Am I getting too much length?' That focus helps because it gets progressively harder to maintain the split.
MC: Have you always been good on the erg?
EM: Since juniors I’ve always been good on the erg. I’m 100kg and a big guy. As I came out of juniors it was about progression. Going under six minutes was really hard. But when you’re training with other people and you want to be the best, you try and match their numbers. So if they’re doing low 5:50s you might do a 5:52 in one piece. Then on the next you might completely blow up. But the next time, you've learnt. Then you look to the next target.
MC: How important is it to row on the erg like you do in the boat?
EM: It's a lot different to what you do on the water. There are no balance problems. So you might think you can focus on sheer power. But when we train we use the Dynamic ergs a lot, so the session has a technical edge. I always use the display with the force curve on the screen. If I don’t have that, I feel very vulnerable. If I have a really smooth force curve there's no jump off the front, or pulling with arms at the finish.
MC: Say a bit more about your preference for the Dynamic.
EM: We felt it was more like the boat. Going from the static erg to the Dynamic, you might find you were a split or so lower. But there’s no doubt that if you’re using the erg as a training tool, then the Dynamic’s the way to go. It’s probably a little bit heavy off the front. You’ve got to resist that shoulder pull, or grab with the arms. It’s like a boat: you’re trying to lever the boat past the oar. But not many people in the team like it, especially if they don’t pull the same numbers as on the static. If we get on a static machine, we can drop 2 splits for an hour piece.
MC: So then why do a 5k test on the sliders?
EM: You’ve got to find things to motivate you on the way to Rio. My best over the 5k distance was 15:12. Rob Waddell’s World Record, which he set on a static machine, is 14:58.3. That mark was beyond me, but I thought if I do this with sliders it might give me the 12-14 seconds I need to get under Waddell’s time. It was pretty tough but now I’ve done a 14:56. But it’s important to remember that it’s not a magical wipe of ten seconds off your 2k time.
MC: And you know what other international rowers are doing?
EM: (Ondrej) Synek sent me a message that he’d done 18:12 for 6k on sliders. Martin and Valent Sinkovic post their scores online. I’ve never been one to hide away from my score. If this is what I do, what have I got to hide? If you’re an aspiring single sculler, you’d want to know that Synek does a 5:41 for 2k. Then, if your pb is around 5:51, you at least know you’ve got to be fitter or stronger, or have immaculate technique to beat him. Putting the times up also helps to show our support for Concept2.
MC: You do tests at a particularly high rate – how did that develop?
EM: I was doing a 5k test next to Nathan Cohen. He rowed at 36 all the way and I decided to go with him. I thought he was going to slow down. I finished on 15:12. I matched him the whole way. Most of the guys tend to row at around 32 to 34, whereas I’m up at 36 to 37. Some pieces, you have to zone out and just watch what you’re doing. That high-rating style developed over time. A little bit came from the fact that we don’t do any weights. So if my power output is less per stroke than other rowers, I can do the same overall watts with an extra ten or 12 strokes.
MC: Do you have off days?
EM: Yeah. We get tired near the end of the week. It’s taken years of getting used to, especially knowing what you should be doing, so we try to get it done to the best of our abilities and get the benefits. We use motivational factors, like the British. That’s where bigger picture motivation is key. I know I have to be one step ahead of anyone else. If you succumb, then there’s always the thought: ‘is that the session that loses you the race by a bow ball?' Sometimes, you’ve just got to suck it up. Sometimes when you really don’t feel like doing a test, you can actually find that you are suddenly on the way to a really good score.
MC: How does it work with you and Hamish (Bond) on the ergs together?
EM: In the build-up to London, Hamish and I would do an hour next to each other. I’d peek across at his monitor; he might look across at mine. You have to know that Hamish is like a machine, especially at the UT2 stuff on the erg. I try to keep up. We always finish within a couple of seconds, or meters of each other. Sometimes he might be a bit tired and I think: 'sweet, I’m going to be able to beat him’.
MC: So I guess knowing your own physiology is key?
EM: Yeah, physiology-wise, I’m definitely not strong on speed over short distance. Most of the guys in the men’s eight would eat me for breakfast over 250m - that’s where outright power comes in. But I’ve got 12 to 14 years experience. That includes thousands of kilometres a year at a pretty decent intensity on the erg and the knowledge behind that intensity. That means trying to hit 80 per cent in my UT2 zone, at around a heart rate of 160-165. Then I’m looking at 1.44s on the machine. It comes down to years of grind to enable me to hit those numbers.
MC: How do the physiologists help?
EM: We do lactate tests and from that the physiologists can say you’re producing 320 watts at 2mm of lactate. Maybe then at 4mm, you’re producing 380 to 400 watts. At the end of the test, when your lactate is sky high, you might be producing 520 watts. They do some number crunching and tell you – with a good degree of accuracy - what sort of pace you need to go for any given distance. As you get fitter, it’s motivational to see that you can pull more watts at 4mm of lactate than you used to.
MC: What sort of coaching do you get on the erg?
EM: We’ve hardly had any coaching on the machine. To me, it’s such a wasted tool in that respect. Usually the coaches will give you the numbers, for whatever session you’re doing then it’s like: ‘away you go’. To be fair, there’s a little bit of coaching that goes on with some coaches. On the other hand, I guess if you got coached all the time, there’s a danger that you’d get pretty pissed off.
MC: What bothers you about your technique at the moment?
EM: A bit of a pull on my right arm while I’m taking the catch. I think came from when I was doing a lot of sculling. I do find that sensation really frustrating. That’s where the pressure of the numbers comes to play on you. I think if I drop 50 watts, then I can do something about it through the way I’m catching.