Using the indoor rower for testing: why do we test different distances?
You don’t have to be a rower to understand the pain on the faces of competitors at this year’s inaugural World Urban Games where indoor rowing made a stunning debut.
But this was indoor rowing racing with a difference. Competitors were set a variety of challenges – not just the standard 2000m distance – containing different distances and criteria to abide by.
The six challenges at the World Urban Games ranged from 6000m at 14 strokes per minute to a ten-stroke contest for maximum wattage to a six-minute piece with only the time visible, along with a selection of knock outs and pyramid-based contests. This must have felt a bit like something all too familiar to many rowers: the week of testing.
In this first article in a two -part series, World Rowing talks to world renowned Danish physiologist, Dr Kurt Jensen about the science behind some standard ergometer tests and how coaches and aspiring athletes can use the results to train smarter, not just harder.
Since his own career as an elite rower in Denmark, Jensen has spent many years as a coach and researcher crunching the numbers on ergometer results of the best rowers in the world. At the heart of his work has been the idea that better training starts with trying to understand the physiology at play within an individual rather than simply looking at race day results.
“Racing 2000 metres is the optimal performance,” says Jensen, “but we would also like to know what is lying behind the performance. Does a rower achieve a certain 2000 metre performance because they are very powerful anaerobically, or is it because they have very good aerobic power?”
Finding the golden ratios
Jensen started his work by looking at ergo scores over multiple distances and durations with a group of Danish World Champions. He chose 60 minutes, 6000 metres, 2000 metres, 60 seconds and 10 seconds (or 100 metres) as his standards since these were fairly common tests in many elite training programmes including those in Denmark.
“I related everything as a percentage of performance over 2000 metres,” he says. “Then you can look at how many watts on average the World Champions would be above when using anaerobic power [short bursts] and how many below when using aerobic capacity [longer sustained effort].”
Right away, a number of ratios seemed to jump out from the data: average watts for a 60 minute test were around 76 per cent of average 2000 metre watts; over 6000 metres the watts averaged 85 per cent; while 60 seconds and 10 seconds resulted in 153 per cent and 173 per cent of the 2000 metre average watts respectively.
To Jensen’s surprise, the ratios were almost identical for the top Danish men and women, heavyweights and lightweights. When he discovered that these ratios also held true for the best elite rowers outside of Denmark, Jensen knew he was on to something.
“I thought maybe this was specific to Danish rowing because we have a tradition of everyone doing the same training,” he recalls. “But then I got data from Italy and the US and actually they had more or less the same percentages. That was amazing: if you take on-water World Champions from anywhere, they fit more or less the same profile.”
For the most comparable results, Jensen recommends testing over the course of a number of days with the same tests in the same order each time. Once rowers and coaches have collected all of their testing data, Jensen proposes a very simple course of action: target the areas of weakness in a rower’s physiology.
“There is a balance,” he says. “You need (to build) strength, but there is a level where you can say, ‘now that’s enough’, which is what you see from World Champion rowers. If you go too high on strength alone, you are a better starter and finisher, but I think maybe not so much an overall racer.”
In fact, when Jensen started comparing testing results between under-23 and senior elite rowers, he found that the biggest area of difference was not in raw strength but rather endurance.
“I was surprised to find that the younger rowers have more or less the same anaerobic power as the seniors but were lower in aerobic capacity,” he says. “They cannot hold the intensity. And you could ask ‘why should they since they are only racing the 2k?’ But it is not for the 2k, it is more for the ability to train and adapt and recover.”
“If you train a lot and are not going to be over-trained then you will be able to tolerate a lot (of training),” says Jensen. “That is what the younger rowers need.”
Whether you are suffering through a 60 minute piece or blazing out 10 seconds as hard as you can go, it isn’t always easy to appreciate the importance of the ergometer test beyond the 2000 metre race. Yet as Jensen has shown, a battery of ergo assessments over different distances, while punishing in the moment, is a tried and tested way to assess a rower’s physiology and can be used, as he points out, “to suggest individual training focus sessions to balance anaerobic power/capacity, aerobic power/capacity and strength.”