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How to do a Great 2k Erg Test

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The 2000m Erg Test
By Wal­ter Mar­tin­dale, M.P.E., ChPC, Coach Devel­op­ment Man­ager, Row­ing New Zealand
— —  —  —  —  —  —  —  — –
Some sug­ges­tions for coach­ing ath­letes to a best per­for­mance. Unfor­tu­nately, to be thor­ough, this gets a bit long… The “basics” of get­ting a great ergome­ter test are in “bold” font, like this. The rest of the doc­u­ment pro­vides a “not quite layman’s” descrip­tion of the “why” behind the basics.

Recent obser­va­tions of 2000m ergome­ter tests have prompted a selec­tor to ask that club and school coaches learn how to pre­pare an ath­lete to take an ergome­ter test. We saw some very heroic starts, fol­lowed by strug­gles to survive.

So – to that end – a primer on tak­ing an ergome­ter test, with some of the phys­i­ol­ogy about why these sug­ges­tions should help. It’s directed mostly at the ath­lete, but coaches can relay this infor­ma­tion, or just stick to the basics. This is NOT the only way to “take” an ergome­ter test, but it’s an approach that’s based on phys­i­ol­ogy, some expe­ri­ence, and some observations.

First, let’s talk about the com­mon state­ment that ergome­ters don’t float. Of course they don’t float. That’s not what the ergome­ter test is about. Peo­ple who make boats move fast almost always have good ergome­ter scores – peo­ple who have good ergome­ter scores don’t nec­es­sar­ily make boats move fast. With good tech­nique, they can move a boat fast, but with bad tech­nique, they won’t go as fast as some­one who doesn’t quite pull as hard but has good tech­nique. If you aim to have both good tech­nique and a good erg score, you’ll have a bet­ter chance to be the fastest in a boat. The ergome­ter test is sim­ply a snap­shot of your phys­i­cal fit­ness and tough­ness, and can tell a coach or a selec­tor a lot about you. The mon­i­tor on an ergome­ter tells the truth – no mat­ter how hard you think you’re pulling, the num­bers show you just how effec­tive the efforts are being. After the ergome­ter test, if you are going through a selec­tion process, no mat­ter at what level, you start off on a bet­ter foot­ing if you have cranked out a big ergo score. When you’re train­ing on an ergome­ter, the more closely you can approx­i­mate good tech­nique on the ergome­ter, the more ben­e­fi­cial carry-​​over you’ll have to the boat.

The ergome­ter test is just like the A final of a big regatta.
Peo­ple need to warm up ade­quately, run a “race plan” and after­wards do a proper “row down.”

Basic Phys­i­ol­ogy for coaches and ath­letes
Some basic phys­i­ol­ogy that explains why a good warm-​​up is impor­tant. Bio­chemists and phys­i­ol­ogy researchers beware: this is phrased so that non-​​physiology peo­ple can get it. If the fol­low­ing descrip­tion is badly flawed, I’d like a phys­i­ol­o­gist to let me know so I can fix it. If the descrip­tion is a good “gloss­ing over” of what hap­pens, but not com­plete, I’d like that con­firmed. The descrip­tion is “AIUI” or As I Under­stand It, from ter­tiary courses in exer­cise phys­i­ol­ogy from the 80s and Level 4 coach­ing courses in the 90s.

There are three main “energy sup­ply sys­tems” in your mus­cles. These are called var­i­ous names by var­i­ous phys­i­ol­ogy peo­ple, but what will be used in this paper is: “Anaer­o­bic Alac­tic”, Anaer­o­bic Lac­tic” and “Aer­o­bic.” The names are based on the chem­istry that goes on in the mus­cle cells, and this nam­ing sys­tem is just one. Some char­ac­ter­is­tics of these sys­tems will be out­lined below.

There’s a whole lot of phys­i­ol­ogy that goes on when a mus­cle con­tracts, from the per­son decid­ing to move, to the brain decid­ing which mus­cles to use, through the nerves to the mus­cles which get a sig­nal to con­tract. There is a lot of “stuff” that is still being researched about mus­cle phys­i­ol­ogy, but the over­all process is rel­a­tively well doc­u­mented. The details are far beyond the scope of this paper (and my knowl­edge). The “action” chem­i­cal in a mus­cle is called ATP (Adeno­sine TriPhos­phate). Essen­tially, the ATP, by split­ting off one of the phos­phates to become Adeno­sine DiPhosphate+Phosphate+energy (ADP+P+energy), and giv­ing the energy from that split to the mus­cle fibre, makes the mus­cle fibre “pull,” mak­ing the body move. A rest­ing mus­cle car­ries enough ATP for about 4 – 5 sec­onds of full-​​out work, before some­thing else has resup­ply the ATP. When start­ing up, the ADP then gets restored to ATP by another sys­tem (Cre­a­tine Phos­phate, or CP) but which only car­ries enough sup­ply in the mus­cle for about 10 – 15 sec­onds of energy sup­ply to the mus­cle. It’s called the “Anaer­o­bic Alac­tic” sys­tem because it pro­duces mus­cle con­trac­tion with­out using oxy­gen (anaer­o­bic) and with­out mak­ing lac­tates (alactic).

When a per­son starts any phys­i­cal activ­ity cold, the first 10 – 15 sec­onds is done on this “anaer­o­bic alac­tic” energy sys­tem – the mus­cles con­tract through the con­ver­sion of ATP into ADP+P+energy, and the ADP is restored to ATP with a P from CP until the sup­ply of CP essen­tially runs out. Dur­ing the time the Alac­tic sys­tem is sup­ply­ing energy, the “Anaer­o­bic Lac­tic” (works with­out oxy­gen, and does pro­duce lac­tate) sys­tem is start­ing to sup­ply energy so that the per­son can con­tinue work­ing at almost the same pace as with the Anaer­o­bic Alac­tic phase of the session.

One dif­fi­culty is that no mat­ter what you’re doing, at what­ever effort level, at the start of a ses­sion, the “aer­o­bic” sys­tem of energy pro­duc­tion is essen­tially asleep. When it’s “warmed up” it pro­duces about 80% of the energy needed for rac­ing, but when it’s cold, it pro­duces nearly noth­ing – so ALMOST ALL of the energy for the first three to five min­utes of ANY activ­ity is “anaer­o­bic” – and causes lac­tate production.

After about three to five min­utes of activ­ity, the aer­o­bic sys­tem “realises” (yes, it’s an energy sys­tem and shouldn’t be anthro­po­mor­phised) it’s going to be needed and starts pro­duc­ing energy, AND, if the work rate is low enough, it starts to use as an energy sup­ply some of the lac­tate that was pro­duced dur­ing the early “anaer­o­bic lac­tic” part of the exer­cise – (essen­tially turn­ing the lac­tate back to pyru­vate, and run­ning it through the TCA cycle and the elec­tron trans­port sys­tem) – for non-​​physiology peo­ple, suf­fice to say that the lac­tates get burned off.

So – after about 10 min­utes of activ­ity, your aer­o­bic sys­tem is “up and run­ning” and will have burned off most of the lac­tates pro­duced in the first few min­utes of the exer­cise ses­sion (warm-​​up).

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Then, you can do some short sprints of about 10 strokes that acti­vate your ner­vous sys­tem, and not worry too much about accu­mu­lat­ing lac­tates because your body will be using them up again when you bring the pace back down, AND you won’t be going for long enough to cause lac­tate to start to accu­mu­late and dif­fuse from the mus­cle into the blood stream.

Warm­ing up
A warm up should last long enough to get some­one start­ing to sweat on a rel­a­tively cool day. If you time your warm up just right, you get to sit still for about 2 – 3 min­utes before you start your race. And – it’s a good idea to sit dead still for about 2 – 3 min­utes before the race – oops – ergome­ter test. It’s NOT a good idea to sit still for more than about 5 min­utes because your body starts to shut down energy sys­tems that it “thinks” aren’t being used any more.

Why all this palaver about lac­tates and sit­ting still?
Imag­ine start­ing a race with­out the aer­o­bic sys­tem “warmed up.” Because noth­ing is “warmed up,” your body pro­duces that ini­tial surge of lac­tate men­tioned above, but because you’re rac­ing, your body doesn’t have a chance to clear it off after the aer­o­bic sys­tem gets going – because the aer­o­bic sys­tem is not pro­duc­ing enough energy even at it’s max­i­mum rate to sat­isfy the energy needs of the race. To keep up with the energy required for race-​​pace row­ing your anaer­o­bic sys­tem has to fill up the short­fall. So – not only are you work­ing REALLY HARD, but you’re mak­ing heaps of lac­tate in your mus­cle fibres. When your aer­o­bic sys­tem finally does get warmed up, your mus­cles are already chok­ing in “lac­tates” and you’re accu­mu­lat­ing more with every stroke you take. About 3 min­utes into the race… er… ergome­ter test… you feel as if some­one has dropped a very large piano on your head – or you wish some­one would do that to put you out of your mis­ery. Lac­tates, over a cer­tain con­cen­tra­tion, inter­fere with mus­cle con­trac­tion, and inter­fere with the pro­duc­tion of more energy – I think it’s one of those evo­lu­tion­ary pro­tec­tive mech­a­nisms that keep you from turn­ing your mus­cles into an acid pool that eats itself up. “Ergo” – you need to warm up prop­erly for an ergo-​​test.

The rea­son for want­ing to sit still for 2 – 3 min­utes before start­ing a test is the Anaer­o­bic Alac­tic recov­ery time – when you stop (STOP) mov­ing, your body some­how knows to replen­ish the energy sup­ply of the ATP-​​CP sys­tem in a big hurry – so you get very nearly com­plete recov­ery of the ATP-​​CP sys­tem in 2 – 3 min­utes of REST (this time it’s not Active Rest).

Here’s a sug­ges­tion to make your warm up and your race most effec­tive
Prac­tice good “pre race” nutri­tion – A reg­u­lar meal is OK if it’s about 3 – 4 hours before you start, with the size and greasi­ness of the meal being reduced, the closer you get to start time. Try to eat very lit­tle if any­thing in the last hour before you race – you want your stom­ach to be empty before rac­ing, partly so that the stom­ach doesn’t take any excess blood flow away from your (soon to be) work­ing mus­cles – and – you don’t want any­thing in your stom­ach to come back up to meet you dur­ing or shortly after your ergome­ter test.

Jog for about 5 min­utes. Spend about 5 min­utes loos­en­ing and doing a lit­tle stretch­ing to ensure you have full range of motion.
Get on an ergome­ter – set the drag fac­tor to that which you test at – in NZ it’s 130 for men, 110 for women.
Row 5 min­utes at YOUR U2 pace.
Row 5 min­utes at YOUR U1 pace.
Stop for a moment, adjust cloth­ing. Row lightly to keep the aer­o­bic sys­tem going, and prac­tice two starts, with light row­ing between them.
Some­where, (with or with­out a start) do a cou­ple of 10 – 15 stroke “bursts”, but make sure you have at least 10 min­utes remain­ing before your race starts, after the last burst.
Row lightly for 5 min­utes after the last 10 – 15 stroke burst.
With 5 min­utes before your start, row lightly for a minute, and then stop – if you need to secure a heart rate chest strap, do it now. If you feel thirsty, dampen your mouth with some water – if you drink water from mid-​​warm up on, that water will most likely still be in your stom­ach when you fin­ish your race. (If you’re thirsty dur­ing your warm up, you’re dehy­drated, and should have been look­ing after that before warm­ing up. Any­thing you drink in the 10 – 15 min­utes before you test will most likely not be through your stom­ach and absorbed into your blood stream before you start, unless you’re con­sum­ing a prop­erly for­mu­lated sports drink, AND your body is pre­pared for quickly absorb­ing flu­ids, AND you don’t have a “ner­vous” stom­ach. A “ner­vous” stom­ach essen­tially shuts down fluid absorp­tion, and lets you see what you’ve eaten or drunk, later.) Learn to recog­nise the dif­fer­ence between being thirsty and want­ing to moisten your mouth and throat because you’re ner­vous. Drink to pre­vent get­ting thirsty, and plan your flu­ids to avoid being thirsty at race time.
Report to the test­ing machine. Posi­tion your foot stretcher where you like it. Do NOT offer to change the vent set­ting – it is most likely that who­ever is mon­i­tor­ing the test will have already checked that the drag fac­tor is at the planned set­ting. You can ask to check the drag fac­tor, but don’t even think about mov­ing the vent until you’ve seen if the DF is off. If you are wear­ing a heart rate chest strap, make sure it is reg­is­ter­ing prop­erly on what­ever device will be record­ing.
It may or may not be a good idea to do a few strokes before you test – remem­ber that you want to let your Anaer­o­bic Alac­tic sys­tem recover so that you can start strongly, just like in a race.

That’s the warm-​​up and pre-​​race preparation.

Doing the test
START. A usual rac­ing start – a few strokes, shorter than full length, just like in a boat.
REMEMBER TO BREATHE!!!! Most coaches have seen ath­letes take their first 10 strokes while hold­ing their breath. Not a good idea. What used to work for me was to make sure I blew fully out on the first stroke, forc­ing me to inhale and keep breath­ing. Rac­ing or test­ing, this may help you later in the work piece.
Take a few short, very hard strokes, to get the fly­wheel started.
Take MAYBE five (5) hard sprint type strokes – these will be using your Anaer­o­bic Alac­tic “ATP/​CP” energy sys­tem, and should not cause you prob­lems later in the piece.
Imme­di­ately after these (maybe) five strokes, take the pace to your “body of the test” pace, and be very dis­ci­plined about stay­ing there. You will have adren­a­line and “fresh feel­ing” going for you early in the piece, but unless you have lots of erg test expe­ri­ence and years of train­ing, it’s easy to overdo the first 500 m.
Treat the test like a race – phys­i­o­log­i­cally speak­ing, a well trained rower will be fastest in the first 500 because they have less meta­bolic waste inter­fer­ing with their per­for­mance than later on.
As the test pro­gresses, you need to keep your stroke length, but your body starts to get tired, you can’t push as hard later on as you could in the first 500. So, if you want to keep from fad­ing, you need to increase the stroke rate. Some coaches sug­gest one “beat” per 500 m.
The sec­ond and third 500 (aka the mid­dle thou­sand) are usu­ally slightly lower in speed because they tend to be run pri­mar­ily at the “MaxVO2” pace. The closer the Anaer­o­bic Thresh­old is to the MaxVO2, the faster the per­son will be able to make it through these two 500 metre seg­ments. The speed pro­file in inter­na­tional rac­ing (and top level ergome­ter tests) is dic­tated by good old mus­cle and car­dio­vas­cu­lar phys­i­ol­ogy.
The last 500 m – well – how far away from the end of the race do you want to start your clos­ing sprint? If you’re brave, you’ll start bump­ing the rate up grad­u­ally from 500 m out. If you’re REALLY brave, you’ll start ham­mer­ing it from 600 or 700 out and hang on until you can’t see any more. If you’re more con­ser­v­a­tive, you’ll try bump­ing the rate from 300 out, and then com­plain to your­self that you didn’t start to sprint ear­lier.
Keep your length as well as you can, creep the stroke rate up, and see if you have energy to try to break the foot plate in the mid­dle of each drive. Lis­ten to the fly­wheel and make it zing.
At the end – when you’ve fin­ished – try your hard­est to stay upright. Most peo­ple who crash to the floor and gasp and roll about after they’ve tested are over­act­ing – sure – they’re tired and every­thing hurts, but a lot more peo­ple fall off ergome­ters than fall out of boats at the end of a really hard 2000 m race. If you have the energy to writhe about show­ing off how much pain you’re in, you have enough energy to stay sit­ting (pos­si­bly slumped over) and breathe in lots and lots of air. Usu­ally the per­son mon­i­tor­ing your test will assist you in get­ting your feet out of the stretch­ers, and usu­ally there will be some­one else around to help you get up on your feet again. If you pass out at the end of a test, the peo­ple around you had bet­ter be ready to catch you so that you don’t sprain an ankle or knee falling across the ergome­ter rail with your toe strapped in, but if you’re con­scious, and can stay up, it’s a lot safer get your feet out properly.

After the test
After your test – coaches, selec­tors, and “testers” all know that you’re tired, hurt­ing, and will have trou­ble mov­ing, but the worst thing you can do for your­self, par­tic­u­larly if you have rac­ing the next day, is sit still. As SOON AS YOU CAN MOVE again, start mov­ing… We know very well that you don’t want to move, but you’ll be able to even­tu­ally, and you NEED to move. The best thing you can do for your­self is row an ergome­ter for another 15 – 20 min­utes. Lightly – of course – at “U3” or “Active Recov­ery” pace – or some­where between 40 and 60% of race speed. Yes. That’s slow.

What hap­pens to the meta­bolic wastes that you pro­duce dur­ing a race? They are cleared from your body by a vari­ety of mech­a­nisms. The heart mus­cle can use lac­tate as a source of energy, so it tends to take a small amount of the lac­tate out of the blood. The heart itself doesn’t use much blood (it has its own cir­cu­la­tion, from the “coro­nary arter­ies,” that fill up thanks to back pres­sure from the other arter­ies after the heart’s valves have shut after the stroke. The liver clears out some of the lac­tate by turn­ing it back into some­thing use­ful, but again, this is a slow
process. If you just sit still after a race, and do no “AR” work, you MIGHT return to nor­mal blood lac­tate lev­els in TWO DAYS. Not an ideal sit­u­a­tion if you have to race the next day. Of course, it’s not really the lac­tate that’s the prob­lem; it’s the fact that your mus­cles have become acid­i­fied by the pro­duc­tion of the lac­tate that is a big part of the problem.

Row­ing lightly for about 20 min­utes uses up most of the lac­tates. When you’re work­ing REALLY HARD, your mus­cles need more energy than the aer­o­bic sys­tem can pro­vide, and the chem­i­cal sys­tem that makes the extra energy (anaer­o­bic gly­col­y­sis, or the anaer­o­bic lac­tic sys­tem) gets “clogged” at the end of its reac­tion chain by the end prod­uct of the chain “Pyru­vate”. So – to unclog itself, the body takes this pyru­vate mol­e­cule and breaks a hydro­gen mol­e­cule off it to make it into “Lac­tate” (plus a Hydro­gen ion – which is what makes things get “acid”). The Lac­tate and Hydro­gen float around in the mus­cle and dif­fuse into the blood stream (this isn’t exactly what hap­pens, but that’s way beyond the need-​​to-​​know for this arti­cle). Then researchers stick you with a lancet (usu­ally at the ear­lobe in Row­ingNZ) and test your lac­tate lev­els, but that’s another story. If you keep active, the mus­cles need energy. A very con­ve­nient way to make this energy avail­able quickly is to take the lac­tate and hydro­gen that you made while you were work­ing very hard, smunch them back together to make Pyru­vate, shove it through the TCA sys­tem and the Elec­tron Trans­port Sys­tem, and get a whole heap of ATP for your mus­cle to use while you do your “row down.” Essen­tially, using the mus­cles that pro­duced the lac­tates will clear off the lac­tates much faster than will run­ning or some­thing, because the lac­tates are mostly in the mus­cles that pro­duced them – you use the mus­cles, and you burn off the lactates.

To shorten the story, erg­ing for 15 – 20 min­utes, lightly, will make you feel about 10000% bet­ter in a much shorter time, than will sit­ting on your “duff” and wait­ing until you feel bet­ter. Coun­ter­in­tu­itive, per­haps, but true.

Tech­nique dur­ing an ergome­ter test
Effec­tive row­ing tech­nique is effec­tive row­ing tech­nique – if you row “well,” and have the phys­i­cal con­di­tion­ing, it will show up in a good ergome­ter score and in good times on the water. If you are very strong, and don’t row so well, you may be able to get a good ergome­ter score but on water speed may suf­fer. If you are very good in row­ing tech­nique but not so strong, you may not get the good ergome­ter scores, and you won’t catch the peo­ple who row well AND have good ergome­ter scores.

Some peo­ple learn to row ergome­ters dif­fer­ently from how they row a boat. In some cir­cles, this is believed to pro­vide a bet­ter ergome­ter score. In other cir­cles, peo­ple change the tech­nique on an erg (pulling to their neck, for exam­ple) for the pur­pose of devel­op­ing just a lit­tle more strength in the hope that it will trans­fer to the boat. Unfor­tu­nately, when doing a NZ selec­tion ergome­ter test, this may not be to your ben­e­fit, because selec­tors watch you pull your test, and spend some time being judg­men­tal about a person’s row­ing poten­tial because of what you do on the ergometer.

Hav­ing a pull that’s too low, or over your head, or look­ing too uncon­ven­tional will prob­a­bly not
help, unless you man­age to “beast” the test, and pull a 5:40 for men, or a 6:40 for women.
Row as much like a boat as you can, and try to leave noth­ing behind – your 20 minute recov­ery will help you get ready for the next day’s train­ing, tri­alling, or what­ever comes up. Of course – if you have more time to spend doing recov­ery work, keep going for up to an hour, but at a low pace.

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