By Walter Martindale, M.P.E., ChPC, Coach Development Manager, Rowing New Zealand
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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).
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.
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.