New Zealand has a proud history of success in rowing on the world stage, having won a total of 11 gold, 2 silver, and 10 bronze medals at Olympic Games since 1920. In recent years we have become accustomed to seeing Kiwi crews on the podium at world cup and world championship regattas, and even topping the overall medal tally, as the team did at World Cup III this year. Competing to this level of success is no easy task, with years of dedication and hours of training every week put into achieving a top performance. So, what does it take to be an elite rower? We take a look at some of the work that goes on behind the scenes, and the challenges of racing in itself, to appreciate what elite rowers go through to make it to the top of the sport.
It is no secret that to be good at any sport, an athlete must dedicate numerous hours each week to training. In the case of rowing, elite athletes can spend anywhere between 20 and 30 hours per week in physical training sessions that include rowing, weights and cross training. In addition, athletes may spend another 5+ hours per week helping their body recover from physical training efforts through stretching, massage, yoga, or taking a nap. Add to that time spend preparing for workouts- such as organizing optimal nutrition for before, during and after the session- and the hours quickly add up to the equivalent (or more) of a full-time work week.
Beyond simply the hours spent in an average week, rowing athletes are often expected to train through holidays (including Christmas) and in any weather conditions- rain, hail or shine! This level of dedication has become the standard for athletes seeking success at the top in the current semi-professional era of the sport, and often takes several years of toil before paying off in the successes we see at regattas, which leads us to our next point…
Elite rowing athletes are not developed overnight. It can take several years of training at the volume we have discussed before an athlete is capable of success at the top of the sport. Generally speaking, aerobic capacity peaks at around age 25, with high volume of training linked to optimal capacity and ongoing function as the athlete continues to age. For rowers who take up the sport at school, this would mean that they could expect to train for up to 7 years after they leave school, before beginning to experience their full endurance capability. It is fortunate then that there are plenty of other skills to learn and develop within that time, all equally required to reach the top. Technical and muscular development are both very important, as are the mental skills and professionalism required to train consistently, and handle racing on the world stage.
Perseverance can also be key to success in the face of adversities. As with many other sports, rowers can be held up by injury or illness, or simply because the crew they are rowing in needs time to gel and develop as a team. Whatever the reason, having the strength to persevere and progress over time is an important quality many top rowers possess, that has seen them through to ultimately achieving success.
We could spend a segment on pain tolerance in rowing dedicated to blisters on hands caused by hours of training, but that probably doesn’t do the sport justice on this topic!
It’s probably no surprise to hear that racing 2000m involves some degree of physical discomfort- anyone who has watched rowing can see that the athletes are all at various levels of exhaustion when they cross the finish line. One of the factors that make endurance sports (including rowing) painful, is the production of lactate. Lactate can be seen as a bi-product of anaerobic metabolism, the process the body uses to produce energy during a rowing race (above VO2 max). High levels of lactate in the blood give the sensation of the muscles feeling heavy, tired and sore. Because rowers race at approximately 89%-110% of VO2 max, they can produce lactate levels of 15-18 mmol.
Unless you are a sports scientist, those numbers probably don’t mean anything to you, but suffice to say it is considered a high level of lactate for any sport (marathon runners reach around 4mmol). As a result, for a large portion of the 2000m rowing race, rowing athletes must physically and mentally manage a significant level of physical discomfort in order to achieve their best performance. Conditioning athletes to perform under these conditions is a key part of rowing training, and athletes work closely with coaches and physiologists in carrying out workouts and tests to monitor progress. In doing so, rowing athletes put themselves through pain and discomfort regularly in both training and racing, in order to achieve their best performance, and hope to be competitive among the best in the world.
For more on lactate, check out our experience with lactate testing HERE
These are just some of the realities of what it takes to be competitive in rowing on the world stage, to give some appreciation for the effort behind the winning performances that inspire us all. Although each athlete’s journey is different, you can be assured that every podium result you see at World Cup, World Championships and Olympic Games regattas are the combination of countless hours of training, dedication and perseverance, all lining up to culminate in a successful result.