Questioning Conventional Wisdom on Erg Testing for Masters Athletes

Now that CRASH-Bs are over and we are hopefully in the run-up to getting back on the water in the eastern USA, I can’t help but question conventional wisdom on Concept2 ergometer testing for masters athletes.  I’m sure I will get many comments on both sides of the issue.  I am intentionally being provocative.

For me, it’s a question of specificity.  In some ways, Crossfit, which is decidedly non-specific, has helped in my thinking here.  I found that incorporating Crossfit Endurance workouts helped my overall competitive performance last season, and I believe it was because I was doing a lot of race intervals at or above race intensity, combined with practicing skill and strategy at race distances.  That’s very specific, much more so than going out and doing 12 miles steady-state in the single scull or doing 8-minute pieces at a 28 rating, for example. 

As a masters competitor in my early 40s I usually race at 1000 meter sprint distances (3:25-3:55 depending on boat class) in the summer and 5K “head race” distances (17:30-21:30) in the fall.  The 1K distance in particular tilts the scale a little more towards power vs. endurance, and I believe that should also change what we test for.

But for some reason, during winter training 2K (6:25-6:45) is the standard test distance, and Concept2 does “ranked” workouts for 1K (3:10-3:15) and 500m (1:25-1:30).  In fairness, 5K and 6K are also lesser-used standard test distances, and these map pretty well to the fall season “head race” distance in rowing (17-19 min for big boats and 19-22 mins for small boats).  Peak power testing seems to be applied inconsistently.  Some like Ed McNeely embrace it, others scoff at it as irrelevant.

Why do few masters athletes test at distances such as 1200m or 1250m, which would map specifically to the race times for masters on-water racing, or do peak power testing?  The power curve and mental game for a 1200m race would be different than for a 2K or a 1K, and the number of strokes taken would more closely approximate an on-water race.  Wouldn’t it make sense to test at this distance if it simulates the races you are trying to win during the sprint season?

My suspicion is that we are stuck on 2K because that is the standard collegiate test distance, and the other “ranked” distances are just mentally nice round numbers.  That tells me we are training for indoor rowing, not simulating on-water racing with the ergometer as a training aid.  For some, that is a goal in itself and therefore entirely appropriate.  For those focused on the water, I believe we are stuck in a rut of either testing too long at 2K, meaning we are not able to row each stroke at peak intensity, or testing too short at 1000m, meaning we will come up 30-40 seconds short when we get back in a single scull.

I have trouble training to improve a 2K or a 1K score when these are not really relevant outside of the December – February window.  I’d rather focus on the 5K and then do sprint testing at 1200m.  I make these statements because I am primarily an on-water racer, and I try to make training decisions with that as my north star.  I wonder if anyone else out there feels the same way?

3 thoughts on “Questioning Conventional Wisdom on Erg Testing for Masters Athletes

  1. 1) It might help to remember that performance on a Concept 2 Indoor Rower is calibrated to align with big boats rather than singles. Put another way, 6:30 for 2K on an indoor rower is no more an indicator of your ability to row a 6:30 2K in a 1x than if you had rowed 2K in an 8 that did 6:30.

    2) Within a reasonable range, there is no magic whatsoever in round numbers for interval training. 400s, 450s, 550s and 600s aren’t any better or worse than 500s.

    3) Specificity in training is essential. If you’re a masters rower on the water you should tailor your training towards the 1K race distance. Intervals on the water and on the indoor rower should, overall, be shorter and faster than the intervals you would row training for 2K. Think 200s, 250s and 300s rather than 500s. Additionally, if you row a 1X rather than a big boat AND you’re looking for a somewhat close approximation of your on water performance, your “race distance” time trials on an indoor rower should be in the neighborhood of 20% longer than your on the water race distance.

    A lot of training for both Masters and Juniors rowing seems to be taken directly from an elite rower’s training diary without any thought given to differences in size, strength or race distance. Tailoring training to match the race distance and the athlete’s physiology is just common sense.


  2. Agree with specificity recommendation re on water racing. Of course if we’re training for the December – February 2k erg races then we need to train for 2K, but after CRASH-Bs we should start shooting for actual on water race distances. Overdistance training over winter will help build aerobic base so not a damaging training format. But as in any sport specificity is key.

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