You have definitely heard it, and you may even have thought or said it yourself:
“Ergs don’t float!”
I was a bit of a proponent of this. Especially for coastal rowing. But then, in 2015, I decided I’d make a stab at international coastal racing. I went from being a lean and lanky long distance rower to one who needed the power and explosiveness to shift into the much shorter distance (4-6K) world championships distance. To facilitate this transformation, I went insane on the weights and put on almost 20 lb. of muscle. I got stronger than I had ever been. That was pretty cool. But the bad news was that all this new horsepower totally ruined my stroke. I had a completely new body to figure out!
I wasn’t happy with the progress I was making on sorting this out in the boat, so I jumped on the erg. My plan was to eliminate blade work, boat set, wave technique and everything else except for a pure focus on fundamental body movements in order to reconnect myself. I stared at the force curve for hour after hour, making sure every stroke was a perfectly replicated, smooth curve. I watched myself in the mirror for instant feedback and adjustments. I focused exclusively on the legs-back-arms transition. I’d watch nuances of speed changes if I applied slightly different transition timing and checked that against my perceived effort (and the ever-present force curve) to maximize effective body mechanics. With a concentrated focus on this one thing (the major body sequence), I was able to make very quick improvements. I became familiar with my new weight-room strength and reconnected my body to the rowing stroke. In fact, my connection got better than it had ever been. Integrating that enhanced connection with my new strength back into the boat brought my on-water speed to a new level. And I got there way sooner than if I were to do boat work alone. In this case, there was a clear correlation: Erg work = boat speed.
Since so much of my rowing takes place with the boat bouncing all over the place, I also use the erg to make sure I’m not developing any imbalances. The erg is just sitting there, so it’s a perfectly stable platform to do a body scan. Are my hips square to my feet? Are my legs pushing equally? Is my back consistently strong on each side of a balanced spine? Are my lats engaged with relaxed upper shoulders? With no worries about crashing into anything, I’d close my eyes for hours and feel every muscle in my body, in a total internal immersion. Of course this makes me a better rower, along with increasing the strength of my mind-body feedback loop (another nice thing to take into the boat!).
I suppose there is also the inevitable competitor’s dilemma that comes up in any erg-centered reflection: do erg scores matter? This is an especially relevant question for coastal racing, where there are so many different skills put into play. I’d say a great erg score is little to no guarantee of success in coastal racing. Or, let's say this: a good erg score is not an indicator of success in coastal rowing, but a poor erg score is a barrier to entry at the top levels. There are just too many factors involved to declare categorically that potential horsepower alone is going to be an indicator of success. One needs to master the skills of rowing in waves, surfing, rounding buoys, navigating sometimes tricky courses, extricating yourself from mobs of boats, and maybe even sprinting up a beach, to name just a few. But horsepower is certainly one of the ingredients in the coastal rowing mix. Underlying fitness needs to be established to support the other skills. Ergs don't lie either.
One of my goals for 2018 is to get faster pure boat speed, i.e., more straight-up speed across the water without relying on surfing or other wave tricks. Training is a process of eliminating doubts. I love being in the boat and messing around in waves. I'm fairly confident of my ability to row through wild seas and heavy breakers. For racing though, I have a lingering wonder: do I spend enough time simply getting fit? To answer that, I’m dedicated to bringing my erg times down this off-season. Will a faster erg time ultimately make my boat faster? I don’t really care. I’m doing it to eliminate any doubt in my comparative fitness abilities. And won’t this create more confidence? And if I am more confident, I will expect my boat to be faster. With that confident expectation, I will make my boat go faster (since a big part of performance is positive expectation and belief!). Its another box to check; a piece of the puzzle put in place. Erg tested fitness capability? Check.
Remember, rowing is an art, and therefore you are an artist. Everything you do should perpetuate the mastery of your artwork. Or, in training lingo – be specific in your training. Don’t waste time doings things that do not increase boat speed. Whether you are a recreational rower or competitive racer, make your erg float. I’m not suggesting spending more time on the erg – just suggesting a shift in mindset, so every second you spend on the erg is focused on boat speed. Make your time on the erg this winter an effort to improve specific aspects of your technique, fundamental body movement, mental connection, fitness and confidence. It will make your boat go way faster.