Never Enough Time: Getting the most from your Training


A recent discussion on Twitter with a coach of junior athletes got me thinking about how rowers can make the most of their available training time. Andrea Valois (@andrearows) is Junior Coach (U17 & U19) at Leander Boat Club, Ontario, Canada (read her team’s training blog here). Many of Andrea’s athletes spend the majority of their time training in their High School programmes, leaving her with four hours of contact time per week.

For coaches like Andrea who don’t get much time with their rowers, and for rowers who have other commitments (work, school, family) the biggest challenge is how to get the most from their training. This problem comes in two parts: how to maximise your training time, and how to find the right balance of training when time is limited.

As the inspiration for this article came from Twitter I thought I’d see what advice the rowers and coaches of Twitter could offer…

@JackRubini Organising work, waking up 30 mins earlier to stretch and do core and using school gym facilities is working for me!

@rhona_mac Circuits! Varied exercises emulating the rowing stroke with light weights. Also a huge fan of spin classes for x-training.

@biffboff75 (Phil Simmons, Head of Rowing Kingston Grammar School)

  • Intensity – less time so increase intensity most don’t ‘paddle’ hard enough
  • In mixed programmes expect the same of girls & boys
  • Relate ergs & weights to what is done on the water as it increases relevance to those sessions & they become more productive
  • Accept they have other commitments especially schoolwork but don’t accept skiving & lame excuses
  • During exams especially mocks time is tight remind them they need to train & something is better than nothing
  • Speak to parents. They are often ignored & don’t understand time required & stress over exams. It can help to back up rowing doesn’t harm exams

(…more from Phil Simmons later)

So it all comes down to time. How much we can devote to training and how we use it. Often we focus on the big sessions we think will improve our strength and fitness (water sessions, ergos, weights) but neglect the supplementary work which supports our rowing (flexibility, core, technical analysis). One of the biggest challenges, especially for juniors, is making sure this supplementary work gets done. Making flexibility and core work interesting and fun, and using group sessions will help to engage athletes. Circuits with a focus on core work and borrowing ideas from Cross-Fit will make what is usually a quiet and boring core session into a high-intensity group workout which achieves the same results while including some interval work too! Light weights (such as in my previous article on Lower Back Injury) encourages stretching to be done as it seems like a weights session. Yoga gives great benefits to mental preparation as well as flexibility.

Make Time

Most rowers and coaches aren’t full-time professionals. Balancing rowing with work/school/family and other activities means that everyday rowers and coaches have a finite number of hours in the week to commit to rowing. It seems that the clock is always against us; imagine what could be achieved with just a few more hours in which to train. The week may already be squeezed for every available minute, but it’s worth thinking about how you can turn ‘dead time’ around and make it available for training.

Many of us spend an hour or more each day commuting to work or school. Can you exercise during this time by cycling or running instead? It may mean you spend slightly more time on your commute, but it may buy you time in allowing you to train when adding another journey to the boathouse or gym would normally take too long.

If your training time is limited because the gym or boathouse is too far away to fit in an evening or morning session consider some cross-training that doesn’t involve any travel time. A running or cycling session can start right from your front door so all your time is spent training, not travelling.

Lunch breaks can be used to improve flexibility by stretching. Posture can be worked on throughout the day when you are sitting at a desk, or performing you usual activities.

Maximise your water time by incorporating your warm-up into your journey to the boathouse by running or cycling. Dead time on the water while resting between pieces or waiting for other crews in your group can be used for technical drills or stretching. Any time when the boat is stopped can be used to improve flexibility by taking your feet out of the shoes and stretching the hamstrings. Once this becomes part of your routine it will dramatically increase the amount of time to give to stretching and show big improvements in positioning and stroke length.

Rest is important, but can you get up half an hour earlier and start the day with some yoga? Do you rush through breakfast instead of spending time properly fuelling your body for the day’s training and activities?

Borrow Time

When coaching busy rowers, especially juniors, it’s important to understand what other activities and sports they take part in. If your rowers are training in other sports, such as school teams, find out what they are doing and when they are doing it so you can adapt their rowing programme. You can borrow the benefits that these sports provide and focus on using your athletes’ time on the areas of your programme which are not already covered.

Rugby players might already be doing one or two eights sessions per week so there’s no need to add to that, just make sure some of the lifts they perform are beneficial for rowing. Other sports players will be doing some fitness training, so you can remove a few cross-training sessions and get them to use their time for core, weights or on-water work.

Understanding your rowers’ full training make-up is also important so as not to overdo their training, but to give them a good balance. Juniors especially should ‘play more than one game’ to make them versatile and robust athletes instead of just becoming pure rowers. The benefits of this are that they will be less prone to injury, but also they tend to enjoy their sports more if they are not just focussed on one.

Quality Time

It sounds obviously that, with limited time, we need to make every second count and be as productive and efficient as possible.

This comes back to Phil Simmons’ point about intensity. Is all of your water training actually used to seek out boat speed… do you paddle hard enough?

Phil also talks about relating the whole training programme to the water, particularly weights. Weight lifting is often just seen as something to build strength and power which then gets adapted into the boat, but it should be taught as directly relating to the rowing stroke.

“Relate weights and ergos to what is on the water. I often find that with juniors they are amazed when you speak to them about how ergo tech & boat tech are the same and weights tech relates to rowing tech.

An example, having done roll ups in the boat I then suggest the athletes do a dead lift (having done dead lifts first on the land). When they realise rowing is just like a dead lift/ power clean/ snatch then I’ve noticed an improvement in concentration to get the land based technique right. Too often they see weights as weights, ergos as ergos and rowing as rowing and little relationship between then (especialy weights and rowing). When they understand they are closely linked then hopefully they’ll benefit. This needs to be taught from day one (in our case at KGS from J14’s) but still needs reinforcing right up to the day they leave (hopefully onto a long rowing career).”

A good way to increase intensity and help rowers feel the relationship between weights and the stroke is to add resistance. Loop two or three bungees around the hull (for a single or double, more for bigger boats) and really get the rowers to feel how they move the ‘heavier’ boat. Posture and correct drive is important here as many rowers will try to use their backs and upper body too early, so coaching as though they are doing a deadlift or clean is crucial.

So many rowers give every spare minute they have to training, but continuing to row the same technical errors. The mindset is that they must train their strength and fitness to be fast, neglecting technical work as it doesn’t feel like they are ‘doing work’. A video session can highlight areas for technical improvement and can actually be very time-efficient. By using a GoPro or similar on-board camera you can perform you usual water session (not losing out on fitness) and review it later in your own time. This can be used to highlight particular areas of weakness and you can plan technical exercises to build into your next session to be done while resting in between work pieces or while waiting for crews to regroup. Two hours of real analysis and planning with regard to technique can have much more benefit to boat speed than 10 hours of strength and fitness work.

If you don’t have the time or feel you don’t have the expertise to review your own video, make use of Xeno Müller’s Video Analysis service.

Wasted Time

Most training will give you a physiological benefit, but when your time is limited some of it could be considered wasted effort. A question came up in a web seminar with Tim McLaren this week: What should you cut from the ideal training programme?

Many modern Olympic programmes place a large emphasis on long UT2 sessions, especially through the winter. The idea of these sessions is to develop your aerobic base through improving cardiovascular capacity. UT2 training is generally thought to be beneficial when done in large volume, as a major part of your training programme. However, if your overall time available for training is limited it is thought by many to be less beneficial than higher intensity workouts. That’s not to say you should be doing intervals and speed work all the time, but your longer sessions may benefit from being done at UT1 or AT to work towards anaerobic threshold.

These training bands are explained well in this article at Peak Performance.

When it comes to weights, many Olympic programmes are working with athletes who are already very strong and have the time to devote to small gains in strength. With limited time, club or school rowers would benefit more from developing power than trying to build muscle. Lighter weights and complex lifts (e.g. cleans) performed with a focus on speed of movement will see quicker gains and have more relevance to the boat than heavy weights which aim to build muscle mass. Circuits, either bodyweight or light weight circuits, or bungee work in the boat are ideal when time is limited.

Don’t be tempted to cut your flexibility or core work. It’s important in allowing you to maintain good stroke length and posture and most rowers don’t do enough of this kind of training anyway.

Rowing seems like a sport which needs hour and hours and many many kilometres of training for athletes to be successful, but by making your training more efficient in reaching your goal (a fast boat) you can be competitive and win against others who are able to devote more time to the sport. Each sessions should be designed to provide a benefit to boat speed. If you’re not sure what that benefit is then it needs to be redesigned. Train smarter.

Related Articles:

Cross-Training for Rowers

Be Your Own Support Team – Nutrition

Be Your Own Support Team – Flexibility

Video Analysis: A Guide for Rowers and Coaches

Core Strength for Rowing – Static Exercises

Core Strength for Rowing – Dynamic Exercises

Lower Back – Strength & Flexibility


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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Nick Holmes

    Perhaps, just keep things simple and focus on the ones that are willing to put in the dogged hours,
    There is nothing like determination and drive and dedication and commitment and perseverance.
    There is nothing like a diligent legitimate conscientious approach.
    Athletes and coaches should set attainable and achievable goals. Goals should be set
    high and hopefully others will rise to the top. Always shoot for a very high common
    demoninator. If not, it cheapens the whole shabang.

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