Although it’s not likely you’re going to row to a fire any time soon, rowing can provide tremendous conditioning benefits for firefighters. Last month (“Row Your Way to Fitness ” December 2007, p. 82) we discussed the health and financial benefits of using a rowing machine. Hopefully your department has or is considering purchasing one or more rowing machines for your stations. They’re a great value and require very little space to use and store.
Develop a Rowing Workout
Because rowing is foreign to many people, developing a workout program for this type of exercise may seem a bit daunting. The truth of the matter is that all the same principles of aerobic training apply: 80 percent pace work, coupled with 20 percent interval/high-intensity training, will yield the best results.
But before you can start training, you must know how to read the rowing machine’s information screens/monitors. One screen that may seem unfamiliar to you utilizes the 500-meter split as a unit of measure. For demonstrative purposes, the image here is of the PM3 Concept2 monitor.
Five hundred meters of rowing may not mean anything to you when you first get started, but the idea is to draw the correlation between what you perceive as hard work and a specific timeframe for this distance of travel. Because most of us are more familiar with time and distance than we are with watts, mets or calories, we feel this is a good place to start. Establishing a 500-meter split time that represents max effort for intervals and a pace rate for endurance work will lay the foundation for endless workout possibilities.
Just like creating any aerobic workout, you need to combine endurance (80 percent) and interval (20 percent) training to get optimum results. While working on endurance you can use the monitor to keep track of your 500-meter pace from stroke to stroke, as well as an overall running average.
Another tool available to you is in the upper right corner of the screen. This S/M value represents your stroke rate, or strokes per minute. A general misconception is that more strokes mean faster pace. Although that may be true with all-out effort, a high stroke rate during a sustained effort will likely result in an early stall. Find your zone of efficiency. Strong, powerful strokes with a reasonable recovery time between may actually allow you to row continually at a brisk pace and get more out of the workout.
With interval training, the sky’s the limit. The general idea is to create measurable work-to-rest ratios, working as hard as you can during the work phase and getting as much of a recovery as possible during the rest phase. You can generate aerobic improvement by gradually manipulating the ratios and pushing yourself into a level of high exertion.
As you start your program using the 500-meter pace that you feel represents a high level of exertion, you must also determine the intensity level at which you feel best for the recovery portion of the workout. Avoid stopping. Any movement is better than none. Develop the work-to-rest ratio in such a way that you feel taxed but not incapable. Don’t start off with goals that are only going to discourage you.
As you get stronger and the challenge begins to diminish with your current ratios, make some changes. You have a couple of options: 1) Decrease the duration of the rest period; 2) increase the duration of the exertion period; 3) increase your exertion intensity (i.e., row at a faster 500-meter pace); or 4) any combination of the aforementioned three options.
Sample Interval Workouts
The number of possible interval workouts is limited only by your imagination. Mixing it up keeps it interesting and hopefully keeps you coming back for more. Following are a couple suggestions to get you started, but don’t be afraid to get creative.
Some interval workouts can be performed completely on the machine. An example: Start with a 1:4 work-to-rest ratio. Let’s say you really feel like you’re pushing yourself with a 2-minute 500-meter split and you get a decent recovery with a 2 minute and 40-second split. Take time to do a good warm-up (i.e., break a sweat) and then begin your intervals. There’s a timer on the monitor so it will be easy to know when to start and stop. You may want to warm up for 10 minutes so it will be easier to keep track of time. Begin rowing at a 2-minute rate and maintain that for 1 minute. Drop immediately down to 2-minute 40-second rate and recover for 4 minutes. Repeat the cycle as many times as you can without sacrificing form. As you improve, you may shift to a 2:3 work-to-rest ratio or push for 1-minute, 50-second split during the work period.
Some other options: Incorporate calisthenics or weight lifting into the intervals. You can do like-movement patterns to work the fatigue angle or you may choose to do opposing movements to work the complimentary muscles.
An example of like-movement patterns would be to row hard for a given time period or distance, then hop off the machine and do pull-ups or power cleans. Opposing patterns would include push-ups or thrusters. You could also incorporate squats, leg press, extensions or curls, sit-ups and so on. Get creative.
When approaching the idea of rowing as a fitness tool for firefighters, you may have to think outside the box. Your first thoughts of rowing may conjure images of Henley and Ivy League schools, but the world of rowing ergometer training has broken out of the mold. There’s an entire subculture of competitions and camaraderie that revolves around the rowing machine. Without water or a boat, the benefits of rowing can be incorporated into any fitness program.
How Hard Are You Working?
Monitor the intensity of your rowing workout
In previous articles, we discussed monitoring your heart rate as a means of determining intensity in order to construct an aerobic workout program. There are rowing machine monitors that can register and display heart rate, but without them, tracking your heart rate during a rowing workout can be tricky.
Recently some people have disputed the accuracy of monitoring your heart rate as a means of gauging the effectiveness of your effort toward aerobic improvement. Specifically, there are some factors other than exertion that can contribute to increasing your heart rate, such as dehydration, fatigue and over-heating. These factors could lead to a slight inaccuracy in determining the correlation between heart rate and level of exertion. Cardiac drift, the term given collectively to the effect these factors have, will likely cause an increase in heart rate as your workout progresses. Your heart rate may not come down as low between intervals and you may notice a gradual increase in your heart rate without increasing your effort during sustained endurance training; however, for ease and general effectiveness, the heart rate is still the layperson's most reliable tool.
Without a remote display for your heart rate, however, it will be hard to keep track of your heart rate while maintaining your stroke rhythm. Another way to determine intensity is to simply rely on your rating of perceived exertion (RPE). Do you feel like you're putting forth a maximal effort or do you feel like you're cruising at a functional pace within your aerobic target range? Are you barely breaking a sweat? Go harder! You can go on perception or you can do a couple of experiments to train yourself in this exertion self-awareness. Push at variable efforts and monitor your heart rate. With time, you'll get a good feeling for where you're working without physically taking your pulse.