On February 6th, 2016 I completed a bucket list event. It was the Main Line Slide. For those of you who don't know much about rowing in the northeast, in the winter, when you can't get on the river to train in boats, you train on the Concept 2 rowing ergometer. To keep things competitive, events like the Main Line Slide are held as qualifiers for the granddaddy of all 2000 meter rowing time trials, the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints.
It wasn't my goal to qualify for the C.R.A.S.H.-B's, but I did want to score a time of 6:30.00. I not only hit that mark, but was able to surpass that time by 10 seconds, finishing with a time of 6:20.3! I couldn't be more happy with this time and it makes me think that I missed my calling as a rower. What I would like to do in this post is outline the training process leading up to the event, which allowed me to improve 40 seconds, on my initial score of 7:00 minutes on the first day of training. There are however, some things you need to know about me first that may have given me some advantages over others that may choose to use this program to improve their rowing scores.
First, I'm not a small organism. At 6'6" tall and 260 pounds, I am able to use my length to eat up meters. Most elite rowers are well over 6' tall. It really does help. I am also pretty strong. This past summer I set personal records in the deadlift at 545 pounds and 325 pounds in the front squat. I also have a large base of training years under my belt in various events and disciplines. As a 215 pound high school senior, I could deadlift 450, run the mile in 5:29, throw the shot put 50 feet, the discus 170 feet, and run 400 meters in 55 seconds. Years later, in 2010, I competed in the Tactical Strength Challenge and placed 3rd in the world with a 525 deadlift, 20 strict pull-ups, and 139 reps of kettlbell snatches in 5 minutes (53 lb. KB). I also competed in some CrossFit competitions for a few years and most recently, weightlifting meets. I also competed in track and field and basketball in college. What is also favorable to me, is that I am a P.E. teacher and my office is the weightroom, which is connected to a rowing room. My school has a very successful and nationally known rowing program which gives me access to high quality coaches for advice and a training program. I was also finishing up the "300 Kettlebell Swings a Day for 30 Days" challenge when I began the rowing training. The KB program was a good primer for the rowing program. It got me in the habit of training daily and sticking to a plan. It also helped my mental toughness. It gets boring doing the same thing every day, and like you probably have heard before, most of getting better is just showing up. Doing the 300 KB swings for 30 days got me in the habit of showing up.
There are three things that I can clearly point to that helped me score the 6:20.3 and I will tackle each part individually: 1. The Training program 2. Supplements 3. Ketogenic diet
THE TRAINING PROGRAM
I decided to do the Main Line Slide this year mostly because my shoulder was bothering me and I couldn't do clean and jerks. I couldn't rack the bar across my shoulders or do presses of any kind. I asked assistant rowing coach, Nicole Cunningham, to write me a program with the following stipulation -- all training sessions need to be 30 minutes maximum. I don't have time for more. So she came up with the following program in the table below. The prescribed workout is first. What I actually did is underlined. When you see this mark, ( ' ) it is short hand for minutes. When you see ( @ ) and then a number, it is the prescription for stroke rate, or how many strokes you do in a minute. Both the ( ' ) symbol and the ( @ ) symbol only show up on the Tuesday/Thursday workouts. These are recovery days. I post all of my scores based on the 500m split. So I may row for 100om , but the score is written as 500m average, not total time. The only score where total time matters is the 2K. I didn't always follow the prescription. I skipped some days completely. I will put the prescription, but then what I did or didn't do will be underlined.
Row 2K - 7:00.5 1:45.1
Repeat the series 3 times (4' @18, 3' @20 2' @ 22, 1'@24)
(only did 2 times)
4x500m, w/ 90sec rest 1:48, 1:47, 1:39.5, 1:36.3
Repeat the series 2 times 5'@18, 5'@20, 5'@22 (only did 12 min on the 2nd set)
2 x 2,500m w/ 4 min rest 1:47.7 (only did 1. Kid woke up)
30 min Steady State, 2:19
2 x 1000m w/30 sec rest 1:46.7, 1:44.0.
Repeat the series 3 times (4' @18, 3' @20 2' @ 22, 1'@24) 2:23
Repeat the series 2 times (5'@18, 5'@20, 5'@22) 2:23.4
1 x 3k 1:44.9
30 min Steady State (did 10 min)
2 x 1k 1:32.2, (Skipped set 2)
30 min Steady State (skipped)
2x500m at race pace
30 min Steady State (skipped)
30 min Steady State (skipped)
RACE DAY 6:20.3 1:35.1
As you can see, I skipped or adjusted things along the way, especially at the end. As my times got faster, more rest was needed to recover. I've learned from years of training to listen to my body. If the sight of the rower made skin crawl, I had no problems skipping the workout. Be aware of other stress as well. The last three weeks of the program I had to organize and run a weightlifting meet one weekend and then teach a kettlebell seminar the next weekend. I also have two kids, a full time teaching job, and a team to coach. That stress counts even though it is not necessarily physical. The base of fitness earned by being consistent in the beginning allowed me to rest at the end and not lose anything.
On this plan, Tuesday and Thursday workouts were recovery days. Coach Nicole made it clear from the start that these days are designed to be slow. Use the low stroke rate to work on technique and work on pace. Instead of worrying about the split time, I tried to hit the stroke rate dead on. My best was 25 straight pulls hitting a stroke rate of 22. If I really focused on technique, (sitting tall, good hip hinge, etc), I was sore the next day in my postural muscles. Even though it's slow, it's progress.
The back injury in week 4 during the 7x500m workout is worth mentioning. I was not initiating the pull with my knees. Instead I was pulling by driving my shoulders back before the knees and quads had the chance to contribute to the movement. I see people row like this all the time, you all need to stop it. After some coaching from our rowing staff, I really focused on my technique and using legs first. This kept me injury free for the rest of the training. It also made me faster.
On the 2k re-test at the half way point, I was happy with my score. I showed the results to Head Rowing Coach, Craig Hoffman, and he brought up the concept of emptying the tank. He asked me if I emptied the tank on the re-test. I didn't. He said I needed to go faster in the beginning. I purposefully went slower in the beginning so I didn't crash and burn at the end. I kept some energy in reserve. He said I needed to learn to empty the tank. So at times over the last 7 weeks of training, I practiced emptying the tank. This is another reason why I probably needed more rest days at the end. I still never did it fully until the competition. I, for sure, emptied the tank at the Main Line Slide.
The hardest workout on this whole list, aside from the 2K itself, is the 8x250m, all out. This, surprisingly, was killer, but it really made me fast. I was really proud of my scores on this workout during week 13. I was also happy about my scores on the hard 30 minutes test on week 9 and hard 40 minutes test on week 11. These workouts were not prescribed, but our rowing team does a hard 30 minutes once a week and I wanted to see what it was like. I also wanted to beat all of them, which I did. Talk about mental toughness training. Give a hard 30 minutes workout a try. You'll be crying for mama.
SUPPLEMENTS I took a solid regimen of supplements during the training process, mostly geared toward cardiovascular efficiency.
A supplement routine began at week 5. It is important to get into the habit of quality training and following a plan before supplements are introduced. This is a mistake people make all the time. Before they start a training or fitness program they have already purchased a bunch of supplements. I'm a believer that you need to commit to the training before you even think about supplements. Get in the habit of showing up and working hard. Be consistent and get into a bit a shape before "supplementing" your training program.
Here is what I took and why. I have also linked to the exact brand I took.
Beta-Alanine - I took this powder 2-4 times a day for 10 weeks. It is the recommended dose on the bottle. Beta-Alanine helps to buffer lactic acid. Rowing requires that a significant amount of time be spent at or above your anaerobic threshold. What this means is burning. Deep, searing, burning in your muscles. If you can reduce this pain, you can go faster.
Taurine - I took two servings a day for 10 weeks. It is the recommend dose. I basically took Taurine because of this article. It talks about why it should be combined with Beta-Alanine at the end. It made sense to me, and it's really cheap, so I figured why not just get it. There is probably a reason why it is included into every energy drink out there. Red Bull can't give you wings without Taurine, right?
NAC - N-Acetyl Cysteine. I took one pill twice a day which is the recommended dose. I have read that NAC is a good compliment to Beta-Alanine and heard the same from a science teacher colleague of mine who is into reading research and physiology related material. According to a 2008 University of Kentucky review, NAC has been shown to inhibit fatigue in healthy adults during exercise. Scientists administered n-acetyl cysteine to cyclists during an extended exercise bout and found there was a delay in muscle fatigue. Like Taurine, it's also cheap, so it was included.
Whey Protein - I took 1-2 servings of Earth Fed Muscle, primitive protein every day. Bro, got to maintain this muscle mass while doing all this cardio.
Keto CaNa - Keto CaNa is exogenous ketones. This is a very new product. It is also very expensive. It costs more than all the others combined. I will talk about this more in the next section when I discuss the Ketogenic Diet.
MCT Oil - This oil is made from medium chain triglyceride's. It supports the Ketogenic diet and helps the body make ketones. I put it in my coffee in the morning and in my protein shakes. Probably about 2 tablespoons per day. I didn't really measure.
As you can see, I took a bunch of stuff. While I do believe each supplement played its part in my improving the ability to row faster, I can't say to what degree. The important thing to remember, even after reading this section, is that continually training hard will still yield the most benefit. You can't out-supplement a poor work ethic. I have since stopped all the supplementation with the exception of the whey protein. I probably will not take any other supplements for a long time.
KETOGENIC DIET By this point, most of you have probably heard of the ketogenic diet. I am not going to spend a lot of time talking about what it is and how it works. There is so much written about it already. Go do a google search and you can read about it for days. I'll give a quick overview. Reduce carbs to less than 50 per day, maybe even lower. Eat a lot of fat and some protein. After a week or so, your body will start producing units of energy called ketones. Your body will then create the machinery in your cells to process them so that the energy can be used by the brain and muscles. Some endurance athletes use a ketogenic diet because a ketone will yield more ATP per unit than glucose can provide. It's a more efficient energy source.
The drawback is, it is difficult to stay on a ketogenic diet. The process of getting in to ketosis is pretty miserable too because of sugar withdraw headaches. I decided to do it because I am a sucker for performance. I wanted to go fast and I thought that Keto was the way to go. I can't argue it wasn't. However, I am not sure I executed the diet optimally.
The diet was started on January 1st so it was only a 5 week commitment. Looking back, it probably wasn't long enough to get the full effect. Going Keto was part of the plan from the beginning, but there was no way I was going to be on Keto during the holidays. No stuffing, no cookies, no sweet potatoes...no thanks! So on January 1st I ditched carbs. The headaches started for me around week two, but performance also started to spike so it was OK. Looking back, I think I ate too much protein (too much protein can blunt ketosis). I also think I needed to add carbs to my post-workout meal. Most sources say up to 50 grams of carbs a day is allowed, but I wasn't anywhere close to that. I think most of my headaches were a result of low electrolytes. I think I was in full on ketosis though. I used ketone strips and tested my urine frequently. It took about a week to get a reading of 1 millimolar. It is recommend that blood concentrations for successful ketogenic dieting is between 1-3 millimolars. Keep in mind, the urine strips only measure the amount of ketones being excreted, not how much is in your blood. One you are keto adapted, it no longer shows up in your urine because your body is using the ketones. After about 4 weeks I no longer was getting a positive reading for ketones on the strips. One of these days I am going to get a blood meter and experiment again with this diet.
My highest reading with the urine strips was 4 until I started using the Keto CaNa product. This is why I am not sure to what effect the exogenous ketones had on my performance. The first time I took the product (week 11), I tested about 6 millimolars post workout. This means I was urinating out the ketones. Pretty much flushing my money down the toilet. But who knows, maybe I could have been more keto adapted. Maybe the training session wasn't long enough to burn the ketones. Too many "maybe's" to make a definite call on the efficacy of this product.
In closing, this whole process was a really good experience for me. The training was hard, really hard, and I learned a lot about how rowers train. After posting my score on Facebook, I received some great congratulatory messages from former Malvern rowers. One of them, Mike Donohue, who was a great rower at Malvern and at Columbia, had this to say about rowing a 2K, "Nothing like the pain of a 2k - worst and most rewarding experience ever." He's right about the pain for sure. I couldn't stand afterward. I experienced what rowers call the "2k cough". I coughed the rest of the day as my throat and lungs burned. For the next 2 hours I told myself that I would never do it again. But, later in the day, after I recovered, I believed I could go faster, and I really think I can. Main Line Slide 2017? Qualify for C.R.A.S.H.-B's? At this point, all I know is, I can't commit to that just yet. One last point I want to make, is that there were many times during the training where I said to myself, "I don't know how I am going to hit my goal. It seems so out of reach." Luckily for me I followed up that thought with, "Trust the process. You got a program from a rowing expert. You are putting in the time. You are diligent with you supplements and your diet. It will fall into place." I am glad I trusted in the process.
Spots are filling up for the the first Annual Youth and Junior only meet. Only 75 lifters will be allowed. The meet will be on the campus of Malvern Prep School on November 21st. To sign up please click here.
All spots have been filled for Frank Spellman Classic. There was such a large respone for this meet that next year it may become a 2 day meet. The Malvern Weightlifting Team greatly appreciates your attendance and we have helped us raise a significant amount of money that will be put toward to our trip to Youth Nationals this year! Thanks so much and Happy Training!