Making sense of erg scores

  • 15 Aug 2015 10:17 PM
    Message # 3481554
    The erg is a training tool that every rower becomes well acquainted with in their career.  Most rowers are accustomed to having coaches recommend various erg exercises be done at rates relative to their 2k or 6k goals.  For many rowers these numbers seem to be pulled from thin air based on how challenging the coach has decided to be that day.  But there is a real science to the numbers.

    To understand what we are trying to achieve with the fitness component of our training (erg pieces or the non-technical on-the-water rows) we need to understand what physiological stresses a 2000m race places on an athlete.  The body produces energy through two different processes: aerobic and anaerobic.  The aerobic process is a very efficient and can provide energy to muscles for an extended period of time.  The anaerobic process is much less efficient but can produce greater amounts of energy but only for short periods.  This is a greatly simplified description of a very complex system, but it provides enough detail to understand how training needs to proceed.  Estimates vary on how long an athlete can maintain intensity requiring the anaerobic process but it generally runs from 15 to 90 seconds.  Thus the majority of a 2000m race must be done at levels of intensity that an athlete can maintain aerobically.  Training is therefore done in a way to prioritize improvement of the aerobic system... being able to generate a higher level of effort aerobically.

    Aerobic training is done at lower levels of intensity, typically measured by heart rate.  We look to train with a heart rate between 65% and 85% of an athletes maximum heart rate.  The recommendation is for as much as 80% of the training a rower does to be aerobic with a higher amount done in the conditioning periods and a lower amount done closer to competitive periods.  Determining the maximum heart rate is challenging to do without more advanced medical tests.  There are a number of approximations that can be used, which we generally do during winter training.  However, experience has shown that the majority of athletes are able to maintain this aerobic heart rate when rowing long pieces on the erg with 500/m split times about 20 seconds slower than what they achieve on their 2k test pieces.  This is where most of our erg training work will done.

    Since all training is based on 2k times, and these times are used to seed rowers into lineups, most athletes ask at some point... "How fast should my 2k be?"  Surprisingly, a very simple and easy to perform test provides a great indicator of where 2k times should fall.  The Max Watts tests requires a rower to pull 7 strokes on the erg as hard as they can.  The total watts as measured by the machine is recorded.  During a 2k test a well conditioned rower should be able to maintain 65% of this amount. During a 6k test about 47.5%. There is a conversion from watts to splits that can be used.

    During winter training we were able to collect measurements on many of our rowers.  Of the  female athletes that performed both a Max Watts test and a 2k test last winter 43% of them performed in a range +/- 2.5% of what this analysis projected that they would do.  The remaining athletes were split evenly between those that performed better than expected and those that were slower than expected.  Athletes that perform as expected are considered "balanced" between their strength and aerobic fitness.  Athletes that perform better than expected tend to be more aerobically oriented as they can maintain their personal maximum effort longer than expected.  Athletes that perform slower than expected tend to be more strength oriented as they tend to tire quicker than expected when performing at maximum effort.

    We can use this information to evaluate the entire team as well as individuals.  In general the team was reasonably well balanced at the end of winter training.  For athletes that are significantly out of alignment with the expected outcomes we can tweak training to attempt to help them get into balance.

    The 6k test is another common test, one that stresses aerobic conditioning more directly.  Since competitive racing is heavily dependent on aerobic conditioning this test is one that coaches look at very closely.  There is a corresponding conversion from the Max Watts test to the expected 6k test as well.  At the end of winter training 59% of the girls were +/- 2.5% of their expected. Only 5% performed better than expected and the remaining 36% were slower than predicted.  This is a pretty significant shift away from aerobic dominance and indicates that while we have generally good balance we certainly need to keep a primary focus on aerobic conditioning. The majority of rowers (>90%) were closer to their predicted performance in the 2k than in the 6k test, further indicating that as a team our aerobic fitness should continue to be a priority.

    When developing a training plan we will start with a Max Watts test and compute an expected 2k or 6k test time.  For athletes that have done tests perviously we will look at past performance as well and select a target time.  When starting a training cycle, this target time should be a stretch based on past test performance.  Steady state workouts will be done with a goal of being able to complete the workout at the goal of 20 seconds over the 2k split.  When an athlete is able to do a steady state piece at this level to completion they are ready to take another test and adjust their goals.  

    A general rule of thumb we use is that an athlete that is well balanced between strength and aerobic conditioning should have a 6k split about 8 seconds slower than their 2k split.  The actual range for the women's team was between 7 and 9 seconds last winter based on the Max Watts calculations, so the 8 second rule of thumb is a good simplification.  Athletes that are under 8 seconds can add some higher intensity work into their plan, athletes that are over this need to continue to focus on steady state aerobic work.

    By understanding how all these numbers relate an athlete should be able to gauge where their performance should be and how they are progressing on a plan to improve.  Hopefully understanding what the numbers mean will make the prospect of testing less stressful.

    On the first day of practice the varsity will pull a Max Watts test.  This will allow us to set our steady state workout targets.  During the 2nd week of practice we will do a 6k test.  All of our fall steady state work will be done based on our 6k goal plus 12 to 14 seconds.  Given that our fall is a season of long races and our conditioning plan is to really focus on aerobic work, we will not be doing 2k testing during the fall until the end of the season when we will do one test just to set a baseline for winter training.  We will continue to maintain our training balance with body weight and light weight workouts throughout fall.

    Athletes (or their parents) that have specific questions about their numbers should feel free to ask me to go review with them.


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