Training & Racing on a Concept2 Ergometer
Racing between rowboats across stretches of river dates to the seventeenth century. London’s Thames was by then a bustling nexus of commerce, and businessmen of that era frequently required livery service from one riverbank to the other. The most common mode of transportation across the Thames was the low- slung “wherry boat,” powered by the oar-strokes of a “waterman,” as its pilot was known. Races between off-duty wherry boats naturally arose, and thus competitive rowing was born. Although I have only rowed a real boat in actual water exactly twice, I am still able to call myself a former competitive rower… an INDOOR rower.
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Collegiate rowing programs have since the late 1800’s strived to devise exercises that facilitate effective winter training, and numerous incarnations of mechanical rowing machines have been manufactured over the last century. In 1981, a pair of Vermont oar manufacturing brothers patented their Concept2 Rowing Ergometer– a.k.a. the “erg”– a refreshingly inexpensive and portable rowing simulator. Although it is impossible to exactly correlate exertions upon a stationary machine to rowing on real-world water, each stroke on the Concept2 is nonetheless translated to distance rowed in a manner that constituted one of the most significant developments in the history of the sport. And yet the erg is hardly regarded with fond thoughts or memories by anyone familiar with it because serious erg training is alternately mind-numbingly boring (long, aerobic segments) and brutally painful (short anaerobic intervals.) Collegiate rowers, both former and current, tend to view this contraption as medieval non-believers once regarded the rack— as a dreaded torture device. Indeed, many ex-oarsmen have likely endured gum surgery or other similarly intricate office procedures simply by reminding themselves during an interminable hour in the chair that at least they weren’t on a f—ing erg.
Shortly after the Concept2’s invention, early improvements included an electronic performance monitor that enabled rowers to meaningfully compare erg times. This upped the game for a Boston-based club consisting of former collegiate rowers (The C.R.A.S.H.-B’s, for “Charles River All-Star Has-Beens”) that had already begun holding erg races in order to add a little dark humor to their arduous indoor training regimen during the coldest months of the calendar. Their annual event has since grown many-fold and morphed into the WORLD INDOOR ROWING CHAMPIONSHIPS, drawing thousands of serious competitors from around the world to Boston every February. Meanwhile, dozens of other erg races fill out the indoor rowing calendar all winter, their colorful names reflecting this sport’s fundamentally masochistic nature— The Great Baltimore Burn, The Mid-Winter Meltdown, The Tough Love Indoor Rowing Championships, and, naturally, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre are but four well-known races held during the build-up to the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Races. All this in spite of the fact that erg racing is so hellishly painful as to constitute a spiritual rite of passage, not unlike coming-of-age initiations among primitive cultures of yore.
As a machine, a major portion of the erg’s appeal is its elegant simplicity. The user is seated atop a sliding plastic seat so small that, for many novices wishing to lower their BMI, actually fitting comfortably upon it might constitute a worthwhile goal in itself. This seat smoothly slides on a long rail, thereby engaging the thigh, back, and buttock muscles as one pulls on a handle connected to a chain that in turn rotates a fan-like flywheel, causing air to move. The flywheel has magnets that essentially make it into an electrical generator when it turns, and so the flywheel electrifies the performance monitor while also sending it data in the form of current that can be precisely measured. The performance monitor then quantifies and reports one’s efforts– in real time as well as for all posterity.
But what, exactly, is being measured?
There are several types of resistance used in exercise devices. Isotonic resistance engages one’s muscles to move a weight of fixed amount, as in doing bench presses or squats. Spring resistance is somewhat similar, except that the magnitude of resistance increases linearly in proportion to the changing length of the spring. Exertion without movement, as in straining one’s muscles to push against a stationary object, is known as isometric exercise.
Unlike all of the above, the Concept2 Rowing Ergometer pits one’s heart, lungs, muscles, pain tolerance, and willpower against air resistance and the laws of physics pertaining thereto.
Stick your hand out of a moving car window and you will feel the force generated by air resistance. Objects maintaining a given speed as they travel through air are thus performing WORK, as WORK = FORCE times DISTANCE. This is why airliners fly at high altitudes where the air is thinner, why aerodynamically-shaped cars get better mileage– less air resistance means doing less work and therefore using less fuel. Using one’s muscles to move air certainly meets the physicist’s definition of work, but on the erg it is much more complicated than that.
As we all know, performing a task that requires a given amount of work (say, raking one’s yard) can take either one hour or all day depending on how hard one works. Thus we arrive at POWER, which is WORK per UNIT OF TIME… or, in layperson’s terms, HOW HARD IT IS TO DO SOMETHING divided by HOW FAST ONE DOES IT. After crunching the relevant variables with some applied algebra and calculus, we see that when it comes to the task of pushing air out of the way, nature can seem rather cruel– power is (approximately) proportional to the flywheel speed cubed, meaning that increasing the speed of the ergometer’s flywheel by 10% requires a 33% increase in one’s power output.
Now here’s where the erg gets even more complicated— a damper lever beside the flywheel has different settings that change the air resistance such that on lower resistance settings one can row more easily. However, the performance monitor brilliantly compensates for this; it actually measures not only the raw speed of the flywheel but also how much it speeds up and slows down with each stroke as it moves air. This ingenious aspect makes ergometer race times equivalent even across different damper settings, kind of like the way a ten-speed bike requires the same amount of cumulative effort to pedal it up a particular mountain no matter what gear it is in. And herein lies the heart and soul of erging, either competitively or just for exercise–
Life is unfair. Mozart died penniless, and yet talent-challenged pop tarts sometimes autotune and lip-sync their way to multi-millionaire status. Wrongly accused people sometimes rot in jail while white-collar grifters and elected kleptocrats remain free. Some people are just plain luckier than others. But the Concept2 Rowing Ergometer represents a pure distillation of truth and fairness. Unfailingly exact, it reflects and rewards one’s exertions stroke for stroke without prejudice, pity, or mercy; it never lies, cheats, or embezzles. Every bit of effort expended is returned in cold, hard numbers. Competitive ergometer racing is not only possible but surprisingly popular around the world because recorded times for the standard race distance of 2,000 meters are comparable across time zones, oceans, and calendar years; across ages, genders, nationalities, and generations.
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There was a stretch of years in my life when I used to train my butt off and enter an erg race every winter. However, during the earliest years of the current millennium I took a few seasons off because of my busy work schedule— wholesale wine distribution by day, and restaurant management at night. But then, out of the blue, an online dating connection led to a New Year’s Eve encounter with an entirely unexpected consequence.
On the morning after our nearly all-night movie fest and gab-a-thon, SusanB. announced that she felt perky enough to run her scheduled New Year’s Day half-marathon even as a bitingly cold blizzard howled outside. I wondered— Is this chick bionic? She was training for the Boston Marathon, she explained, and today’s run was part of her tight running regimen. (I eventually learned that she had been a pioneer of sorts in her Buffalo, NY high school, competing on the boy’s track team at a time when such a thing was deemed heretical. To this day I recall her spirited determination and grit with awe.)
That did it, I immediately decided… If SusanB. —three years my senior— can run 13 miles in a snowstorm on New Year’s Day, then I could undertake crash training and enter an erg race in early February. I would need to carve out adequate training time from my double-duty work schedule, which would constitute an accomplishment in itself… But would it be enough? Would I be able to whip myself into good enough shape to break the magical 7:00 barrier in so little time?
Exactly five weeks after that New Year’s Day I was sitting on my assigned erg at THE 10th ANNUAL SARATOGA WATER® INDOOR SLAUGHTER*, all warmed up and anxiously awaiting the start command.
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The Concept2’s Performance Monitor displays a variety of useful information, such as elapsed time, strokes per minute, calories burned, and the distance one has theoretically rowed. The most important number to watch during a race is one’s instantaneous speed, expressed as projected time for 500 meters. In order to meet my goal of breaking seven minutes, I would have to pull an average rate below 1:45/500m… irrespective of the damper setting.
I tightened my foot straps and set my damper lever to five. If I had trusted my leg muscles more I might have chosen six and rowed fewer strokes per minute, and if my legs had felt less than well-rested I would have selected four and then rowed faster. During the past five weeks I had become so focused on my goal that I had come to hate the number seven itself– this was personal. And as long as I achieved my goal, the number seven wouldn’t be able to tell how I smashed it or whatever damper setting I used.
Seven minutes was a nice round number for a man my age. Breaking it would likely get me a top-three finish among my fellow forty-somethings. If I broke seven by more than a few seconds, I might even come in first. But this goal had seemed like an insurmountable wall during my five weeks of crash training. Holding 1:45/500m for 1,000 meters— half the race distance— had been way too difficult. Based on our training, we erg racers have a pretty good sense of how we will perform in a race, give or take a few seconds. No one shows up on race day and wins on just heroic effort and amped-up adrenaline. But the excitement of race day does often inspire competitors to outperform their expectations, if only by a little.
I took my final swig of water, knowing that my mouth would dry out no matter how much I drank. I took a few deep breaths to store up even a little oxygen that might be useful. As the countdown to zero proceeded, I closed my eyes and steeled my will–
The dozen ergometers sprang to life, screaming and wheezing almost in unison. We all knew to pull as hard as we could for the first ten seconds, utilizing the creatine phosphate that our muscle cells use as kind of a starter fluid. Then we all settled into our paces. The first half of 2,000 meter erg races is actually a little boring… you just hold your pace while conserving your energy for the inevitable onset of agony that awaits you. But something was wrong— I was having difficulty holding my pace because I was going too fast! I had planned on holding 1:44.5/500m for as long as I could, but I was hovering between 1:42 and 1:43 and actually had trouble slowing down. I would surely fade out and drop off before the finish at that pace. At the halfway mark my body came to its senses and I slowed a little…
Just as hell itself opened its hungry maw.
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Erg racing entails a combination of aerobic and anaerobic respiration. “Aerobic,” as the name suggests, means that oxygen is used in the conversion of glucose to carbon dioxide, water, and energy. Aerobic respiration provides us humans with enough energy for most physical tasks… but at some point in a 2,000 meter erg race it is no longer sufficient. When our bodies cannot get enough oxygen to burn enough glucose to meet our demands, our cells switch over to anaerobic respiration. This has two significant consequences— One, it is far less efficient than aerobic respiration and thus only sustainable for short bursts, like a fighter jet’s afterburners; and Two, anaerobic respiration produces lactic acid, which causes an increasingly painful burning sensation in the muscles before eventually shutting them down.
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As expected, I began to strongly sense my mounting oxygen deficit about two-thirds of the way to the finish. I had switched from breathing once per stroke to twice a while back, and my mouth, already dry, had soon become leather-like from the double gasps. As my remaining meters slowly melted I was counting my strokes in eights, which helped to distract from the growing discomfort.
When I crossed below 500 meters to go I began to believe that I might actually break seven. Not coincidentally, this is also the point in the race where one begins to experience hallucinations and entertain delusions from the lack of oxygen to the brain. Meanwhile, all of my body’s emergency alarms were flashing and screaming, demanding that I immediately stop. For how long could I override them? Every cell in my system was suffocating. I felt like I was in a fire.
At the 300 meter mark I was in complete agony and yet I sensed the nearness of the finish line, huffing like a steam engine and counting my strokes in fours as I entered the race’s final minute… the longest freaking minute in the world.
At this point the handful of spectators, many of them fellow rowers, started to loudly holler encouragement. (In my age group— Men 40-49— it had become customary for the wives to scream, “C’mon, Honey! You can do ANYTHING for one minute!”) I wasn’t sure I could— my heart rate was maxed out, and my lungs simply couldn’t keep up any more. So I turned to my legs for additional effort, slowing my stroke rate while shredding my quadriceps for brute thrust. This was a temporary measure until my oxygen debt reached its credit limit and my muscles wouldn’t let me borrow any more. I watched as my distance meter dropped down into double digits, and I was now counting strokes in twos. My body had essentially given out, and I was rowing purely on muscle memory and willpower, my mind mercifully half elsewhere in some sort of out-of-body experience. Somehow, some way, I had held below my target pace to this point, but my advantage was steadily slipping away. Could I hold it? My brain was too muddled to do the math, and I was just trying to keep from passing out. My vision was blurred, and I was losing my ability to see the monitor or anything else.
50 meters… 30… 20… 10… 5…
And then it was over. I furiously unstrapped my feet so I could extend myself and start taking full breaths. I immediately rolled to the floor and got on my hands and knees, sucking wind as hard as I could for a full minute as I slowly reoxygenated. And yet, even as my body was suffering through the inevitable lactic acid misery, I was simultaneously experiencing a flush of nonphysical euphoria… because on my way to the floor I had managed a glimpse at my performance monitor just long enough to note my result—
My fellow racers and I lay sprawled on the floor for several minutes in various degrees of incapacitation. Some gulped water between breaths; others barfed. None of us could stand just yet. It turned out that I had come in second, but I didn’t really care… I had gone to hell and back in less than seven minutes, so I was in heaven.
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That race was a long time ago. The year after that I solicited sponsors who would support my rowing efforts by donating to my chosen charity, The Cardinal Hayes Home for Children in Millbrook, NY. Freed from the tyranny of late-night restaurant work, I was training extremely hard and barely able to keep my weight on. It was almost as if my entire body chemistry had been transformed– I had the metabolism of a hummingbird, the body fat of a North Korean, and an ass like two cannonballs. I even had to buy new jeans because my old ones wouldn’t stay up.
I won two races in the space of three weeks that winter… an accomplishment all the more impressive in that, as it turned out, I had cancer and didn’t yet realize it. The chemotherapy and radiation would permanently damage my heart and lungs even as it was rescuing me from death by lymphoma. The damage meant that I would never be able to enter an ergometer race again, for to do so might well jeopardize my life.
But I’ve recently returned to regular rowing… not to reacquaint myself with the flames of anaerobic hell, but rather for good heart health, effective weight control, and longevity. I row slowly and steadily, occasionally pushing myself a little, but never too hard. While doing so, I am occasionally visited by flashbacks from my racing days, like when I’m rowing to Spotify music and suddenly hear Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” (This song’s lengthy refrain eerily sounds like erg racing feels.) But I easily resist the perverse temptation to briefly go anaerobic and remind myself that, having slain multiple seven-minute dragons in various erg races in my younger years, I am presently facing down an even more formidable adversary— Father Time.
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If I were producing an ad for the Concept2 Rowing Ergometer, I would assert that it is the standard by which rowers worldwide are measured– rowers both human and mechanical. There are a number of rival rowing machines, but this is the one I strongly recommend. You may find them at better gyms, and/or if you have the space they can be purchased directly from the manufacturer for home use. Go to https://www.concept2.com/.
*THE SARATOGA WATER INDOOR SLAUGHTER is not the name of a real erg race, but it could be.
And finally, my sponsors and I raised several thousand dollars for The Cardinal Hayes Home For Children. If you ever wish to donate to a wonderful charity that lovingly cares for children with extremely special needs, I invite you to check them out at https://cardinalhayeshome.org.