It’s summer time and many of us are thinking of time away from the boathouse, ergometer, and spin bike. Often, this is out of our control, such as in the case of the high school student who has a summer job that conflicts with open gym or boathouse times. Sometimes this is in our control, such as a planned vacation or conscious choice to move rowing to the backburner for a few weeks or months and focus on other activities. The competitive athlete will never want to give up an edge to their competition, so while there is no true replacement for time in the boat or on the erg, here is how to stay in as good shape as possible to make smooth the transition back to specific training.
A Rowperfect reader asked, “I’m unable to row for the next month and I can only really use the erg (and for that matter, weights) a few times a week. Other than that, what are good methods for keeping rowing fit?”
One thing to get out of the way is that a vacation or a break from training is not always a bad thing. I purposely do not provide my athletes with a program for lifting or cross-training for 2-3 weeks after the competitive season ends. I want them to enjoy recreational activity, reunite with any neglected hobbies, and de-stress and heal from a hard season of training. Successful athletes know how to rest and recover, seeing the long-term picture of sustainable progress. In my experience, athletes who haven’t had at least one week off per 12 weeks of training per year tend to stagnate as they continually neglect recovery from training. You need a physical and mental break every so often, so if this is just a 2 or 3-week vacation after a hard season of training, don’t be the guy worrying about every meal, calorie, and lost training session. Just enjoy wherever you’re visiting and the recreational opportunities that abound and think of how fresh, recovered, and enthusiastic about training you’ll be when you return.
If this is longer than 2-3 weeks or your schedule will require frequent breaks from training, let’s talk about how to maintain fitness. As I said, you will not find anything that will 100% replace specific training. However, I hope to convince you here that this is not a bad thing and that this change of pace could actually be very beneficial to your overall training.
Rowing can create a lot of postural and muscular imbalances and cross-training is a critical method of undoing and preventing these imbalances from becoming injuries. Rowers tend to develop tight hip flexors, underactive gluteal muscles, a rounded thoracic spine, and weak pressing muscles of the upper body. In addition, sweep rowers tend to have left-right imbalances due to the rotational nature of the sweep stroke, particularly if they specialize as a port or starboard. Maximize your time away from rowing to undo these imbalances and set yourself up for a great return to rowing training.
In her original answer, Rebecca mentioned hill sprints. Hill sprints are a fantastic method of aerobic conditioning for a few reasons. One is that they are low equipment, as long as you can find a hill. Another is that hill sprints simplify the sprinting motion. Many people, particularly rowers with flat arches and underactive glute muscles, find that sprinting on flat ground or pavement gives them shin splints or knee pain. Hill sprints force you to stay on your forefoot and accelerate through the sprinting motion, and this tends to eliminate both shin splints and knee pain in addition to putting more emphasis on the glute, hamstring, and calf muscles. I suggest sprinting approximately 40 yards or meters, turning around and WALKING back down, then immediately sprinting back up. Your rest is your walk down. Do 10-15 sprints per session, gradually increasing the speed as you improve.
Exercise bands are an excellent tool that every athlete should have available. These are particularly useful for time away from the gym as they require almost no storage space and can provide an excellent workout. Check out my video below for some examples of great resistance band exercises for rowers. You can make up your own circuit of 3-4 rounds of 10-20 reps on each, such as:
- Band Good Morning
- X-Band Walk
- Banded Pushup
- X-Band Row
- Banded Overhead Press (1 arm at a time)
- Band Biceps Curl
You’ll get a good sweat going, keep your heartrate high, and work your muscles through different ranges of motion than you do in rowing or conventional barbell exercises. There are dozens of ways you could use bands with different exercises and different tensions. I buy my bands from EliteFTS.com and they’ve lasted me years. Check out the tensions I use and recommend here.
Bodyweight exercises are also a great way to train for those away from a gym entirely. My Strength Coach Roundtable colleague Joe Deleo has a lot of resources available on his website, leotraining.io, and there is an excellent book called “Convict Conditioning” that goes into 304 pages of detail for how to make bodyweight training work for you. Like bands, bodyweight exercises are useful both as strength training and aerobic training, depending on the lifts you choose and how you choose to do them. Bonus points if you can bring or set up a makeshift TRX suspension-style trainer!
Finally, if you have access to a weight-room but not an ergometer or boathouse, you can do a lot to set yourself up for the next season with weights. In my book, “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance,” I outline how to set up training for each phase of the year to build toward long-term peak performance. You can check out a free preview here and buy it in the Rowperfect E-Store for £18.00. The summer is a perfect time to start training as the General Preparation Block lends itself well to this broad form of non-specialized training.
After you’ve taken 3-12 weeks away from specific rowing training, expect to take 2-3 weeks to convert the general strength and fitness you’ve built up into specific rowing ability. Commit to spending a few weeks to build back to your former level, rather than trying to go straight back to your previous split times and PR’s. Trust your training and believe in the process, and you’ll reap the rewards.