The return-to-train phase is any time of resuming rigorous training following more than a week away or significantly reduced due to injury, illness, vacation, or anything else. We can think about returning to train in the general sense, such as resuming any training activities after time away, or the rowing return-to-train phase specifically of resuming rowing and erging following time away from sport-specific training. Athletes and coaches often just want to get back to their prior level of training and performance as quickly as possible. The better way to think of the return-to-train phase is how to use this time to set yourself up to go beyond your prior level.
Key Points: I wrote this article in May of 2020 during the most extreme example of a return-to-train phase, following a multi-week forced shutdown or restriction due to Covid-19 boathouse and gym closures. However, the rowing return-to-train phase includes any time of resuming rigorous training following more than a week or so away. Coaches and rowers can learn from the extreme example of Covid closures and apply it to common rowing return-to-train scenarios of beginning a new season, transitioning to rowing after a long phase of only erging, returning from vacation, rebuilding after an injury or illness, and more to reduce injury risks during this vulnerable time and improve athlete outcomes. Be aware of these phases in your training calendar, know the risks of trying to do too much too quickly, and use the strategies in this article to gradually reintroduce athletes to full training and beyond.
Prefer audio/video? I’ve presented on rowing return-to-train considerations twice to USRowing, with replays available at the links below. One webinar is from May 2020 for a general audience immediately following the Covid-19 closures, and another from April 2021 co-presenting with nutritionist Liz Fusco for a masters-specific audience.
Table of Contents:
- Rowing Research Review
- Planning the Return-to-Train Phase
- Return-to-Train Best Practices
- Wrapping Up
- My USRowing Return-to-Train Webinars
Why the Return-to-Train Phase Matters
“The largest risk factor for rowing injury remains rapid increases in training frequency, intensity and/or volume.” From Rowing Injuries: An Updated Review (2016)
Coaches and rowers go wrong during return-to-train phases by trying to rush or force adaptation on a short timeline, rapidly increasing workloads from a detrained base following time away from routine sport-specific training. Maximal erg testing, two-a-days, low stroke rate rowing for long durations, and a focus on meters and minutes above all else are all common features of the beginning of a new season, a transition between a land season and water season (or vice versa), and intensive training camps. The sudden increase in workload above the level of athlete preparedness greatly increases the risk of injury compared to a more gradual rebuilding approach.
Low back pain and rib stress injuries in particular are two of the most common and costliest injuries in rowing. Low back pain causes the highest frequency of missed training sessions, and due to the long recovery time, rib stress injuries cause the most total missed training time. From rowing research on these injuries, we know that an accelerated path to achieving high training volume and load is a major injury risk.
In a 2020 study of 151 Team Australia rowers during the 2012-2016 Olympic training, researchers found that 32% (six) of the total rib stress injuries occurred during the return-to-train phase of a training camp or the week after time away from training. 26 percent (five) of the cases occurred in the week following a significant change in technique or a sweep rower switching boat side.
In a 2015 study of 76 Team New Zealand rowers over 12 months of training, researchers found that low back pain incidence was significantly related to training volume (total hours and kilometers per month) and previous history of injury. They noted an approximately triple increase in both training hours and back injury in the month when athletes returned to routine training after an off-season break. Note on the graph below that the off-season break was not zero training hours. Even those who have been doing some training during a break are at increased risk of injury from an excessively rapid return phase.
Even if athletes erg during the break away from routine training, rowing researchers note (pg.3, para. 1) that the technique of erging is different enough from sculling and sweeping to not be able to rely on the erg to protect rowers from injury when returning to on-water rowing. In other words, rowers may be aerobically fit as ever from high levels of ergometer use, but musculoskeletal structures in the spine, ribcage, and shoulder will not be prepared for the specific demands of on-water rowing and therefore vulnerable to injury. I created this picture below to illustrate the differences in catch and early drive mechanics, specifically at the shoulders and ribs.
This applies in other sports as well, with additional research from Blanch and Gabbett (2016) analyzed data from studies in cricket, rugby, and Australian rules football to compare injury rates against the ratio of acute-to-chronic workload. They produced the illustrative chart below showing injury rates at different workloads. Chronic workload is the athlete’s average training hours over the prior four weeks. Acute workload is the training hours from one specific week. Both are expressed as percentages of normal workload. They provide the following example of how to read the data: If the athlete is detrained to the tune of 40% of their chronic workload, then resumes training at 100% (acute workload), we’d expect a 28% injury rate.
Let’s run a speculative example from this model around the current COVID19-related return-to-train window:
- A team of 30 athletes were training two hours per day, six days per week, before the shutdown. This gives us a normal training workload of 12 hours per week. This is our 100% number.
- Athletes then trained one hour per day, six days per week, during the shutdown. This gives us a chronic workload of six hours per week, or 50%.
- In one path, the boathouses and gyms are open again, and our athletes return to pre-shutdown training of two hours per day, six days per week. This is an acute workload of 100% against a chronic workload of 50%. Using the chart, we’d expect a 14.9% injury rate. About five our 30 athletes may get injured.
- In another path, coach or athletes are eager to “make up for lost time,” and add two extra two-hour sessions to their training per week. Now they’re at 16 hours per week, an acute workload of 120%, and an expected injury rate of 25%. We’d expect 7-8 athletes to get injured due to the aggressive return pace.
- In a third path, coach or athletes acknowledge the detraining effect from the shutdown and plan a progressive model for return. They go from six hours per week to seven hours per week, a 70% acute workload. This is a 5.5% injury risk, with 1-2 athletes possibly injured, or about on par with normal training risks.
Blanch and Gabbett note that the model is for illustrative purposes only, not predictive, and is not necessarily generalizable to specific sports. Their data does not differentiate between impact injuries, soft tissue injuries, and chronic injuries, and is also highly simplified, just based on total hours of training activity. In other studies, researchers have made more detailed calculations based on time of specific activities at specific intensities or when doing specific activities. These are highly sport-specific, and no researchers have yet studied this in rowing. In a 2017 editorial, rowing researcher Alison McGregor outlined the current research on rowing-specific injury prevention and rehabilitation, and highlighted the need for rowing research to extend into the return-to-train phase and translate into coach/athlete-education.
Blanch and Gabbett state that the critical factor of their 2016 study is, “the comparison of what is done with what is prepared for.” We should consider this beyond training hours alone. If an athlete has been using a dynamic erg, cross-training or playing another sport, and/or doing primarily low intensity aerobic training, they may be aerobically fit but detrained for higher intensity training. Immediately returning to prior training volumes and modes would still be a risk for return-to-train injury.
Planning for Return-to-Train Phases
I’ve outlined a few strategies below based on available resources. Please note that every situation will be different based on individual health and injury history, available equipment, training hours and fitness level before and during the time away from training, and numerous other factors. Take the resources and figure out how to best put them into practice in your own specific context.
First, identify return-to-train windows. Again, we have an obvious example following Covid-19 shutdowns, but this also includes returning from academic recesses, vacations, the post-season deload phase, and any other times away from routine, rigorous sport training. Consider the length of time away when planning the return-to-train phase. I consider a departure from routine training of a week or more as a return-to-train situation.
Second, determine assessments. How can we plan training if we don’t have a sense of athlete physical and mental health, fitness, and overall readiness to train? In the Covid-19 situation, an athlete who experienced a high level of emotional stress and/or physical illness will respond differently to returning to train than an athlete who was “just” working from home, even if both trained minimally during the shutdown. We’re lucky in rowing that ergs are more available than ever before, but we cannot assume that all athletes have one, use it appropriately during times away from training, and are prepared to jump back into routine levels of training.
Depending on the training context, length of time away from training, and availability of appropriate medical professionals, we may also assess body composition, mobility, and other physical indicators to get an accurate picture of athlete readiness. Adverse weight gain or weight loss can negatively affect retraining outcomes. If movement screening is a part of routine training, using an assessment panel in the return-to-train window may offer insight as to athlete mobility and identify potential injury risks. Was the athlete injured before the time away from training? If so, what is the status of their injury rehab? There is no one-size-fits-all or magic bullet assessment. The key is using assessments that are relevant to your training context, assessing often enough to have a sense of a baseline, and then re-assessing at sensitive times to identify changes.
Return-to-train assessments should not include strenuous or maximal erg testing. I understand the temptation to schedule a tough erg test in the return-to-train week, either as a motivator to continue training during a break away or as a way to assess athlete fitness upon return. While the motivation effect may work for some athletes, it may not for others, and still others may not be able to adequately train during time away for any number of reasons. It is unfair, unethical, and ultimately self-defeating to use increased risk of injury as a punishment.
We could use a submaximal erg test like an incremental step test instead. The “30R20 test” (30 minutes at 20 strokes per minute, for meters) is a popular submaximal test by limiting stroke rate and therefore total output. We could reduce intensity further by incorporating a heart-rate cap to keep athletes below an exertion threshold, or reduce volume with a “15R20” test. This will still give us relevant fitness data without overly stressing the athlete with maximal efforts. The Submaximal Rowing Test (SmRT) is a modified version of the Lamberts and Lambert Submaximal Cycling Test (LCST): 6′ at 70%HRmax, 6′ at 80%HRmax, and 3′ at 90%HRmax, with no rest, recording average watts from each stage. The SmRT keeps the rower below a maximal threshold to avoid high stress and strain. Average watts decreasing or struggling to achieve the heart rate targets suggests detraining, and we can then adjust training accordingly.
Perhaps we can use a 7-stroke or 10-stroke test with this to evaluate power, or a vertical jump test compared to a baseline performance for general lower body strength and power. There are other ways that we can evaluate athlete fitness and readiness to train than with mentally and physically grueling maximal erg tests that bring other consequences in injury rate, anxiety, and training efficacy risks.
Rowing Return-to-Train Best Practices
The USA National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) co-authored a position statement on return-to-train best practices in 2019, following the high profile cases of NCAA student-athlete deaths from aggressive return-to-train training. The resource is available for free, and aims to inform strength coaches and help strength coaches inform sport coaches on athlete safety and effective training during return-to-train phases.
The areas of extreme concern in the document are sudden cardiac death, exertional heat illness, and exertional rhabdomyolysis. I’ve summarized some “highlights” from the document below, before getting into the prevention strategies. I recommend reading the entire NSCA document for a complete understanding of these major risks.
Sudden cardiac death in otherwise healthy athletes occurs when an underlying cardiorespiratory vulnerability is triggered by a traumatic stimulus. The NSCA authors indicate that screening athletes for underlying heart defects is a crucial step, but that all coaches and athletes can take caution during transitional training phases to safely increase training and avoid creating the traumatic stimulus. Below is an informative two-minute video produced by Dr. Jonathan Drezner from the University of Washington about recognizing sudden cardiac death/arrest in athletes and responding with CPR/AED.
Content Warning: Real-life graphic footage of athletes experiencing sudden cardiac arrest.
Exertional heat illness includes everything from muscle cramps to heat exhaustion to heat stroke. Heat illnesses can occur in any athletic setting, but are especially common in the first 5-6 days of heat exposure, before athletes can acclimatize to the new environment. This presents a high risk during return-to-train activities, especially pre-season training camps.
Rhabdomyolysis, or “rhabdo” for short, occurs when a muscle or muscular area is exposed to such high trauma that the body basically determines that it is toxic, and begins breaking skeletal muscle down and excreting it. The excretion process occurs via the kidneys and urinary system, which exposes the kidneys to high damage and risk of total failure. Low levels of fitness and excessive amounts of repetitive exercise are risk factors for rhabdo. There have been several incidents of rhabdo in athletic populations. In a January 2011 workout, University of Iowa football players fresh off winter break were subjected to 100 squats at 50% of their one-rep max in as little time as possible. 13 players were hospitalized with rhabdo, and several more experienced significant symptoms without hospitalization. This is not just a football problem. The NSCA document refers to a 2007 case in which a new swim coach brought a “tough tester” of a workout to the athletes, consisting of 10 minutes straight of 60-second max reps on pushups and unweighted squats, followed by a swimming workout, then repeated for three consecutive days. Seven athletes were hospitalized with rhabdo.
These injuries all have implications for rowing, as another form of high intensity repetitive exercise in warm outdoor conditions with detrained athletes following a break away from training. The authors propose the following strategies to reduce risks of injury from strength and conditioning activities.
Strength Training Strategies
The NSCA proposes the “FIT Rule,” taking into consideration frequency, intensity, and time of rest interval. They recommend that frequency not exceed three sessions per area of the body in the first return week, and no more than four sessions in the second week. The authors use the “intensity relative volume” (IRV) system to determine training intensity, as a calculation of sets multiplied by reps multiplied by %1RM, expressed as a decimal. They recommend IRV between 11 and 30 for the first two weeks of return-to-train. Finally, the authors recommend a work:rest ratio of 1:4 for the first week of training and 1:3 in the second week, reducing risk of the major cardiorespiratory health concerns.
Anecdotally, I’ve found this to be another good opportunity for rate of perceived exertion (RPE) strength training, rather than basing training weights off of a 1RM that might have no real relevancy after multiple weeks away from strength training. My approach with RPE training is to hold frequency constant (either 2x/wk or 3x/wk strength training), use about half our normal session volume and an intensity range between RPE6-7 for the main work exercises in the first week of training, then the same volume for the second week but up to RPE7-8 for main work, and then increase volume in weeks three and four while holding the RPE7-8 range. This achieves the gradual return with first progressing intensity, then volume. Remember that the novel stimulus of strength training will increase muscle soreness in the early return-to-train phase. Athletes may also benefit from the practice opportunities with lighter weights to reacquaint themselves with the basic techniques.
Conditioning/Aerobic Training Strategies
The NSCA proposes the “50/30/20/10” rule for cardiovascular activities. Each number represents percent reductions for one week of training based on the maximum conditioning volume from the previous training phase. Athletes progress from a 50% reduction to 30% to 20% then 10% before going to full volume. Viewed another way, the athlete progresses from 50% volume to 70%, 80%, 90%, and then 100%. The NSCA’s recommendations focus on field sports and sprint-based cardiovascular exercise. They do not specify heart-rate zones or aerobic intensity zones for longer duration cardiovascular exercise in more endurance-focused sports like rowing. I recommend doing the volume progression at low-intensity only, staying in the lowest heart-rate zone or below approximately 65-70% of heart-rate maximum. This is a more controllable training stimulus, and allows the rowers to focus more on technique, which further limits stress and strain on vulnerable bodyparts and improving their skills for full performance after the return-to-train progression.
There are a few ways to approach the 50/30/20/10 system for different rowing scenarios.
Long layoff, with detraining: If the rowers have been away from all training for 2+ weeks, have experienced injury or illness, or are otherwise significantly detrained, start with the most gradual approach. This could be the first month of fall rowing after a summer off, or the first month of winter training after having a winter vacation off, or if a rower is returning from an illness or injury that took them out of training entirely for at least two weeks. Use the average training volume of all aerobic training (ie. erg, row, cross-training, but not strength training) in meters or minutes/hours from the month or two weeks before the layoff to calculate the “100%” number for the progression. Distribute this training appropriately between erging, rowing, and/or cross-training, and across multiple days of the week to avoid overloading athletes in a single session. The goal here is rebuilding the athletes’ basic fitness and tolerance and technique of erging and rowing. Here’s what the 50/30/20/10 progression would look like for rowers who did 100km or 12 hours of training per week before the training break:
- Week 1: 50km or 6 hours
- Week 2: 70km or 8.5 hours
- Week 3: 80km or 9.5 hours
- Week 4: 90km or 11 hours
- Week 5: Resume normal training at 100km or 12 hours, with intensity
Long layoff, no detraining: If the rowers have been away from just rowing and erging for 2+ weeks, but have maintained aerobic fitness through cross-training and other activities, then we can use the 50/30/20/10 progression for just the rowing and erging while preserving the total training volume. This is my strategy for rowers returning from an injury that took them out of the boat or off the erg, but still allowed for other training, such as being able to do stationary cycling and strength training while recovering from low back pain or rib stress injury. Calculate the 100% number based on the erging and rowing meters or minutes, and then backfill the remaining training volume with the familiar cross-training activities that the rower has been doing. Below is an example progression using 100km or 12 hours of just erging or rowing per week before the injury (total volume 200km/24 hours per week of all aerobic training). Distribute this across multiple days just like in the prior example, not doing 2x25km in the first week to achieve the weekly target at the expense of a daily progression.
- Week 1: 50km or 6 hours of low-intensity erging/rowing, with 50km or 6 hours of familiar cross-training
- Week 2: 70km or 8.5 hours of low-intensity erging/rowing, with 30km or 3.5 hours of familiar cross-training
- Week 3: 80km or 9.5 hours of low-intensity erging/rowing, with 20km or 2.5 hours of familiar cross-training
- Week 4: 90km or 11 hours of low-intensity erging/rowing, with 10km or 1 hour of familiar cross-training
- Week 5: Resume normal training at 100km or 12 hours of erging/rowing, with intensity
Short layoff, minimal/no detraining: Finally, if the rowers have been away for just 1-2 weeks, during which time they did not experienced illness, injury, or other event resulting in significant detraining, the NSCA recommends a two-week 50/30% progression. I use this approach when changing between modes of training, such as seasonal transitions between fall on-water rowing and winter erging, winter erging to spring on-water rowing, training camps, and switching between sweeping and sculling or from team boats to small boats. The rowers will be cardiovascularly fit for all of these different forms of training, but remember that the stress on commonly injured areas is different. For example, the low back and shoulders move differently and handle slightly different loads when sweeping versus sculling, erging versus rowing, and rowing an eight versus a pair. If the rowers can maintain a training status in all of these forms of training, then we can switch with minimal injury risk. However, most rowers do not regularly row team boats and small boats, and sweep and scull and erg, enough to maintain a training status in all of these. Here is the 50/30 progression using our same 100km or 12 hours of training before the short layoff or in one mode of training before switching to another.
- Week 1: 50km/6 hours of all training, or 50km/6 hours in the new mode and 50km/6 hours in the prior mode or cross-training
- Week 2: 70km/8.5 hours of all training, or 70km/8.5 hours in the new mode and 30km/3.5 hours in the prior mode or cross-training
- Week 3: Resume normal training at 100km/12 hours in the new mode, with intensity
Coaches and rowers often look at the first two weeks of return training and immediately denounce it as too easy. Precisely the point of a return-to-train plan is to ease athletes back into training, preserving athlete health while setting up the next, more intense block of training. This is a valuable time to focus on technique, while allowing the body time to gradually readapt to the stressors of sport-specific training. Remember from the research on low back pain and rib stress injuries in rowing that a major risk factor for injury is history of injury: Once you have one, you’re more likely to have another. Athletes who get injured from a rushed return-to-train phase or training camp of sharply increased volume or significant change in equipment might spend the entire rest of the season, year, or career trying to get back from that injury or subsequent re-injury, all because the coach or rower “couldn’t afford” a few weeks of gradual progression.
We consider load in rowing as per-stroke load. Load is increased by using hatchet blades instead of spoon blades, static ergs instead of dynamic ergs, overgeared rigging, rowing upriver or into a headwind, low rate erging and rowing, and any added resistance methods like bungees, boat weights, high drag erging, or rowing team boats with reduced numbers (eg. rowing eights with pairs). A key factor in rowing injury research seems to be reducing overlap of high volume and high load training, especially in return-to-train phases. For example, consider reducing per-stroke load during high volume or return-to-train phases by using spoon blades instead of hatchet blades, erging on dynamic ergs instead of static ergs, reducing fan resistance on static ergs, using lighter rigging, minimizing prolonged low rate rowing, and especially avoiding added resistance methods. I created a flowchart here to demonstrate these considerations. We will be even more gradual with our volume progression if we cannot adjust load due to equipment or logistical factors.
Environment: Athletes returning to train during warmer months are at increased risk of exertional heat illness or heat stroke. Consider hydration, nutrition, sun exposure, and temperature and humidity, alongside the 50/30/20/10 and FIT rules, and adjust training as needed. This is particularly relevant for rowers training in the outdoor elements, in an exposed environment, and for those who travel from colder climates to warmer climates for training camps (and then increase workload during the training camp). Please read the entirety of the NSCA position statement for a thorough understanding.
Key points of the rowing return-to-train phase are identifying, assessing, progressive rebuilding, and monitoring.
- Identify return-to-train windows and recognize their importance.
- Assess athletes’ health, fitness, mobility, and training status before and after returning to train. Use submaximal erg tests like incremental step test or heart rate limited test protocols to avoid increased stress from maximal erg testing.
- Progressively rebuild athlete fitness, movement, strength and sport-specific ability, not attempting to force adaptation with high workloads. “FIT Rule” for strength training: consider frequency, intensity relative volume, and time of rest interval. “50/30/20/10%” for aerobic training reductions: 50% week 1, 30% week 2, 20% week 3, 10% week 4, or “50/30%” for short layoffs and changing between equipment or modes of training.
- Monitor athlete health and ability during the return-to-train phase. Educate athletes with regard to sleep, nutrition, hydration, use of dietary supplements with dehydrating effects, and response to environmental conditions. Plan ahead to include hydration and nutrition during training, especially during times of increased workload or training in a different environment.
USRowing Return-to-Train Webinars
I was featured on the USRowing daily webinar series in May, 2020 discussing return-to-train considerations for rowers. The material is similar to this article, with a few additions and different style of presentation. Please enjoy and share via the link below, and thanks to USRowing for the opportunity. You can find upcoming webinars and links to past webinars at this link.
I returned to this topic in April, 2021, co-presenting with Director of Sports Nutrition Liz Fusco to address everything that masters rowers in particular should consider in training factors and how to support re-training with nutrition and hydration. While our audience was masters rowers re-training after pandemic-related shutdowns, the material is applicable for all rowers in routine training beyond the Covid19 pandemic. View below, follow Liz Fusco here, and feel free to leave any questions or comments below.
Last updated January, 2024.
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