Competition is a great motivator, and strategic planning (and training!) can lead to a top performance on race day. Finding your optimal race pace, training your body to row at high intensity, and creating a race plan are the keys to competing well.
Olympic and indoor race distances are usually 2000m, but the principles outlined here can be applied to any race distance.
Finding Your Optimal Race Pace
Pace is expressed as time per 500 meters (for example, a 2:14 pace means that it takes two minutes and 14 seconds to complete 500m).
Knowing your optimal race pace is crucial for training and setting up your race plan. Several weeks ahead of race day, take the following steps to find your race pace.
- Do a baseline 2k.
Set your Performance Monitor for a 2000m distance piece. Start the 2k easy, at a pace you know you can maintain for the whole piece. If you feel strong, increase your intensity in the second half of the piece. At the end, record your average pace for the entire 2k.
- One week later, do another 2k test.
Start out rowing at your average pace from your baseline 2k. Again, if you feel strong, increase your intensity in the second half, and record your average pace at the end.
- Repeat this process until you close in on the best average pace you are able to maintain for 2000m. This is the pace you should start with and maintain through most of your 2k race. If you feel strong, increase your intensity for the last 500m, “emptying the tank” by the end of the race.
These tests can be taxing—especially as you improve!—and it may take three to four cycles of testing before you home in on your race pace. Do no more than one test per week, especially as race day approaches.
Training to Row at High Intensity
Training to row at high intensity typically means doing intervals: workouts composed of periods of high-intensity work followed by periods of rest. Here are a few to try.
Do six intervals of 500m with 1 minute easy paddle rest. Rest for 5 minutes, and then row 500m for speed. During the six intervals, work in a controlled way and try to go faster with each interval. Your pace should be 3–6 seconds faster than race pace. The 500m speed interval is about teaching yourself to pull hard, particularly if your recent training has focused on long-duration, low intensity work.
Do three intervals of 1000m with 2 minutes easy paddle rest. Row the first 500m of each interval at a pace you can maintain, and then increase your intensity for the second 500m. Your pace should be 2–3 seconds faster than race pace. By race day, you’ll have hopefully done all three intervals at or below your target race pace.
Do 500m with 1 minute easy paddle rest; 1000m with 2 minutes rest; 1500m with 3 minutes rest; 1000m with 2 minutes rest; 500m. Do the first two pieces at a controlled pace. During the 1500m piece, increase intensity in the last 500m, and then push during the last two intervals. As you push the workout faster over the course of your training, try to do the 1500m and the last two intervals at or faster than your target race pace.
Create a Race Plan
Creating a race plan is about splitting the race into sections (splits), and pacing your race correctly for each section. Many rowers, for example, break a 2k race into four splits: four 500m pieces. You might split a 1000m piece into two 500m pieces or three distinct sections of 100m, 600m and 300m. Regardless of how you split it, the goal is to have a target pace in mind for each section, based on the race plan you use.
Here’s a look at the four race strategies, or plans.
Fly and Die
This is where you go out from the start as hard as you can and then try to hang on. This strategy is painful, and we don’t recommend it. Many first-time racers—carried away by the occasion—adopt this strategy only to find that a stellar first 500m has dissolved into a painful, weakened slog by the end of the race. Anyone who has used the “fly and die” strategy, unwittingly or not, usually adopts a better plan for future races.
Defend a Lead
This is a more controlled version of the “fly and die,” where you try to gain a small lead in the first part of the race while you are still feeling strong. You go out hard before settling into a pace that gets you to the halfway mark a second ahead of schedule, and then try to defend this advantage as you fade over the second half of the race.
This is the race plan of the optimist: you hope that your training has been so good that you will be capable of a faster pace than you’ve predicted for yourself. On a good day, you might end up rowing even splits. More likely, you’ll row the second half of the race a few to several seconds slower than the first half, resulting in a disappointing overall time. Rarely does this strategy result in a strong performance.
Even splits means you row the same time for both halves of the race. You take a few hard, fast strokes at the start to get going, before settling into an early rhythm that takes you to the halfway point exactly on schedule. You’ll fade a little over the second half before a sprint to the finish brings your average pace back on target.
This strategy is rowing the second half of the race faster than the first. This is a popular tactic, especially with anyone who has been on the wrong end of a “fly and die,” because it offers the least risk of going too fast in the first half and paying for it in the second. Even if you’re having a bad race, an attempt at negative splits can quickly be changed to even splits. For a 2k race, negative splits might play out as follows:
- First 500m: Being the first, this split is usually one or two seconds faster than the 500m split goal.
- Second 500m: Settle in, and try to hit your target split goal. For example, if your goal 2K time is 8:00, you should be seeing 2:00, 1:59, or even some 2:01s on the screen. The goal is to be consistent and find a hard but sustainable pace.
- Third 500m: This is the deciding piece of the race. Most people fall below their goal during this split, because it hurts the most. If you hold your split pace consistently, you’ll most likely gain an advantage as other competitors tire.
- Fourth 500m: You’re in the last two minutes of the race. If you’re on or below (going faster than) your goal and are feeling strong, now is the time to push; if you’re barely hanging on but are maintaining your pace, focus on being steady and consistent. If you’re barely hanging on and going slower than your pace, now is the time to dig deep and push past your limits. As you close in on the last 250m—less than a minute left—go as hard as you can and finish strong.
The First 10 Strokes
Whichever race strategy you use, the first several strokes of your race will likely be harder and shorter than normal due to adrenaline and fresh legs. After about the fifth stroke, the key is to reduce the rate, lengthen the stroke and ease back on the power. By the tenth stroke, you should be at your race pace.