Winter Training: Do Something Else!

GRP Rower Wes Vear racing at the U.S. Cross-Country Ski Championships here in Craftsbury.

from Troy Howell, Craftsbury’s Director of Sculling:

I remember thinking when I moved from Virginia to Texas what a profound advantage I was about to have over the vast majority of other rowers in the United States. I’ll be able to row year-round! Think of the mileage! No long blocks of endless meters on the erg, staring at the monitor or the wall behind it! Greatness, until that got a little monotonous and I added triathlons and Crossfit for variety, novelty, and other virtues. Some people might tell you “oh, that’s not sport-specific enough – you’ll get slower if you’re not sport-specific.” That hasn’t been my experience at all, and in fact the opposite has been true: my biggest jumps in performance all seem to correspond to years in which something happened that got me jazzed about training again, even if the source of the excitement was not specific to rowing and sculling.

Returning to the move to Texas/year-round rowing gambit, after fifteen years there, I turned the idea on its head and moved to Craftsbury, where if the original logic held, I would be at a profound disadvantage; back to the extreme winter erg grind, hundreds fewer miles on the water, and between that and aging, becoming ever slower. That turned out to be nonsense too, thanks to 100+ kilometers of Nordic ski trails less than a hundred yards from my office door. In fact, I believe that Nordic skiing has done as much to improve my sculling from 2009-2019 as sculling itself has. 

It surprises some people to hear that most of our GRP scullers spend more time on skis than they do on the erg from December through February – even our marketing director raised his eyebrows at me and implied that I was stretching the truth when I put that in the camp description materials for our recent Skiing For Scullers program, but it has been a fact for the vast majority of our year-round athletes since the program’s inception in 2012.

Dan Roock established the tradition in the winter of 2012 by writing only two prescribed erg workouts per week into the training program and prescribing our local Tuesday Night Ski Race series as an expectation. That race instantly became the highlight of the week for nearly everybody on GRPRow, and although most everyone spent a fair amount of time beyond the two benchmark workouts spinning the flywheels of the ergs in our gym, when the weather was anything but foul you could also find GRP scullers skiing for far more kilometers than they erged. And what we found is that when we got back on the water in early March at the outset of our southern training trip, no one had any trouble hitting the splits they expected to see and most everyone felt fresher for having made an entirely different sport a key component of winter training.

So I’m going to get behind three basic ideas and make a few simple recommendation based on them: 1) Something less than twelve months a year of sport-specific training is optimal for rowers and scullers. How much less? Dunno. For our purposes, though, let’s say “a few weeks”. 10-15 has been working like a charm for us here. 2) Every athlete gets more out of training that they’re excited about doing, even if it’s not sport-specific. So by all means, if 5 X 5’ on 5’ rest still excites you, do it up – make it one of your benchmarks. But if you’re bludgeoning your way six days a week through endless erging because you’ve swallowed the sport-specificity argument, flush out your headgear, doofus, and find something else to do that you actually ARE excited about. 3) Trust your training. Once you’ve committed to a basic plan for winter training, whether the plan is traditional, cross-training dominant, or a hybrid with erg-specific benchmarks and another sport playing a key role as I’ve described above, the biggest determinant of the plan’s success will be between your ears. If you think it will work, you’ll get a better result than if you doubt that – which is not to say you can spend the winter playing Call of Duty, or perhaps knitting wool caps, as your training program (good luck convincing yourself to believe that will work).

The final word, then, is well-summarized by something Declan Connolly used to say in his physiology lectures at the sculling camp: “If you want to go faster, you have to go fast.” Get excited. Get outside. Do something else for awhile. Stay in touch with your benchmarks if you feel you need to. And when spring comes, you’ll be ready.  

Note: Check out our Tech Tips Archive for content like this from past years, and subscribe to our Sculling eNewsletter to receive future editions in your inbox!

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