This is an excerpt from Rowing Science by Volker Nolte.
By Ed McNeely
Rowing is a power endurance sport that requires large volumes of training to be successful, with top-level rowers typically training in excess of 1,000 hours per year (Fiskerstrand and Seiler 2004). Analysis of the distribution of training across intensity categories shows a common pattern of high-volume, low-intensity aerobic training making up the bulk of a rower’s training time, accounting for up to 90% of training volume in certain periods of the year (Mäestu, Jürimäe, and Jürimäe 2005). Training for rowing is typically made up of sport-specific on- and off-water training, strength training, and endurance-based cross-training.
Cross-training is any training activity outside of the main sport activity or very close approximations of the sport activity. Common forms of cross-training for rowing include strength training and other forms of land-based aerobic conditioning like cycling, running, and cross-country skiing.
Benefits of Cross-Training
Cross-training has been proposed as a means of reducing overuse injuries, alleviating boredom and monotony to prevent staleness and burnout (Raglin and Morgan 1989), and maintaining fitness when returning from injury (Krause 2009). Although commonly used in rowing programs, there is no research on the benefits of endurance-based cross-training for rowers; much of the evidence is anecdotal and based on best practices of top coaches and athletes. Among runners, cross-training is often used to alleviate the impact of running while keeping overall training volume high (Paquette et al. 2018). Although rowing does not have the same impact as running, it is a higher force endurance sport than running, cycling, or swimming as a result of the high power output at relatively low turnover rates. The repetitive nature of the rowing stroke predisposes rowers to overuse injuries of the lower back, knee, and wrist (Hosea and Hannafin 2012), which may be decreased with cross-training.
Cross-training provides a physical and psychological break from the repetitive nature of rowing, which improves motivation and decreases the risk of overuse injuries.
Volume of Cross-Training
There needs to be a balance between cross-training and rowing-specific training. Finding this balance depends on the level and age of the rower and environmental conditions. Rowers in warmer climates with year-round access to on-water facilities will have an easier time doing on-water training than those in colder climates where, for significant portions of the year, on-water rowing is inaccessible.
Mäestu, Jürimäe, and Jürimäe (2005) have suggested that up to 70% to 80% of endurance training time may be spent on the water for some rowers, with typical amounts ranging from 52% to 55% of total training volume for an 18-year-old to 55% to 60% for a 21-year-old and up to 65% for a senior rower. They have also suggested that the amount of time dedicated to specific rowing training should increase as the level of the rower increases. Table 17.1 shows a progression of training volume and training mode based on age for a competitive rower starting 9 years from their first Olympic games.
Strength training is one of the most common forms of cross-training. It is a key component of training for rowing and accounts for about 20% to 25% of total training volume depending on the experience, fitness, and competitive level of the rower (Mäestu, Jürimäe, and Jürimäe 2005). Practical experience suggests that the volume of strength training may be higher for younger athletes. The increasing volume of aerobic training that rowers need to excel as they age makes it more difficult to increase muscle mass, so it is an advantage to a young rower if they can build the muscle mass needed to compete successfully at higher levels. More discussion of incorporating strength training into rowing programs can be found in chapter 16.
The amount of cross-training can vary significantly across the year, with up to about 50% of training volume in the off-season (McNeely 2014). Table 17.2 shows a breakdown of different training modes across the year. There is some ergometer and cross-training work included in the plan year-round to allow individualized training sessions to address athlete-specific needs, which cannot be met rowing a crew boat.
During the general preparation phase, cross-training is used to gradually build training volume and prevent overuse injuries. The volume of cross-training is highest at the start of the phase and decreases closer to the specific preparation phase. Athletes who are unable to row on water for extended periods should increase the volume of cross-training as part of their transition to the water to help prevent wrist injuries from feathering the blade after having been away from that skill.