“Tips on how to survive the longest sprint of your life: the mental game”
“Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race (the Olympic standard) takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.”
– Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
The 2k is an iconic distance in the rowing world. It takes exactly 2,000 meters to win The Crash B’s, the indoor rowing championships. It takes 2,000 meters to win a gold at the Pan Am Games. It takes 2,000 meters to win an Olympic gold medal. And it takes 2,000 meters to completely destroy a human body…if done correctly.
Three times a year, the University of Washington Crew team raced a 2k on the ERG to help set the boats. A month out, you started getting nervous. Three weeks out, the dreams of impending doom began. Two weeks out, fear started to creep in. One week out, your digestive system started to shut down, and the day before the race you lived in a fog bank of complete terror. Why all these nerves? To achieve a fast time, you had to be in tune physically and mentally to go as hard as possible, which is not an easy task. Rowers routinely burst vessels in their throats from the effort; spitting up blood post-race was a common experience. Leaping into a race without a mental game plan is like jumping out of a plane without a parachute…you’ll get to the ground, but it sure is going to hurt.
The 2k is just long enough to force you to set a pace, but just short enough for that pace to be close to a sprint. So how do you approach this challenge? HAVE A FRICKIN’ PLAN! Here is some advice to help you attack the 2k.
First, WARM UP!!
You will feel SO much better during the race if you get sweaty and just a little tired during the warm up. People often make the mistake of “saving” all the effort for the race, but warming up to the point of feeling the blood flow, breathing heavy, and starting to sweat is a much better approach. This is a classic warm up:
Row 2-3 min nice and easy
10 strokes at 60% effort
10 strokes easy
20 strokes at 70% effort
20 strokes easy
30 strokes at 80% effort
20 strokes easy
20 strokes at 90% effort
10 strokes easy
10 strokes at 100%
Rest and stretch for at least 15-20 min before starting the race. The 100% effort for the last 10 strokes should be at your “race pace”
Second: Know Your Pace!
This is extremely important for all rowing endeavors. Your pace is reflected in your split time, NOT your strokes per minute. The difference between the two will be the subject of the next article. The split time is the time it will take you to row 500 meters. It’s called the split time because the 2k is “split” into 4 x 500 meters. Whenever you row, watch your pace during warm ups, sprints, or longer endurance work. You should be able to go into each piece with an idea of where you can keep your pace for an entire race while still being able to sprint at the end.
Below is a link to the Concept 2 pace chart, which can be extremely helpful. To track exactly where you are, be sure to display the screen that shows your “AVG Split.” Jumping into a 2k race with no idea of your potential pace will likely lead to one of two outcomes: complete misery and exploding quads at the 1,000 meter mark with a sprint that is reminiscent of a skateboarder hitting wet cement, or a “hey that wasn’t so bad” with a smiling face and flushed cheeks. Let’s face it, nobody should be smiling at the end of a 2k. Do it right. Know your pace and stick to it.
Third: Break It Up.
You’re not rowing a 2k; you’re rowing 4 X 500 meters. Approach each section like its own race. You mark and “start” each 500 meters with 20 “power strokes.” A power stroke is at a slightly higher effort level. If your split times have been running 1:57 avg, get those power strokes below 1:55. The second way to mark power strokes is by counting them. Ideally, you would have a teeny tiny “type A” person with a VERY loud voice screaming at you from the stern of the boat and counting the strokes for you. If a Coxswain isn’t around, a coach, teammate, spouse, random stranger of the street, anyone will do. If you have decided to jump into the 2k all by yourself, count the strokes in your head. Even if there is no drop in your split for the power strokes, still count them. Organizing your mind will organize your race; compartmentalize it into manageable manageable manageable. At the 1,500 meter mark, once you get into the last 500 meter wonderland, do a Power 10. This will set you up well for the sprint. When you have 250 meters left, start your sprint. If you’ve paced a little too high and there’s an impending wall bearing down on you, you might want to wait for the 150 mark to start sprinting. It is better to start later and finish strong then start too early and plow into “the wall” before the finish line.
On a final note, a little perspective on pacing and race times: When racing, be sure to have the monitor screen set so you can see your “projected finish time.” In the beginning, you will note that the projected finish time changes consistently with your current split time. The further you get into the race, the harder it is to get that number to budge. The thought “HOLY CRAP the monitor is broken!” will start to flow through your head. This is because the further you get into the race, the less overall effect a single stroke has on your finish time. It is the overall average pace of the entire race that matters. This has two consequences; one, a good sprint at the end won’t save you; and two, racing the 2k right is going to be absolutely brutal. Finally, a note on race times: An eight person shell is 60 feet long. On average it takes 4 seconds for the entire boat to cross the finish line. So for every 4 seconds you can shave off your 2k time, you’ve beaten your old time by an entire boat length. In crew, a boat length is an eternity! In my final race as a collegiate rower, we lost the West Coast Championship by .10 of a second or 1/2 of the bow ball…trust me, the little things matter!