Adding Fartlek To Your Rowing Training Plan Could Be The Key To Gaining More Speed

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Article discussing the importance of incorporating Fartlek training into your rowing training plan

Incorporating Fartlek Into Your Rowing Training

I wanted to write a post about putting Fartlek into your program because it brings variety to your training and is, in my opinion, an important part of any rowing training program. Fartlek rowing training can take many forms. The common theme is that this type of work is characterized by periods of high intensity work followed by periods of active rest (light rowing between efforts).

The effect on the cardiovascular system is evident, the heart rate accelerates and then decelerates during the period of training. By putting this into your program, you accomplish a few things.

1. It provides some variety in your training and serves to break up the volume work which can become mentally challenging.

2. It serves to sharpen up your rowing (particularly at the catch) and helps you develop powerful strokes particularly when the rate increases.

3. There is considerable research that proves that the physiological impact of fartlek training can do more for your VO2 wax than a program that consists purely of continous consistent training at lower intensities.

The following Fartlek training suggestions could be done in the boat or on the indoor rowing machine. Additionally, you could do this once or twice in a ten day cycle but ensure that you don’t over do it. If this work is done correctly it does come at a cost in terms of fatigue and training load.

But first..

Stroke Power Is Independent of Rate

The goal for each effort is to put maximum effort into each set of strokes and get the maximum amount of torque into each stroke, regardless of the rate you are rowing at – i.e., you want to push hard at the low rates as well as the high rates! It is possible to elevate the heart rate at a stroke rating of 20 spm if you are well connected, and your application is effective.

It is important that you complete a full warm-up lasting 15-20 minutes with some power twenty pieces before entering into the work phase of the Fartlek training.

>> Download Fartlek Rowing Training Plan Examples <<

Next, I provide some examples for you to try in your training programs.

Rowing Fartlek Example #1

Ten stroke pieces

The first example is relatively simple. You would row a series of 10 stroke pieces with ten strokes of recovery in-between. I like to vary the rate as I go through a series of ten stroke pieces. For example, you could row the following sequence.

10 strokes @ 24, 10 strokes off, 10 strokes @ 24, 10 strokes off then,
10 strokes @ 26, 10 strokes off, 10 strokes @ 26, 10 strokes off then,
10 strokes @ 28, 10 strokes off, 10 strokes @ 28, 10 strokes off then,
10 strokes @ 30, 10 strokes off, 10 strokes @ 30, 10 strokes off then,
10 strokes @ 32, 10 strokes off, 10 strokes @ 32, 10 strokes off.

This sequence of rowing would be a total of 100 strokes of fartlek rowing. You can then repeat this two more times with sufficient rest in-between every 100 strokes of Fartlek. Additionally, you should consider raising the rate by two for the start of each 100 strokes. Therefore, your next set would start at 26 spm and end at 34 strokes per minute.

After completing this three times, you will have trained a total of 300 strokes for this workout. As a general guideline, 300 to 450 strokes of fartlek is usually enough if you are working hard on each burst. It is essential to commit right from the first stroke of the burst and put as much power into each set of strokes and make each set of hard strokes quality.

Imagine You Are A Spring

As you are rowing, try to imagine you are a spring. On the recovery, you are compressing yourself as you approach the catch and then when you are taking the catch and driving you are unwinding all of that potential as you generate power (the spring is recoiling and lengthening back out). When you have completed the stroke, let the boat run out underneath you to maximize the hull speed and allow the shell to do the work as you prepare for your next catch.

Rowing Fartlek Example #2

Another example is 30 stroke pieces with a minute or two of light paddle in-between each 20 stroke effort. Use the table below as an example.

0 – 10 Strokes

11 – 20 strokes

21 – 30 strokes

Piece # 1

@ 24 spm

@ 26 spm

@ 28spm

Piece # 2

@ 26 spm

@ 28 spm

@ 30 spm

Piece # 3

@ 30 spm

@ 32 spm

@ 32 spm

Piece # 4

@ 30 spm

@ 32 spm

@ 32 spm

Piece # 5

@ 32 spm

@ 32 spm

@ 34 spm

Piece # 6

@ 34 spm

@ 36 spm

@ 36 spm

Piece # 7

@ 34 spm

@ 36 spm

@ 38 spm

Piece # 8

@ 36 spm

@ 38 spm

@ 40 spm

Rowing Fartlek Example #3

10 strokes on, 10 strokes paddle, 20 strokes on, 20 strokes paddle, 30 strokes on, 30 strokes paddle, 20 strokes on, 20 strokes paddle, 10 strokes on and then rest four minutes, repeat x 3 or 4 times.

A Note About Stroke Rates

If you are doing Fartlek exercises in the Fall or Autumn season, your rates might range from the 20 to 34 spm range. In the spring during sprint season, your stroke rate might be more in the 28 – 42 spm range. There is no law on this, but it makes sense to me to practice your Fartlek exercises around the rates that you might be racing to help you find the right groove.

1/2 slide 40s – Sharpen Up Your Rowing

This drill is another example of a Fartlek rowing drill. The half slide forty drill was an exercise that we loved to do in college. This drill is a great deal of fun with the added benefit of providing a technical sharpness to the stroke that helps rowers and crews maintain higher rates. The forty stroke piece breaks down into five-stroke segments. At the start of the forty, the first five strokes are completed at a relatively low rate. In this example, let’s say we start at 24 strokes per minute. When these five strokes executed at 24 are complete, then the rate is increased by two strokes per minute for the next five. At the completion of every five-stroke segment, the rate continues to rise by two strokes per minute. By the time you reach the last five strokes of the piece, you should be rowing at 38 spm at half slide.

It’s critical to work on a quick change of direction at either end of the stroke. Ideally, at the catch, your seat wheels should “turn on a dime” and change direction immediately. I like this drill because it teaches catch coordination and dynamic change in direction at the front end of the stroke. At the release, you want to continue to focus on a smooth transition as your hands move into and out of your body. In addition, try to make this exercise as clean as possible in terms of your release.

I think of it as about 98% power and take the last 2% and concentrate on being precise, control your body movement and be clean with your rowing. It would be easy to get carried away and lose control while you try to focus on raising the rate, but power without control and efficiency doesn’t result in the fastest hull speed. I think it is much more important to be smart with your execution than just whaling away on the power, although you do need energy.

I would recommend doing four to six repetitions of the 1/2 slide forty. In between each 40 stroke piece, lengthen out to full slide and try to maintain the quick dynamic catch that you have hopefully achieved in the forty even on the paddle and regardless of pressure. When you are ready for the next set of 40 strokes, shorten your stroke to 1/2 slide and start again. If you started at 24 spm on the first one, you could try to start the initial five strokes at a higher cadence, and this would result in a higher ending stroke rate by the last five strokes. It can be a great deal of fun getting the rate up while working on your cohesion as a crew.

At the Completion Of Your Fartlek Series

When you have completed your series of power tens, twenties, thirties or forties, it’s always a good idea to finish your training session with a couple of power twenties at race pace.

“Just go and have fun with no agenda!”, my high school coach used to say.

If you have successfully executed the Fartlek training, you are going to find you are much more dynamic with your rhythm and power application and you should be able to create more time on the recovery. One of the best feelings is when you complete a power piece aiming to row at 36spm and having it feel like you were rowing at 34spm! It is always fun to finish a hard Fartlek session and row power twenties feeling sharper and being able to hold a high rate more efficiently without having to force it!

Finally, always row it out for 15 – 20 minutes at cool down intensity to flush the lactate from your system so that you can progress with your training and not feel sore the next day!

>> Download Fartlek Rowing Training Plan Examples <<


Incorporating fartlek training sessions into your program is an integral part of developing speed. It’s also a great way to help you improve your VO2 max with the benefit of adding some variety to your rowing training regime.

It’s a good idea to do sessions of Fartlek as you prepare to work your crew or single up to a racing cadence as you move from steady-state volume work and want to sharpen up the accuracy of your rowing when the rate needs to increase.

Do you have any Fartlek workouts to share? Let us know in the comments.

If I can help you with your rowing journey, please don’t hesitate to contact me at neil@coachbergenroth for a free coaching consult.

Enjoy your Fartlek Training!

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