I’ve just finished a six-month long distance rowing training block supporting Jim Freeburg, who completed the Seventy-48 race in Seattle, Washington, in early June.
Jim ultimately had a successful race, so we thought it might be helpful to write up a Q and A to help document our process. What follows is a discussion of Jim’s experience preparing and competing and my thoughts and methodology, where appropriate, to document our working relationship toward this awesome yet challenging event.
We hope you get some value from this piece, and let me know if you have any questions.
A good friend of mine sailed the companion race, Washington 360, last year and suggested I consider the (shorter) human-powered version of the race – Seventy48. I’m not a sailor, so I wasn’t exactly envious of my friend’s adventure, but at the very least, I was intrigued. We live on a lake, I rowed for a year in college, and I like endurance sports – so it just seemed like something I could do (and have fun doing it). My family has been staying at home a lot during the pandemic, so I thought I could devote some of that free time to picking up rowing again, with a goal in mind. Rowing 70 miles in less than 48 hours was something I could do.
I rowed in an eight my freshman year of college, but that was 20 years ago. I’ve spent lots of time on the water since then: rafting, paddling, powerboating…so I’m very comfortable on the water but sculling was new to me. I joined the local rowing club in the fall to learn how to scull and bought a rowing shell around Thanksgiving. But I’d been in a scull probably less than 20 times before the real training started.
Everything. I needed the total package to get me to where I wanted to be by race day. It was helpful to get support with technique (I loved the video analysis) and a real long distance rowing training plan. I knew that I needed to go slow and long, but I don’t have the expertise to design a training plan, especially for a sport that was somewhat familiar to me yet very rusty. I liked having a long-term plan, a pattern that I could follow, and yet still some variety to keep things interesting.
Given Jim’s experience level, I knew that fundamentals would be important. I planned the first couple of months to build efficient technical habits and establish a baseline of aerobic conditioning. Jim sent over videos of his rowing in the shell every month. So the first couple of videos were critical to getting going on the right foot.
I identified various aspects of his technique that we had to fix first. I always try to look at a client’s current technique and identify the low-hanging fruit when designing long distance rowing training. These two to three points of technical improvement were as follows:
My rationale for this was that Jim was training for a long-distance race, and it was important to establish good technical habits so that energy expenditure was optimized and translated into speed. It’s fairly obvious that this is a foundational principle of athletics, but it was especially critical given the effort we were training for.
As a result, I sent back a detailed technical analysis, explaining the faults, what we were ideally looking for, and the best drills to fix inefficiencies.
Based on this analysis, I devised distance steady state technical rows that focused on:
I might add just an extra month as a contingency. I don’t really count December towards my long distance rowing training as I was just learning how to scull at that time. So it was closer to 5 months. I was out for a few weeks twice: once due to COVID and later for a back injury. The back injury cut into my long (40+ mile) rows, so I felt just a little unprepared for the last 10 miles.
I agree that the bout with COVID and the back issue was unfortunate. However, life happens all the time. It was important for us to monitor recovery and health and then adjust strategy according to the challenges when they presented themselves.
A key point for a long-distance row training plan is to know where you want to be as far as endurance at the time of the competition.
I had a broad plan for Jim for the full six months, which included the periodization we need to build performance over the duration of the training plan. However, the plan was built one month at a time. I haven’t found that it is reasonable to build a plan that tells the athlete what they are doing exactly three months from the current day. A strategy needs to have structure yet provide enough flexibility to adjust and iterate as situations and progress occur.
I rowed an Echo Classic – it’s an 18’ recreational shell. It’s not fast, but it’s super stable, which I appreciated when the swells were 18” high, and I wanted to stop to stretch/eat/drink. Leading up to the race, I really thought hard about buying a faster boat, but I don’t really regret having the shell that I did. It took me at least 2-3 hours longer than it would have with an open water rowing shell like a Maas, but I really liked the stability in the middle of the night during the open water crossings.
For training, I bought a Hydrow. I know Concept2 ergs are the staple for real rowers, but I wanted something to break up the monotony of what I knew would be 2-3 hour erg sessions. The “live virtual reality” was fun, but the fixed workouts made it a little harder to piece together the long, custom workouts that Neil created for me. Tracking was much harder too.
Most of the training management systems that I have developed work specifically with the Concept2 rower. The majority of my clients use these machines. So I have built systems and apps that work with the Concept2 Logbook and allow for easy import of data.
Hydrow does interface with Strava well, so I was able to review Jim’s training on that platform. I was specifically watching power and heart rate to see if fitness was improving. Generally, you can tell if a long distance rowing training plan is working by comparing two training sessions with the same protocol and seeing if the power output is improving for a given heart rate. If average wattage increases for the same heart rate intensity, we know things are working as they should. You don’t need to do a 2k every month to track progress, and it wasn’t appropriate for this plan to incorporate this kind of training.
I used a coach for a big climb I did five years ago, and I knew it was the key to success for me. I wanted to complete and do well in Seventy48, and I knew I needed the accountability & expertise of a personalized coach.
Without a coach, I could have put together an exercise plan, but with Neil’s help, I had a training plan. The building block nature of the training plan meant that I had to build a foundation to prepare myself for the long training rows. I could have done some of those rows without the training plan, but they would have just ruined me – instead, they built me up. I needed the strength from the weight-lifting and the daily rows to stretch my endurance. And the long rows gave me the confidence that I could row 70 miles. I didn’t know if I could do 70 miles until I rowed 40 miles, and it didn’t kill me. Then I knew the race was within my grasp.
As mentioned before, a big part of Jim’s plan was to work to improve aerobic and technical performance levels. It was important to work on power output and around the Anaerobic threshold to a smaller degree. As a result, we factored in some tempo rowing once a week. We also employed the use of hard shorter pieces where we capped the rate to aid in the development of power per stroke. The three major factors that influence boat speed are:
To improve force application and length of stroke, I developed training sessions that capped the rate at 20 spm to 24 spm and challenged Jim to find the torque application and intensity at low rates. This process helps develop an effective drive connection and lays a firm foundation for efforts at higher rates. As a result, Jim learned that power is independent of rate.
I have found that mixing in higher Intensity training (about 20%) of the volume provides a better training effect, even for this long-distance rowing plan. Performance would not be maximized if we decided on a plan that was a “one-note” steady state plan.
Strength training supplemented the steady state volume and some higher intensity work, two days a week. Jim did not have Olympic weights and a great deal of strength training equipment, so we had to get inventive when it came to programming the weight training. However, you don’t need to do power cleans and deadlifts as there are other ways to build strength that doesn’t require this kind of equipment that can be just as effective to help build power and torque.
Not really. I thought about trying to get some professional nutritional help for the race and training, but I just didn’t make it a priority. I tried looking online for some general guidelines, but all the websites selling products created so much uncertainty in my mind as they all tell you how bad the other endurance products are. So I couldn’t tell what was truly the evidence-based approach. I also knew that I was doing the race for fun and not just for speed, so I let myself have some good food (rather than all energy bars/chews/etc.).
I didn’t provide a huge amount of nutritional advice as it’s not a huge strength of mine. However, Jim was prepared to experiment with water bottle backpacks and the timing of ingestion of food.
My plan was to rest/eat/drink every 30 minutes. I don’t think other competitors rested this often, but I don’t really know. I always knew I could get through 30 minutes, so I tried hard not to think any further than that. I wasn’t ever bored during the race – the scenery is really gorgeous, and even at night, I could see the skyline of Seattle most of the time, so there was always something to look at. Plus ferries to avoid & navigation to consider. I stopped three times on land to stretch and fill up with water. I really enjoyed those breaks; looking forward to them was another way to keep moving forward.
An important part of the long distance rowing training plan was keeping the volume progressing over the duration of the six months. We intentionally scheduled a 40-mile row a few weeks before the actual event. Jim was willing to put in the time and stay focused the entire time we worked together. After he had completed this row successfully, it gave him confidence, and he could see that he was capable of achieving the ultimate goal of rowing for seventy-plus miles.
I loved my cheering squad. I had maybe a dozen friends and family at the start line and received dozens of texts from supporters during the race. Many people were following me on the race tracker, and it was fun to feel like I had a team even though I rowed solo. I also really enjoyed the camaraderie between racers. Though there aren’t a lot of opportunities to talk to the other racers during the event, the start and finish lines felt like big parties. The morning after I finished, I went down to the finish line to watch the finish of the team from the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. That was a very emotional moment for me. I cried on the shoulder of a racer’s mom as the team landed on the shore. They had overcome so much adversity to get this far, and I thought about my daughter as I saw the mom beam with pride. I didn’t really know it until then, but I realized that one of the reasons I did the race was to show my daughter that she could do anything she puts her mind to.
The most challenging part was the last eight miles or so. The first sixty miles or so were pure fun! The race starts at 7 pm, so you have daylight for the first few hours. I moved to a nocturnal schedule the week before the race to prepare for the night-time row, and I’m so glad I did. Many people stop part way to sleep, but I just kept going. I wasn’t tired at all though I heard of some people falling asleep while paddling. The wind picked up a little around 9 pm as it got dark and didn’t let up until daybreak. At least it was a tailwind, but the chop and swells made for some challenging rowing at night. But I felt strong, and I could nearly always see the twinkling lights of another boat nearby, so that was very comforting. By daybreak, the wind had stopped completely though the currents started to get funky.
After 10 hours of rowing, I suddenly found myself moving at the fastest pace of the race. I didn’t plan it, but I found some very favorable currents. Then they just stopped as the tides changed, and my pace slowed significantly. About 8 miles from the finish is a narrow mile-long canal where I knew I’d be rowing against the current. At that point, the battery in my stroke coach had died, so I didn’t know my pace exactly, but it was slow, really slow. I couldn’t stop, or I’d be flushed backward. After the canal, you are just about in sight of the finish line, but you can’t make a beeline for the finish as a Navy base requires a large berth. So I avoided the machine gun boats and took a wide turn to the north. Those last few miles were tough as I didn’t know how fast I was going, but I knew it wasn’t quick.
Jim texted me at various points in the race to check-in. It was great to see him hit various benchmarks on the row. Jim is fortunate that he has a supportive family and a network of people to help him along. I think this is key. I also think that being able to model perseverance for your child is a critical part of leadership and parenting. Jim has earned my respect for the focus and tenacity that he showed during this process and in achieving this goal.
I finished 28th overall out of 89 finishers (27 racers didn’t finish). And I was sixth among the 23 single rowers. I finished right in the middle of the eight double rowers. There were human-powered vessels of every sort in the race: kayaks, surf skis, paddle boards, canoes, outriggers, and more.
If I were to do the race again, I’d probably want to go as a double. I didn’t mind the solo aspect of the row, but I’d prefer the companionship of another rower if I were to go back for more. I wouldn’t change my long distance rowing training approach at all – it was what I needed to finish and do well. And I might go for a faster rowing shell. The Echo performed well, but I think I’d enjoy a faster shell.
I don’t have any endurance challenges planned in the immediate future, as my wife is expecting our second child in just a few weeks. I plan to dad hard for the immediate future though I’m sure I’ll be out adventuring again in the not-so-distant future.
I think the most important thing for success with this type of event is the proper approach to training. It seems silly, but I talked to a few rowers who trained hard by rowing hard. Endurance sports don’t work that way. Train long and train slow.
This was a great experience for me. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Jim; it was amazing to see him do so well. Teaching is such a huge part of coaching, so it was great to have the opportunity to communicate my knowledge of stroke mechanics to help Jim build performance and confidence over the six months we worked together. Jim was very coachable, which is important. It was wonderful to observe him leveraging all of the drills and training assignments that I had developed for him. I look forward to potentially supporting him and others in the future to prepare for similar events with a long distance rowing training plan.