There have been times in my career when I have come to a place when I feel like I am not making progress. I’m working hard, but not seeing the results of my efforts. I remember a time during my second year of rowing in high school. Our program conducted 10-minute distance erg tests as performance benchmarks. My first ever test as an eighth grader had resulted in a distance of 2505m. I spent my first year improving this distance and by the beginning of my second year, I was rowing a distance around 2750m for the same ten minute piece.
At some point during my second year of rowing, I hit a mental wall. It came out of nowhere, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. Whenever I hit the seven-minute mark, I just stopped rowing.
The reason I wanted to write this post is that I see this sometimes in the athletes that I have coached. Novice year tends to be full of personal bests on the 2k piece, and it is common that my athletes make considerable improvements such as taking ten seconds off their time between tests. The learning curve is very generous because of enhancements in biomechanics and fitness. Then, during the second year, it’s a case of the law of decreasing returns. You need more work to make gains and improvements usually are less and less each time tests occur. The margin for error becomes less in the drive for better performance. Therefore, it might feel like a training plateau has been reach, but may not be the case.
If you are reading this, here are my thoughts about navigating this critical period of your rowing career.
First, it’s essential to give yourself credit for all of the improvements you have made since you started rowing. Remember that rower who didn’t know one end of the oar handle from the other? Give yourself credit for all that you have achieved. Please find a worksheet activity below that you can do to help you write down and acknowledge your achievements.
Second, it’s important to be patient with yourself. You are involved in a lifelong sport. Rowing is like saving for retirement. Put a little money in the bank each paycheck and stay consistent about it. It’s important to not worry about the short term market fluctuations as you play over a long period of time. That’s the discipline. If we look at a graph of your progress, it probably looks like this.
If we zoom in on the part of the graph that follows where you are right now, it’s shape is going to look more like this. Once it is understood that there are going to be days where things just don’t click and days when they do, you have a better perspective about your journey.
Third, understand that this is always you versus yourself. You are playing a mental game. We all tend to underestimate what we are capable of achieving. If you are putting the work in and not seeing the results, it could be a result of your mental approach.
For example, I have coached rowers who I know are faster than they mentally think they are. I can tell that they have upgraded their physiological V6 engine to a V8, but they are still driving the car like it has the less powerful engine.
At one point, I was coaching a high school athlete who was rowing a 6:30 2k. He was at this performance level for a long time. He had also been supplementing his training with a big name in the rowing world, yet still had not seen an improvement over a two month period. I was convinced that this extra training had improved his engine. However, it took a few conversations to convince him to row a 2k pace that was five seconds faster and
Another reason you might have hit a plateau is that it might be that you are training too hard. This overtraining can happen quickly if you are a very driven athlete. During training in college, I used to do my 60-minute steady state pieces at a 1:50 split. This pace was too fast and my heart rate was too high for this type of work. It wasn’t until I did the bulk of my steady state in the correct heart rate range that my 2k time got faster.
Additionally, an important part of training is knowing when to work really hard and when to back off and training correctly while completing volume work.
During the first semester of my freshman year of university rowing, my training load had stepped up considerably. However, by the end of the semester, I had not broken the 8-minute mark for the 2500m test. Some of you might remember this as the benchmark on the Concept2 before the 2000m test became mainstream. I traveled back to the UK for winter break and continued my training. I trained for three weeks but dropped down in volume and intensity.
To be clear, I still trained six days a week, I just had a period of training that was not as challenging. By the time I tested in January upon my return to college training, I had broken the 8-minute barrier with a 7:55 2500m time. The takeaway point here is that sometimes you need to be smart with your training. It’s important to know when to back off a little and let your body and mind recover in order to make the next breakthrough.
Finally, training in the right heart rate zone is both an art and a science. Heart rate monitoring and working with a skilled coach can make all of the difference here. Programming your week (or microcycles) correctly is important to long term success and helps avoid long term plateaus and burnout. I have posted this article about how to structure your training week as an example if you need guidance on this.
On the flip side, you also may be plateaued because you are not doing enough volume. I see lots of male high school rowers around the 7 min mark for 2k. Female rowers tend to be around the 8 min mark. The fact of the matter is that these athletes need more volume (at appropriate intensity) in order to develop their aerobic systems.
Patience is important as it takes time to build the aerobic tank. There is a reason that many Olympic athletes can win gold medals well into their 30s. Bottom line, it takes volume at the appropriate intensity to develop your aerobic engine. I would recommend logging your training pieces so that you can keep track of the volume you are doing per week. Additionally, I’ve had a lot of success building an aerobic base by cycling many miles. This strategy avoids overuse of the erg and is frankly more enjoyable for me and easier on my back. I have found that it keeps my heart rate in the right zone for long periods of time.
Next, it may be vital for you to set a breakpoint in your training program. If your algorithm isn’t working, you may need a brief timeout. When I program and debug a new app, setting a breakpoint allows me to find and locate the bug in the code. I am able to check variables at runtime. It’s important to hit the pause button sometimes and perform an honest analysis of all of the factors that go into your performance. I provide a worksheet activity in the link below to help you and your coach sort through what the key could be to making a breakthrough.
Next, it might be essential for you to change your training approach. The point of training is for your body to adapt. Once it has adjusted, it’s harder to make the gains. So, I would advise keeping your body guessing. Substitute some swimming into
Do you want to know how I broke through my mental block?
I needed to complete my erg test next to someone who I respected and couldn’t possibly let down. It would be nice if we could do things for ourselves. However, sometimes we succeed because we can’t stand to let our coach or teammates down.
At this present point in time, I am dieting. I’ve put on too much weight and that is not good for my atrial fibrillation. My hack is to text someone my weight every Monday morning. Because I do this, I am less likely to snack or consume food and drink that is not good for me. Having accountability in my training journey is important.
If you feel like you have hit a plateau and your physical and mental game isn’t where you would like it to be, understand you are not alone. This situation is common. You are experiencing an important part of your journey and not because of any kind of failure. Something has to change, but have faith that this period of your journey will end at some point. You will continue on to the next point of your graph.
To finish, I’d like you to ask a question of yourself to summarize the underlying theme to all I have discussed.
My question is this – Would you like to be like rock or water?
The rock is sturdy and robust, so why not be like the rock? Personally, I feel that the rock symbolizes a very structured and inflexible approach to life and rowing.
I’d rather be like water — m
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