Critical Power: A Key Metric for Rowers’ Performance and Training

Critical Power: A Key Metric for Rowers’ Performance and Training

Understanding Critical Power: A Key Metric for Rowers' Performance and Training

Introduction - The Problem With Generic Rowing Training Plans

I am always trying to evolve my coaching practice. One of the things that has always bothered me was training sessions with pace targets such as 2K + 5 as a generic adjustment for all rowers. This one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for me, as the whole point of my individualized training plans is that each plan has targets specific to each individual I support. Additionally, I have learned about critical power in the last few months, so wanted to share my findings with you all. 

If you look at the graph below (just an example/demonstration and doesn’t represent an actual rower), you will see a training tool that I have developed that calculates a model for each client based on various “test” pieces.

The red line represents the power or watts, and the blue line represents the pace split (500m split) corresponding to a certain power level.

As you can see, the faster the pace, the greater the increase in power.

For example: consider the following.

For a 2:00 500m pace a rower must output 202.5 watts

For a 1:50 500m pace a rower must output a 263 watts

For a 1:40 500m pace, a rower must output 350 watts

As you can see from the numbers above, for a 10-second split increase from 2:00 to 1:50, an increase of 60.5 watts is needed.

If the time is increased from 1:50 to 1:40 (another 10-second increase), the additional power needed is 87 watts for the increase in speed.

Essentially, a rower must develop even more power for successive increases in a 500m split. 


More Evidence Comparing Two Hypothetical Rowers

Upon review of the sample data below, it becomes apparent that as the test distance becomes longer, the deviation from the 2K split becomes more and more at differing rates depending on the physiology of the athlete.

comparison of two rowers and inspection of 2k adjust for 5k and 10k rows

The Need For A Power "Model"

critical power graph setting appropriate targets for rowers and athletes on the concept 2

The non-linear relationship between split and power must be considered when developing training programs, especially when calculating target paces using a 500m pace for a given athlete.

As a result, I wanted to create a tool that used “test” pieces to develop a model so that when building a training plan I could dial in their target splits to be specific to each different athlete. I also knew I need a way to manage each model and do the calculations quickly so that I wasn’t swimming in a sea of spreadsheets.

The tool allows various test distances, specifically distance versus average power output for the training piece, to be included or discounted. This functionality is important because athletes are always in flux, such as improving or decreasing performance (due to various factors such as better training adaptations over time, injury, fatigue, work schedule, etc). Therefore, it’s possible to pick the data points to include or not include, and then the model can be recalculated based on the included points and be flexible over time.

Another advantage of seeing all of this visually in a graph is that it is possible to view the black dots (test pieces) relative to the line. If a dot appears below the line, it can indicate if there is a opportunity for improvement in that test piece or distance/time.

Improving My Rowing Coaching Support

As a result of the model, when I am building a plan for a client, I can set target paces using my training management system (built around watts targets, and then calculations for target splits are derived from % power levels).

However, I have found that it is important to target heart rate zones for UT1 and UT2 (steady state pieces). In my approach it is physiology first and then output second for the setting of effort.

Once training occurs at higher intensities such as threshold, transportation or maximal power then the power targets become the focus with physiology secondary.

This is an over simplification as training should always consider a holistic view of the athlete. However, I am much happier with my individualization of training session goals than I was when I was doing the 2K + 5 seconds generically.

Let's Take Things Further Still

Upon presenting this to a colleague they suggested that I also figure out how to calculate the “critical power” data point for each athlete.

As a result, I went about learning about what this is and continuing to develop my code base so that this can be calculated as well.

What follows is a discussion on the significance of critical power and why it is essential for the development of individualized rowing training plans.

Thinking About Critical Power In Rowing

In competitive rowing, success hinges on an athlete’s ability to understand and optimize their performance metrics. One such pivotal metric is Critical Power (CP). CP not only offers insights into an athlete’s current capabilities but also serves as a cornerstone for developing a highly effective training regimen.

What is Critical Power?

Critical Power represents the threshold at which a rower transitions from sustainable, predominantly aerobic effort to a state where fatigue accumulates rapidly due to anaerobic exertion. In simpler terms, it’s the highest power output that an athlete can maintain for a prolonged period without significant fatigue. CP is measured in watts and is determined through specific testing protocols involving varied-intensity rowing trials.

The Relevance of Critical Power in Rowing

  1. Performance Benchmarking: CP offers a quantifiable measure of a rower’s endurance capabilities. It is a clear indicator of how well an athlete can sustain high-intensity efforts over time, a crucial factor in rowing where races often hinge on maintaining high power outputs.

  2. Training Zone Identification: CP helps in defining training zones. Activities below CP are predominantly aerobic and enhance endurance, while efforts above CP improve anaerobic capacity and power. Understanding where one’s CP lies aids in tailoring training sessions to target specific physiological adaptations.

  3. Race Strategy Development: CP informs pacing strategies in races. Knowledge of one’s CP enables rowers to gauge how long they can sustain high-intensity efforts before fatigue sets in, which is vital in planning race phases, especially in longer distances.

  4. Monitoring Progress: Tracking changes in CP over time can provide valuable feedback on the effectiveness of a training program. An increasing CP indicates improved endurance and aerobic capacity, which are essential for rowing performance.

How to Determine and Use Critical Power

  1. Testing for CP: CP is typically determined through a series of rowing ergometer tests at varying intensities and durations. The data collected from these tests are then analyzed to ascertain the power output that corresponds to the CP.

  2. Training Implications: Training just below CP can significantly enhance aerobic endurance without overstraining, while intervals just above CP can boost anaerobic capacity. Incorporating both types of training ensures a comprehensive approach to improving rowing performance.

  3. Periodic Reevaluation: Regular CP assessments are crucial for adjusting training plans in accordance with the athlete’s evolving fitness level, thereby optimizing the effectiveness of the training regimen.


In conclusion, Critical Power is more than just a number for competitive rowers; it’s a pivotal metric that lays the foundation for a nuanced and effective training strategy. It guides athletes in understanding their endurance limits, helps in crafting targeted training sessions, and informs strategic race planning. By embracing CP as a key metric, rowers can unlock new performance levels and achieve their full potential on the water.

Finally, I have come a long way over the last few months regarding my understanding of designing rowing training programs. My training management system has evolved for the better and I am looking forward to enjoying the fruits of increased performance for my clients and an increasingly individualized approach to my training programs.


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