Rowing Training for Veterans

Masters rowing – don’t fear the reaper!

As Mark Twain once said, ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ According to Eddie Fletcher, while older rowers can’t completely escape the effects of age-related performance decline, the right kind of veteran rowing training can enable them to perform at the highest level

The science of aging predicts a gradual decline in the body’s ability to function as we get older. The precise mechanisms underlying the aging process are not fully understood, but the rate of decline in the general population of biological and physiological functions is known to be progressive and age-related. The reduction in exercise capacity in older individuals stems from a decrease in muscle mass, cardiovascular function and respiratory function. One age-related alteration to respiratory function is decreased respiratory muscle strength and endurance, and a decline in respiratory muscle strength may lead to breathlessness during activities of daily living and exercise.

The following panel summarises the general and specific age related evidence for biological and physiological decline.

However, it’s not all bad news; several studies have shown that for athletes the decrease in maximum heart rate from age 50-70 is smaller than non-athletes(5) and exercise training for older people may increase aerobic capacity to the same relative extent (15-30%) as in younger adults(6-9). Indeed, the endurance performance of older athletes provides good evidence of the benefits of maintaining regular exercise to preserve cardiovascular function and the overall conclusion is that exercise training improves physiologic response at any age and improvements often occur at a rate and magnitude independent of a person’s age(10, 11).

Age and indoor rowing

The specific sport of indoor rowing is well suited to older athletes. The sport is organised in 5 or 10-year age bands, male, female, heavyweight and lightweight categories (75kg for men, 61.5kg for women – the border between the 2 weight categories). Typically races are over 1609m (1 mile) or 2,000m. Master rowers tend to improve when they commence training and then quickly achieve peak performance. It may be possible to hold peak performance for a limited period before age related decline sets in(2).

Masters rowers typically train four to six times per week to maintain fitness, or in an attempt to reduce the decline in performance. High intensity exercise may reduce the age-related decline in young and middle aged men by up to 50% (but not in older men) and for middle aged and older women it does not appear that the fitness loss rates can be reduced(2) although the author’s work with older rowers supports an increase in aerobic capacity is possible with the correct training.

A 2,000m rowing race is a power/endurance event. There is evidence to suggest that the decline in power is characterised by early onset and rapid decline while endurance decline in rowing is not as rapid(12). Muscle mass declines, particularly fast twitch muscle, which suggests there is an inherent loss of ability to produce powerful muscle contractions with increasing age. This loss of muscle mass is most severe during the fourth decade (30-40), where research has shown a decline in power of 3% per annum with 1% per annum every year thereafter for both men and women(12).

However, in a study of power lifting and rowing, the results suggest that from age 25 to 85, men’s performance decreases by 29% with a gradual decline of just 4% from 25-55 and a more rapid decline after 55 of 0.83% per year(13). For women aged 35-55 there is a gradual decline of 5% and after 55 the decline is more rapid at 0.80% a year. Men’s performance peaks in their 20s while women’s performance peaks in their 30s(12).

In an indoor rowing-specific study into the gender differences in rowing performance and power with aging, performance time (over 2500 m the standard race distance at the time of the study) to power output revealed that men and women lose absolute power at similar rates across the age span and that performance is only modestly correlated with age(13). However, when the analysis was restricted to the best 5% of performers in 2-year age increments, age became the most powerful predictor of performance variance. For the top male rowers between ages 24-50, performance decline was only 3% per decade compared to 7% from age 50-74. The decline for women was essentially linear across a 50-year age span.

Physics of rowing and aging

Different starting positions on the power-velocity curve create differences in the pattern of performance decline between men and women. The maintenance of relative power between men and women suggests that differences in aging on performance are caused more by physics than physiology. For example, figure 1 shows a plot of 25-watt intervals on the Concept 2 ergometer. As the graph reveals, the relationship between power (in watts) and pace is not linear but a curve.

Figure 1: relationship between power output and 500m pace on Concept II ergometer do you have a source for this Eddie?

For instance, let’s assume that rower 1 has a 2,000m performance of 8 minutes 24 seconds, which equates to 2:06 per 500m or 175 watts. Adding 25 watts would reduce the 2,000m time to 8 minutes 2 seconds giving a pace per 500m of 2:00.5 – a reduction of 22 seconds. But suppose that rower 2 has a 6 minute 2,000m time (1min 30s per 500m or 480watts). Increasing power in rower 2 by 25 watts would reduce the time over the 2,000m distance down to 5.51.2, giving a pace per 500m of 1:27.8. Rower 2 trims just 8.8 seconds for the 25 watt increase in power.

2,000m rowing performance depends to a large extent on aerobic power as well as gender and a number of other physical and physiological characteristics. However, 2,000m rowing also requires power and older rowers may struggle to maintain performance. Therefore, with increasing age, there is more reliance on the aerobic capacity of the body to row a 2,000m race. This means that it is vital that every component of the aerobic system in older rowers is working as close to maximum efficiency as it is possible to achieve. While older rowers can continue to perform effectively for endurance events, they may struggle in activities that require maximal effort and power.

A study of 16 female rowers suggested that during a 2,000m race simulation, the anaerobic and aerobic contribution for female rowers was 12.3% and 87.7% respectively(14). In this study, the main body of the race was rowed at an intensity equivalent to 91% of the participants’ maximal oxygen uptake. Additionally, the participants used 72% of their anaerobic reserves by the end of the first 2 minutes, and had completely taxed their stores by the end of the race. Further studies estimate the energy requirement for a 2,000m indoor row to be 65-75% aerobic and 25-35% anaerobic(15,16) but there are significant gender differences. Some researchers suggest that anaerobic capacity explains only 10-20% of the variance in performance(17).

The strongest correlate of performance appears to be power at maximal oxygen uptake, which accounts for 72% of the variation in 2,000m rowing performance(18). Other research is more precise in stating that velocity and maximal oxygen uptake at 4mmol.L-1 can predict 2,000m performance(19). Conversely a 2002 study suggested that mean power during a 30s Wingate sprint rowing test accounted for 75.5% of the variance in 2,000m performance time with only 12.1% accounted for by maximal oxygen uptake and 8.2% by fatigue during the test(17).

In successful male rowers, strength and anaerobic power are comparatively high but current conditioning protocols recommend little strength training. Muscular strength has been suggested as an important determinant of rowing performance. However, the use of muscular strength as a predictive model only goes so far because further increases in strength are no longer beneficial to performance due to the large aerobic contribution needed for a successful 2,000 m row.

It has been recognised that anthropometric characteristics have some influence on rowing performance. Elite rowers tend to be tall, have greater body mass, lower subcutaneous skinfold readings and long limbs not only in absolute terms, but also in relation to their height(20). Lightweight rowers also tend to be taller, long limbed and lean. Lean body mass, and therefore the need to maximise lean body mass, has been suggested as a major predictor of indoor rowing performance.

The final piece of the jigsaw relates to the additional demands that indoor rowing places on the respiratory muscles, if respiratory muscle fatigue occurs during rowing, it may be of physiological significance with detrimental consequences for performance. Prevailing science suggests that this high respiratory demand ‘steals’ blood from the legs during exercise and therefore performance is reduced(21). By strengthening the inspiratory muscles blood flow demand to the respiratory muscles is reduced, cardiac output to the leg muscles is increased and therefore performance should improve.

Putting it all together for masters rowers

As we’ve already mentioned, the key to success in older rowers is maximising the efficiency of the aerobic system. Performance is determined by how close to the maximum oxygen uptake level (VO2max) a rower is able to maintain performance throughout a rowing session, and by the economy of the performance (how much of the oxygen consumed by the rower’s body is actually converted into performance).

In my experience, the most effective way to boost aerobic capacity in older rowers is to concentrate on long duration work, at low to medium stroke rates at intensities, between 75-85% of maximal oxygen uptake (determined from physiological tests). One of the ways to do this is to follow a marathon rowing programme. To row a ‘fast’ indoor rowing marathon, rowers need to sustain 75-85% of maximal oxygen uptake with average heart rate close to 90% of maximum and pace per 500m that is equivalent to 60-70% of 2,000m power in watts.

Anna Bailey (world record holder for the 2,000m 50-59 age category) provides a good example of how training can improve aerobic capacity and enhance performance. Anna followed a very specific indoor rowing marathon programme in 2002 and 2003 before breaking the British Indoor Rowing marathon record, twice. Between June 2002 and October 2003, Anna’s absolute maximal oxygen uptake (absolute oxygen uptake – not calculated on a ‘per kilo’ basis) increased from 3.7 litres to 4.2 litres. Anna was aged 50/51 at this time and having continued to train in the same manner is still setting more age group records at the age of 55.

Another (more recent) example is Alex Brown who at 55 set an age group record over the marathon distance in May 2006 after following a marathon training programme. He switched back to a 2,000m programme shortly thereafter and, in October 2006 recorded a 2,000m time of 6.33.3 in the Maltese Indoor Rowing Championships, a time he last achieved some years before.

Marathon programme

Depending on the monitoring equipment available to the rowers, training sessions can be based on duration, stroke rate, heart rate, percentage of maximal oxygen uptake or cardiovascular fatigue (heart rate variability(22)) and pace per 500m. The marathon programme calls for approximately 24 hours of rowing training every 4 weeks and the intensity sequence is light, medium, hard, light for each 4-week period, which is repeated 3 times to make 12 weeks in total.

Rowers should spend 50% of their training time at marathon pace, 10% at half-marathon pace, 25% at 10,000m pace and 15% at 5,000m pace. Average pace per 500m will be equivalent to 65-70% of their 2,000m power in watts, and over the 12-week period, they will row approximately 1,000kms! Rowing time is from 60-90 minutes per session over a 4-week cycle, varying between 80-92.5% of maximum heart rate. Obviously more specific work at higher stroke rates, pace per 500m and relative intensity is necessary to fully prepare any age group rower for an all-out 2,000m race, but time spent building the aerobic base will provide the greatest return.

An important caveat is that many part-time and older athletes have a lot of other family and work commitments; they therefore need to ensure adequate recovery between training sessions. One way to help ensure this takes place is to use heart rate variability data to monitor cardiovascular fatigue(22). The cardiovascular fatigue identified from the data after each session determines whether the next session is reduced in intensity, or whether additional rest and recovery is needed. The body needs time for recovery after a single high intensity session, a hard training period of several days, or even after a low-intensity but long rowing session, as without rest, the body’s adaptation to the training stimulus will not occur.

More generally, the priority order for utilisation of training time for older indoor rowers can be summarised thus:

  • Five very specific rowing sessions per week;
  • Inspiratory muscle training using a POWERbreathe device every other day;
  • Core stability/flexibility work and at least one specific rowing weights session per week (time permitting);
  • Two days of complete rest and recovery per week;
  • Training weeks for a ‘cycle’ should follow the sequence of light, medium, hard and light;
  • Training should cease completely if the rower is ill or injured until fully recovered.


While age decline will eventually take its toll, it is possible to maintain a high level of performance with regular continuous training particularly aimed at developing aerobic capacity. If any inspiration is needed, just look at the performances of the Open Champion and the oldest competitor in the British Championships; 33-year-old Graham Benton won the 2006 Open event in a time of 5.46.7 – an average power output of 538 watts. Another rower called John Hodgson appears every year, and in the most recent Championships, he rowed 11 minutes 6.2 seconds for the 2,000m – a power output of approximately 75 watts. John is 96 years of age!

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