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Training Through the Ages

BY ALAN OLDHAM
VIDEO BY ADAM REIST

Change is something we all face as we age. Bodies grow—vertically at first and then often horizontally—and so do attitudes about training and motivations for staying in the sport or even taking up an oar later in life. Yet the template for how many rowers train and race, from the youngest juniors right through to the very oldest masters, can feel like it misses the mark.

While a one-size-fits-all approach still dominates in many sports, a growing trend shifts the focus onto the individual athletes that make up a team or club. This is especially significant for older athletes, who may not have the time to commit to vast amounts of training. We’ve all heard the expression, “train smarter, not harder,” but what does training smarter actually mean for rowers trying to perform as they age?

To find out more, I reached out to four experienced coaches from across the United States and Canada.

Breaking Bad Habits

My first call was to three-time world champion German/Canadian lightweight sculler Michelle Darvill. 

“All of this depends on the individual,” she said in response to my question about training for older athletes. In fact, I ended up hearing a lot of this sort of thing, not just from Darvill, but from others I contacted as well. “How someone trains is often based on physiology, training, and length of race,” continued Darvill, who until recently served as a national development team coach and women’s coach for Rowing Canada. In other words, it’s all relative. 

Yet there is one thing, according to Darvill, that is not relative: good technique. “Technique is important in all age groups to enable maximal leverage, minimize injury, and maximize boat propulsion,” she told me. Poor technique can lead to bad habits and for Darvill the only solution is “mileage and the desire to change.”

“This means staying focused on the task,” she explained. “Many people are willing to try something out for a couple of strokes, but want a quick fix. You have to be willing to dedicate time to making a technical change to retrain patterning and even look at other areas, such as flexibility or core strength, that you can improve on. When you look at periodizing your training plan, starting a new season and the general preparation stage may be the period of the year to devote to looking at the gaps and correcting technique. It is also important to look at how race pace may impact technique.”

The good news is that no matter one’s age, technique change is still possible, according to Darvill. “It is about having the right attitude,” she said. “Having feedback can also help; whether it is video or coaching or speed feedback, there are lots of tools out there.”

Rigging and Racing

A properly-rigged boat is a critical part of rowing well and racing fast. In fact, the adjustability of equipment to fit the athlete rather than the other way around is a good example of individualization already at work in the sport. But should rigging change as a matter of course as athletes age?

Not really, according to Patrick Kington, director of rowing at the San Diego Rowing Club. “As far as rigging is concerned,” he told me, “we don’t make changes based on age group per se, but rather on fitness level, size of the athletes, and those types of things. So while it’s true that, in general, I’ll have lighter loads for our athletes as they age, since younger athletes are more powerful on average, we use the fitness levels of the individual athletes to make the determination rather than making adjustments based on age group.”

Kington’s exceptional work with masters rowers was recognized in 2018 with a USRowing Fan’s Choice Award for Masters Coach of the Year, yet his engagement with rowers spans all ages and abilities. I reached him while he was en route to Austria for the senior worlds as coach of U.S. Paralympic sculler Blake Haxton.

When it comes to racing, “tactics do change with age and ability,” he said. “Our younger masters will come off the line at higher rates, have a more aggressive base pace, and begin their sprints earlier. Our older athletes will adopt a more conservative pacing strategy. The other main difference in strategy that one sees in masters racing versus junior or collegiate or elite is that the 1k race demands a more aggressive strategy. There simply isn’t time in the race to make large moves if a boat gets left behind off the line.”

For Darvill, the focus of a good strategy at any age comes down to pacing. “One consistently successful strategy we do see at all levels is even pacing,” said Darvill. “You want to minimize big changes in speed because it takes more effort to get the speed back up if you take your foot off the gas pedal. It often takes years of experience for athletes to find where the fine line is. This takes practice and specific training. For 1,000-meter races, you might be able to push a little harder, but you can’t treat it like a 200-meter sprint or you will fly and die.”

And once again, it comes back to the individual. “People need to figure out the best strategy for them,” she said. “There are many things to consider; wind, number of races, temperature, where they are in the season, and so on.  For some it might feel like they can’t race well unless they are ahead of the group. You don’t want to be sitting in wash, so sometimes you need to put yourself out there.”

Rest and Recovery

There are some interesting things that happen from the physiological side of things as athletes age,” said Kington. “I find it is important to continue to engage in high-intensity workouts with aging athletes; however, they will require more time to recover, both in between intervals within a workout and between workouts.”

“We do periodize the training for all of our athletes, regardless of age, but there are some differences within that framework,” he continued. “For instance, a men’s eight in the B age group may be planning to base [rate] at 38 strokes per minute, whereas a women’s quad in the G age group may be planning to base at a 30 for their race. As we approach a priority competition and start doing a lot of race-specific work, both groups would engage in the same workout—say 6 x 3 minutes—but the women’s G quad would do that with more rest between intervals and do the intervals at 26-32 strokes per minute, and the men’s B eight would do it with less rest between intervals and at a 34-40.

On a longer time scale, Darvill said how masters choose to periodize their training “depends on what you want to get out of it, how committed you are, and what your lifestyle allows. Periodization can help athletes in many ways to peak for events, recover properly physically and mentally, and in conjunction with tracking, can help tailor a program to support peak performance.”

Changing things up is a big part of keeping the adaptations coming, including later in life. “I think stimulus change is important for everybody regardless of age,” said Darvill. “Your body gets used to doing something one way, becomes often efficient at it, so changing stimulus is important to improving. A lot of masters have been weekend warriors doing their own thing, but there are so many services out there offering specialized training and targeting areas of weakness. If people are willing to go that route, you can circumvent injury and see improvements in other areas.”

Longevity

The idea that athletes can be proactive in things like injury prevention and longevity in the sport is central to Allison Ray’s mission as head coach at Oakland Strokes Rowing. “As you get older you need more time to recover,” the former assistant coach for Canada’s men’s team told me during a call from California. “As a masters athlete, you have to get really good at the recovery and injury prevention game so you can train as hard as an elite athlete. When I think of older national team rowers, some of those guys have had to train differently.”

While her current work with juniors may seem to put her at the opposite end of the age spectrum to masters, setting her young rowers up for a lifetime of enjoyment and success in rowing is a top priority for Ray.

“The first stage is learning to love the sport,” she told me. “Then learning how to train, then compete, and then how to win and how to lose.”

“A big part of it is helping them develop body awareness,” said Ray. “We have someone come in twice a year and do a functional mobility assessment and she gives us a score for the athletes and they work on things like flexibility and so on.” 

“Teaching them accountability, responsibility, and how to function as part of a rowing team are also important,” adds Ray. “Those things actually lead to longer-term success in the sport. I think there is something about it not being a self-centered experience where they learn the joy of doing things for the team together.”

The most important lesson that Ray seems to be imparting to her juniors, however, is learning how to learn. “Learning to have conversations with coaches, each other, and themselves, learning how to be in new situations like selection, how to seat race, how not to seat race,” she said. “These are skills that will allow you to feel empowered and provide motivation to rowers at all levels to stay with the sport.”

Motivations

When it comes to understanding what motivates people to start rowing and stay with it, U.S. Olympic gold medalist Holly Metcalf knows a thing or two. 

“My first exposure to motivation I had not experienced before was with masters women back in the early ‘90s,” said Metcalf, who is entering her 13th season as head coach for MIT’s open-weight women. “I had just finished my national team career and was coaching at various community programs. During this time, high school rowing was growing, and many women were introduced to rowing through their children.”

“Women in particular were drawn to rowing and wanted to learn to row,” she explained. “Many of these women were pre-Title IX and excited by the fact that they did not have to have prior experience and could start as novices. The motivation for many of the masters women was to experience teamwork—the kind they had observed their children growing so much from—to improve health, to have a community of women outside of their families and work demands, to learn something new, and discover the athlete within.”

“I was shocked by the stories of masters women—and men—being coached with a lack of respect for their desire to learn to row,” recalled Metcalf, who remembers her own feelings of trying to find her place in the sport following success at the international level as an athlete and then coach. She realized that, “what the masters community needed was respect for where they were in their lives and for the depth of experience they had in life.”

So she developed one of the first masters women’s rowing camps in America that offered quality instruction and, more importantly, what Metcalf called an “environment supportive of their journey into rowing. For those who never considered themselves competitive, they discovered a natural desire to find more speed as their knowledge grew.”

From her first successful Row as One camp she took her philosophy to Boston’s inner-city schools with G-Row Boston, fostering leadership for girls. Her next initiative, WeCanRow, has spread across the nation and focuses on bringing the life-changing power of rowing to the breast cancer survivor community. “With all groups, we shared the same love of feeling the sum of the strength of nine people connecting strength through the demands of moving together, being intense together, finding grit together.”

The Mental Game

Grittiness is something talked about a lot these days when it comes to sport psychology. For Darvill, staying on top of the mental game is what separates the best from the rest.

“Mental training is particularly important for masters rowers in racing and is a big part of enhancing peak performance. We all know that the adrenalin push helps rowers get through those last few strokes, however it is important to find ways to stay on task throughout the race. You train your body to perform during racing, and in the same vein your mental game needs to be honed.”

The social aspect of masters rowing shouldn’t be ignored either she added. “We are now seeing larger subscriptions to masters racing, which often involve training camps and social activities at the regattas. For many this social aspect is a large draw to the sport. For both new and returning athletes it is important to understand what type of experience they want and this will help guide their training and approach to seeking out the best training environment.

“Athletes do tend to want to get different things out of the sport as they age,” agreed Kington. “Our youngest groups are very concerned with competition, while our oldest groups seem to get more out of the sense of community and enjoy racing with athletes with whom they’ve been racing and training for decades. Obviously, there are individuals within these groups for whom the opposite trends hold true, but that seems to be the case on average.”

“In the same sense, athletes that are hoping to get different things out of the sport respond best to different coaching styles. I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that I coach large groups differently, such as the junior women one way and the masters men another, but I definitely try to learn what each individual within a group is after and try to find what styles of coaching will be most effective for them.”

For coaches and athletes then, finding the right mental space seems to come down to managing expectations and setting appropriate goals. Fortunately it is never too late—or too early—to plant the seeds of mental toughness.

“For us,” Ray said of her juniors, “the goal-setting is focused around what is happening at the boathouse and at school, short term and long term. Having a process to follow up on it is critical—socializing it in their day to day at the boathouse so they are having conversations with each other about how they are doing.” There is also a mental health aspect to all of this, as the door gets pushed open to provide a safe space for important conversations to take place.

“We’ve had kids down here before and they’ve been struggling and we say, ‘OK, just tell me if today is not a good day and we can figure out what to do.” When it comes to individualizing experience, it can be difficult, Ray said. “In the context of 100 kids, it comes down to what small things can you do if kids are having a hard time? We do spend time trying to motivate them to come and talk to us if things are difficult. And having limits and cultural standards on your own team about how they talk to each other, being good teammates. These sound like simple things, but being disciplined about it creates the environment that helps with mental health.”

The Sky’s the Limit

The idea of an age limit on top performance is a common view, but Darvill thinks it’s time to rethink what older athletes can do. “The mind will usually go before the body,” she said. “Diminishing will and desire likely precede physical limitations. That being said, some masters rowers have all of a sudden found a fountain of youth and dedicate large amounts of effort and time into their training and racing.”

“Every athlete can find something to help them improve, whether it is nutrition or integrating some stretching routine,” Darvill continued. “We do not know a lot about the limits of what masters can do because they usually do not follow a high-performance plan and often do not have proper systems in place to maximize performance. There are many ways to circumvent a decline in performance that are still untapped.”

“As the baby boomer retirement generation grows and their lifestyle changes, we will see more people devoting time to fitness. For rowing, the increased access to coaching, training regimes, and great racing opportunities around the world only serves to increase the appeal and enjoyment to both veteran and novice rowers alike.”  

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