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How to Overcome the Dreaded Erg Test

BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
PHOTOS BY PETER SPURRIER, ED MORAN

I recall once reading something pinned to a boat-bay bulletin board that struck me. It was a single piece of paper that, in a burst of wisdom, said: “Under pressure, we don’t rise to the occasion, we sink to the level of our training. That is why we train so hard.”

It turns out it’s a quote attributed to an anonymous Navy SEAL, someone who undoubtedly knows a thing or two about what it means to perform under pressure. It struck me because it was different. Unlike so many inspirational quotes hung in boat bays and locker rooms around the world about the promise of infinite possibility and the magic of limitlessness, this felt so reductive and simple. The secret to performing better under pressure is to be under pressure, to run to and through it rather than away from it.

For rowers, the ability to perform under pressure is as important on the water in a team boat as it is off the water on the erg. As I sat down to write about erg test-prep strategies from some of rowing’s most successful athletes, the notion of embracing pressure came to life through their stories of training and testing.

Erg testing is an inevitable part of rowing, and from their experience, I wanted to understand how one silences the voice that says, “Why aren’t I faster on the erg? Is this split maintainable? Will I set a personal record (PR) today?” And what to do when that voice becomes even louder on test day, when the pressure is heightened because the stakes are high.

Erg testing is an inevitable part of rowing, and from their experience, I wanted to understand how one silences the voice that says, “Why aren’t I faster on the erg? Is this split maintainable? Will I set a personal record (PR) today?”

From youth athletes preparing for their first 2K to masters rowers pushing for their next PR, read on to hear U.S. national teamers Brooke Mooney, Clark Dean and Christine Cavallo offer their expert advice on how to thrive come test day. While there’s lots to consider, rising to the top are focus, trust in the process, repetition, and a killer playlist.

Clark Dean kindly agrees to speak with me on his first (virtual) day back at Harvard University, during a short slot between classes and general workload. Dean is currently staying at his home in Sarasota, Fla., having returned from the National Team Training Center in Oakland, Calif. After news broke that the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed to 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was decided that the training center had to close.

 At just 20 years old, Dean was the youngest rower at camp by far, with the next youngest rowers approximately 23 or 24 years old, and the majority in their late 20s. This time last year, Dean raced in a straight four at the 2019 world championships in Ottensheim, Austria, where he helped qualify the American boat for Tokyo. Dean was on his way to making a real run for a spot in either the four or the eight, knowing that final decisions on lineups would have been made in June 2020.

 Of course, the world is different now, and rather than ask him about it, I choose to focus on the topic at hand: erg-test strategies. But I feel for him and admire his genuine positivity that so naturally comes through the phone.

I start off by confirming Dean’s 2,000-meter PR, which he earned in February 2019 at Harvard: 5 minutes 44 seconds. Did I mention he’s only 20 years old? “That was coming off the back of a winter indoors,” he tells me, “and a really good, solid block of training. As I was getting closer to test day, I was becoming more and more excited to see what I could do, and then it turned out to be almost a five-second PR at the time. It was a great way to wrap up the indoor season.”

I ask Dean how he prepared for that particular test, which he considers to be his most memorable to date. What did the weeks, hours and minutes look like leading up to it, and what is his approach to test preparation in general? He is quick to respond that it depends on the type of erg test, but there are tried and true tactics he always comes back to.

 “The week leading up to the test, you’re going to want to feel out race pace and get a sense of how comfortable vs. uncomfortable you will be. And then 24 hours out, take it easy and stretch. The day of, even if it’s a morning test, I wake up no fewer than three hours before. Ideally, you’re waking up naturally and can avoid waking up super early.”

What about his food rituals?

“Do things you’re comfortable with,” he says. “I know a ton of people who, on the day of a test, will try weird diet things or drink 10 times more water than they typically do. At the end of the day, you want to do what you’re most comfortable with and what you do most often.”

In terms of race strategy, Dean says that while every erg test is a little different, his general pattern is to start each piece by taking some strokes under his goal average split, typically for the first 10 seconds (or 15-20 seconds depending on his adrenaline), and then lengthen into his base pace.

“I shoot for a split or two above what I want my final average split to be. As the piece goes on and it starts getting tough, I bring it down little by little, usually starting at about the 1K-meter mark. I always sprint 100 meters or 150 meters earlier than I want to.

“So often you hear people say, ‘I wish I had sprinted earlier.’ At all levels of the sport people say that, and I think you know you have paced a piece correctly if you finish your sprint and say, ‘Wow, if there had been 100 more meters I would’ve just been off my goal.’ That’s the perfect way to pace it. It’s rarely going to happen that way, but that’s how I approach the second half of pieces.”

I suspect that University of Washington alumna and current U.S. national-team member Brooke Mooney would agree with Dean’s philosophy on sprinting. Mooney grew up with cross-country ski trails in her backyard in Peru, Vt. A talented sprinter, she was a member of New England’s junior national Nordic ski team and became a well-known name on the eastern ski circuit because of her success on both the national and international stage.

 In high school, Mooney used rowing to cross-train for skiing, until her senior year when she officially joined the varsity rowing team. The switch eventually would land her a spot on the women’s rowing team at the University of Washington, one of the top rowing programs in the nation, and in December 2018, an invitation to join the women’s national team in Princeton, N.J.

For those keeping score, at the 2019 World Rowing Indoor Championships in Long Beach, Calif., Mooney finished second only to the Ukrainian Olena Buryak, who is the fastest woman indoor rower in the world. That means that in Mooney’s first year on the national team she posted the fastest 2,000-meter time among her 17 other teammates who entered the senior open women’s event.

Before I ask Mooney about that particular day, I want to know more about how elite skiing has helped her as a rower.

 “I started learning about my heart rate (HR) and HR training as an eighth-grader,” she tells me. “I did years of it before going to college, so I came in with an understanding of what HR means in relation to training, what different workouts mean intensity-wise. My background helped me understand rowing training cycles.”

Mooney tells me about her preparation leading into the indoor championships last year.

 “Two weeks before, the team started doing some 500-meter pieces at our 2,000-meter goal split. The week of the championships, we started doing some 2,000-meter prep at lower stroke rates. The goal with that type of workout is to mentally prepare for a negative split strategy on test day. In that sense, all of the prep is done weeks before.

“The week of the test, I try to stay in my HR zone and focus on sleeping and eating well. I try not to stress about anything in particular, because honestly, at that point, the training is done. You could negatively affect your training if you’re not sleeping, for example, but if you stick to the training plan, your ability at that point is predetermined.”

I ask Mooney about her approach to test day, knowing that the hours leading up to the start are some of the toughest to get through mentally.

“Ideally, if I have enough time, I’ll wake up and have some coffee and water, and try to go for a walk to get moving. If I can ease my mind by listening to music or watching TV, I will do that. In 2019, we had so much time before the race, which meant there was a lot of sitting around. It’s really just about finding anything to ease my mind. Quiet places to be by myself, or even just playing a card game with teammates. Anything to distract you; I think that’s really important.”

I muse on the word distraction for a moment. There is indeed strategy in distracting oneself from the pressures of testing, but what to do when the testing environment itself is a massive distraction? Yes, I’m talking about the insanity that is an indoor erg championship–the crowds, the noise, the giant screens, the pace boats, the crowds watching your pace boat on the giant screens. Essentially everything that makes these events both thrilling and daunting in equal measure.

Who better to address this topic than Christine Cavallo, who has set a few world records under these circumstances. In 2013, Cavallo set the junior women’s lightweight 2,000-meter world record at the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints in Boston, Mass., where she finished in 7:05.7. She then went on to set a new world record in 2018 at the first World Rowing Indoor Championships in Alexandria, Va. On that day, Cavallo finished in 6:54.1, taking 0.6 off the previous record set in 2010 by South African Ursula Grobler.

I ask Cavallo what made that day in 2018 so special to her, beyond the outcome?

 “I had done so much training,” she tells me. “By that time my ‘how to’ book on how to do a 2K was so robust, and for the first time in my life I had the bandwidth to breathe, relax, and be in the moment. By that point I got to a place where a 2K, done right, would be a 6:54. My backup plan was to do whatever it took to go under seven minutes.”

 I ask her about the indoor championship environment and how she has managed to thrive in these challenging settings?

“When I was in Agganis Arena [at C.R.A.S.H.-B.], it was super dry. They had bug-spray canisters filled with water and were creating artificial humidity. I did really badly. I was about 10 seconds off of my PR and was coughing up blood at the end, thinking, ‘What is going on?’ The first time you go to one of those races, it’s going to be an experiential piece in addition to a 2K. If you want to do well at an erg race, you need to participate in at least two.”

In terms of preparation, Cavallo’s advice is to rehearse your race plan by doing a “2K walkthrough” on the erg.

 “I’ll rehearse my opening 15 strokes and settle, knowing how important that settle is, especially in those arenas. The fly-and-die is real, even if you get to the split you want to be at but you’re not calming your nervous system and your breathing. You’ll pay for it in the third and fourth 500 meters, so it’s a lot of focus around staying calm.

“Linda Murray coxed me in 2018. The whole race plan on one side of a notecard was, ‘Breathe, calm, breathe, calm. Be at your split by 1,750 meters to go. Hold it. Breathe, calm.’ And then in the middle 200 meters, I let myself come up a bit as a mental break. This was from about 1,100 meters to 900 meters to go. Then 850 meters onward, it’s drop, drop, drop.

“I always pick a sweet spot in the second 1K and give whoever is coxing me a pretty aggressive one-liner for them to say to me. It’s Game of Thrones-level. From there, the nervous system I calmed down in the first half of the race is ready to go, and it’s going now. That’s the second half of my race: an absolute hunt for decimal points on my average split.”

I adjust my line of questioning just slightly to see if Cavallo is willing to share her Game of Thrones-level mantra. No such luck. Some things you just need to keep close to the chest. Only Cavallo, Linda Murray and that notecard will ever know what was said in 2018 on that record-setting day.

Knowing Cavallo has been at this a while, I ask her about any pre-test rituals. Like Dean and Mooney, she emphasizes the need for a solid playlist. “Playlist has to be there,” she says. “Has to be on point.”

Cavallo may not have shared her race mantra with me, but in our final few minutes she tells me something I’m sure junior rowers everywhere will take note of.

“The night before [a test] I have a ritual. It started in 2011 when I lost C.R.A.S.H.-B., and the girl who won mentioned she had eaten a sweet potato the day before. I thought, ‘Huh, interesting.’ That day she won, and I got fourth, and you better believe from then on out I’ve eaten a sweet potato every night prior to an erg race. It’s a really good high glycemic sugar your body can use as power. And I haven’t lost at C.R.A.S.H.-B. since.”

Erg tests will always be an inevitable part of competitive rowing. However, smart training, proper rest, adaptability and a sweet potato or two can do wonders in reframing the pressures of test day as just another opportunity to get faster.   

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