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The Science of Sprinting

BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Many race are decided in the finishing sprint. This is especially true at the highest levels of our sport, where crews have to raise their speed in the closing meters to contend for a medal. Only those who have been through this can appreciate the mental and physical effort it requires. Consider that athletes involved in a full-out effort are already experiencing blood lactate levels of around 10 millimoles per liter—a level of exertion beyond what most withstand—when they have to lift their boat speed for the sprint. This requires stepping over an incredible mental barrier, with every fiber in their body telling them to stop. Athletes then must have tremendous confidence and motivation to block the natural stimulus to back off and instead raise their performance. As they start to sprint, their muscles are exposed to even higher lactate levels, along with increasing fatigue and pain. To override this, athletes push themselves into a state of trance in an attempt to suppress the negative feelings they are experiencing. This is referred to as “rowing into the tunnel,” a condition where all sensory systems appear turned off. Of course, it’s equally important that the athlete is capable of withstanding such high lactate levels to begin with. This means methodically preparing them for this intensity while providing sufficient time to recover. 

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