BY VOLKER NOLTE
PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
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The advantages of surging ahead at the start are so great that we take short, hard, high strokes to get the boat up and above racing speed as fast as possible.
The concept of “even-splitting” over a 2,000-meter race still haunts the minds of rowers and coaches, even though scientific research has proven that this strategy doesn’t lead to maximum performance.
Maintaining a constant speed over an entire race makes sense when a team is either far superior to its competition or facing adverse race conditions. In the first case, the successful team doesn’t need to use its full power; in the second, the wind and waves on different race sections influence the course of the race.
From a biomechanical standpoint, it’s advantageous to keep boat speed as constant as possible. On the other hand, to achieve maximum performance, rowers must be ready to tap their optimal physiological capacities at crucial times, and this is possible only when the body’s three energy-providing systems are used correctly. Maximum physiological performance is important especially in the first part of the race, which begins with the start.
The body’s three energy systems are the high-energy phosphate system, the anaerobic-lactic system, and the aerobic system. At the start of a race, when rowers sit with their boats at the gates, the only energy system that’s accessible fully is the phosphate system, with its components ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and CP (creatine phosphate) fully loaded in the muscles and ready to spring into action. The other two systems are waiting for the signal to engage, which occurs when the muscles begin using ATP, thus reducing the amount in storage. At that moment, glycogen breaks down and provides energy to restore ATP levels so muscles can continue to contract.
While ATP and CP can make energy immediately, it takes a while for the body to make energy from glycogen. Because the aerobic system is slow to reach maximum capacity, the breakdown of glycogen to carbon dioxide and water yields an intermediate product, lactate. This enables the body to generate energy more quickly but has the unpleasant side effect of accumulating lactic acid, which creates the burning sensation associated with fatigue.
While the ATP-CP system allows rowers to produce huge amounts of power, it lasts only about 10 to 15 seconds. This is a sufficient amount of time, however, for the anaerobic-lactic system to reach full potential so rowers can continue to perform at peak output, though considerably less than before and for only 45 to 120 seconds, depending on demand.
At first glance, you might wonder, Why stress the two anaerobic systems at the beginning of a race? Especially when doing so causes unpleasant fatigue that can lead rowers to reduce effort to lower the burn—something that will surely diminish performance. The fact is that using the faster-available energy systems drives the increase of the next, slower system. In other words, using ATP-CP quickly causes the lactate system to kick in faster, and a speedier increase in lactic acid leads to a bigger increase in oxygen uptake.
The three energy systems work well together for us rowers. The acceleration of the boat from a standstill at the start requires enormous energy, which the ATP-CP system provides in copious amounts. After getting the crew up to speed with the starting strokes, rowers should maintain that level until the anaerobic lactic system is ready to take over, shifting the aerobic system into high gear.
The conversion of energy into boat speed is visible clearly in high-level racing when one studies stroke-by-stroke data. Depending on the boat class, the highest boat speed is achieved after five to 10 strokes. Depending on the quality and confidence of the crew, there’s a slow and steady decline over the next 200 to 400 meters to middle-of-the-race pace. So a fast start is desirable for not only psychological reasons (establishing a favorable competitive position) but also achieving your best possible performance.
The difference between crews after the first part of the race is their ability technically to attain and hold maximum speed without tightening up as well as confidence in their abilities and the psychic stamina to withstand the discomfort of fatigue. Rowers unable to unleash their highest power output quickly, and when it counts the most, and who are afraid of the burn should work on these weaknesses rather than trying to use strategies that are “nicer’ to the body but that prove time and again to be unsuccessful.