By Todd Skipworth
I’m not usually one to write articles for anyone or anything. I was asked to write a bit on crossing over from rowing to triathlon and once I looked into the clubs history and saw that it’s really a bunch of Pirates racing triathlon and trying to inform the broader triathlon community, I thought I oughta at least try and deliver some of what I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught over the years. After all who can say no to a Pirate?
I’ve been a rower for just over a decade having represented Australia in the Lightweight men’s four at 8 Senior World Championships and the Beijing and London Olympics. The highlights of my rowing career, aside from some lifelong memories and friends I have been fortunate enough to make on tour, are a silver medal at the 2010 World Championships, gold at the 2011 World’s and a handful of World Cup medals.
After the 2008 Olympics, a rowing friend of mine and I decided to do an Ironman. A bunch of rowers had done it previously and there was a bit of a challenge on at the time. We were both looking for something outside of the boat to keep fit and have fun with and truth be told, wanted to see if we could knock off the heavyweights’ time. We both ended up qualifying for Hawaii and I haven’t ever really shaken the sport since then, despite committing to rowing for the following Olympiad.
I get asked a lot about my rowing history and why I switched. But something I get asked even more is “Why are all these bloody rowers able to swap sports and in particular, hop on a bike and ride so strong?” So for those of you who don’t know, I’ll give you some insight into the sport of rowing and why I think it makes people good at not only rowing but other sports as well.
I competed as a lightweight, which means that at weigh-in, 2 hrs prior to our race, we have to be at 70kg. There is no real margin for error here, crew average is 70kg and if your combined weight is even 100grams over, you don’t race. Although rowing is a full-body workout, it is very much a leg driven sport; 70-80% of our drive comes from our legs. We use the bike as a cross-training tool and there is a huge benefit in terms of crossover both from the boat to the bike and vice versa. As lightweights we also run a fair amount to help keep our bodyweight down. Rowing is a very load intensive sport, so we also do 3 strength/weights sessions a week and another 2 rowing ergo sessions a week. If you’ve never done a workout on an ergo…don’t! If you have had the opportunity to experience the pain of a rowing erg, you’ll understand why I’ll probably never hop on one again. The pain and monotony of a hard turbo trainer session has nothing on a rowing erg.
So that gives you an idea of our weekly sessions. But what I believe gives rowers the ability to crossover to other sports, lies in the intensity of all those sessions.
The connection between the oar and the boat is created by the rower holding onto it. This means you need to build really good core strength to transfer the power of your leg drive onto the blade of the oar. Most rowers, regardless of what sport they try next, will have a really strong core making them relatively efficient in transferring their power. It also stops them from breaking down as quickly. At the extreme, you quite often see a rower who just mashes the pedals all day on the bike – that would normally burn someone out really quickly, but the rower will go like that for the whole ride, seemingly unphased that they’ve just done twice as much work as necessary.
Rowing training is unavoidably intense. We sit in a boat that weighs roughly 60kg, with a crew weight of 280kg, meaning every stoke we take is basically a loaded squat. My heart rate during a paddling session (the equivalent of an easy spin on the bike) would sit between 160-170bpm and typically we would be on the water paddling or doing piece work (more intense) twice a day for 1.5 – 2 hours each session. A third session either on the ergo, bike or in the weights room leaves you pretty well done. I can’t think of another sport that forces you to have such a high heart rate at that intensity. I’ve been told cross-country skiing is similar but I’ve never done it. The other interesting element in crew rowing is that even with such a high heart rate, your awareness and execution needs to be extremely accurate. The only thing that makes rowing harder than it already is, is when the crew is out of time. If all four blades aren’t connecting to the water at the same time, somebody has to pick up the load, the boat generally loses balance and doesn’t sit up in the water as high, making the whole thing even harder.
A rowing race lasts roughly 6 minutes and there’s no nice way to put it. It is a 6 minute all out, balls to the wall, lactate jungle effort. You produce all the power you can to get the boat up to speed and then utilize your endurance ability to hold it up there until you hit the line. I’ve been asked which sport hurts more and the only way to describe it is, if you could imagine taking all the pain of an Ironman race and squishing it into 6 minutes and dropping all that pain at once at around the 500m to go mark, then that’s kind of how you feel in a 2km rowing race.
I think having trained for both sports, I’ve learnt my rowing benefits me in some areas of triathlon but not in others. As I said rowing is intense, so when it comes to fartlek work or lactate threshold reps, I am in my element. My body knows that feeling and how to recover quickly and go again. So during shorter, sharper efforts in the pool, on the track or even some of the stuff on the bike, I feel like I’m somewhat at home. Long, slow, steady stuff…. Not so much. I am definitely not used to rolling round on the bike with my heart rate nearer 100 than 200 bpm. Long runs are much the same; my body is used to – and likes to – operate up at 160-170 bpm, but as good as it feels being there, trying to do a 3 hr run or 200km bike at that heart rate ends up looking pretty ugly. I’ve had to learn to try and really train that lower end and become efficient there too. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it by any means, but I’ve started to adapt and mentally I’m more aware of the benefits that those sessions provide me.
There’s a lot more that needs to be thought about in training and racing for triathlon, or so I’ve found. Measuring your effort is not something I really worried about in rowing – blowing up was inevitable, but more from a maxing out of your VO2, as opposed to a general endurance fatigue or lack of energy. It was really more about how well you hung onto your form and power in the last 500m that decided your end result. Triathlon is a different story for me, especially in Ironman distance races. If you blow up it can be a much longer, much harder day than you anticipated. There are a lot more factors at play in triathlon that can have an effect down the line. If you don’t eat or drink properly in rowing it doesn’t really matter because you’re never at one session long enough to really exhaust your stores. It’s the same with racing. In a 2km race you don’t have time to tap into your stores – at least you hope not, otherwise you’ve really done something wrong! Training and racing triathlon, where sessions and races go well beyond 2 hours, means that not keeping track of your intake might not affect you in the present moment but it may affect sessions in the days to come. In a race scenario, neglecting intake on the bike might have dire effects on the run.
It was easy for me to feel confident in a rowing race, if we nailed our warm up and felt good as a crew, it was a straight 2km buoyed course much like a really big swimming pool. Crews couldn’t row over the top of you, or hold on to your blades and no matter which location you were racing at, it was a dead straight 2km course and race plans really didn’t vary that much. As long as you executed your race well, the result would be pretty much as you expected. Having to deal with 2000 other competitors all aiming for the same buoy with no lanes, is challenging enough. Then there’s dealing with transitions, bike issues that can crop up, or technical courses. There’s a lot more that demands your concentration and for a greater length of time in triathlon. You loose the technical focus that you have to have in rowing but instead you’re dealing with other competitors trying to drown you and marshals telling you to go the wrong way half the time. There are a lot more external factors at play that you’re constantly focusing on. You may have a great race but if you had a slow transition and missed the front group, or you didn’t eat/drink enough, the end result may be drastically different to what you were expecting.
All in all though, I love it. It’s provided me with a whole new training and racing environment to try to learn and master. I’ve also met a bunch of really genuine triathletes who are all generous people. Everyone I’ve come across is keen to do some training, or help with advice or equipment where they can and the training and race locations available are pretty bloody amazing. It’s not a bad way to see the world, meet some people and get fit, much the same as rowing is. There are maybe a few more exotic race and training locations in triathlon though.
Todd (Skip) Skipworth spent 10 years or so rowing and competing for Australia in 8 world championships and 2 Olympics in the lightweight 4, the highlight being winning a gold medal in 2011.
You can read triathlon from runner’s point of view here