Rowing 101: Erg Testing

Given that there may be some readers who are new to rowing as parents (or as rowers themselves), I thought there may be some value in shedding light on a few of the less understood aspects of the sport.  One of the many questions that we as coaches get is how we make decisions about who to put in which lineup.  While there are several tools coaches use to make decisions, often the first and most straightforward is the erg test.

First of all, a disclaimer: this entry is written by me, Jason Coffman, and is therefore based on my understanding and application of the subject matter.  Each coach has their own ways of incorporating erg testing into their general scheme.  Mine is adapted to suit me and the program that I coach.  While the general concepts and goals are usually the same for most coaches out there, the exact distances, frequency, and weight that each coach places on the data will vary.  I am also not a biologist, so my amateur attempts to characterize the highly complex chemical processes that govern a body’s energy systems in simple terms will probably contain a few inaccuracies.

There, I think I’ve equivocated enough.

Even those just starting out in rowing have some familiarity with the rowing ergometer.  It is very often the first tool used to teach the basic rowing stroke, and can be found in most fitness gyms.  The standard machine used throughout the world is the Concept 2 ergometer (we just call it the erg).  The erg displays several pieces of information, including current speed or power output, elapsed time, meters, and stroke rate.  The information most familiar to the rower is the measure of speed, which is displayed in the time it takes to cover 500 meters at the current power.  Rowers call this number the “split”.

An erg test is the primary tool most coaches use to determine an athlete’s fitness and strength.  I like to generally label this as “physiological capacity”, but that sounds pretty academic and, well, obnoxious.  I’ll just call it fitness from here on out.

In addition to fitness, there is a mental aspect to the erg test that cannot be discounted.  Rowing, when done correctly, is a painful activity.  Residual lactic acid, a byproduct of anaerobic work, creates the burning sensation that many of us have experienced before when we sprint up a flight of stairs.  For some, this pain can be overwhelming; others are able to block out this pain and push their bodies harder.  How each athlete handles this is an integral part of the erg test.

Another mental aspect is the stress the athlete feels prior to the test.  Depending on the value that a coach places on erg testing, an erg test may be a very important event with selections to certain boats or attendance at certain regattas being decided.  In these cases, the anxiety leading up to the test needs to be managed.  Many coaches out there will use the “surprise” erg test to minimize this effect, and hopefully get a test result that is free of anxiety.  Personally, I don’t use surprise erg tests for two reasons: I want the athlete to be able to fully prepare, and I want the athlete to learn how to manage her own stress.

The length of a test will vary depending on what the coach is trying to find out.  Each distance will favor a different type of fitness.  A 100 meter test only measures pure power, there is no fitness aspect to this test at all since it lasts less than 30 seconds.  Conversely, a 10,000 meter test has very little emphasis on power and almost entirely tests an athlete’s aerobic fitness as this test can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour.

The two tests used most often are the 2000 meter distance (2k for short), and the 6000 meter distance (6k for short).  The 2k distance most closely approximates our championship race distance and is a mix of fitness and power.  The 6k distance favors aerobic fitness over power.  Some coaches will also do a shorter 500 meter test which favors power over fitness, or even a 10k test which has even greater emphasis on fitness than the 6k.  I use the 6k test through the fall and winter and shift to the 2k distance in March.  These distances most closely relate to the type of training we are doing at that time: more aerobic base fitness in fall, more speed and power in spring.  Other coaches might mix these distances into their training all year long to get a more informed snapshot of how the training is affecting the athletes’ fitness.

Typically, a 2k test will take anywhere from 6 to 8 minutes for boys and 7 to 9 minutes for girls.  The current all-time records at Mount Baker are 5:58 (a 1:29 average split) for the boys and 7:03 (a 1:45 average split) for the girls.  For 6k tests, the girls will typically go anywhere from 23 to 30 minutes, while the boys will take anywhere from 19 to 24 minutes.  The current all-time 6k records are 22:53 for the girls (a 1:54 average split).  At this time I don’t have the boys 6k record.

How a coach uses this information is up to them.  For the most part, these tests are used to gauge fitness, and how well the athletes are improving over time.  It can be a good guage of the effectiveness of the training plan and can help identify some problem areas.  Coaches will also often use this as a starting point for making lineup decisions by eliminating certain athletes from contention.  While creating lineups strictly based on erg is not often a smart move, there is no denying that rowing is a horsepower sport, and those with little horsepower on the erg are not going to be able to generate horsepower on the water.

Some coaches will also calculate a weight-adjusted erg score to try and take into account the “weight to power” ratio that can be important in our sport.  Personally, I don’t use a weight adjusted formula since I feel that these can often overstate a lighter athlete’s time, especially when dealing with athletes who have very different weights, but there are many coaches who use these formulas quite a bit.

For most coaches, the erg score is simply a preliminary tool in determining fitness.  There are many other pieces of information that go into making decisions.  The next Rowing 101 entry will deal with another aspect: Seat Racing.