170,000 Metres Rowed, 17 Hours & 45 Minutes of Exercise: A Week in The Life of an Olympic Rower

I trained like an Olympic rower for one week. This is what happened . . .

a team of Olympic rowers rowing on open water

In this series of articles – A Week in The Life – I plan to follow in the footsteps of an experimental lab rat and for one week will pit myself against the training regime of a professional athlete.


For seven days I aim to challenge myself to maintain the same training volume as the professional whilst adopting, as closely as possible, their exercise routine. As I undertake what will surely be an arduous physical ordeal, I'll document each day’s exercise outputs whilst ensuring to summarise my experience in a concluding paragraph.


Each Week in The Life will begin with a walkthrough of the sport/discipline particulars. These particulars include:


  • The main events/competitions that the professional athletes from the sport aspire to win

  • The physical attributes that are essential to cultivate for those who have designs on ascending to the pinnacle of the sport/discipline

  • A brief bio of the current top-level athlete

  • An outline of the average pre-competition weekly training regime

Concluding the overview I’ve cobbled together a daily training routine ensuring to keep as close as possible to that of the professional. This daily training routine will act as a blueprint for the week; each session to be populated with different exercises or approaches: strength, muscular endurance, high intensity/low intensity, technique work.


Following the Week in The Life training regime, I have compiled the overall outputs as well as, where applicable, total distances covered, weight lifted and repetitions performed.


A Week in The Life of an: Olympic Rower

As sad as it sounds I was very much looking forward to the challenge of maintaining the training volume of an Olympic rower. I’ve been rowing recreationally now for years and have often fantasised over what it might be like to follow in the wake of a professional.


Thus, when I embarked on the research for this article I did so with excited trepidation. For I knew that, to ascend the lofty heights of Mt. Olympus – on whose craggy peaks the likes of Cracknell, Pinsent and Redgrave stand – requires much more than mere sweat, blood tears and daily toil.


In fact, as I would eventually discover, to rub shoulders with the Titans requires nothing short of a Herculean labour – 6 days a week through an 11-month-long training season! But before we take a look at the training schedule of an Olympic rower, let’s have a look at one of the best pullers in the business.



A Puller Par Excellence

Mahe Drysdale celebrates winning an Olympic gold medal in rowing

Mahe Drysdale is widely regarded as the best rower in the world. He has won 2 Olympic gold medals and 5 World Championships in the Men’s Single Skulls. And though Drysdale is over 40 years old he has embarked on a conquest to take home a third gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.


The Olympic and World Championship golds are the medals that probably stand pride of place in Drysdale’s display cabinet. But also scattered amongst this Kiwi’s treasure trove includes the seven gold medals he won at the New Zealand national championships, a silver medal and numerous sporting awards and accolades.



The physical attributes that are essential to cultivate for those who have designs on ascending to the pinnacle of rowing

In an interview on his rowing career, which spans a colossal 18 years, much of which saw him compete at the highest levels, Mahe Drysdale identifies three core competencies that the aspirant rower must cultivate. They include:


1: The Physical
2: The Mental
3: The Technical


The Physical

Of all the fitness tests I’ve conducted over the years the 2000m ergo row is the one that induced the most amount of physical discomfort. More so than a 16k time trial or 10k run, both of which take about three to four times as long to complete. That rowing requires superior physicality is no mystery to anyone who has experience in the discipline. Unlike the aforementioned sports – cycling and running – rowing engages both the major muscles groups; those of the back and legs. Thus, to perform well over, say, 2000m, a rower must develop exceptional pressing and pulling power.



The Mental

To compete at the top level in rowing requires more than just physical fitness – it requires great mental toughness too (of course this is true of many sporting disciplines). The rower must cultivate mental resilience so that he or she can weather the arduousness of pre-competition training. Drysdale, in the same interview alluded to above, says that a professional rower will typically train two to three times a day six days a week for 11 months of the year. But rowing training isn’t just about volume. To get within a boat’s length of the Olympics a rower must be prepared to push themselves beyond their preconceived limits – sometimes even to collapse! (Not convinced? Watch Cracknell and Redgrave train to exhaustion as they row for gold.)



The Technical

Unlike running and, to a lesser extent, cycling, rowing demands technical mastery. The mechanics of rowing itself – just on an ergo machine – is a comparatively complex process that demands considerable consideration and practice. And then there’s rowing in a ‘scull’, an 8-foot-long wafer-thin piece of composite plastic that could capsize . . . To acquire the technical proficiency where you can ply the ore without worrying about keeling, backsplashing, puddling, feathering, etc., etc. takes years.



How to row like a pro

Few people row properly and they make all manner of technical mistakes; pulling straight out the catch; slipping the legs underneath the paddle; bending the knees before shooting the arms forward; etc., etc. I routinely made all these mistakes as well. That was until I happened to make acquaintance with a semi-professional rower (who boasted 2000m PB of 6:20).


After watching me break every technical rule in the book (as well inventing a number of unique mistakes of my own) he spent some time showing me how I could improve my technique. Once I’d adopted the proper techniques, which took a couple of weeks of practice, my rowing performance advanced noticeably.



Teaching Points

  1. Always initiate the stroke with your legs – so sayeth Mathew Pinsent

  2. As the legs start to uncoil engage the back.

  3. The moment the paddle passes the knees complete the drive phase by pulling with the arms.

  4. Of course, the above outline, which is only supposed to act as a simple overview, makes rowing sound like three separate movements: legs, back, arms. This is not the case. Though each stroke passes through three phases the transitions should be seamless and smooth and the initiation of each muscle group should be barely distinguishable.



Some Dos and Don’ts

  • Do maintain composure and command of your corporality throughout the stroke: no slouching or slumping

  • Don’t initiate the stroke by pulling with the arms; this is the most common mistake and by committing it you will nullify the legs

  • Do regulate your breathing and use it to improve rhythm and timing

  • Don’t slide the seat up to your heels; the seat should remain about a foot from the back of your heels

  • Do keep a consistent pace throughout the distance; set yourself the goal of, say, over 5000 metres, maintaining a pace of 2:30/500

  • Don’t – when retrieving the stroke – bend the knees before ‘shooting’ the paddle over them. Let me say that another way. In the outstretched position you should propel the paddle forward and over your knees before bending them. Did that make more sense? If not watch the video demonstration.


Rowing distances to aspire

Most all committed rowers aspire to set a PB time for the following five distances:


2000m
5000m
10,000m
21,190 (half marathon)
42,195 (marathon)

Other distances include 100,000m and 1 million metres – these are classed as ultra-distance events, for obvious reasons. (If you fancy having a bash at it, the best 1 million metre time is currently held by an Australian, Andrew Abrahams, who completed the distance in 4 days 23 hours 50 minutes 6 seconds – presumably not in one stint.)



The events/competitions that a professional rower aspires to win

The only meddle that matters in rowing is Olympic gold. Yes national and world championships are impressive and coveted titles, but few professional rowers would maintain that that they carry equal weight as an Olympic medal.


However, winning precious metals at a national or world level is still an immense sporting achievement that few can claim.


Other competitions on the rower’s radar include the annual World Indoor Rowing Championships (WIRC). The event takes place in a large auditorium and each year is hosted by a different country. This year (2020) it was held in France. It’s an open event meaning anyone can enter. And though rowers compete over various distances, the main event is always the 2000m.


Then there’s the Henley Royal Regatta which, as Henley’s website unabashedly proclaims, is ‘undoubtedly the best-know regatta in the world.’ The Regatta hosts hundreds of races of an international standard and Olympic champions past and present duke it out on the water for fame, prestige and rowing immortality – and perhaps a few free glasses of champagne and vol-au-vents from the buffet table.



Olympic Training Schedule

An Olympic rower will typically train twice a day six days a week. Each training session lasts for about 1 hour 30 minutes. As you would expect their training is almost entirely centred around rowing; in the research for this article I discovered that a professional rower covers between 30- to 40,000 metres per day. That’s a weekly average of somewhere in the region of 220,000 metres! And they train bloody hard.


But it’s not all about the boat.


In addition to spending hours each day on an ergo machine an Olympic rower will devote time to strength and conditioning training. Of course, to develop the requisite physicality to exert enough force to hold a sub-six-minute pace over 2000m, the rower must build abundant strength in the major muscle groups.


At least twice a week an Olympic rower will complete a series of maximal lifts. The exercises they focus on include deadlifting – which, from a biomechanical standpoint, is basically vertical rowing – squats, bent-over rows, seated leg presses and hang cleans.


As well as rowing and strength training professional rowers also strive to cultivate cast iron core stability. It’s long been recognised that a solid core can improve physical performance – which accounts for why so many top-level coaches are utilising it in the training of their athletes.


However, for an Olympic rower, superior core stability is especially important due to the fact that they must maintain near-perfect balance in the boat. If the boat – or scull – keels even slightly it can dramatically reduce its efficiency through the water whilst also throwing the rower off their stroke. When medals are decided by hundredths of a second, an unbalanced boat can be the difference between glory and oblivion. Thus nothing short of perfection will do.



A Week in the Life: Daily Training Regime

In light of the findings identified above, I devised a daily rowing regime consisting of two training sessions. The first session, to take place early in the morning (usually around 5am), would comprise of a slow, relaxed 10k. In addition to rowing I planned to include resistance exercises and/or a gentle jog – the latter just to loosen the legs up.


The second session, to take place post-lunch, was when I would participate in longer training session of a higher intensity. It was during the afternoon sessions, specifically on a Thursday, when I planned to attempt the fabled marathon. That is, 42,195 metres!


I’ve had this distance on my radar for some time and I felt that this challenge would provide not only opportune conditions but also the perquisite preparation.


Below is an outline of my daily training regime.


Monday

First session: 4:45am to 6:15

10 mins Yoga

10,000m row – relaxed pace

30-minute slow jog


Second session: 12:45 to 2:45

10k cycle

5000m row (1:59.5/500 average)

5 X 10 reps seated row (40kg)

5000m row (1:59.5/500 average)

5 X 10 reps seated keg press (50kg)

5000m row (1:59.5/500 average)

5 X 10 reps kettlebell swing (40kg)

5000m row (1:59.5/500 average)

10 min stretch


Day totals

Training time: 3hrs 30mins

Row distance: 30,000 metres


Thursday

First session: 5am to 6

10 mins Yoga

10,000m row – relaxed pace


Second session: 12 to 1:30

15,000m row (1:59/500 av)

10k cycle


Day totals

Training time: 2hrs 30mins

Row distance: 25,000 metres


Wednesday

First session: 5am to 6

10 mins Yoga

10,000m row – relaxed pace


Second session: 12 to 1pm

5000m row – relaxed pace

10k cycle


Third session: 3pm to 4pm

5000m row – relaxed pace

5 X 10reps dumbbell clean and press (2 X 14kg DBs)

2500m row – (1:59/500 av)

5 X 10reps dumbbell clean and press (2 X 14kg DBs)

2500m row – relaxed pace


Day totals

Training time: 3hrs

Row distance: 25,000 metres


Thursday

First session: 12 to 3:30pm

50,000m row

I’ve wanted to net the White Whale of a marathon row for some time now. When I eventually reached 42,195m (a marathon), after a little under 3hrs of continuous pushing and pulling, huffing and puffing, moaning and groaning, I felt I had enough in the tank for a further 8k.


Day totals

Training time: 3hrs 30 minutes

Row distance: 50,000


Friday

First session: 6am to 7am

10 mins Yoga

2500m row

100 Kettlebell swings (24kg)

100 Kettlebell squats (32kg)

50 Kettlebell clean and press (24kg)

100 Press-ups

100 Burpees

2500m row


Second session: 12 to 2:50pm

2hr Cycle (around 20-miles)

10,000m row


Day totals

Training time: 2hrs 50mins

Row distance: 15,000


Saturday

First session: 6am to 7:10am

10 mins Yoga

12,500m row


Second session: 11 to 12:15

2500m row

25 Kettlebell swings (24kg)

1min rest

2500m row

25 Kettlebell swings (24kg)

1min rest

2500m row

25 Kettlebell swings (24kg)

1min rest

2500m row

25 Kettlebell swings (24kg)

1min rest

2500m row


Day totals

Training time: 2hrs 25min

Row distance: 25,000


Week Totals

Training time: 17hrs 45 mins

Row distance: 170,000m



Thoughts on training like an Olympic rower

In a word: tough! Though in truth that pithy adjective doesn’t come close to cutting the metaphorical mustard. Maintaining the training volume of an Olympic rower has been extremely challenging and it has left me with more than aches, pains and chronic fatigue. It has brought about an appreciation of just how physically and mentally robust a professional rower must be.


As paradoxical as it sounds, it wasn’t the physical aspect of rowing that presented the greatest challenge of the week. The mental determination required to endure the perpetual monotony of the many thousands of metres that the rower must cover each day, that was by far the greater challenge.


To ease the monotony of rowing I worked my way through Michael Sandal’s Harvard Lectures – which provide the pleb with a dumbed-down insight into moral philosophy. Well why not try to improve my mind whilst trying to improve my physicality? Beats blasting my eardrums with Guns & Roses for 2 hours a day.



A Week in the Life Outcomes


  • I finally completed the fabled marathon – which had been on my fitness bucket list for yonks.

  • I’ve developed an ass of iron. But this is to be expected after 170,000m of voluntarily kneading my derriere on the solid seat of an ergo rower.

  • My pulling power has improved somewhat.

  • A 10k row, which before the challenge I regarded as a substantial training session, now seems little more than a warm-up.

  • I noticed a decline in overall body fat and a sharpening of my muscular tonality.

  • I now understand why, after winning his 5th Olympic gold medal, Sir Steve Redgrave said "If you ever catch me near a boat again, shoot me!" I felt the same after only a week.


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Blog Author

Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, professional personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.