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Why stroke rate matters

Someone asked on the Ergzone Users Group why we bother going through different stroke rates when training. I ended up writing an essay in reply, and thought that if you maybe wondered why we bother training through different rates, instead of just sticking to the one you’re fastest at – here’s what I wrote. (It’s quite long).

Personally, I’ve always looked at Stroke Rate from four points of view – intensity, pace, control and motivation to continue.


Pace should be the easiest to unpack. No matter how hard I push with my legs to go as fast as I can at 20spm – I can’t go as fast as maximum effort at 30spm.


Intensity is slighty less clear. Again, low rate endurance work at 18/20spm – long and slow, versus high rate sprint stuff I figure you’re not questioning? You may be questioning the value of ‘Tempo Workouts’ at the mid-range 26-28spm, where you’re in between the two for longer durations, to build fortitude?


But I wonder if it’s the workouts that go 22/24/26/28 through the duration that your query is based on? This is where firstly Motivation is a great trick – but then as far as the rowing results are concerned, Control comes into play.
By going through different stroke rates, and changing things up, even just a little bit, it helps to stop things getting monotonous on a rowing machine (which is what we’re talking about after all).

I do a LOT of longer rowers in my videos that change stroke rate every 4 or 5 minutes. Not because the difference between 20 and 22spm is going to be the hack that makes them go faster or get fitter, but because by breaking a 60 minute row down into 5 minute chunks, where something actually changes (rather than just the clock ticking over) it really makes the time fly by. My longer rows that do this get lots of comments about how quickly the 60 minutes went by, some saying that a 60min with changing rates feels quicker than a 30min 20spm row.

But – I also believe that being able to row at different stroke rates and intensities helps the foundation of the rower in terms of control and technique – but also feeds into how they can adjust pace during time trials etc.

I’ve had people who love rowing at high rate, but hate rowing at low rate get in touch – and vice versa. And it pretty much always comes down to their technique being a bit weird, and making the opposite rate uncomfortable. If I tell someone who only enjoys 32spm rowing to just buckle into a 20spm row – they’ll just hate it. But by exposing them to a range of rates, they get a chance to find out where the weakness is exposed in their stroke, and spend time working on it at that rate, get comfortable, then keep going down.

Same for the 20spm rower who doesn’t feel good at higher rates. By exposing them to higher rates, especially in intervals where they aren’t doing it for too long, they get a chance to work on their technique at a higher rate.
And then the process for both of them for being able to row at all rates with a good technique means the end result is that they have a better technique all round, including tidying up their technique at the rate they preferred before!!


Finally then – the Control over how they’re rowing. I made a series of ‘pacer’ videos recently, going from 15spm all the way up to 32spm. I loaded up the Metrownome app, and just made sure I was rowing at a 2:1 ratio. I didn’t think about intensity, I just stuck to rate and ratio. The end result, was an increase in pace through every rate. I started the 15spm at 2K+25 pace – and ended the 32spm at 2K-2 pace.

I didn’t think about it – my pace just naturally increased. And when it comes to racing, and time trials, being able to use stroke rate as well as power to increase speed is (again, I believe) very important. (This is also why it’s important to have a consistent technique built in through all the different rates).

2000m to go in a 10K TT – rowing at 26spm – I want to increase pace. I could add more power from my legs, or I could increase stroke rate. It’s much more efficient for the rest of the row to increase rate just by two spm. Suddenly, I’m going 2 seconds / 500m faster with very little effort.

Get down to 500m to go and then start pushing hard with the legs at the same stroke rate – because I’ve left the power in them due to the increase in rate, I’ve got another 4 second increase going on.

And then with 150m to go, as my legs fade, I ramp rate up to 32(ish) to squeeze out the last of the power.

By exposing the rower to these different rates, getting used to the control over pace by changing rate as well as adding in more power from the legs (obviously, to get the rate up, you need more power, but I mean ‘over-power’) then they know how to do this in ‘the big show’.

That’s how I see it anyway.

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