Didn't compete in varsity? It's not too late for you, Masters!
Written by: Florian Carle
This blog post is dedicated to people who discovered rowing later in life at the masters level, and who haven't raced in school or college. Many masters are rowing in clubs for leisure/exercise more than to compete and it's sometimes hard to train for competitions when the rest of the team is not in this mindset. This blog post features quotes from two JL ambassadors sharing their advice with us:
- Sharon Wienbar, a 61-year-old master rower who started rowing, her first sport/team experience, at age 48. She is on the board of directors of USRowing as their treasurer, and races actively both on flatwater and coastal at Bair Island Aquatic Center (BIAC) in Redwood City, California.
- Stephen Pryor, a coach, coxswain and rowing instructor with 15 years of experience rowing on-water and indoor rowing. He is the founder of Live2Row Studios, based in Florida, and develops live indoor rowing workouts, virtual training camps, and race plans for rowing clients of all ages and experience levels.
One summer night of 2017, at a house party in New Haven CT, a friendly stranger told me “Hey, you look tall and vaguely muscular, you should do crew". On November 11, 2017, at the age of 29, I was in an 8+ for the first time in my life.
I was never truly an athletic child. Growing up in southern France, I was a little chubby and shy, and I tried pretty much every single sport offered in my town (tennis, horse-riding, volleyball, mountain biking, badminton, rock climbing, track and field, windsurfing…) without finding my calling. Although, the signs were clear. Every summer, my parents brought my sister and I kayaking. I always loved being on the river, moving the vessel with the paddle, going through white rapids close to the rocks…
Fast forward many years, I replaced sport with theater for 12 years, studied engineering, got a PhD in rocket science, got married, and moved to the US to do a postdoc at Yale. All these events randomly led me to this summer party in New Haven. The friendly stranger I blindly trusted and went rowing with, Basie Gitlin, is now one of my closest friends.
"Rowers are generally trustworthy...we go to bed early, get up early, grind...I've housed tons of rowers both short and long term, borrowed equipment, borrowed rower or jumped in boats, etc. We trust each other because we know the commitment the sport requires." - Sharon
Basie told me about the Yale Graduate Crew (YGC), an intramural program offering Learn to Row to the graduate and professional student community. I immediately signed up and had the chance to learn to row in the Y150 tanks (our Yale Blue JL unis might look similar, but YGC and Y150 have a slight difference I would let you figure out!) and a few months later, I started rowing in the New Haven Harbor. It was an intense love story. I wanted to go on the water all the time, go fast, do racing starts, power 10s, race the 8+ in the single… First the first time ever, I wanted to compete.
This is when I felt the first frictions. My teammates did crew in high school and through college. They competed in varsity teams. They had two practices a day. Now, they were focusing on their post-college career/studies. They saw YGC as a nice way to go to the water without the varsity commitment. A little break from competing without completely losing access to water.
"It's incredible how much more joy comes to us from being outside, but in particular on the water." - Sharon
The club was split in two main groups, the learn to row novices battling with their feathering, and the experienced rowers interested in casual outings. I was stuck in a middle, wanting to compete.
CREATE YOUR OWN COMPETITION-FRIENDLY ENVIRONMENT
In hindsight, I think my desire to compete was not purely to compete, but to see how I was ranking compared to others. How’s my technique? How's my form? Am I fast enough?
I started to take advantage of the Concept2 monthly challenges. If people in your club don't want to compete (which is absolutely fine, people need to get want they want from their hobbies), you can easily find people online who will! Take advantage of online leaderboards. Push yourself on an erg. Create your own competition. Try to beat your 2K time.
“The C2 monthly challenges have been going on for years. With people around the world doing the same thing with a similar mindset, it's just a great opportunity for people to sort of show what they've got. There are hundreds of people in these rankings. At the top, you might find some of the fastest people in the world but you've also got someone in 896th spot trying to beat the person just ahead of them, and that is huge. They're right there at your level and you're pushing right along with them, and that is pretty motivating!” – Stephen
And more importantly, engage with your teammates. They don't have to compete, but they can come cheer you! They can cox you in the toughest part of your race against yourself!
By creating a friendly environment and engaging others for your challenges, they will see that you are not competing to crush others. You are fighting your own limitations. You will show them it's not that scary! And chances are, when the same competition comes around again next year, some of your teammates will join you!
"How fun it is to be able to publicly unleash your competitive juices, when as a woman in business, I was always told to be less aggressive, nicer, etc… It is huge...to compete against yourself, or other teams" - Sharon
You can also take advantage of virtual events. Lisa Richardson, one other of my good crew friend and my co-captain at YGC, moved away to California when she graduated. We entered a mixed double in the Head of the Schuylkill 2020 virtual regatta and raced our piece from each coast of the US on an erg with zoom on our laptop to cheer each other during the piece.
We won a bronze medal this race. It was my first official medal, but it created a strong desire to compete. Embolden by this virtual medal, I started to randomly sign up for regattas. This is when more trouble comes your way.
ASK FOR HELP
One boozy Sunday afternoon brunch with your teammates, in a delusional whim fueled with liquid courage, you sign up for the Head of the Charles Regatta lottery from your phone. A few weeks later, you receive an email congratulating you on winning the lottery and you will be racing in three months in Boston. Do you know who else is competing in the master category in Boston? Retired Olympians and former National Champions… And if your team is more leisure than competition, now is time to call in the cavalry!
When you start to race, you will quickly realize you need to better quantify your improvement. Does all the erging you do help or hurt? What should your heart rate be? Are you too short at the catch? Shall I cross train?
“Weightlifting, cross training and erging is very important for masters. This will help you apply more power in your rowing which means more meters and faster pieces. Measuring your max watt/power regularly is one way to monitor your progress. If you see improvements, keep going. If not, you may have to look at the training.” - Stephen
You need an outside eye to help you out, and you need a coach who can help you reach the goals you set up for yourself.
Here, it is up to you how much time and energy you want to invest.
USRowing has a large offering of Webinar for all levels and there are a ton of rowers with YouTube channels and Instagram accounts dedicated to giving tips and advice. I would advise you to stay away from erg subscription platforms and Personal Trainers/CrossFit rowing accounts. Although we are using the same tool, we’re using it for very different goals (ergs don't float!). Instead, why not follow a handful of Olympians who share their training and tips online?
“Between Covid and modern technology, there are now hundreds of options to choose from when it comes to deciding how to train. There are YouTube videos, phone apps with live features like ErgZone & ErgData, and you can buy workout plans just about everywhere online. This is why we are building an online community of rowers that can row together in live coached classes & training camps. As rowing coaches, we are used to seeing and coaching many rowers at a time. Now that we can do that online, there is a seat for everyone.” – Stephen
Ask around! If there are other people sharing your water, make friends! Discuss with them how they work out, what is their training plan, what advice they can give you…
"Rowers love to talk about rowing and will offer advice and help. If you are starting to row, starting to race, transitioning to a single, whatever... There are tons of people who will help you." - Sharon
If you are lucky to be around schools with a rowing program, a lot of coaches will offer coaching sessions, especially in the summertime when their students athletes are off. I am lucky enough Sacred Heart University is rowing on the same river as my club. Their head coach offered me access to their Lactate Threshold Test facility to determine my HR training zones and made me a 3-month training plan in exchange to just give it my best try!
Find a coach that fit your goals. If you don't feel enough support in your current club, you might have to investigate nearby clubs if you are fortunate to live in a place with abundance of clubs.
"I don't think the best apps in the world can replace the person to person interaction and coaching, when it comes to learning to row." - Stephen
After three years at the YGC in New Haven, I made the difficult decision to change club and go to Great River Rowing (GRR) in Shelton, CT. I left behind my friends and the people who taught me how to row. All of them were happy for me, since I was giving myself the means to improve my rowing.
Regardless of your level of commitment, it would be ideal for you to:
- Have some knowledge about your HR zones to be able to not overtrain
- Have a training plan that fits your needs (nobody wants to think at 5:30 am, it’s better to just wake up and row what you planned for today)
- Have a video review of your rowing technique a couple of times during the water season (when my coach tells me I'm skying, my first instinct is to roll my eyes. But when she shows me on the video, no eye rolling is possible!)
With all that, and the desire to race, you should be ready to be competitive! What's the saying again? Careful what you wish for…
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Armed with a training plan, and under the strict supervision of my new GRR Coach, Valérie Leindfelder, I went all in and trained like my scholarship depended on it!
I know I am privileged. I'm in my 30s with a flexible job in New England (they know what's up with rowing), I don't have children to take care of, and my understanding husband doesn't mind much my 4:50 am alarm clock. I can afford to train as much as I wanted.
“Everyone wants to perform and do well, but managing your training and goals within your day to day life is essential. You really need to establish what the goal is and how much time and energy you can commit to it before you begin.” - Stephen
I followed the training plan to the letter, trained 6 times a week (4 times on the water, 2 times on the erg/weights). My season meters went from 800k to 1,900k, I stopped drinking alcohol and eating junk food, watched an insane amount of rowing videos, got my USRowing L1 Learn to Row certification and coached GRR Adult Learn to Row novices…
It was a really challenging and fun period, but I could feel my body reaching its limits. I was sore all the time, developed an elbow tendonitis, and could not eat enough to keep my weight stable (I lost 16 lbs in 2 months). Unfortunately, as masters, we are past the time in our life where we dispose of an unlimited amount of energy to do 2 workout a day like a varsity kid! Listen to your body! It can be tempting to overdo it, but you have to really be honest with your goals. You have nothing to prove to people, and you do not have to be good at your hobbies. This is not your job, and you are doing it for you alone. Don't hurt yourself!
“Look at how effective your training is. An old school way of finding success is to do A LOT of volume (erg, erg, erg!) but it is important to be sure your training is effective. Structure your training to practice the stroke you want to take. Focus on improving your stroke and learn to push by applying power and force efficiently. The body will adapt, and you can build strength through rowing.” – Stephen
For Head Race Season the following year, I learned my lessons and training went so much more smoothly. Even better was that I won more medals without hurting myself.
Master competition is really an amazing way to push your limits and learn about yourself. If all of that is not enough to scratch your competitive itch, I have one last advice for you:
WELL, START RACING A SINGLE THEN!