Rowing strokes per minute as intensity indicator
Rowing strokes per minute or SPMs play a central role in how our Rojabo rowing training programs are set up, tied together with intensities and efficiency. On the rowing machine, as well as on water, the strokes per minute are the central tool for setting the intensity to any workout.
But why at all an intensity indicator?
If the goal is to keep up general fitness and ‘just’ exercise then it’s not so important. But when there is interest to improve and be faster, then it’s good to find a plan that works. Knowing what resources you have to work with to start with, what to improve, a plan for what to do, and a proven idea on how to get where you want to be, can save you from disappointment.
The risks are:
- Training too hard can result in overtraining,
- Not training enough, that you don’t get into the required shape,
- Waste time training wrong qualities.
So what is the right way? The truth is that many ways bring great results. We say, let the results (all the medals achieved) speak for themselves.
For rowing, we believe using strokes per minute as an indicator for intensity is the right way. In this article, we will go through what we have found to work for us and why we stand by our ideas.
In rowing, strokes per minute are the most important Intensity Indicator
Our training programs are divided into five categories, A, B, C, D, and E, and they are described below.
The category indicates the type of rowing training you will be performing and the strokes per minute set the stage for the intensities.
However, the strokes per minute alone will not define the intensity of the workout. The key tool for Rojabo Rowing training programs is the Power Guide, the rower’s individual guide to how much they need to push at different strokes per minute for the given duration or distance.
That said, we get many questions regarding what heart rate you should keep for different workout categories. For our workout categories, we do not define thresholds for % of max heart rate. Read along and we will tell you why.
Instead, we use the Power Guide
The Power Guide tells each rower what they need to push at different stroke rates.
This way the rower keeps the intended ‘natural’ pressure for the given interval, not letting the heart rate restrict the pressure, the rate they push.
Let’s dig into the comparison of using heart rate vs. strokes per minute as intensity indicators.
Example 1, when using heart rate as an intensity indicator
The chart below shows what happens to rowers’ watts when they regulate their pressure to keep to a certain heart rate threshold.
To start with, there are many factors that daily can affect a person’s heart rate such as sleep, nutrition, mood, stress, an argument with a friend or person at work, the position of the moon, and other factors etc. Some of them which we don’t have any control over and can have an effect on what happens with a rowers heart rate.
As an example, we use the workout is 8 x 2′ @SPM 28 /1’ rest, a category B workout but as there are many starts, also a bit of category A from the Anaerobic starts for each interval.
After a warm-up, the rower starts the workout. Depending on the rower’s fitness level, it in can take anywhere from X to Y strokes to reach the intended heart rate intensity and settle at a steady flow. In the next piece, the acceleration does not need to be that aggressive as the heart rate is already up as the rest is only 1 minute.
As the rower progresses through the workout, they get more and more tired, meaning they reach the top of the heart rate threshold quicker. In order to keep the heart rate at the intended level, the rower needs to reduce the pressure, push fewer watts in the last pieces to be able to successfully complete the workout. The blue pillars show how average watts decrease throughout the workout.
In our mind, each workout needs to be efficient and prepare rowers eventually for a race-like situation, where you keep a steady speed and maybe sprint a bit at the end. You do not reduce pressure at the end of a race, and therefore we don’t practice that kind of behavior, even during our training. A team training together in a boat, following their heart rates, would need to reduce the pressure, making the boat go slower towards the end of the workout. Practicing that kind of behavior doesn’t make sense in our minds.
Example 2, when using strokes per minute as intensity indicator
In the Rojabo approach, we set the work per stroke (rowing watts and pace) as fixed for the strokes per minute given in the workout for each interval or distance. The rower can reach the target pressure and wattage in just a few strokes, start working to keep the speed constant. Let the heart rate slowly rise as it naturally would being lower at the start of the piece and raising when becoming tired, just like in a race. See graph in example 2.
In our findings, rowers with a competitive drive feel that this is a more natural way to complete a workout, work to maintain the pressure. Often on the erg, teams row side by side and it is just natural to help each other keep the assigned pace.
If the Power Efficiency Test for the Power Guide is completed correctly, then this takes care of keeping the intensity level of the workout as intended for each athlete.
It is more natural to practice keeping a constant pace than reducing it
Regarding heart rate monitors, we think it is a fantastic tool to learn how your body reacts to different stimulations. How your body reacts, recovers, and for paying attention to sufficient restitution to avoid overtraining. We try to teach our rowers to be critical, feel what they are doing, and learn to analyze what works for them. The path to success is not a linear equation, unfortunately.
Both for indoor rowing on a machine and on-water rowing
Using the strokes per minute to define intensity applies for both rowing on the indoor rowing machine as on water, you should not practice slipping the pressure towards the end of the race but instead practice maintaining the pressure constant with is assigned with the strokes per minute given in the Power Guide. We realize that it is not possible to measure accurate pressure rowing in a team boat, here our advice is to keep the pressure so it feels natural and firm while there is flow and power in the boat.
Beginner to rowing
The fantastic thing about being new to rowing is the rapid improvement you get to experience. Learning how to keep a steady control over your pressure when raising the strokes per minute you row in. All the small things you learn make a big difference in your rowing speed. Do enjoy this time.
For beginners getting used to rowing, having a Power Guide to follow makes it a lot easier to focus on what matters, rowing efficiently. You have two simple fixed parameters that you can fairly easily control. The strokes per minute and your watts. Trying to learn how to control the rowing power to fit a heart rate threshold can end up a tricky roller coaster workout, where you first push way too much and then need to reduce the pressure making the rowing speed fluctuate.
Row with constant speed and good flow
No matter if you are new to rowing or with years of experience, aiming for racing or just maintaining general fitness, learning to keep a steady pressure throughout the workout is the most efficient way to row and the most optimal way to train.