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The musings of a competitive 60+ rower.

The following piece was written by my good friend, Philip Johnson. I had the great pleasure of rowing and training in South Africa with him where his ideas on rowing and sculling were innovative and profound! As I was relatively new to sculling, I learned a great from him and decades later, on a different continent, I still apply his ideas to my rowing and sculling.

Philip, like me, still rows competitively, lives in Minneapolis and still trains hard although he has had to adapt his training as he gets older. I hope you enjoy what he wrote. You can reach Philip via email at if you wish to connect. Training for 60+ Rowers

Realizing that my erg scores are getting slower and young kids in their early 50’s are getting faster than I am, I need to find some training routine that will slow my decline, so these are a few notes I have written on the subject as to what I think I need to do to age more gracefully.

Where does the energy to train come from?

Before I make some suggestions on how we should think about training over 60 I would like to discuss how we get muscle energy to compete.

The process of using energy begins with a compound called ATP (Adenosine triphosphate). Muscles cant contract without it, most life-sustaining functions depend on it.

To liberate energy for muscular contraction one of the high-energy molecular bonds holding the phosphate molecules in ATP is chemically released, this activity is crucial to satiate your muscles’ needs which in turn determines your performance.

Working muscles can get ATP from three basic sources depending on the situation, namely the ATP-PC System, the Lactic Acid System, and the Aerobic System.

The ATP-PC System (adenosintriphosphate-phosphocreatine system)

In muscle cells there is a moderate level of ATP-PC available, this is typically the energy used for “fight or flight” but is quickly consumed but readily available for short bursts of power maybe 10 to 30 seconds. It’s anaerobic – it requires no oxygen to function.

The lactic acid system (also known as glycolysis)

This isn’t as powerful as the ATP-PC system but lasts slightly longer perhaps up to three or four minutes for most fit rowers. The system uses muscle glycogen, then blood glucose, and finally liver glycogen as fuel to produce energy. These substances are broken down into ATP and lactic acid. This happens within the muscle cell not directly at the muscle contraction site. Because it requires more than 10 chemical reactions the rate of ATP production is slower than the ATP-PC system but similar to the ATP-PC system it is an anaerobic reaction (not requiring oxygen). When primarily using this system lactic acid levels build and accumulate eventually inhibiting muscular contraction and providing that unpleasant burning sensation in your muscles. Fortunately, you can train your body to delay the negative effects of lactic acid buildup through repeated hard efforts such as interval training.

It is important to note that the Lactic Acid system provides a chemical trigger to notify the Aerobic System to get active in providing ATP.

The Aerobic System

Of the three systems, this is the one that can provide long-term sustainable energy. As previously noted the chemical trigger to kick start this system is the Lactic Acid System. Like the Lactic Acid System it uses muscle glycogen, then blood glucose then liver glycogen as fuel but it also taps slow-processing fat as an energy source. In order to operate this system requires Oxygen to produce ATP molecules. The system is more complex and slower to produce ATP, requiring over twenty chemical reactions and an ample supply of oxygen.

The supply of oxygen is linked to the efficiency of an oarsman’s cardiorespiratory system, the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to the blood, the efficiency of the heart to circulate the blood, and the efficiency of the ATP production process itself.

By starting an exercise steadily and with well-developed training programs (such as interval training), it’s possible for the Aerobic System to become the predominant supplier of ATP within a couple of minutes of rowing.

What changes as we age?

We become wrinkly, we lose muscle mass (cells), we tend to get fat more easily, our lungs decrease in vital capacity, and their ability to expel air also decreases. We tend to get degenerative changes such as bone mass loss and increases joint pains due to loss and atrophy of muscle cells. (all rather depressing!)

Due to these changes, there are some obvious reasons we get slower as we get older. We get weaker so we can’t pull as hard, we produce less ATP so we are unable to sustain as much power, we get shorter in the water because we are less flexible and we get heavier which causes more boat drag.

Things we can do to help us slow the rate of decline are as follows:

We can eat more carefully, to try to control our weight gain, my recommendation is to look at your daily diet and simply eat less of the same and try to reduce the number of carbohydrates you consume. If you eat fewer calories than you consume you will lose weight over time.

In order to try to maintain stroke length training for flexibility is something that appears to be effective for almost all ages.

Strength as a function of Age

Loss of muscle mass

I pulled this data from Volker Nolte’s book Rowing Faster the section written by Ed McNeely on Building Strength

The graph above depicts the strength targets for competitive master rowers as a multiple of their weight. For example, a 60-year-old person weighing 190 lbs should be able to squat or deadlift 0.95x190lbs=180 lbs. The same weight person at 70 years of age should target being able to squat 0.6x190=114 lbs. As you can see the drop off in strength as a function of body weight is significant as we age. (These numbers are easily measured in the Gym)

While it may not be possible to slow the decline in muscle mass it does appear from my reading that through continued strength training you can reduce the decline in strength by making your muscle groups more active and more efficient.

Lung Vital Capacity

There are two components to lung capacity, one being the amount of air you can physically breathe in and out, the second being how well the lungs transfer oxygen to the blood. Both decline with age from around our mid-twenties. Between the ages of 25 to 80, it’s possible to lose up to 40% of your lung capacity.

As we age a decline in lung capacity affects our Aerobic energy system the most. Extended workpieces longer than four to five minutes when our ATP-PC and Lactic Acid systems become depleted the Aerobic system is simply not going to be as good as it used to be in providing Aerobic ATP supplies our muscles need.

So while having a good aerobic system in rowing is desirable our physiological changes as we age might suggest that it would be more beneficial to focus training on improving our anaerobic tolerance to pain by doing higher intensity interval training with longer recovery intervals.

The Physics of Rowing

Considering the actual rowing stroke as we age we need to consider the basic physics involved. Power in physics is defined as the rate of doing work and work is defined as force times the distance moved in the direction of the force and is a measure of energy transfer that occurs.

In rowing we have a couple of variables we can apply in the rowing stroke, we can pull harder, we can pull longer and we can rate higher. As we age we can’t pull as hard as our strength declines, but we can probably still try to rate fairly high and we can also try to keep the length of the stroke fairly long through flexibility and rigging, although we probably can’t do this for as long as we used to when we were younger.

On the water training

I would suggest on the water an objective of our training should be to focus on maintaining stroke length and getting comfortable with higher ratings for limited time intervals. High Impact Training (HIT) needs to be limited in duration with longer recovery periods between interval sets.

Extensive intervals need to be carefully rate controlled and probably no longer than ten to fifteen minutes duration with probably no more than three to four intervals per hour with at least five minute recovery periods between them.

Steady-state work also needs to be rate controlled and conducted at low ratings (most probably <24 rating), low enough that our aerobic systems are capable of keeping up with the workload. Ideally, heart rates should not exceed 85% of our maximum heart rate; for most of us, this will be <150 Bpm. The duration of these steady-state sessions should be about 40+ minutes.

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