Introduction to Training - Energy Systems

With winter training starting in a couple weeks, I thought it would be good to go over some training basics.  In order to be as effective as possible, I think it's important to understand a bit of the exercise science surrounding our sport.  The days of just trying to out sweat your opponents are long gone.  As recently as the 70s, it was thought that drinking water during a training session would reduce performance and training gains.  Now, we recognize that as a completely ridiculous idea.

The purpose of training is to make you a stronger, faster and better athlete.  But, how does the training do this?  How do we decide what sort of exercises will make up the training plan?

First, we must consider the body's energy systems.  The human body produces energy through 3 processes:  the phosphagen (creatine phosphate, or CP), anaerobic (lactic acid, or LA/AN) and aerobic (oxygen or O2) systems.  You can think of the CP system as 'burst' power, the AN system as 'sprint' or 'interval' power and the O2 system as 'cardio' or 'steady-state' power.  Each system functions differently, but all are needed for maximum performance.  

The CP system offers an extremely strong and instant response, but is burned out in 15-20 seconds.  It also regenerates very slowly, requiring many minutes of rest to recover to full capacity.  Even with this limitation, the CP system is very important for a good start in rowing.

The AN system produces large amounts of energy quickly, and can work as long as fuel (glucose) is provided by the body's transport system.  However, the AN system produces lactates (lactic acid and others) as a reaction byproduct, which eventually results in muscle fatigue and the familiar burning sensation most people associate with intense exercise.  This fatigue and pain typically sets in after 1 to 3 minutes of strenuous work, limiting the AN systems usefulness.  Even with this limitation, the AN system is very important in rowing for a strong start, finish and additional power during the body of the race.  Basically, the more pain you can take, the more AN power you can have (more on that later).

Finally we have the O2 system, which produces large amounts of energy with no byproducts - in fact, your O2 system actually helps remove the lactate byproducts built up by the AN system.  However, your O2 system requires significant warm up to be running at full capacity.  Even after warming up for 20 minutes or more before a race, it can take your O2 system up to 90 seconds to run at full capacity during a race.  Over 70% of the energy used during a rowing race is generated by the O2 system.

Here's a (very crude) graph demonstrating how the systems work together through the course of a race:

                                         Contribution from energy systems during a 2k race

                                         Contribution from energy systems during a 2k race

You can see how the systems are all important to a successful race.  CP provides the kick needed to accelerate the boat off the line.  AN provides starting power and a finishing kick.  O2 provides the majority of the power, but needs the other systems to get things moving and to provide extra power.  

We can also predict common problems from the graph.  Crews with underdeveloped O2 systems will see their competition pull away around the 500m mark.  Crews with poor AN systems will fall behind through the first 500m, struggle to keep up during the body and/or fail make the pass for the win at the end.  Crews unable to access their CP system in a coordinating manner will have trouble going straight off the line, or will fall behind on the first 5 strokes. 

From this we can set up our training plan to develop these systems based on how much they are used in a race.  A little work on the CP system - mostly technical, just training all rowers to 'fire' together for a strong, straight start.  

More work is needed on the AN system - training to raise both the power generated and the anaerobic threshold (AKA the 'pain threshold').  This threshold is the point where the lactate byproducts created by the AN process are removed at the same rate by the O2 system.  The higher this point, the more power is available from the AN system during the entire race.

Finally, the majority of our training is on the O2 system.  Since the bulk of our power comes from this system, we get the best return on training time here.  Developing a powerful O2 system will yield huge gains in speed during the body and finish of every race.   As above, a more efficient and better trained O2 system also increases the available power from the AN system by removing lactates.

Hopefully that all makes sense!  I'll get into the training we actually use to develop these systems over the next few weeks.  Now get out there and train that O2 system!


  1. V. Nolte, "Rowing Faster", 2011
  2. F. Hagerman, "Training the Energy Systems", 2007