Race pace – fly and die, bide your time or throw it all out to row from feel?

In this blog we are taking a brief look at race strategy, specifically pacing plans. This is always one that interests us because unlike a very variable and open sport such as football, a rowing race is always a set distance on a relatively consistent lined course with relatively similar demands. Of course there is huge variability linked to environmental factors such as wind, water conditions, temperatures of the water and ambient etc etc but with that said, if you know how to perform best physiologically over 2km, why should your race plan change significantly between races?

The other interesting element is coaching in the race. Rowing has more volume of training than almost all other sports and this means hours spent with a coach, every session. I can almost hear your groans just thinking about them……yet in the part where it counts, the race there is really little, abiding by the rules none at all, contact with the coach for adjusted strategy/pacing etc.

The following two studies look at race pacing and have some interesting if different findings. They are also quite different in population, test strategy but they both give some fuel for thought.

Consistency of pacing and metabolic responses during 2000-m rowing ergometry.
Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013
Gee TI1, French DN, Gibbon KC, Thompson KG.

This study investigated the pacing strategy adopted and the consistency of performance and related physiological parameters across three 2000-m rowing-ergometer tests.

Fourteen male well-trained rowers took part in the study. Each participant performed three 2000-m rowing-ergometer tests interspersed by 3-7 d. Throughout the trials, respiratory exchange and heart rate were recorded and power output and stroke rate were analyzed over each 500 m of the test. At the completion of the trial, assessments of blood lactate and rating of perceived exertion were measured.

Ergometer performance was unchanged across the 3 trials; however, pacing strategy changed from trial 1, which featured a higher starting power output and more progressive decrease in power, to trials 2 and 3, which were characterized by a more conservative start and an end spurt with increased power output during the final 500 m. Mean typical error (TE; %) across the three 2000-m trials was 2.4%, and variability was low to moderate for all assessed physiological variables (TE range = 1.4-5.1%) with the exception of peak lactate (TE = 11.5%).

Performance and physiological responses during 2000-m rowing ergometry were found to be consistent over 3 trials. The variations observed in pacing strategy between trial 1 and trials 2 and 3 suggest that a habituation trial is required before an intervention study and that participants move from a positive to a reverse-J-shaped strategy, which may partly explain conflicting reports in the pacing strategy exhibited during 2000-m rowing-ergometer trials.

The effect of pacing strategy on physiological, kinetic and performance variables during simulated rowing ergometer.
J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017
Dimakopoulou E, Zacharogiannis E, Chairopoulou C, Kaloupsis S, Platanou T.

This study compared the effects of self selected (SSP), negative (NPS) and even (EPS) pacing strategy on performance time, kinetic and physiological variables in overall 2km rowing and in first and second 1km.

Fifteen male rowers (15.37 ± 1.34 yrs) realized four tests: an incremental test on a rowing ergometer to determine their VO2peak and three experimental 2 km rowing race, where first 1km was manipulated. From SSP a negative pacing strategy, 4% slower than the mean velocity of SSP, and an even pacing strategy (EPS) with mean velocity of SSP, were developed.

High stroke rate and better performance time was observed in SSP. Fstr and Fpeak decreased, whereas performance time increased, in SSP and EPS from first to second 1km.Unlike, performance time, stroke rate and Pst in NPS presented better values (p=0.001) with the exception of decreased stroke length (p=0.03). There was an increase in physiological responses in all pacing strategies from first to second 1km (p=0.001). Performance time, stroke rate and Fstr were better in SSP and EPS compared to NPS in first 1km (p=0.001). VE, VE/VO2, VCO2 were better in SSP and EPS compared to NPS (p=0.001) in both first and second 1km. Stroke length was smaller in SSP compared to NPS and EPS in second 1km (p=0.001).

Self selected pacing (parabolic-shaped profile) allowed rowers to cover the 2 km distance in higher stroke rate and in shorter performance time compared to negative and even pacing strategies presenting same physiological responses.

So in summary both trial used a negative and then increasingly positive race plan, the second then using self selection. The second test is a little harder to make realistic conclusions from the fact that only the first 1km was manipulated.

It seems clear that the negative, fly and die type approach does not work as well as any of the other strategies and study one states that some form of training is needed to really see a significant effect with these strategies employed. Interestingly it also shows no real difference between the performance and physiological responses.

We would say that any pacing strategy really needs to look at the strengths of the athlete first and how they can maximise their performance over what ever distance they are racing on. Conditions will have an effect on this but in reality you will have a maximal effort that you can achieve over the set distance and than can only revolve around this, it is then up to you to produce your maximum effort of course. The element of tactics and psychology is a harder one to explore – can you really get in an opposing crew’s heads on the course or are you better just sticking to your best plan no matter what – logically the latter would make sense but then we’d lose the magic of some of the most famous on-water battles of all time.

Conclusions; inconclusive, but stick to what allows you to pace to your physiological strengths over the set distance. We’d love to hear from you guys on what your thoughts are – science proven or just based on experience and the ‘vibe’, we are interested to hear more.