Breath, the air we gulp and strain at, is the champagne, the elixir of our sport.

It is the fuel of our bodies, it flows into our muscles. It enables every movement, and if we only had enough of it, we would never tire.

Every rower knows this, perhaps unconsciously, and certainly finds the reality at the end of performance, a place where all of us have been.

There’s no need to go into the complex interchange between oxygen and the inner surface of the lungs. What is needed is a way and a technique for managing oxygen, breath, fatigue, exhaustion, what ever you wish to call it.

Rowing is the sport of detail. When we look at Masters’ rowing, or the elites, the margins are tiny…three seconds in a seven minute race, two seconds in a three minute race. The numbers must convince us that any change, however small is important to the racing rower, and that the crew which takes advantage of the details which can be mastered by training, by thought, by long practice, is worth it.

So let it be with breathing. Learning how to manage breathing is one of the elements of rowing that winter training, and by that I mean erg and aerobic training, can deliver. And one of the first steps to managing breathing is to examine your own breathing. Are you breathing rhythmically? Once or twice per stroke cycle? At the catch or the finish? Are you using the full capacity of your lung power?

If you are like most rowers, you will think little about breath; your rate of breathing increases with fatigue, until the point at which your muscles are demanding more oxygen than your lungs can supply. In technical terms this is the change from aerobic rowing to anaerobic rowing, that point when the body is in an unsustainable sacrifice mode. You can continue to perform, but not for long. I call it the “red haze” a point at which the world seems very small and concentrated a foot or two in front of your eyes.

The change from aerobic rowing to anaerobic rowing, that point when the body is in an unsustainable sacrifice mode…

Most of our training efforts are aimed at one result – to be fit enough so that the anaerobic phase comes close to the finish line. We gain this fitness by growing muscle and exercising the body so that we become used to making great efforts.

But what if you could prepare your breathing so that you could be sure you would not arrive at the crisis point, what is so aptly called “an empty tank.” We all must face 2,000 meter erg tests; at most clubs, one’s erg score is a major component of boat selection. Rightly so.

The very worst aspect of erg testing is what I call “turning the corner” or rowing past the first 1,000 meters and heading into the last 1,000. If you arrive at the corner with little in reserve, you are headed for a painful struggle in the last 500. This is one of the crises of erg rowing; it is why coaches again and again advise rowers “don’t go out too fast” or “don’t fly and die.” These coaches know the subtle changes which occur during the 2,000 meter piece – the initial explosion of energy, the attempt to get control of fatigue (i.e. oxygen). And then, the struggle to stay ahead of slowly climbing numbers on the screen.

A different approach to oxygen and breathing

Plan and prepare for a breathing crisis in a new way. A wise oarsman who rows at a very high level told me simply, “If you wait until the body asks for oxygen, it is too late.” He suggests preparing by loading the body with oxygen before the contest – by simply over-breathing; then begin increasing the breathing rate well ahead of the body’s anxious demand. The longer you can stave off anaerobia, the better off you will be. It’s a truism that if you fall behind in breathing, you cannot catch up. You must stay ahead.This takes training, but luckily we have the erg and all winter to practice on it and the erg is perfect for breath training because you can see results and improvements on the screen ahead of you.

Posture is important. The more upright the spine, the higher the chin is held, the easier it is to fill the lungs.

I suggest overbreathing before the start of a 2,000m piece or any serious piece until you feel a slight giddiness. I further suggest that the first 30 seconds of your piece can be rowed at any intensity you a sense they are “free” since they are powered mainly by adrenalin and excitement. But after that 30 second energy burst, the breath-conscious rower should move immediately into a breath at both catch and finish; in fact forcing rapid breathing ahead of time. At the same time, the energy level should come down to a sustainable level, or a split which you know you can handle for a distance.

Further on in the piece, the rower can add a third breath per cycle, an extra effort but a rewarding one. Avoid falling into a rhythmic rate of air intake. Then hopefully arriving at the “corner” with something left, the rower can see the digits diminishing to the hundreds; by the last five hundred, all restraint should be thrown away and the rate raised and in the last 25 strokes, you are in anaerobia. The “red haze” comes at the right time.

Training breath can begin any time in the year, but erg time is best because the results are visible in your splits.

In and out

So far the emphasis has been on getting more oxygen into the body’s system. But it’s also important to get “used” air out. Breath trainers should make an effort to exhale explosively and to the bottom of lung capacity. This is something that takes no extra effort, aside the mental effort to exhaust after each stroke, and particularly each stroke under strain. Blow it out, get rid of it and increase the size of the next breath.

Columnist Duncan Spencer, 74, is a former newspaper reporter with The Hill; he has rowed at Yale University, Oxford University, and Capital Rowing Club. He is a former US team member, a Henley gold medalist, three time Head of the Charles winner and an incurable rowing addict.