Training for MidAtlantic Erg Sprints
Training for MidAtlantic Erg Sprints

Let’s be straight – there’s a lot to hate about the erg.

Perhaps the worst thing about the machine is that the better you get and the harder you work, the harder it becomes – completely unlike rowing itself, where speed and expertise have delicious, thrilling rewards.

Second most dislikeable thing: in many ways the erg rewards bad technique and teaches bad habits.

But at the beginning of January, the erg is what we have. Abandon it and you might as well abandon rowing training for the spring. For those brave few who are going to Boston for the annual festival of the erg C.R.A.S.H.-B, the season is close to its climax.

For the rest of us, the blue-gray machines with their all-too fading electronic screens are the connection with the spring and the water. But how we erg is just as important as how we row, if all these dry land miles are to help us progress toward better boat skills.

I came into the sport well before the first Dreissigacker erg – the bicycle wheel with plastic air baffles – came on the scene. I still have my model 1. At my high school there was a machine out of the 1900s, a simple hydraulic pump with a slide and a handle. I can’t remember getting a single important revelation from it.

But when the Concept2 brothers –Dick and Pete Dreissigacker – improved their machines (to the point where now they are almost in a model year concept) the chain and the wheel were accepted by the elite college oarsmen of the day and gradually by the rowing world. When rowing stars like the Harvard varsity and Olympic hopefuls signed on, it was only a matter of time before racing with the erg arrived. Boston’s C.R.A.S.H.-B erg sprints, dating from the “lost” Olympics of 1980, was the result. It should never be forgot that the contest’s curious redolent name (with a touch of humility) stands for “Charles River All Stars and Has Beens.”

So what is the erg good for?

First it is excellent exercise of all the muscle groups involved in our sport – no matter how you hack up your technique.

It’s also excellent aerobic work for the heart and lungs, not only because it is difficult and trying, but also because it measures with mind numbing accuracy, just how feeble you are, just how soon you tire, just how much you must do to reach fitness.

By providing a rowing exercise platform under completely controlled conditions – no wind, waves, traffic, annoying colleagues, disappointed coaches – the erg gives you observable access to each part of the stroke, recovery, slide, catch, drive

The erg is also excellent technique training, if coached and observed, either by colleagues or in the mirror. My club trains at the Anacostia Community Boathouse, a superb, if chilly venue for technique training with complete mirror coverage and 20 good ergs.

The erg also allows you to evaluate very precisely how technique relates to performance, or in erg lingo, how technique affects your “splits” or your “watts” indicating energy produced.

And finally, the erg allows you to mark the progress of your training with facts and figures that are undeniable.

What the erg does not do, or the hazards it poses – these are another chapter.

On the negative, the erg encourages a slam bang beginning, because it is just an alloy wheel and not a boat in water. This factor also advantages individuals with large upper body mass, and does not penalize weight. A 220 pound football lineman, for instance, might score brilliantly on the erg, but be far less an effective boat mover in the water. For several reasons, this quality leads many to hit the beginning of the drive hard with the back – a flaw which takes a long time to correct on the water.

The erg also rewards and encourages exaggerated lay back and a long finish – a finish which some take almost to their chin – simply because longer contact with the wheel helps lower split time.

The erg takes no account at all of the speed of the slide, for the wheel is unaffected by slamming into the front end; learning the difficult skill of allowing the boat to run while it is going its fastest (the seconds after the release) is simply not in the erg lexicon.

The same problem is true of the position of the hands, release of the slide, position of the body, etc. All these things must be learned and brought into the erg room.

Erg users must also guard against simple “mileage” thinking – the belief that the more thousands of meters you do the better you will become. You may actually be locking bad flaws into muscle memory. In fact rowing while really tired is a big mistake; it is simply teaching the body to row badly. Back off and start again, rowing well.

But perhaps the most obvious and common failing of the erg and erg training is that it can be so boring. So boring that many bring music in to distract or distance the mind from the task of training.

I’m not going to add to that boredom with an account of what I consider “correct” erg style, except to say what appears to be logical to me: that we should erg the same way the very best rowers in the world row. Fortunately for us, this precious information is readily available on the internet – literally thousands of videos can be found, either under the name of a rowing star – for example Xeno Mueller, Tim Foster, James Tompkins, Katrin Rutschow, Michelle Guerette, Kathleen Heddle, Helen Glover etc. or under Olympic or world championship videos.

My favorite this winter is a video essay called “Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?” by the great Australian pair oar champion (three Olympic golds) Drew Ginn. Several views are necessary to untangle Aussie syntax, but the point is remarkable, even stunning in its simplicity. Ginn makes a case for “tempered” or controlled hand speed away and bodies over which means less weight on the feet coming into the catch while maintaining boat speed between strokes.

The motions Ginn suggests are easy enough to accomplish on the erg. We can all turn them into muscle memory, and then to greater boat speed.

And finally my favorite thought about the erg is not from rowing at all, but in a comment made long ago by his driver to T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) when Lawrence’s half-track Rolls Royce broke down in the desert at a vital point in the World War I campaign. “Sire,” the driver said to Lawrence, “It is but machinery.”

Columnist Duncan Spencer, 76, 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, repeat Head of the Charles winner and an incurable rowing addict.