Slow and Steady Finishes the Race

What?! Slow and steady? In what world would a coach tell you to slow down, relax, and just aim to finish the race? I’ll tell you: when you’re training for your first erg half-marathon (21,097m). That world does not include high 20s off the start and ratings in the 30s. You’ll be on that erg to nowhere for an hour and a half (give or take). Your goal is to finish. That’s it.

I found myself in this world of distance erging a bit by accident. For years I thrived on fly and die 1k masters sprints races. Last Fall I set a personal – and admittedly arbitrary – goal of besting a 30-minute PR of one of my teammates. (Competitive much?) Over a couple of months the meters piled up and the splits came down. I decided to train through the winter to compete in the 30-minute event at MidAtlantic Erg Sprints.

Apparently my enthusiasm rubbed off on my boyfriend, who, despite repeated attempts on my part, has never set foot in a rowing shell. But he’s no slouch – he’s been a competitive triathlon age grouper for years, taking the top spot on several medal stands while also training for and running marathons. He threw down a challenge: train for an erg marathon together.

Whoo boy. This was big. This was going to be hard.

So hard in fact that mid-winter I admitted that I wasn’t ready (that’s a whole other blog entry waiting to be written) and decided on a more attainable goal of rowing a half marathon. The non-rower, marathon-running, triathlon-winning boyfriend however, kept on with his erg marathon training!

Top 5 Erg Half-Marathon Tips Learned Along the Way


Gradually add meters into your training plan. Start training at least a couple of months before your event. Include a variety of workouts, like short bursts of speed (interval work), mid-distance rows (6-10k), 60-minutes for distance, and once a week a mid- to long row (12-20k) at your intended marathon pace.

It’s incredibly important to have a solid understanding and mastery of rowing technique. Lousy posture or an incorrect stroke sequence equate to less power (therefore slower times) and the potential for injury. If you’re a newer rower, work with your coach to fine tune your technique and/or check out these great instructional videos from Concept2.


We hear “don’t fly and die” over and over again, but something in our brains on race day makes us stupid and pushes us to go out too hot. Blame it on adrenaline, stubbornness, gritty determination. The fly and die technique *might* work for 2k challenges, but for a half-marathon, you’ll regret it just a few thousand meters into your piece. Not only will your legs be screaming at you, but you’ll have that cold, unfeeling PM5 monitor teasing you with thousands of meters left to chase down. Work hard and aim for consistency in rating and splits.


Start experimenting with this long before race day. To avoid upset stomaches, headaches, or even nausea, never try something new on race day.

Keep two sport bottles next to your erg: one with water, the other with a water/sports drink mix. You’ll need to stay hydrated, and a sports drink or powdered mix (like Hammer Nutrition’s Heed) with sodium, potassium, complex carbohydrates, and other benefits will help fuel you through the row and prevent cramping.

Be sure to eat a healthy meal the night before the event, and chose smart small meals that include protein and whole grains the day of the race. During the race, it’s challenging to consume calories, but if you really feel that you need some, consider things like GU Energy Gel (100 calories) that are easy to slurp down in just a few seconds. Some energy gel products also contain caffeine for a little extra kick.


Staring at the monitor obsessing about splits and distance covered per stroke can really mess with your head over the course of a piece that will likely take an hour to an hour and forty five minutes. Pick a rating and split that you can maintain and don’t freak out if there’s minor variation. A couple of strokes too high or too low will average out. Just keep at it.


Do what works for you. Whether your goal is to win or just to finish, go into it knowing exactly what you want to do. You’ll find a handful of race plans on-line (including my own ideas below), but no two athletes are the same. Modify plans to suit your needs.

Erg Half-Marathon Sample Strategy

First 2k: Find your rhythm and ratio. Settle in to your pre-determined race pace. Don’t get distracted by other rowers around you, or let their pace influence you or shake your confidence.

Body of the race, 18k: The main stretch can feel never-ending, boring, panic-inducing… It’s important to break it up. Every 1,000m, take five strokes at a rate four beats higher than your race pace. Just five strokes is enough to break the monotony, drop your splits by about eight seconds, and keep you feeling like you’ve got some extra speed to give. Then settle back in to your race pace.

2k to go: Bump up your rating two beats and try to drop your splits by a second or two. Hang in there for 1,000m.

Last 1k: Power on the boosters, gradually. Take it up to full pressure and build your rating up two beats every 250m, aiming to finish the piece at your 2k PR pace. To get through this, think “There’s always more in the tanks.”

When you’re done, cool down on the erg at paddle pressure for a couple of minutes. Do some basic stretching on the machine before standing up. Then hydrate, stretch, foam roll, and congratulate yourself.

Have you completed an erg half marathon or marathon? We’d love to hear about it. Email