Bored on the erg? Change your perspective – and your goals.

Bored. I am bored. I am sooooooo bored.

These are the unhelpful thoughts that ran through my mind thirty minutes into an hour of power last summer.

I was sitting on an erg in the middle of a row of ergs that my teammates occupied. The weather was hot. Middle-of-summer in swampy D.C. hot. Humidity hovering around 90% even in the morning. We’d carried the ergs out of the stuffy, stifling, and smelly erg room, and were looking out over the Anacostia River. Music was playing over a tinny bluetooth speaker.

And I was bored.

Let’s be honest. Erging is boring. The challenge is to not notice how boring it is.

Holly Austin, Ready Set Row

Since learning to to row in 2001, I’ve understood and accepted the erg’s prominence in effective training and have become pretty zealous about data tracking for my own goals, and promoting its importance to rowers that I’ve coached. 

The “I’m bored” feeling was hard for me to shake. I tried a huge variety of erg workouts, and even visited various gyms and boathouses, but it took a few months before I was back in a healthy mental space when I got on the erg.

Erging in the time of COVID-19

Now, with COVID-19 concerns shuttering boathouses and scratching regattas, a lot of us find ourselves off the water and staring at that dang erg with mixed emotions.

I called up Holly Austin, founder of Ready Set Row, to talk boredom and break through.

“Let’s be honest. Erging is boring.” Holly said. “The challenge is to not notice how boring it is.”

That erg just sits there while you’re confined to working out in your living room, basement, garage, maybe a backyard if you’re lucky. You don’t have your teammates or even a firm regatta schedule for motivation. So how can we approach the erg during these months while we’re staying home and staying safe?

First of all, “in-season metrics are thrown out right now,” says Holly. “It’s comparing apples and oranges. If you don’t have a specific goal and the purpose of your erg workouts is unclear, it’s about creating habits. You have to be committed. Fitness is for life.”

Holly’s actually encouraging her rowers to erg just once or twice a week right now, with a focus on long, low-heart rate pieces. She suggests allowing yourself to remove the worry about metrics, and instead use your time on the erg “as meditation. Find inspirational movies to help motivate and distract.”

When I connected recently with Jim Dietz (founder of All-American Rowing Camp, Olympic rower and National Team coach, Head Coach at UMass-Amherst ’94-’19) he acknowledged that “people of all ages are afraid or bored of the erg because they view it as a testing machine rather then a training machine. They focus on score and get frustrated because they don’t see their score improving immediately!”

Jim told me: “I use the erg as I use my single. My focus is to do long, slow distance and concentrate on good technique and stimulating muscle fiber. The circle of life if you will, is working muscle fiber in the proper sequencing, causing a demand for oxygen and in so doing strengthening the heart.”

Jim and Holly’s stuck-at-home workouts

Throw intense intervals out the window, and focus on technique for 40-60 minutes.

Holly says: Focus on “smaller bits”
6-8′ of work with 1′ of rest. Repeat 3-5 times. Instead of one long and boring piece, “work in bits and the dopamine from finishing one interval will help motivate you for the next one.”

“No matter what you do – erg, run, bike, core, hike – have the curiosity to challenge yourself to be fit. As you establish small changes (habits), you are ‘casting a vote for who you are.’ The new habits you create solidify a neural pathway which will make your return to on-water rowing easier.” And if you’re “just 98% compliant with your stay-at-home training schedule, that doesn’t mean you’re unsuccessful.”

Jim says : Go out easy, then build into your work
“I feel that most individuals set their sights too high going out too strong and then panic when the going gets tuff. I prefer to go out very, very easy and build into what I’m doing that day. The majority of my work is done in pyramids:

  • 3×15’ as 5/4/3/2/1 stroke rate 16/18/20/22/24. No rest, dropping immediately down for the next set.
  • 1×30’ + 1×15’ as 5’@16 / 10’@18 / 10’@20)
    Use the first 5’ of the first one as the warm up. Again continuous.
  • 4’on / 1’off x 40’ @ 20-26spm. “This is good because you can always see the finish point for each piece and can challenge yourself to push a little harder.”

RowSource says: Think way outside the box
What really helped me break through that awful boredom was to throw everything out the window and do whatever the heck I felt like on the erg. These three ideas have helped me to get through the grind:

  • Set a goal that seems impossible: For a recent Concept2 Global Erg Challenge (30 days to log as many meters as possible) I picked a number that was three times more meters per week than I had been averaging.
  • Do something you’ve never done before: Need to get in some meters but you’re bored of the steady state grind? Row 1k at the top of each hour for as many hours you can fit in the day.
  • 5k of drills: pick drill + power 10 > reverse pick + power 10, alternating 1 half / 1full stroke, 10 x pause at finish > 10 x 1 pause/1 full > 10 x pause at arms > 10 x 1 pause/1 full > 10 x pause at 1/2 slide > 10 x 1 pause/1 full. Row 30″ steady between each drill before moving to the next. Finish with a 500m gradual power/rate build.