The reason why we row at 18 and 20 strokes a minute most of the time for me is:
Let’s start by having some training ideas clear. When we train for rowing we have few elements involved. One is the engine of the rower. We could call the engine the part of the body that help us sustain the rowing strokes, the cells, lungs, heart, blood quality, lactate tolerance, VO2 max, etc…
Another part is the technique, coordination and ability to produce coordinated power on an efficient way to move the boat every stroke.
If we have a bad engine but are good on the rest we can be really fast out of the start but won’t be able to sustain the workload for the duration of the race.
If we have a good engine but are not good at technique or coordinated power, we won’t be able to use the engine because we won’t be able to really apply that engine to really work to move the boat.
Now let’s try to see that on a car. The engine and the frame of the car, tires and extras. If we have a big engine on a small weak car with very bad tires, as soon as we get the engine going we might lose part of the car in the first curve. If we have a strong car with good tires but a small engine, we will be safe but won’t go very fast.
What we can see is that both are important.
Ok now let’s talk about rowing!
Let’s imagine that we have a rower with a good engine and good technique and good power. He is pretty balanced.
Ok also let’s think that this rower is in good shape and has good speed at different test levels.
Ok in this case this rower will be able to get plenty of good work at 18 and 20 strokes a minute for what we want that is to increase his overall development as a rower and speed.
Said that what I’m going to explain won’t necessarily need to work with rowers out of shape, with no technique or an engine not developed.
When you row at low rates like 18 and 20 strokes a minute you can perform for 30 to 40 minutes non stop every stroke of this period of time with a higher work that the ones you do on your Max 2km race.
Ok let’s review that. What is work? Ok work is the area inside of each power curve. A power curve is the power application of the rowing stroke during the drive. Joulesx stroke that are the area inside the power curve for any given stroke are not bigger is the rate is higher or better. It is not like the split or the Watts that will increase as we increase the stroke rate. Joules x stroke are the amount of work we do every stroke. Said that the lower the rate the easier is to do more work x stroke because we have more rest from stroke to stroke.
Because of that we can sustain a higher work x stroke than at race pace at 18 and 20 strokes a minute, also being able to work at AT if we want. Yes you can work at AT at 20 strokes a minute if you have very good connection to the water and acceleration.
This is why doing the work at 18 or 20 without really doing the work doesn’t take you very far. What many training programs do is target lactate levels or heart rate intensity and don’t do that with the stroke rate. There are Teams that are able to do Max pieces at 24-28 and 32 with same levels of lactate that at 36 for the whole piece. Why? Because when they work at lower rates they do more work x stroke and they can stress the body the same way to its maximum. Obviously the boat is faster at 36 but doing max pieces at lower rates you work more on technique and control of the boat and also develop more power x stroke that you can use later for a fast start and moves during the race.
This is why the stroke rate doesn’t really measure intensity all the time. If you are not connected to the water, or are not use to work hard at low rates you will detrain yourself at low rates. This is the reason why many rowers find useless to row at low rate and cannot make their heart rate go up. They cannot produce more work x stroke. This is a problem because if they cannot do that they are detraining themselves at low rates.
To finish I would like to say that rowing full pressure at 18-20 strokes a minute can be really aggressive. In order to get there you need to first understand that rowing at 18 – 20 strokes a minute is not all the time recovery rowing. For many rowing programs is work time and really ON!
When you start reducing the time of the piece, you start increasing the rate and also the intensity, heart rate and lactate levels. As I said you can max out your engine at 28-32 strokes a minute for some people and don’t need to go to 36.