A basic tenant of Crossfit training is to “keep workouts short and intense.” Why, then, did I sign up for a full/half marathon row modeled off the recent Games event? Great question.
I regretted my decision almost immediately after committing to five weeks of long-distance rowing; however, reflecting on the training experience and the half marathon itself, I learned important things about myself as an athlete and coach that I hope will benefit other strength athletes.
Rowing Marathon Background
My Crossfit gym set up a rowing seminar with a collegiate rower turned college rowing coach to prep our small crew for five weeks of endurance training and the grand finale—21,098 meters for the half and 42,196 meters for the full marathon. During the seminar, we went over rowing technique, stroke rates, pacing, and other strategies for our marathon effort.
Over those five weeks, we had two rowing workouts, one done in interval style and one higher-volume day. It was also suggested that those participating in the row attend the long aerobic workout programmed for the rest of the gym each week. In total, we’d train high-volume aerobic work three times per week for four weeks, with the fifth and final training week including only one long conditioning piece as a taper before the main event.
Five Weeks of Conditioning
Part of my motivation for signing up for the marathon row was my deep disdain for all things endurance; I knew that I would never do something like this unless I had a coach, a plan, and a group to suffer alongside me.
Each Sunday, our coach sent out an email with the week’s upcoming conditioning pieces. The emails filled me with dread and foreboding. I spent the morning coaching my own training clients through their workouts with the thought of an hour spent on the rower hanging over my head like a dark and ominous storm cloud. When the time came to hop on the rower and knock out that day’s workout, I did so begrudgingly.
The surprising thing about long-distance rowing is that it didn’t suck after a little while. As long as I focused on the screen while matching my stroke rate and pace to the programming for that day, I fell into a steady rhythm of pull-catch, pull-catch, without really thinking about it. It’s as though I became part of the erg.
I guess that’s what runners are talking about when they try to convince me that running is relaxing. While I didn’t find the rowing workouts exactly relaxing, I did feel accomplished after finishing each piece. Something about dripping with sweat makes you feel like you did something with your time.
Lessons from Training
In the kick-off seminar, we established that form would be everything. Think about it you're on the erg for about 1.5-2 hours to row a half marathon or 3-4 hours for the full. That’s 90 minutes on the low end up to 240 minutes on the high end. Even pulling a low stroke rate of 22 s/m means you’re doing 1,980 reps (best case) or 5,280 reps (worst case). That’s a lot of freaking repetitions and not a lot of room for sloppy movement.
While training, I focused intently on making each pull as close to “perfect” or as ideal as possible given the demands of the piece. That meant maintaining an upright posture (“chest up”) and pulling in the correct order: drive with your legs, lean back into hip extension, finish with the arms, and return to the catch leading with your hands. The hardest part was having the patience to return the handle before breaking at the hips and knees to enter the catch position.
The two different styles of training pieces (intervals and volume work) provided an awesome opportunity to learn the difference between stroke and pace and how each affected my performance on the rower.
For those not familiar, your stroke rate is shown on the erg display as “__s/m” or strokes per minute. Generally, shorter people have to pull more strokes to cover the same distance as a taller person pulling fewer strokes. A lower stroke rate also means you can preserve more energy across long distances because you’re not pulling as frequently.
Pace, on the other hand, indirectly measures the power of each individual pull. A faster pace means that pull “moved” your boat further, aka, you put more power into that stroke than someone pulling at a slower pace. (Yes, you can set the rower to display your wattage, which directly measures power, but that’s pretty irrelevant without context.)
Long story short, a stronger leg drive helped me pull a faster pace, while faster hands and less rest on the catch helped me pull a higher stroke rate. I came to think of it as pace:legs and stroke:arms. If my pace fell below my target, I’d put more power into driving with my legs. If my stroke rate didn’t match the day’s programming, I would adjust the speed with which I returned the handle after completing my pull.
This may sound weird, but I think learning to have faster hands on the pull and catch carried over to my barbell clean because I noticed in recent strength workouts that my elbow speed under the bar has improved. Totally anecdotal, of course, but it’s fun to notice carry over to other facets of Crossfit.
The final lesson that distance training taught me is how nice it feels to not get beat up in a workout. None of our training pieces left me gasping on the floor. None were designed for us to row at anywhere approaching our maximum effort (in fact, most of the pieces were written as 5-15 seconds under your estimated 2,000-meter pace).
During the five weeks of training, I continued strength training but dropped metcons to only once per week. Despite fewer Crossfit-style metcons, my endurance and aerobic capacity seemed to increase over the five weeks of conditioning, and my recovery improved.
As a strength coach, I appreciate the programming that gets results without destroying an athlete. As an athlete, I appreciated training that didn’t destroy me!
Preparing for Half Marathon Day
Okay, I already admitted to strongly disliking cardio, so it should come as no surprise that I signed up for the half marathon instead of the full. On game day, I’d start in the first heat and be followed by a partner, who would row the second half of the marathon. Our gym had nine teams splitting the marathon in half and five or six athletes commit to the full marathon. So at least I wasn’t the craziest one in the room that day.
The day before the race, I made sure I had everything I could possibly need during the event: the clothes I was going to wear to the gym, the clothes I’d wear on the rower, the squeeze top water bottle I’d sip on throughout the race, the BCAAs and snacks to fuel my row, and my (fully charged) Bluetooth headphones. Everything was ready to go the day before.
I made sure to hydrate throughout the entire day before the race and get to sleep around 10 pm the night before so that I could get a full 8-9 hours of sleep.
Going into the race, I had a plan of what stroke rate and pace I wanted to hold, when I would increase both, and when I was going to sip water. Some of the rowers planned to eat gummy bears, gels, or other quick sugars during the event, but I was going to rely solely on BCAAs and an electrolyte tablet dissolved in my squeeze-top water bottle. I did pack a kid’s applesauce pouch just in case I needed more energy during the half marathon but didn’t plan to use it.
The morning of the full/half marathon, I woke up only an hour beforehand, knowing I wouldn’t need time to eat or do much of anything before heading to the gym. I wanted to save all of my energy for the 21,098-meter effort. I also didn’t want to feel sick on the rower. I’d save eating for afterward.
My game plan for the race was to start at around 20-22 s/m and ramp up my stroke rate every 3,000 meters until I settled into 26 s/m. I also wanted to hold between 2:20 and 2:30 pace for the duration of the row until going all-out on the final 500 meters.
To stay hydrated and energized, I would sip on electrolyte water every ten minutes for the first hour, then every five minutes in the second hour. To do so, I practiced rowing with one arm so that I could drink water without stopping. My goal was to complete the half marathon without a single break, mostly because I didn’t want to restart the erg’s fan and waste energy in the process.
The one nice thing about rowing a half marathon? You don’t have to warm up. You just sit down and start rowing—slowly at first, then picking up your pace as your body adjusts to the work you’re doing. My game plan was pretty conservative. I could have held a faster pace and finished sooner. (I won’t be testing that theory any time soon, though!)
The worst thing about rowing a half marathon? Well, there were two major negatives, if I’m being honest. First, it was boring as all heck. And secondly, my butt went numb after a while and was sore for days afterward. Bike shorts would have been nice. One of the athletes in my heat sat on an ab mat, which I thought was brilliant.
One of the weirdest parts of the whole experience was that the passage of time seemed to become meaningless. After the first nine minutes, I was feeling great. Around the thirty-minute mark, all I could think about was how much farther I had to go. I started playing games in my head. “Two minutes until your next water break” or “1,000 meters until you pick up your pace.” To say my train of thought became repetitive would be an understatement.
The best thing during the row was seeing the meter countdown drop from five digits (21,098m) to four digits—hello, 9,999 meters to go! I was just over halfway through the piece and wanted to start hauling ass to finish faster, but I had to remember to stick to my pacing because I still had about fifty minutes of rowing ahead of me.
You know how I said I didn’t plan to eat anything while I was on the rower? Just in case, I had placed a squeeze pack of applesauce on the floor next to my erg. Around 1.5 hours, I felt a headache come on, so I went for the applesauce. Total life saver! The sugar cured my headache instantly, and I felt like I had more energy for the final 5,000 meters.
My plan was to open up the throttle around the 1,500-meter mark, so I picked up my pace to a 2:15 split, which I held until 500m. From there, all bets were off. All I could think was “whatever you pull on the screen, that’s how much time until you can get off this thing!” I finished the final 500 meters with a 2:08 pace.
My quads felt like they were full of cement for the entire two minutes and ten seconds of all-out rowing. But I did it!
Immediately following the half marathon, I felt strangely fine. I wasn’t especially tired or sore. I was thinking I should have pushed myself harder. Considering this was my first attempt at a distance event, I was happy with my finish time, though.
About twenty minutes after completing the half marathon, my legs started to feel like lead, and I realized how sore my butt had gotten from sitting on the plastic seat for nearly two hours. That was probably the worst part, and the soreness lasted a couple days.
About one hour after the event, I started feeling light-headed and generally exhausted. I knew I needed to eat, but I wasn’t hungry. I had expected to feel ravenous after the event. As it turns out, adrenaline from endurance events can suppress your body’s hunger signals. When you’re putting so much energy and effort into “just keep moving” for two hours, your body shuts down less essential functions, like your digestive system. Despite being in a severe calorie deficit from the two-hour workout, I felt no hunger whatsoever.
The rest of the day, I was simply tired. Napping didn’t help. I still felt tired the next day but experienced almost no soreness other than my butt from the plastic seat. If I had run a half marathon my body would’ve been destroyed.
Lessons from the Half Marathon Row
Upon reflection, I think long-distance events can be a valuable experience for Crossfitters because we’re not used to doing endurance training. Crossfit’s “keep workouts short and intense” philosophy is great for building strong, powerful athletes, but if we’re to continue claiming that the sport of fitness produces the “fittest people on earth,” we should all undertake some sort of endurance training at some point in our Crossfit careers.