Training investment paying off for Westerville
When winter weather prevents his team from practicing on the water, Westerville high school club rowing coach Matt Chase sees a glazed look come over his athletes -- over and over again.
For competitors in his sport, nothing is duller than an indoor practice.
Training on a rowing machine -- also known as an ergometer or erg machine -- might be a necessity for a crew trying to build a championship program, but it's not considered a stimulating part of the experience.
"We would put movies on because it was so boring," Chase said.
Westerville continues to practice in front of a big screen when the weather is rough in the winter and early spring, but the viewing has become more specific to rowing.
Just after the fall season ended last October, the club purchased more than 30 new machines called dynamic ergs that cost $1,200 apiece.
The dynamic ergs are designed to simulate more closely what it's like to row on the water, compared with traditional ergs also known as static ergs.
In addition, each dynamic erg includes a performance monitor and a USB output for connectivity to external software programs.
The new machines, combined with the increased use of tests that measure endurance and better video availability, have been among the technological advances of the last two decades that have helped rowers improve their speed.
"(Buying the machines) was one of those things as a head coach that you want to improve your standing of the team," Chase said. "It wasn't inexpensive, but I feel somewhat relieved after buying them. This year we seem to have faster boats."
Westerville bought numerous static ergs in 1996 that Chase believes accumulated "millions of miles" over the past 17 years.
Static ergs slide from front to back while simulating the rowing stroke as an athlete's feet stay in place. On a dynamic erg, the athlete's feet do most of the moving rather than the seat, which moves slightly.
Also unlike the static ergs, dynamic ergs can be connected to each other.
Although Chase said there is no commercial software on the market that monitors performance when the dynamic ergs are linked, he created a program that does it.
With a software program in place to measure performance when it's linked to two, four or sometimes more machines, Westerville set up "competitions" among its athletes.
"I decided to write a program which you can connect and feed the output onto a nine-foot movie screen," he said. "What we try to do is allow the kids to link the ergs in whatever fashion they want, so maybe they'll link two ergs, three ergs, four or even five so you can link it into a five-man boat. Four-man boats are pretty common. They would race each other and we'd set it up so you can watch the boats racing across the screen. It just added a huge dynamic for our winter erging. The kids were having a good time. Also, the racing helps to develop the competitive edge."
New Albany senior Jackie Huddle, who plans to compete for Stanford University, first used a dynamic erg during a clinic last April at Bucknell.
She quickly has become a proponent of the machine, which both Huddle and Chase believe is easier on the body than the static erg in addition to better simulating what it's like to be on the water.
"The dynamic ergs definitely changed our winter training for the better," Huddle said. "We were able to connect them together. On land it was so easy to match up and was easy to train as a boat. I really like them. During the winter when you can't go out on the water, you can still train."
"There are so many ingredients to rowing physiology, and you also have to have the rowing stroke," Chase said. "We weren't really improving our rowing, so when (the dynamic ergs) came out, we watched for a while and waited a bit. We bought two last summer that we put in our shed and the kids really liked them. I think it's easier on the lower back and they feel like it's easier on the lower back."
Upper Arlington coach Chris Swartz, who has been involved in rowing for more than 40 years, said the biggest difference in the sport during that time involves training and training equipment.
Coaches in his sport, Swartz believes, are increasingly using VO2 max tests to determine the endurance of their athletes.
According to vo2maxtest-ing.net, the VO2 max is a graded exercise test that begins with light intensity and gets slightly harder each minute until maximum exertion. Through this, aerobic and lactate thresholds can be determined.
"What you get now is the ability to qualify what the athlete can do," said Swartz, whose UA team does not use dynamic ergs. "You can test for lactic acid, which is the ability to carry maximum pressure over a certain amount of time and not allow the lactic acid to build. It shows the lung capacity. It's the same thing they use for marathon runners."
Both Chase and Swartz believe that watching video is a positive that can show athletes not only how they stack up in a race but how they can improve their stroke.
All of the technological improvements have helped racers significantly increase speed over the past four decades, according to Swartz.
"We used film back in the day, 16-millimeter and 8-millimeter, but today you can videotape everything," Swartz said. "There are all kinds of ways that you can manipulate the tape.
"The times of, say, a collegiate champion 35 to 40 years ago might have been in the (6 minute, 5 second) range. Now in a lot of cases you might have crews in high school who are able to go faster than that. But a lot of it depends on the conditions. Certainly crews have gotten significantly faster."