19.1 Rowing Plan for Max Overall Score

I did not plan to make Open WOD guides. Lots of other people do a fine job. This will probably be the only one. But I row five million meters a year, and not too many people do that. Let’s talk about how to handle the rowing to maximize your overall score.

The things you can’t change:  Height.   Tall people have an advantage on the rower, plain and simple.   Rowing 19 cals requires the flywheel to turn a certain distance, which requires the handle to travel a given (total) horizontal distance.  A taller person’s rowing strokes are longer, so they can pull the required total distance with fewer changes of direction.   Changing direction consumes lots of energy. Taller people will do fewer of them.   If you’re real tall, send your parents a thank you card today.  

Note:    If you’re not that tall, don’t despair.  Height is not the only important anthropometric variable here.  The calorie display on the C2 is not a measure of mechanical work done.  It is an estimate of how many calories the machine thinks your body is burning.  (This is why you cannot row less than 300 cals / hr.   Concept 2 has determined that pulling a handle with no wheel consumes about 300 cals / hr.)  Because the machine attempts to measure actual caloric burn, not just work done, it assumes you weigh about 175lbs.   If you actually weigh 130, the machine is gifting you a bunch of calories.   If you weigh 225, sorry.   The erg giveth, and the erg taketh away.  

The things that never change:  Transitions.  Ever watch a video of yourself in a WOD and realize that those “two-breath breaks” are actually about 11 seconds?   Even a quick wall ball break is 4 seconds, minimum.  We’ll set you up for success on that.  

The thing you shouldn’t change:  The damper setting.  Row where you always row.   Don’t make adjustments on game day.   

The axiom of rowing in CrossFit:   You can’t win a mixed-modal WOD on the rower.   But you sure can lose it. Go too hard and you’ll be sucking wind by the eight minute mark, and wondering why your wall ball weighs 83 pounds and you’re doing sets of 3. Therefore, you should row not to lose.

This is the secret - and the biggest mistake - right here:  When you get to 16-17 calories, start backing off.  You do not want to come roaring through the 19-calorie mark.   You do not want to sprint across the finish line of each 19-calorie round.   You do not want “two big pulls” when you reach 17 calories.   Some coaches and judges will say things like this this to motivate a tired athlete.  TWO BIG PULLS!  Understandable and well-intended?  Yep.  But just plain wrong.   If you finish the 19 cals at a high speed, you will have used up 21-22 calories worth of energy.    The wheel is still turning when you get off the rower, using energy you supplied, but those calories do not count in your score.  That’s 2-3 cals of wasted energy.  Do this for 7 rounds and you will have rowed the energy equivalent of an 8th round.

If you’re a strong rower, back off when you hit 16 calories.   If you’re not such a strong rower, back off at 17 calories.  “Back off” means complete your pulls, but let the wheel start slowing down.   Pull less hard.  Don’t drop the thing, but ease up a little, then a lot, then completely.  Every coach knows about the short, powerful strokes to optimally accelerate the erg. This is optimal deceleration.

Here’s the Math:

  • 1200 cals / hr              20 cals per minute      3 seconds per cal

  • 1080 cals / hr              18 cals per minute      3.33 seconds per cal

  • 900 cals / hr                15 cals per minute      4 seconds per cal   

Therefore, if you row 1200 cals/hr for 16 cals, then drop to 1080 for the 17 and 18, then down to 900 for the last calorie, you will lose about 1.5 seconds vs if you had powered through 19.    Over 8 rounds, that’s a total of just 12 seconds.

Here’s the Physics: 

The relationship between power supplied by you and speed of the wheel is not linear.   It is cubic. This means that for any X increase in flywheel speed, the power increase required is X^3.   If you want to go twice as fast, you need to supply 8 TIMES the power. (2^3 = 8).    Power is related to the cube of the flywheel speed.   An advanced discussion is at the link.

Small increases in speed require huge increases in power.   Going from 1000 cals / hr to 1200 cals / hr is a 20% speed increase, which requires a 70% increase in power supplied. This cubic relationship works the other way too, so when you decrease speed just a little, you can decrease power supplied dramatically. (Note: the cals/hr measurement is not a  perfect measure of flywheel speed. But the relationship between power and speed is rock-solid).   

This is why you can’t win the WOD on the rower. You have to work much harder to create even a small advantage. Accelerating from 1080 to 1200 cals saves you 6 seconds per round but costs tons of power. Drop the wall ball once and the advantage from entire minute of hard work evaporates.

Here’s the summary:

You can drop 100cals / hr in pace and only lose 2.5 - 3.5 sec per round. Every break in wall balls will cost you at least 5 seconds. Therefore, you win this workout by not breaking wall balls. The difference in results between 1200 cals/hr vs 1100 cals/hr over the course of the entire workout will cost you around 30 seconds if you complete 8 rounds. Every break in wall balls will cost 5 sec minimum. Row slower, and break the wall balls less.

TLDR on all this: BACK OFF at 16 or 17 calories, and row conservatively

You can slash your power supply dramatically at the end of each round and only lose about 1-2 seconds.  Cruise across the finish line. This power drop will give you a few seconds to recover and prepare for a faster transition to the wall balls.   You will feel a huge difference.   The 1.5 seconds lost will be recaptured by shorter transitions and fewer wall ball breaks.  

Good luck out there.

Questions? Comments? coach@thegainslab.com

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