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(DISCLAIMER: This program involves high-intensity intervals and you should seek approval from your physician before participating).
Would you like to take five to 20 seconds off your 500m time in five to six weeks? Each rowing session only lasts ten to 18 minutes.
Soon after leaving my beloved Marines Corps in 2011, I starting working in a corporate gym in the heart of London as a trainer. Within this gym, there was a standing competition among the staff: the 500m Concept 2 rowing challenge. Based on tried and tested principles I had used over many years of triathlon programming, I designed a specific training protocol. Several of the trainers and gym members tried the program and their 500m time dropped by five to 20 seconds. My 500m time dropped by 11 seconds.
Step 2: Test and record your 500m best effort time.
Step 3: Establish your baseline power output by rowing one 2,000m.
Step 4: One to three short sessions per week for five to six weeks. These can fit in after your current training program if need be (more considerations on that below).
Step 5: Retest 500m best effort and prepare for a nice shock.
How fast you can row 500m is dependent on many factors. Completing this program will provide the following benefits:
- You will become highly attuned to your own capability. For example, you’ll learn how long you can remain at a certain power output and you’ll gain a good understanding of your own mental and physical limits.
- Your muscles will increase their capacity to store energy.
- Your circulatory system will become more efficient at removing lactate and delivering oxygen to the working muscles (your heart and arteries will become stronger and more elastic).
Establishing Your Baseline
Before your very first training session, row 2,000m. Row at a pace that you would perceive to be comfortable. A pace that, if required, you feel you could keep up for a further 2,000m, i.e. row easy. It would be approximately 40%-50% of your maximal effort. The average wattage over this 2,000m is your baseline.
500m Rowing Program
The program involves several bursts of 100% effort followed by recovery at your baseline pace. Your ability to not drop below this baseline is paramount. In my experience, maintaining your baseline pace between explosive bursts is the most effective way of dramatically improving performance. However, it is essential to put in a maximal effort during the explosive bursts. Achieving maximal effort, then returning to and maintaining your baseline pace is where mental toughness plays a key part.
Ideally, you will work your way through the following three sessions chronologically for six weeks, but five will do if life or work gets in the way. Do at least one session per week, but preferably two. If you regularly sleep more than eight hours per night and have your nutrition squared away, three times per week would offer a greater outcome. Adjust the screen so the number in the large central box is the power output (watts). Press “Just Row” and go!
Session 1: 100% effort: 15 seconds; Baseline: 45 seconds. 8-10 rounds.
Session 2: 100% effort: 30 seconds; Baseline: 2 minutes 30 seconds. 5-6 rounds.
Session 3: 100% effort: 45 seconds; Baseline: 3 minutes 15 seconds. 3-4 rounds
Definitions and Notes:
100% effort: This means 100% perceived effort. You will slow down after a short period. When your power output decreases and your pace slows, you must remain at full effort for the stated period. The key to success in this program is having the mental toughness to sustain 100% effort even though the gremlin in your head is telling you to slow down.
Baseline: Your baseline is the recovery pace that you are not to drop below during the periods between 100% bursts.
The number of rounds: Each round directly follows the one before it with no rest. Whether you do three or four, five or six or eight to ten rounds (respectively) is your choice, depending on how you feel or how much time you have.
Watch the power output as you row: This is crucial. Make a mental note of your highest wattage during the 100% intervals. You’ll become very familiar with this number and it is your goal to always hit or beat it. As you recover between explosive intervals, watch the wattage to ensure you stay above your baseline.
Knowing when to explode into a 100% burst: Watch the clock. For session one, you go every minute. Session two, go every three minutes. Session three, go every four minutes. If you’d rather not have to watch the clock you could set an interval timer to beep at the appropriate times.
100% effort as soon as the clock starts? Yes. A good sprint-start technique will help shave a couple of seconds off when it comes to testing. I prefer three ½ strokes followed by three ¾ strokes, but check out this quick tutorial.
What Happens Inside Your Body
During a hard 500m row, everyone hits a certain point where they are unable to continue at the same pace. The time period of maximal effort rowing that any individual can sustain before they reach this point is hugely variable depending on their training history, but it’s generally between 30-50 seconds. The pace that can be maintained after reaching this point is also hugely variable. Both of these, however, are trainable.
At a cellular level, the process that produces your energy during a 500m row also produces a waste product called lactate. During a hard row, you feel you have to slow down because the lactate is being produced faster than the circulatory system can remove it and take it to the liver. When the lactate build up reaches a certain point, a signal is sent to your brain that tells you to slow down. This gives your blood a chance to remove the lactate and deliver oxygen to the muscles. This point is known as your lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold. This program works by training your body to be better at removing lactate, therefore increasing your lactate threshold allowing a higher or longer duration of power output.
During the first three sessions, you can adjust your baseline if needed, so it’s achievable. Remember that the emphasis is on 100% bursts. Your challenge is to always hit your maximal wattage or exceed it during each sprint. On sessions four, seven and ten (if you get that far) increase your baseline by 10%. I repeat for clarity, increase your baseline by 10% after every three sessions.
Example 1: Jodie completes the first three sessions and establishes that her baseline is 50 watts. Her max wattage to date during the explosive bursts is 202 watts. For sessions four, five and six, Jodie must maintain a baseline power output of at least 55 watts between bursts. During her bursts, she is striving to beat 202 watts and keep the wattage high. Jodie must maintain a baseline of at least 61 watts in sessions seven, eight and nine.
Example 2: Graeme completes his first three sessions and establishes his baseline to be 120 watts. His maximum to date is 500 watts. On session four, five and six, Graeme must maintain at least 132 watts between sprints while trying to beat his 500 watts during the bursts. On sessions seven, eight and nine, he must maintain 145 watts.
Modification for the Unfit
If you worry about putting in 100% effort because of a medical condition, age or because you’re unfit, that’s fine (naturally, you will have gained approval from your physician before participating). Dial the bursts down to about 80% of maximal effort and remain there. This program works because your body becomes very good at removing lactate. Therefore, anything less than around 80% effort won’t stimulate the desired response.
By the time you retest, you’ll have a very good idea about how long you can maintain your maximal power output. If you were to give it 100% to begin with, unless you’re a pro it’s likely that your pace will reduce dramatically after you hit your wall (30-50 seconds). This would result in your overall 500m pace being slower than it could be.
After the previous six weeks of training, you’ll have a very good sense of how much you have to dial down your effort in order to achieve the maximum average 500m pace. In my experience of putting many people through this program, you’ll achieve your fastest 500m if your effort level remains at about 80%-90% for the first 300m, followed by 200m at 95% to finish.
If you complete the program, I would love to know your results and gains.
Want to read more about the 500m row? Here’s another great blog about how to get a faster 500m row time.
What should I do to warm up?
1) Row a few hundred meters at a steady pace
2) Take five minutes to fully mobilize hips, especially in-flexion (such as in a deep squat). Being able to flex your hips fully is key to a good stroke and to avoiding lower back injury
3) Spend five minutes mobilizing your thoracic spine because most people really need it
What other training can I do?
Anything. However, consider what’s involved in this and take those elements out of your normal training for the sake of recovery. Reduce 400m runs and hill sprints. Go easy on volume, especially with squats and upper body pulling exercises. Personally, I like to put one of these in after a strength session that involves pressing or deadlifts.
At which point during a training session should I row?
At the end. Rowing on a Concept 2 is a relatively low skill activity and a fresh CNS isn’t essential for this protocol. The key to this program is your ability to put in 100% effort, thereby spiking your lactate levels. With mental toughness, this can be achieved no matter what you’ve already done. Obviously, when retesting be fresh.
What should I eat beforehand?
I’m an eat real food kinda guy. In my opinion, everything you consume should be as unprocessed as possible. A banana 45-60 minutes before training sessions will help performance, but do it fasted if you’d like to improve body composition.
Can I train on two consecutive days?
Ideally, leave at least one day between sessions.
What about training zone percentages?
For your own interest, it may be useful to test your resting heart rate at the beginning and end of this program. However, the emphasis is on perceived effort and learning about your own capability. In my humble opinion, it’s better to be able to feel how hard you’re working rather than depending on a gadget to tell you.
Why do I vomit?
Because there’s so much lactate in your blood that your brain thinks you’ve been poisoned and sends a vomit signal to the stomach. When your circulatory system becomes more efficient this won’t happen.