SKIERG: 4 Tips to Improve Performance (Revisited)

By Justin Farina

1. LEARN from the BEST

I can’t understand how this became so widely used, but the BUTTERFLY style seems to be the predominant skiing technique among functional exercisers. Now go on YouTube and search for “Nordic Skiing” and “double polling technique”. See any butterfly?

Didn’t think so.

The SkiErg was designed to simulate the sport of Cross Country/Nordic Skiing. It makes sense to apply  the techniques used by world-class athletes from the sport to understand how to ski efficiently and effectively. Do your homework.

Check out this introductory clip from Concept2:

Everybody knows the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If you look at the SkiErg handles, the most efficient path for them to travel on would be straight down and straight up. To spin the flywheel, the athlete has to apply downward force during the “pull”. How an individual returns their hands back to the top of the pull should be as short and efficient as possible to both conserve energy and maintain a consistent (and hopefully higher) stroke rate. Wildly swinging the arms back to the starting point at the top of the pull is inefficient, slow, and unnecessary. Shorter, compact pulls with a strong bent arm allow for higher rating, greater stroke efficiency, and better performances…regardless of the distance.

2. RATE controls SPEED

Hopefully if you are reading this article you have also read our piece explaining the concept of “gears” on the indoor rower. If not, you can read that here.

The same principles should apply to the SkiErg.

5000m TT - as the stroke rate increases, so does the pace.

5000m TT - as the stroke rate increases, so does the pace.

Stroke rate ranges will vary for each athlete, but we still base our training paces off of a 2k PR pace, and we still avoid controlling speed with stroke power and focus our attention on controlling speed (split) by focusing on rates. Since rating on the SkiErg is significantly higher than the indoor rower (for comparision, 18-20 s/m on the rowing machine = ~40 s/m on the SkiErg) control is a lot more challenging. Understanding your own “stroke profile” is critical to more consistent performance improvement.

Download our "SkiErg Pacing Target Guide" here.

3. Ski LONGER

Most folks in the functional fitness world spend the majority of their SkiErg time on short sprints and calorie-based intervals within a workout. Where are all the 5k and 10k efforts?

We prescribe a fair amount of volume for our Online Members, and for good reason…higher capacity requires it.


Check out our FREE 5-DAY SESSION PLAN to see what a typical training week looks like.


Short sprints require less overall skill…meaning you can get away with dropping and yanking wildly on the handles (butterfly) and still manage to finish those 21 calories in a reasonable amount of time.

If you want to build overall capacity, you need to spend a lot more time going longer. Try some mid-distance intervals, see if you can manage 8000m in under 30-minutes, or try a steady 5k. Don’t just sprint! Mix it up…your fitness will thank you.

 

4. CHECK your DAMPER

The dial on the front of the flywheel casing controls the amount of air going in and out. Most people look at this as a “resistance” level. The SkiErg is not a tricep pull-down machine!

The damper setting controls something called “drag factor” (DF). You can check out this article from Concept2 for a basic overview.

There is a plastic disc on the front on the flywheel casing (about the size of a DVD…you can see it still attached in the picture below). It can be removed. It changes the range of possible “drag factors”, as outlined below:

Plate ON = 56 (damper 1) to 148 (damper 10)

Plate OFF = 85 (damper 1) to 230 (damper 10)

Please note…these values are based on MY machine in MY garage…you may find your range to be slightly different.

Early on I "hacked" my damper by marking the corresponding drag factors to where they are located along damper levels. This makes working at varying drags much more convenient, especially if multiple people use the same machine.

Early on I "hacked" my damper by marking the corresponding drag factors to where they are located along damper levels. This makes working at varying drags much more convenient, especially if multiple people use the same machine.

A damper cranked all the way to 10 doesn’t make you any more faster/efficient than you’d be at a lower setting. In fact, I bet if you spent more time at a drag factor of 70, 80, or 90 (let’s say about 3, 5, or 7 on the dial) you’d realize that 10 isn’t necessarily best. A lower drag factor will likely make you more capable of sustaining higher rates for longer periods of time.

That being said, there is a place for higher drag factor settings within a well structured program. In our 2000m TT program, for example, we utilize higher drags during sprint intervals to develop stroke power!

In the end, what drag factor you settle on is based on individual preference. Find what works for you, but don’t be afraid to play with different settings (higher and lower) to get a good feel for where you are MOST efficient.


About the author.

Justin Farina is a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, and a multiple current/former SkiErg World Record Holder, and two-time Concept2 Tour De SkiErg champion. Working as a Coach/Trainer since 2006, the now 37-year old has accumulated countless hours of experience working with hundreds of athletes in parks, in gyms, on tracks, online, and in his garage.

 

How to Keep Moving Forward

The following is from a discussion on the GARAGEATHLETE Online Members forum:


Let’s all get something straight...

No one can set personal bests forever. At some point, you’re going to have PBs at all or most ranking distances, on all of your ergs, and improvement on one distance on one machine will likely force you to focus on that distance on that machine, at the potential cost at capacity on another machine or at other distances.

We can’t really get around this.

This is why people track both lifetime bests and season bests.

However, what we CAN do is get to a point where we’ve done all of the distances...set some good personal markers, and then work to maintain capacity/competence across all distances on all machines while simultaneously working towards marginal improvement on one distance or one machine.

At least that’s my goal!

There’s always going to be some energy system carryover, so it’s possible to do a little of everything and still see improvement. But it requires a little more patience and smart training/recovery practices.

The big distance that drive our improvement is the 2k (4k on bike) as this is what we pace off of. Incremental gains on our 2k/4k allows us to pace faster relative to previous efforts, which helps bring the whole system up.

We only have one true 2k progression through the year, but we test several times during the 52-week program (mostly to provide competitive opportunities for newer members to apply the gains from various cycles on a new 2k attempt). Large improvements on the 2k are very hard, even after following a specific progression (unless you are REALLY new). So, how can we approach a 2k test at various time throughout the year with the hope of setting ourselves up for even a slight PB?

The simplest method I think most people could use to continually and gradually set new PBs (especially in the early years of your erg life) is to row/ski/bike with the goal to flat pace AT or slightly above current PB pace and then hammer the finish to come in faster than PB. It may only get you from a 1:47.5 pace to a 1:46.8....but that’s still a whole split change for pace targets during training moving forward. And that’s enough to drive adaptation further down the road.

Here’s a pacing example, assuming a 1:50 2k PB pace...

1:51/1:51/1:50/1:47 = ~1:49.7 avg!

That’s a small PB and a full split change for training paces.

Another thing to think about is taking on a time trial whenever you feel like it. Don’t wait for the program to tell you to do it. If you have it in your head to row a 5k, then row the 5k! 

Last thing:

One thing to AVOID is pacing off of a GOAL 2k/4k in hopes of fast tracking progress

2kpb.jpg

“Earn your pace.”

You would never program a squat cycle off of a goal back squat. You’d get buried. Heck, anyone that has tried “5-3-1” knows you don’t even use your PB back squat...you use 90% of it and program percentages from that.

The key? Just be patient. Focus on the progressions that get you excited, choose the sessions that make you happy, play on the machines that mean the most to you, and do the strength work that helps support your training goals. 

Chase the PBs but don’t define yourself by them. We are all fortunate to have a lifestyle that allows us to enjoy free time and fill it with physical activity, so don’t get too stressed out about numbers on a screen, the speed of improvement, or lack there of. 


About the author.

Justin Farina is a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, and currently a 7x SkiErg World Record Holder in the 4:00, 30:00, 60:00, 2k, 5k, 6k, and 10k. Working as a Coach/Trainer since 2006, Justin has accumulated countless hours of experience working with hundreds of athletes online, in parks, in gyms, on tracks, and in his garage.

Approach.

By Justin Farina

Originally published in two parts on July 29th, 2015 and August 12th, 2015

What do you think is the BEST way to approach the following workout?

Tabata Intervals ( 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest repeated 8 times) is applied in turn to the Squat, Rower, Pullups, Sit-ups, and Push-ups with a one minute rotation break between exercises. Each exercise is scored by the weakest number of reps (calories on the rower) in each of the eight intervals. During the one minute rotation time allowed the clock is not stopped but kept running. The score is the total of the scores from the five stations.

 

Scoring Example:


A total score of 53 (Execllent score, BTW) is determined by adding up the lowest number of reps in any set of each exercise. 
18 squats
4 pull-up
6 push-up
13 sit-up
12 row (use the calorie counter and call each calorie a rep) 
This score is a 53.

Most athletes will approach this in one of two ways:

1. Try and hit the same number consistently, never pushing a round to failure. They may even break reps into “clusters” of smaller rep counts to accumulate more volume while taking very short “rests” in between efforts. For example, instead of performing 9 pushups in a row, the athlete would break the reps up into sets of 4-3-2. They still get a score of 9 for that round, but the short rests may allow them to have consistent output over more rounds. It’s a conservative approach, but it may give you a better score in the end because you never quite develop localized muscular fatigue, or your energy systems don’t get overly taxed.

2. Go out hard and try and hang on. The only way to get a really big score is to push your pace and try and match it over the remaining intervals for each exercise. It’s a risky gamble with a huge reward. The downside is it will hurt. A lot. And you may end up scoring lower than you would want or expect to simply because you can’t complete anymore reps in the later rounds.

To answer the question of “what is the better approach”, the answer is, of course, BOTH.

But I would argue that until you try the second approach, the first approach will never bring out your absolute best.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Khalil Gibron

Coach Glassman once said that “we fail at the margins of our experiences.” When taken into the context of “approach”, I will always encourage my athletes to push their pace and get our of their comfort zones. Most people don’t know what they are capable of because they are simply unwilling to explore the true depths of their capacity. It shouldn’t take a life-or-death situation to bring out the physical best in people. In fact, without challenging, physical experiences in a controlled setting like a workout, you MAY not BE your best in those life-or-death scenarios.

Let’s look at the first approach in the example above. “Pacing” is a proven way to conserve energy for continuous output. The old saying, “slow and steady wins the race” comes to mind. Is it likely that the individual will put up a good score? Certainly. Will it be their BEST possible score? I am inclined to say no, unless the athlete KNOWS their limits and decides to pace so they do not reach failure, but that individual knowledge comes from the experience of flirting with disaster (or actually reaching failure).

In the second approach, pacing is thrown out the window. It’s basically sprint and survive. Steve Prefontaine famously stated that “the best pace is a suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die.” Now I do not, in any way, condone his choice of wording, but I can understand the point he is trying to make. To perform at your absolute best, you need to be willing to sacrifice yourself.…within reason of course, as we are talking about the gym, not the Olympics.

How will you ever know what you are capable of in a workout if you don’t go for broke? You will likely surprise yourself. And seriously, if you happen to fail in round 6, so what. It’s how you learn your limits. You need to train with an approach that allows you to experience the places beyond your perceived boundaries. Only from that experience can you truly know your limits, and be able to “pace” appropriately.

“Performance is directly correlated with intensity. Intensity is directly correlated with discomfort” – Coach Glassman

When you allow yourself to let go of comfort, and let go of expectation, you  start to reveal your true potential. That is when real progress begins. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. Extend the margins of your experiences.

The vast majority of beginners are limited in their ability to “push the pace”. It is a combination of a lack of movement understanding, motor control, experience, and psychological tolerance. It is important for these athletes to become well-versed in their training vocabulary and build some capacity before really testing themselves. Their use of pacing won’t necessarily be a pre-planned strategy or a mid-workout tactic. Pacing for the beginner is the result of the individual’s focus on technique and working hard to maintain recently learned positions under slight fatigue. It’s also the result of limited cardiovascular/respiratory capacity and stamina, where early “rests” and broken sets are the only option…and the safest.

As a coach, it is important to have a discussion with new athletes so they understand why focusing on movement is more important at this point than moving fast. We don’t need new athletes to PUSH hard and forgo basic technique because for them, moving well and breathing harder will be stimulus enough to see quick improvement. Most of their efficiency will come from nervous system adaptation as movement patterns are developed. We can simultaneously build energy systems up with Assault Bike intervals, rowing and running practice, and jumping rope.

For the experienced fitness athlete, however, some more specific approaches need to be considered to see continued  improvement in fitness.

Experience

The majority of experienced exercisers have enough data/results (whether it be from strength training or benchmark workouts) that they can plan their approach for any given workout that comes up. Here’s an example of a classic one:

Complete as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of:

5 pull-ups

10 push-ups

15 air squats

When an individual has completed this particular workout on several occasions, they have an immediate “goal” to try and set a personal best. If they completed 15 rounds 3 months ago, they may aim to complete 16 or more next time.

Performance data drives an athlete’s approach. Without that knowledge, training has little purpose and improvement becomes difficult to see.

Planning Your Strategy

To take things even further, if an athlete has a deeper understanding of how their body will react to the specific movement requirements and time domain, then they can decide on a particular strategy or approach to maximize their output. Personally, for this particular workout, I know my push-ups will begin to fail earlier than I would like, so I need to consider breaking up the sets before I hit failure.

Before starting, I would try and map out how fast I would need to go to hit a certain number of rounds.  I would use my warm-up to determine how quickly a round could be unbroken, then try a full round with broken push-up sets (like 6 and 4, or 5 and 5). The warm-up is your best chance to implement, adjust, and decide on a pacing strategy. Once I have an idea about timing, I’ll take a break and get mentally prepared. To achieve a score of 20 rounds, I would need to complete one full round every minute. If I want to push for 22 rounds, my plan would be to finish 4 full rounds, completely unbroken, in the first two minutes, then slow to a 1 round/minute pace until I finished. More than likely, I would stay unbroken on the pull-ups, split the push-ups up with minimal rest, and be steady and unbroken on the squats. My push-ups would remain in unbroken sets of 10 until I started to notice the 8, 9, and reps getting more difficult. At that point, I’d likely split into 6-4 sets, or even 4-3-3. The key would be to maintain the pace based on the clock, as a round per minute is the goal. That may mean going faster on the squats to make up for push-up breaks, not stopping for chalk, or minimizing movement transition times.

Making Adjustments

Even the best strategies don’t go as planned. Even though you started out feeling good and maintaining your pace, sometimes you start to feel tired or certain movements fatigue quicker than expected. At this point, being able to assess your current situation and make adjustments as you go becomes critical to your success.

Maybe your hand rips during pull-ups. Or perhaps you are still tired from heavy squats two days ago and the high volume air squats are proving more difficult than expected. Regardless of the reason, you need to change your strategy mid-workout. A lot of athletes will break their sets into smaller clusters (for example, the 10 push-ups could become 4-3-3, or 5-3-2, or even 3-2-2-1-1-1). In some cases, well-timed singles can be quicker than hitting failure and needing a longer recovery time between reps. A good coach will see an athlete struggling and help them set a manageable pace. Sometimes an athlete needs a simple reminder to “breathe” to help them get out of panic mode and re-focus.

Understand the Limits of Your Skills

Experience does not necessarily equal competence. Even the most seasoned athletes need to continually refine their skills by focusing on the basics. Further, they need to regularly identify and develop their weaknesses, as there will be certain workouts and movement combinations that present a real challenge. Consider the following workout:

21-15-9 rep rounds for time of:

225# Deadlift

Handstand Push-up

The workout in question should be completed rather quickly. If the loading and standards are appropriate, your best athletes will rip through this workout taking little or no breaks in each movement. Rest comes during transitions only.

Let’s assume our hypothetical athlete can complete the deadlifts unbroken (or with minimal rest)., but finds high rep gymnastics work challenging. They can complete a full handstand push-up with good technique, but may not have the capacity to complete higher rep sets. What should be their approach? As a coach, what should you be considering? Is it okay to let an athlete take a chance and attempt the workout as prescribed? Sometimes, an athlete has to experience failure to inform their future training strategies. I am okay if an athlete chooses to try a workout like this, even if its a grind. They will learn from it. As long as they are capable movers, all that will get hurt is their ego.

An athlete’s weaknesses are often exposed and challenged, and those experiences should be what drives the athlete to improve. Failure should be considered a challenge to get better. If you are someone who struggles with pull-ups, then you need to be working on increasing your pull-ups or improving your technique. If you have difficulty on the rower, a well-structured row-specific program should be utilized in your training. Maybe you just need to get stronger. Keep attacking the heavy days! Regardless of your specific weaknesses, work at them.

The best strategy to improve your overall capacities is to identify your weak spots and work at them relentlessly.

Knowledge is Key

In Fitness, there are too many movements, workout combinations, time domains, loading percentages, and variations to simply try and remember your personal bests, let alone your individual strategies and results. If an athlete is truly interested in improving themselves, they need to keep a detailed training journal.

A athlete’s journal needs to go beyond workout descriptions and results, sets, and reps. It needs to also be an account of the entire day’s training, strategies, adjustments, and outcomes. Make sure you note your failure points, round times, feelings, ideas for next time, etc. I would go so far as to suggest writing down food intake and meal timing, hours of sleep, and training times. All of that qualitative data can really help an athlete take their performance to the next level. You may realize that on the days you struggle it is directly related to what time you went to sleep the night before. You may notice that you perform better when you eat a small carbohydrate-dense meal an hour before conditioning-focused training. You might even begin uncover things about your lifestyle that are negatively impacting your mood, motivation, and ultimately, your output in the gym.

There is so much you can learn about yourself when you pay close attention.


About the author.

Justin Farina is a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, and currently a 7x SkiErg World Record Holder in the 4:00, 30:00, 2k, 5k, 6k, 10k, and 1/2 Marathon. Working as a Coach/Trainer since 2006, the now 35-year old has accumulated countless hours of experience working with hundreds of athletes in parks, in gyms, on tracks, and in his garage.

The Concept of GEARS

by Justin Farina

Originally published February 16th, 2017

My indoor rowing journey began in the summer of 2015. One of the first lessons I learned was from Dr. Cameron Nichol, founder of RowingWOD. The lesson was a simple one. He said the goal of becoming a more efficient rower was to learn how to “control speed with rate”. Basically, we want to be able to control our split times by way of increasing or decreasing the number of strokes we take per minute. His rule of thumb was 2 s/m equaled 2 seconds of split time. For example:

2:00/500m @ 20 s/m

1:58/500m @ 22 s/m

1:56/500m @ 24 s/m

etc.

With time, I started to discover that at certain “rates” there was a natural range of speeds I could maintain depending on the distance or duration. At 20 s/m, for example, I could sit anywhere between 1:48 and 1:52 for most pieces. If I wanted to really push the power, I could drop that even further, but couldn’t sustain the speed very long.

When rate controls speed, speed is easily controlled. Here we see a 30-minute effort at 20 s/m. Every set the same speed at 1:48.3/500m

 

Let’s fast forward.

Since that summer, I have gone on to become a competitive member of the Fitness Matters Indoor Rowing Team. I participate monthly in the Concept2 Cross-Team Challenge, and just recently competed in the 2017 Row’d Royalty Indoor Rowing Competition, where I finished 3rd overall in the Men’s Tall Division.

I have also come to learn a lot more from Sam Blythe, owner and team captain of Fitness Matters. It was he who introduced me to the concept of “gears” in relation to stroke rate, power, and split time.

Much like the gears of a manual transmission engine, stroke rate can be used to increase or decrease your speed (split). If you have driven “stick”, you are very much aware that you can only go so fast in a specific gear, at which point you would need to shift up in order to go faster. If you stayed in that lower gear and continued to press the gas, you run the risk of redlining and blowing the engine.

We can think of “stroke rate” the same way. At rate 20, for example, we can only go so fast…there is certainly a cruising speed that is efficient, but we can also add power to our stroke and go faster. If we try and add too much power for too long, we run the risk of “redlining” and blowing up. Instead of overloading the “gear”, the faster and more efficient thing to do is increase your stroke rate. You would never drive down the highway in  a lower gear at higher rpm’s…the same is true on the erg. It’s more efficient to stay smooth and steady and within the ranges that your “gears” allow.

Let me give you an example:

I recently completed a 10k time trial as part of the Row’d Royalty competition. My target split for this particular race was 1:43-1:44 avg/500m. Based on the knowledge of  my own ”gears”, I knew I could hit this split at ~24-25 s/m, but not comfortablyfor this distance. Instead, I increased my target stroke rate to ~27 s/m, which would allow me to hold my target split for longer while using less power per stroke. If I felt capable of building speed later, I could either add power to the stroke and maintain the same rate, or increase my stroke rate.

Similar to “shifting up” in a car, when we increase our stroke rate we open ourselves up to faster splits without blowing our engines. For longer sessions (i.e. a 10k row) it is more efficient to use a higher stroke rate with lower stroke power for a faster overall result.

10k personal best….carrying a higher rate made working at these speeds more manageable. As the rate goes up, so does the speed. That’s the key.

 

The best way to “pace” using this method requires an athlete to use split times relative to their best 2k pace. The 2k on the erg is similar to the 1-mile for runners…it’s the number you base almost all of your pacing off of. The paces suggested in training sessions associated with the target rates will almost always fall well within the normal speeds of an athlete’s particular gears*. So long as the athlete has a good feel for moving at various rates, and can consistently maintain certain speeds at those rates, then the systematic nature of the training plan will have tremendous long term benefit and overall improvement will be inevitable.

Over time, as we improve our fitness, what we see is the range of splits start to shift…as an example, when we once could only maintain 1:50/500 at 20 s/m we can now maintain 1:48 without working any harder to achieve that speed. All of the gears improve because our engine power and efficiency has improved. That is the progress we are after.

 

This 5k race is a great example of using rate to control speed. With each increase in rate we see an increase in speed.

About the author.

Justin Farina is a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, and currently a 7x SkiErg World Record Holder in the 4:00, 30:00, 2k, 5k, 6k, 10k, and 1/2 Marathon. Working as a Coach/Trainer since 2006, the now 35-year old has accumulated countless hours of experience working with hundreds of athletes in parks, in gyms, on tracks, and in his garage.