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


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.