We are the Masters now

The official T-shirt for the Aerobic Monsters Singles regatta in Portugal in December 2021 featured a mildly revolutionary-sounding slogan (“Row fast – die last”), above a list of the 128 competitors. It was an enjoyable and well organised occasion, and I had the good fortune to pick up a silver. But what was I doing in Portugal in December? Why so much travelling back and forth in the middle of a pandemic?

Trying out a new, improved Nelo at the Aerobic Monsters Singles regatta on 4th Dec 2021

This was the sixth and last in a series of Masters events I had entered in 2021. It all started at the end of 2020 when the French brought in their travel restrictions and it became clear that my original plan for training camps at Bergerac in 2021 would have to be abandoned. What I decided to do instead will be the subject of my next post. Meanwhile, though, a digression about Masters racing generally.

Row fast, die last

Head Master and pioneer coach: Edmond Warre by George Richmond

This Monsters slogan sounds challenging, but who is being challenged here? And by whom? Is this a message from the older generation to the young? A glimpse of a revolution brewing? Or is it just an oblique health warning from some anxious Medical Officer?

Anyway, a revolution of some kind is, I believe, building up in the Masters world. News of disruptive innovation and historic record-breaking is no longer the prerogative of the younger competitors. In fact, if you discount the role of improvements to equipment in achieving faster times, you find that performance gains over the past 100 years at university and national-squad levels have been comparatively modest.

The basic essentials of rigging geometry and crew training were worked out in detail by the Victorians, and when Edmond Warre summed it all up in his 1909 masterpiece The Grammar of Rowing, he got most of it right: in fact there are many coaches today who still refer to his text and diagrams.

Meanwhile the maximum power output from a fit, healthy well-motivated and “clean” 20-year-old body has not changed much since 1922. So although higher speeds can still be achieved, they must be based on small incremental improvements in technique and hardware design.

A gathering force

The 128 competitors in the Aerobic Monsters on their official T-Shirt

The situation is quite different with the older generations of rowers. The Masters are not just growing in numbers: they are also becoming a lot more professional in their approach. Some of the newcomers are migrants from other sports such as cycling and triathlon; others are former national-squad-level rowers who have discovered that Masters events can be just as exciting as the Olympic variety. More enjoyable, too, partly because there is less pressure to win.

Hot on the heels of these established athletes is a generation of mature beginners who have, typically, joined a club, bought a boat and are setting out to learn all about rowing without having learned it in their youth. Some of these novices turn out to be natural athletes who can be ready to compete after only a few month’s training; others may take a year or two, but can still become effective and competent scullers.

The bottom line is that Masters competitors are increasingly recognised as a serious force in the rowing world, with spectators in large numbers showing up at their events. And surprising things happen at these gatherings. It is not unusual for confident, super-strong ergo-thrashing university rowers with national squad ambitions to go onto the water and find themselves outpaced by scullers twice their age: defeated not by power but by superior technique and nautical skills.

The standards at all levels are now higher than ever. University rowers now take their training far more seriously and professionally than when I was at Durham in the 80s, with masters in Europe and the USA doing likewise. But the gaps between young and old are narrowing. Today it would take a brave university-level singles sculler to bet that he could easily beat Greg Benning, who is now 60, over the Head of the Charles course. If you’re thinking of making that bet, and have an hour to spare, listen first to this podcast, in which Greg describes his preparations for the 2021 HOCR.

Just keep going

Greg Benning, now 60, is course record holder in two age categories and multiple winner at HOCR

Well planned training and preparation for Masters racing will always pay less attention to absolute strength and power than with younger rowers. Instead, it emphasises recovery, injury-avoidance, flexibility, adaptive behaviour and balance: the aim being to ensure that, come what may, you can stay fit and keep going. There is less emphasis on winning, too, because you will be setting multiple goals. One will be to complete the course with a respectable (or improved) time; another is to do well enough to qualify for the following year’s event; another goal might be to compete with a particular friend or rival; another to win in your age-group; and if you’re really keen you may have a chance to win in a younger age-category too; finally, there could be a world-record to be broken: this is quite often a realistic possibility today, because there are so few historical records for older competitors. I know several people who will, all being well, still be pursuing such aims into their eighties and beyond.

What Masters racing does so well is to get away from the winner-takes-all ethos of the national-squad rowing world. It removes all barriers to entry aside from a basic level of competence. And what Masters training aims for is to maintain this accessibility over the years by managing and minimising the body’s gradual loss of power, translating it into efficient, competitive performance. A win is good to get, but for many people it is less important than the feeling that you have made efficient use of limited resources and had a good race. This hierarchy of aims is subtler and more complex than that of conventional power-oriented training – and for me, that is what makes it so interesting.

What happened at the six Masters events I took part in during 2021 is the subject of my next post – Racing through 2021.

Postscript: Long Covid and Rowers

The risks involved in over-exertion while rowing are more relevant than ever now that the effects of “Long Covid”, especially HR (Heart Rate) volatility, are becoming apparent. I have some direct experience of this, having suffered an unaccustomed and protracted period of exhaustion, accompanied by high HR readings, after testing posititve for the Omicron variant justs after the New Year.

The effects of Covid on HR have been quite worrying in my case, but I know several other rowers who have been having a much harder time of it. One friend, a scientist based in Germany, and one of the strongest and fittest rowers I know, has been out of action since November 2021, and it is becoming clear that it will take a long time and a lot of work to get back to anything like his former condition. We have had some long discussions about how to tackle this problem, and are hoping to get together in Bergerac soon to look at our data and try to find the right way forward.

We’re in unknown territory here, and some wider research needs to be done on what exactly is happening. What is a sculler’s best strategy for fitness recovery while affected by post-Covid symptoms? As my computer has taken to saying in response to a query: “Working on it …” If you’ve had any experience in this area, do please share this via comments below) or Contact.

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