What would happen if I rowed 5k a Day for 30 Consecutive Days?
So, why did I choose this as my latest Exercise Experiment? To start, I’m not a great rower. I like blaming my height (5’7”), but the truth is there are people shorter than me who row dramatically quicker. It’s a bit confusing though because if we are simply going off body size, I should also be sub-par at the Assault Bike too when compared to larger competitors. But I can produce more power on the bike (in both sprints and sustainable efforts) than anyone I train with regularly, even the big dawgs. And in body weight-bearing cyclical…well that’s my jam: double unders, running, etc.
And there’s something else you should know about me. I have a massive training volume in running, biking and double unders. I’m talking total volume, in terms of mileage or reps. I competed in triathlon for two years in college, and built as far as a Half Ironman: 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and a 13.1 mile run. I also did 15,000 Double Unders in 30 Days.
I’ve rowed a lot over the past five years, but it was usually at threshold or an element in workouts. I never have the mindstate that, “I’m getting on the rower to complete my session for the day.” In fact, the furthest I’ve ever rowed in a session is 10k (40 minutes). Compare that to six hours on a bike. Questions popped up…
“Is my biking prowess because I have spent so much time developing my base?”
So, I became curious about what would happen if I focused on increasing my rowing volume rather than trying to go faster in Met-Cons.
The stage was set. I decided to commit. 5k a Day. Here we go.
Initial Testing & Hypothesis (Day 1)
Completed on Day 1 of Rowing 5k a Day.
5k Time Trial = 19:01 (1:54/500m Pace)
1) I will experience a marginal improvement in my 5k Time Trial.
- I just don’t see 30 days being enough time to yield significant improvements.
- Since volume and frequency are high (and both are time consuming), I don’t see the training lending as well to a higher intensity time trial setting.
- I do believe I will experience a statistically significant improvement in my ability to clear fatigue in workouts when rowing at my “all day” pace (i.e. 15-20s / 500m above my 5k Time Trial pace). Mainly because this is the intensity where most of my training volume will be completed.
2) I will experience improvements in skill: timing/coordination, posture, etc.
3) I do not expect to be sore or particularly tired from the added volume.
Final Testing & Results (Day 30)
30 Days of Rowing 5k a Day are completed.
5k Time Trial = 18:29 (1:51/500m Pace)
Change: -32s | Approximately 3% (-3s/500m)
1) I experienced a statistically significant improvement in my Time Trial time.
- I was wrong. Despite my training age and experience rowing, 30 days was enough time to illicit real change in my 5k Time Trial.
- Like I expected, I infrequently rowed with any real intensity that I normally do. Looking at my rowing log, you will notice the vast majority of efforts were above my 5k Time Trial pace.
- Perceived efforts 15-20s / 500m above my 5k Time Trial pace didn’t lower. However, I would say I was much more confident I could hold those paces a very long time without mechanical or metabolic breakdown.
2) I experienced improvements in skill: timing/coordination, posture, etc. Valid, I have no way of measuring this. But, subjective measures and soft skills are underrated; how an feels (perception) about their effort on a workout is often as important in predicting their readiness to train the following day as the intensity of the actual work.
3) As expected, I was never sore from rowing, due to the low eccentric environment. I only experienced a noticeable increase in fatigue and recovery demand after each Time Trial (Day 1 and Day 30), which was certainly expected.
What I Learned: Takeaways
(1) More Fit or Testing Better?
I have done A LOT of testing over the years. I’ve developed a deep sense of -let’s call it- respect for energy systems tests, especially Time Trials. But here’s the thing with time trials and fitness testing, most of the time people are way more committed to their best performance on the ReTest.
If you just spent the last 30, 60 or 90 days working your tail off in a specific domain, it’s not that much harder to push past the pain in the last 2:00 of that Time Trial is it? It’s much easier to be “all in” in a given moment, when you’ve invested months or years putting yourself in that position.
This is why for a very long time, ReTests would give me anxiety; there is a lot riding on the ReTest.
My point is, don’t always trust someone’s results just because it is labeled a test. Anyone can learn to suffer a bit better. Anyone can learn from their mistakes in the initial testing and not make the same mistakes.
For me, I committed to give my all in the initial test. I can confidently say I suffered during the latter parts of both tests. After all, anyone can learn to “game” the test a bit more.
But, then again, learning to find (and improve) the tiny intricacies of testing, movement and Sport are improvements in fitness. If you paced a little better, allowing you to get a better time or score, you are more fit. If you found a way to “game” a bit -improving efficiency- and you end come out ahead of the competition, you are better.
Yet, my point remains. What do you do when you run out of ways to game?
(2) Volume vs. Intensity | An Argument for Low Hanging Fruit
One takeaway that is obvious to me (but probably not for you) is how I went after my low hanging fruit for “easy” adaptation. Here’s the basic idea: People are creatures of habit. We do the same things in the same ways. Largely this is for efficiency (resource conservation) and security (we don’t like being exposed). Yet, comfort is a lie.
Comfort and growth don’t mix. If you want to experience growth (adaptation) then you must do what you have not done before. While this may push your boundaries mentally, emotionally and physically the reality is you will adapt quicker to a novel stimulus.
For me, I have not rowed at high frequency or at a high training volume. I rarely rowed as a single modality. Therefore, I will experience the most benefit the quickest with this type of training.
For a different athlete, his or her low hanging fruit may be different. Perhaps, this athlete prioritizes single modality endurance work that is lower on the intensity spectrum. They will see the biggest benefit from mixed modal work in higher intensity environments.
Take a step back and look at your training “lens.” Don’t allow your physical practice to be bound by an outsider’s descriptors of your training methodology: Intense, Intentional, Restorative, Potent, Enduring, Powerful or otherwise. As soon as you’ve defined your training in such a way, you’ve created a hole in your performance.
(3) Local Tissue Limiters
During both Time Trials, initial and final, I experienced systemic and local fatigue. Systemic would be described as labored breathing, lungs burning and the overall pulling power beginning to diminish. Local would be described as the performance of specific muscles beginning to shut down. This is the rudimentary idea between limiters in external respiration (uptake & delivery) and internal respiration (‘drop-off’ & use). For a more accurate and detailed look at this, I recommend reading my book: Breath Work for the Sport of Fitness
Moral of the story is different athletes will have different limiters, but personally I would cite some of my improvements in performance to be due to a reduction in local fatigue. The pace / power at which my biceps and lats began to fill with blood (venous occlusion) was higher than during the initial test.
I would attribute this enhanced local blood perfusion to be two-fold.
1) Intermuscular Coordination: In my specific case, not having tension in the arms before I begin my pull.
2) Muscle Oxygen Metabolism: More oxygen use means a longer time to fatigue due to less waste / C02 / Hydrogen accumulation.
This anecdotal evidence is reinforced by the fact that most athletes (myself included) complete more aerobic training (and lifestyle activity) with their lower body than their upper body.
Local fatigue (venous occlusion) helps contribute to muscle growth (hypertrophy), which explains why all the bros out there have big arms and small legs (and) why when you reach failure in gymnastics movements, you’re pretty much SOL.
(4) Endurance Work & Nervous System Strain
150k in a single month is a lot of extra volume. Done in the “wrong” way, that can cause an absurd amount of fatigue. The damper this would be on the nervous system would be significant. Traditionally, most people think about lifting heavy as generating a lot of CNS (Central Nervous System) fatigue.
The idea is simple. Certain types of efforts blunt your ability to “dig deep” in future workouts in the coming minutes, hours, days or months. Now, let me question your beliefs about CNS fatigue.
Imagine I gave two athletes the following protocols for 30 Days…
Athlete #1: Find your 1 Rep Max Snatch every day
Athlete #2: Complete 10:00 for Max Calories on the AirBike every day
It makes me grimace at the thought. Now tell me ask… Which type of training creates more Nervous System strain? Sure, Athlete #1 is going to experience degrading joint quality and mechanical pain, but that would probably be mild compared to Athlete #2’s symptoms: decreased performance day-over-day, lethargy, lack of hunger, GI distress, no libido, sleep disturbances, irritability, etc.
The bottom line is endurance efforts can be incredibly draining and place a significant toll on your nervous system. The longer you are above your lactic threshold, the more dramatic and lingering the effect.
(5) Why BAF is Boss
That’s Basic Aerobic Function. It’s the way I describe easy aerobic work in my programming for my athletes. It’s the number one way I keep an athlete’s nervous system fresh while getting them stronger. I covered how to best maintain conditioning while getting stronger in one of my “Ask Ben” Episodes. I recommend watching it to get a better understanding of BAF.
The punchline is: you don’t have to present your body with another stressor to cope with on top of your normal training in order to receive aerobic benefits. BAF sessions cover fundamental shapes and patterns in an aerobic environment without creating a recovery demand. In fact, the goal is to improve Nervous System tone.
It’s what I did for much of my month completing 5k a Day, and I contribute it to why I was able to train 100% normally while adding 150k meters into my month.
(6) A Model for Developing Cyclical Supremacy
When it was time to ReTest, I did not believe that I had gotten as fit as I had. I believed that 30 days was not enough time to make a significant improvement, without applying more stressful efforts to my schedule than I had. I expected to experience metabolic pain earlier in the time trial. But, it doesn’t matter what I thought.
It never matters what you think. You can’t suffer your way to endurance performance. You can’t will your way to Cyclical Supremacy. You have to earn it. You have to know deep down (through experience) that you have the tools, the capacity. Now, (smart) suffering will always be a piece of developing an engine, but there is a big difference between suffering and adapting.
If you want to build an engine, you have to pay the price. There is no way to reason your way to being confident enough to attack an ‘engine’ workout.
If you want to reach your potential in the Sport of Fitness, you must have elite fitness. In other words… conditioning.
That’s why this program focuses on the “3 Kings” of Cyclical Movement: Rowing, AirBike & Running.
Cyclical Supremacy is all about building your engine so you can express higher levels of performance in all types of workouts.
Are you ready to build a massive engine and reign as Cyclical Supremacy?
Got a request for my next exercise experiment?
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Related Read: What I Learned From 30 Days of Intermittent Fasting