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Developing an aerobic base for rowing

By Volker Nolte

Developing an aerobic base is vital for high performance in modern rowing. It was once believed that the 2000-meter race involved 70 percent aerobic activity and 30 percent anaerobic activity. Today we know it to be 80 percent or more aerobic and 20 percent or less anaerobic. Most programs reflect these percentages over the year’s training, which means that building the aerobic base has become increasingly important.

During the 1970s we concentrated on Fartlek training, which included 500- and 1000-meter pieces and very little steady-state work. I remember a training session in Australia where the famous New Zealand coach Rusty Robinson had the crew doing 10 3 1000 meters with one minute of rest between each set. None of the athletes were pulling more than 70 percent by the end of the session, so the training was probably more in the midrange speed rather than what he set out to achieve. In the 1980s we did less high-speed work as 20- to 30-minute pieces became more popular.

The East Germans (GDR) were a rowing powerhouse during the 1970s and 1980s, and we all wanted to know the secret of their success. At the 1978 world championships we couldn’t figure out what the GDR men’s quad was doing. During practice it seemed that they paddled down the lake at Karipiro, went around the corner out of sight of the boathouse, then sat around for an hour before coming back again. It seems the reason for this unorthodox training was that they had done enough steady-state training by that point. It wasn’t until the collapse of the GDR in 1989 that we learned that the East Germans were doing an enormous volume of steady-state training at a stroke rate of 18 strokes per minute. For most of us this was the beginning of the realization that there was another way to train--by performing a large amount of steady-state training to build the aerobic base--and today it is common practice.

Most aerobic training is divided into two intensity levels. The bulk of the training occurs at the lower intensity. Training at the higher intensity is called utilization training 1 (UT1), and training at the lower intensity is called utilization training 2 (UT2). There is still a debate over the ideal lactate levels for aerobic training because physiologists have conducted very little on-water testing to determine the best levels. Some suggest that UT2 lactate levels range from 1.0 to 2.0 millimoles of lactate per liter of blood and UT1 lactate levels range between 2.0 and 4.0 (Jensen, Nilsen, and Smith 1990). For the past eight years I have used an Eppendorf lactate analyzer to assess training levels, and I have found that that the transition between the two intensities occurs at about 1.5 millimoles per liter. I have used 1.5 as the upper limit for UT2 training for some time now. However, because everyone is different, 1.5 may be too high for some rowers and too low for others. If you have the time and resources, it is best to assess each athlete individually.

Because our athletes do so much aerobic training, we carefully specify how hard we want them to train. Fortunately, rowing takes place on a level surface, making it easier to maintain the same heart rate for a long period of time. Most outdoor aerobic sports, such as cycling, cross-country skiing, and running, take place on courses that often have hills and other variations, making it difficult to maintain a specific heart rate. Although in rowing we have headwinds and tailwinds to contend with and we have to turn the boat around, we can control training intensity by prescribing a heart rate and maintaining it with little variation for a long period of time. This is a significant advantage.

Before training, most athletes have a lactate concentration of about 1.6 millimoles per liter. Once they start aerobic work, the concentration decreases to below 1.0, and as they reach steady-state work it levels off to above 1.0. I ask the athletes to work at an intensity that requires a concentration of 1.0 to 1.5 millimoles per liter for UT2 training (1.5 to 2.0 for UT1). These ranges are the result of experience more than scientific experimentation. The athletes can recognize the transition between the two intensities, so I have tested the ranges by asking athletes to train at what they consider to be their ideal training heart rate, taking several lactate samples over the course of a typical 90-minute aerobic session. I have found that almost all the athletes work at an intensity of 0.8 to 1.6 millimoles per liter of lactate.

This is an excerpt from Rowing Faster.

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