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The Accelerated Adoption of Virtual Training

As coaches we are adapting to the reality of the covid-19 outbreak. We sent athletes around the world into garages and basements to get their meters in, minutes completed, and kilos lifted. Much is being written about the growth of virtually accessing everything, due to quarantine and social distancing. In many endurance sports, including rowing, this kind of training has already been trending up for several years. We’re suddenly, traumatically, being pushed into a virtual training (VT) environment whether we prefer it or not.

This two-part series will first discuss virtual training (VT) team strategies, and how to build a training plan without knowing what your timelines or macro/micro-cycles should look like. Part two will discuss how virtual training teams are the next growth opportunity for rowing clubs all over the United States, and why every club should have a VT team and even a dedicated VT coach.

Part One: How Virtual Training Can and Should Work

If you prescribed training today for your team, chances are pretty good they were completely on their own. They trained either at home, in a group gym alone (lucky them), or outside. What was different from when the squad trains together? The two biggest differences were of course not being on the water, and the obvious lack of social contact/coordination/motivation. Otherwise, they got the work in, mayhaps even enjoyed the workout one way or another, and are ready for the next training session.

The point is, VT is sustainable. Not being on the water inhibits technical development and we need and miss the social piece of it, but it can be done successfully if framed the right way. If the athletes either explicitly or intuitively understand how you frame the training, your VT plan will be accepted and maximized, despite the missing water time and team environment.

You need to first consider what your athletes have available at home to use, and perhaps what to recommend. The following is what I recommend to my athletes, but of course you can always get lower-tech. They definitely shouldn’t need more than this:

  • A place to run

  • A fitness machine: Stationary Bike Erg, elliptical, treadmill

  • Kettlebell

  • Some kind of step-up (chair/milk crate/wooden box, etc.)

  • Smart Phone

  • Fitness Watch

Running is great, but athletes can’t always run, and some people can’t run at all. This is where a good “machine” is helpful. An erg and/or bike is perfect for the low-impact sustained cardio exercise rowing athletes need. The erg is better than the bike because it is whole body. A treadmill with an incline adjuster can take the place of running, but again they can’t always run. An elliptical can also work, but is more awkward for sustained high-intensity intervals (it takes longer to get it going and is less responsive to explosive motion).

I’ve concluded that the kettlebell is the greatest piece of exercise equipment ever devised. I highly recommend at least one for all athletes. It is cheap, simple, and effective. An athlete can get as efficient a workout with 15’ of kettlebell exercises as you can with 15’ on an erg, at about 2% of the cost. Same systems, same muscles, same energy expenditure, same everything.

The step up box is also critical as a way to either work on explosive power (jumping) or isolate each leg. And it's as common a tool as a set of stairs or a chair.

Fitness watches and a smart phone are an amazing combination for VT. The watch tracks the data of the workout including time, distance, HR, reps, steps etc. The phone stores and uploads it for review and possible social comparison/sharing. For those of us who have been training for decades, counting telephone poles and strokes, the fitness watch/smart phone combo represents a culmination in training data tracking and recording. In addition there are hundreds of fitness and strength training apps available. Some of them are getting to be very good, with a broad range of training programs, workouts and exercises.

The budget-minded can get by with less than this. The “machine” and the watch are pricey accessories that can be side-lined. A creative athlete can still get by with the phone, the kettlebell, a step-up, and a place to run.

The “ZOOM” session has been trending lately, and using this service may require coaches to adapt a narrower perspective on what the athlete is doing, but this option shows some promise over the long term. The athletes seem to enjoy the social piece that would otherwise be missing in a VT environment.

So What Now? Training, Interrupted: Recover, Renew, Reset.

The challenge we face is unprecedented in modern athletic history. It’s not just rowing, but all sports that are asking this question: “The training year has been completely interrupted, What do we do now?”

Never have we dealt with this degree of “training, Interrupted.” It is our job as coaches to assess how to recover, reset or renew the training going forward. Regardless of where you are in your training cycle (most of us are in a competitive or pre-competitive phase). You may consider one of three strategies going forward:

  1. Recover Strategy - Consider this the end of the 2020 competitive season/year, give the athletes a month off for recovery/recuperation, and start an extended 13-14 month training year for 2021. The risk with this is you may see a high level of “retirement.”

  2. Reset Strategy - Train as if it is still the racing season, a reset of original goals, and try to sustain that effort over the next 4-5 months in the hope that some kind of 2020 racing season will manifest itself by June. Very hard to do with a lot of uncertainty in the mix.

  3. Renew Strategy - Isolate the next 2-3 months as “extra.” Sort of a general prep/development phase but without the intent of moving onwards to a specific development phase. Focus on basic skills, training education, and include a deep variety of workouts for all energy systems (Endurance, SS, AnTT, power and strength endurance, etc). You could even consider condensing the entire year-long training program into a 3 month example for athlete training edification.

For the athletes that I work with, I’m leaning towards the latter strategy (I work with junior boys). This will give me the latitude to start the 2021 training year properly in mid-June, and continue to move forward towards the 2021 racing season as scheduled (assuming all this madness has ended by then).

There is a lot to unpack here. Hopefully this inspires you to consider VT not just as a contingency, but a long term viable option as a part of the regular training plan. No one will disagree that being on the water, with your cadre of training buddies, is vastly preferable to being alone in the basement on the erg. Life gets in the way however, and we can mitigate the disruptions that occur by implementing normalized strategies for VT. I will even go so far as to say that a permanent VT option represents the next step in training strategies for rowing organizations all over the country!

Next week in part 2., I will provide a perspective on how VT is the next best option for club growth, and strategies for how rowing organizations can leverage this to their competitive advantage.

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