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Pacing Patterns in Competitive Rowing Adopted in Different Race Categories

Muehlbauer, Thomas; Melges, Thomas

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2011 - Volume 25 - Issue 5 - p 1293-1298
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d6882b
Original Research
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Muehlbauer, T and Melges, T. Pacing patterns in competitive rowing adopted in different race categories. J Strength Cond Res 25(5): 1293-1298, 2011-Data from 7 World Rowing Championships between 2001 and 2009 were analyzed to determine the time distribution during 2,000-m heavyweight races (from 500-m quarter times) and to assess whether pacing patterns differ between boat classes (single vs. team boats) and qualifying rounds (heats vs. finals). Analyses of variance with repeated measures on quarter times revealed that pacing patterns in heat races were better described (i.e., higher amount of variance explained) by a linear trend line with a positive slope (women: η2 = 0.76, men: η2 = 0.68) but followed a quadratic trend line (parabolic-shaped pattern) during finals (women: η2 = 0.81, men: η2 = 0.60). Not using a spurt at the end of the heat races may indicate an attempt to conserve energy for subsequent rounds or reflect reduced effort made by losing crews or both aspects. In single boats, the pacing pattern was better represented by a linear trend line with a positive slope (women: η2 = 0.76, men: η2 = 0.68), but the amount of variance explained was virtually the same for both the linear and the quadratic trend component in team boats. The absence of a final spurt in single boat races suggests that the physiological status of the athlete plays an important role to control the timing and rate of decline in rowing speed.

Institute of Exercise and Health Sciences, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland

Address correspondence to Thomas Muehlbauer, thomas.muehlbauer@unibas.ch.

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Introduction

Pacing refers to the distribution of speed, work, or energy throughout an exercise task (1,12,26) and is thought to play an important role in the execution of an optimal rowing race performance (7). The pacing pattern in 2,000-m competitive rowing races is generally described as a parabolic-shaped profile, whereby the speed in the first 500 m is the fastest, it slows during the middle 1,000 m-section and increases during the final 500 m of the race (2,15,21). An explanation for this kind of pacing strategy comes from Secher et al. (20), who were able to show that the oxygen debt during an exercise with an initial spurt was similar to that during an attempt to keep the power constant, whereas work output and oxygen uptake were higher in the first case (3). From a physiological point of view, this indicates that the extra work of an initial exercise spurt could be achieved without any change in oxygen debt and thus presumably without a detrimental effect because of fatigue. The second sprint at the end of the 2,000-m race is explained by the attempt of the rowing crew to come into the front position to increase chances of winning the race (14).

Although various studies aimed to describe the pacing pattern adopted in competitive rowing, only few studies investigated the effect of different race categories. Secher et al. (20) observed the distribution of rowing time during the 1974 World Championship regatta. They found no significant differences in the distribution of time, irrespective of crews' rank (first to sixth). In another study by Garland (13), pacing strategy adopted during World Championships in 2001 and 2002 and at the 2000 Olympic Games was analyzed for the effect of crews' rank and gender. Also, no significant differences were seen when winners were compared to losers or men to women. In a recent study by Muehlbauer et al. (18), which was limited to data from the Summer 2008 Olympic Games, pacing patterns performed in the heats were compared with that in the final races. Significant differences in the adopted pacing patterns were found, that is, rowing crews were relatively slower in the early but relatively faster in the later parts of the race during finals compared to heats.

To the best of our knowledge, no study has addressed potential differences in pacing patterns according to the boat class (single vs. team boats) and the type of race (heats vs. finals). Both categories seem to be important. Pacing strategy used in single boats may be different from that in team boats because overall time is determined by not only physiological parameters but also by the coordination between the several rowers. Furthermore, races in rowing competitions consist of several qualifying rounds, where boats are eliminated and the heat winners (1-3 boats) are advanced to the next round, leaving the best crews to compete in the final race. With this race format, strategic aspects are thought to play an important role for success (e.g., to save the best performance for the final race). The purpose of the present study was to determine whether the pacing pattern adopted by female and male rowers and rowing crews differed between boat classes and qualifying rounds. Because of the interplay of coordinative and physiological aspects in team boats compared to single boats, we expect to detect differences in the performed pacing patterns. Regarding the qualifying round, we further assume that pacing patterns adopted during heats differ from those performed during finals because crews may tend to save some energy during early rounds to ensure their ability to make a big effort during the final races.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

To test our hypotheses, finishing and quarter times of the 2,000-m rowing distance were obtained from 7 World Championships (2001-2009), which involve races for different boat classes performed during several qualifying rounds. The use of official split times has the advantage that they are derived from real competition scenarios (i.e., official races), which are free of experimental manipulation (e.g., like fixed exercise intensity or fixed duration trial). The term race refers to a competition of speed, against an objective criterion, usually the clock. The competitors in a race try to complete a given task in the shortest amount of time, which typically involves traversing some distance.

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Subjects

We used the data from different boat classes in heavyweight races including single (1×), double (2×), and quadruple (4×) sculls; coxless pair (2−) and 4 (4−), and 8 (8+) performed during heat and final World Championship races. World championships represent an international race format with athletes performing on an elite level. Between 12 and 24 female and male rowers/rowing teams took part in the heat races. In several qualifying rounds, rowers/rowing teams are eliminated leaving 6 of them to compete in the final. All data were downloaded from publicly accessible official websites (e.g., www.worldrowing.com, www.rowingone.com), which represent the official world rowing databases. Therefore, informed consent was not obtained from athletes for the use of this information. The study was approved by the ethics committee Beider Basel, Switzerland.

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Procedures

For each of the 2,000-m rowing race, absolute split times in the following quarters of the race were obtained: 0-500 m (quarter 1), 500-1,000 m (quarter 2), 1,000-1,500 m (quarter 3), and 1,500-2,000 m (quarter 4), for men and women separately. Afterward, quarter times to distance plots were generated by comparing boat classes and qualifying rounds. Regarding boat class, pacing patterns adopted in single boats were compared with those performed in team boats. With respect to the qualifying round, pacing patterns shown in the heat races were compared with those adopted in finals.

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Statistical Analyses

Analyses of variance (ANOVAs) with repeated measures on quarter times were applied to determine differences between race categories (boat class × quarter; qualifying round × quarter). If an interaction effect was observed, 1-way ANOVA with repeated measures was used to determine which trend component (linear or quadratic trend line) showed a higher amount of variance explained for the description of the performed pacing pattern. Data are reported by their F values of the respective tests and their p values. Moreover, η2 (eta squared) was calculated to show the amount of variance explained by the respective trend component. Furthermore, using η2 effect sizes (f) were calculated (4) and classified as small (f values = 0.10), medium (f values = 0.25), and large (f values = 0.40) effects (6). All analyses were conducted separately for female and male rowers/rowing crews. All analyses were performed using Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) version 16.0. The significance level was set at p ≤ 0.05.

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Results

Pacing Pattern and Boat Class

Quarter times to distance plots for the different boat classes are provided in Figure 1A for women's races and in Figure 1B for men's races. Quarter times became shorter (i.e., rowing speed increased) with the number of crew members, from 1 to 8. For women and men, the analysis indicated significant differences in the pacing patterns depending on boat class (p < 0.001 for both sexes). For single boats, additional analysis revealed that the amount of variance explained was higher when using a linear (women: η2 = 0.76, men: η2 = 0.68) compared to a quadratic trend component (women: η2 = 0.37, men: η2 = 0.37) for the description of the pacing patterns (Table 1). In mens' double/pair, the variance explained was also higher for the linear (η2 = 0.64) compared to the quadratic trend component (η2 = 0.45). However, in boats with 4 (women: η2 = 0.67 and 0.69, men: η2 = 0.49 and 0.48) and 8 rowers (women: η2 = 0.54 and 0.53, men: η2 = 0.62 and 0.65) for both sexes and for boats with 2 rowers in women (η2 = 0.70 and 0.71) the amount of variance explained was virtually the same for both trend components. Furthermore, rowing times in the fourth compared to the third race quarter were significantly slower during single boat races (p ≤ 0.05) but faster during races with 4 and 8 rowers (p < 0.001 for both types) for women and men, respectively (Figure 1A, B).

Table 1

Table 1

Figure 1

Figure 1

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Pacing Pattern and Qualifying Round

Quarter times to distance plots of the heat and final races are provided in Figure 2A for female rowing crews and in Figure 2B for male rowing crews. Quarter times became smaller with the importance of the qualifying round, from heats to finals. For women and men, the analysis indicated significant differences in the pacing patterns depending on qualifying round (p < 0.001 for both sexes). For the heats, additional analysis revealed that the amount of variance explained was higher when using a linear (women: η2 = 0.76, men: η2 = 0.68) compared to a quadratic trend component (women: η2 = 0.63, men: η2 = 0.38) for the description of the pacing patterns (Table 2). In contrast, for the finals the amount of variance explained was lower when using a linear (women: η2 = 0.57, men: η2 = 0.37) compared to a quadratic trend component (women: η2 = 0.81, men: η2 = 0.60). In addition, rowing time in the fourth race quarter was significantly slower (men: p < 0.002) in the heats but faster in the finals (p < 0.001 for both sexes) when compared with the third quarter (Figure 2A, B).

Table 2

Table 2

Figure 2

Figure 2

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Discussion

The purpose of the present study was to compare the pacing patterns adopted by elite female and male rowing crews for different boat classes and qualifying rounds. In this context, the distribution of time in 7 World Rowing Championships performed over a 9-year period was quantified. The main findings of this study were (a) that the pacing patterns adopted by single boats were better described by a linear trend line with a positive slope but were equally well described by a linear and a quadratic trend line in boats with 2, 4, and 8 rowers and (b) that pacing patterns during heat races were better represented by a linear trend line with a positive slope but showed a quadratic trend line (parabolic-shaped pattern) during finals.

The pacing patterns adopted by rowing crews in boats with 2, 4, and 8 rowers were equally well described by a linear and a quadratic trend line but showed significant increases in rowing pace for the fourth compared to the third quarter. This finding indicates a parabolic-shaped profile, which is consistent with that reported in rowing literature (2,13,20). From a psychological standpoint, it is believed that the fast start is used to gain the lead position, which enables the rowers to see the opponents and to better react to advances from them (19). From a physiological perspective, Secher et al. (20) showed that the oxygen debt when performing an exercise with an all-out start was similar to that performed during an attempt to keep the power constant whereas work output and oxygen uptake was higher in the first case. This indicates that the extra work of an initial spurt could be achieved without any change in oxygen debt and thus presumably without a detrimental effect because of fatigue. Furthermore, the determination of physiological profiles during simulated rowing showed that the fast-slow-slow-fast pacing pattern correspond appropriately with power output, heart rate, lactate acid, and maximal oxygen consumption (16). For example, the lactate concentration nearly increased to its maximum during the initial spurt and then leveled off unless the intensity of the exercise was increased again.

The increase in speed during the final 500 m is consistent with the notion of an anticipatory regulation of exercise intensity, whereby athletes anticipate the work required to complete a given exercise task (23,25). Moreover, an anticipatory control of speed suggests that an energetic reserve is maintained during exercise, which protects from early exhaustion and helps to avoid an extensive loss of velocity during later race stages (9-11,24).

In single boat races, pacing patterns were best described by the linear trend line only (i.e., a slow down throughout the entire race). The reason for this divergence compared to team boat races is unclear but may be because of differences in performance affecting factors and their interplay. In single boats compared to team boats, finishing time depends on the performance of 1 athlete only. In this case, his or her physiological status may play an important role (27). For example, few studies using regression analyses identified maximum oxygen uptake and oxygen consumption at the lactate threshold as the key determinants of rowing performance (5,8,17,22). Hence, by the end of a 2,000-m rowing race, when fatigue sets in, the athlete in a single boat is no longer able to maintain his or her pace that is much less to accelerate for a final spurt. At the same time, in team boats, members might be able to compensate a fatigue induced performance decline of an individual team member to a certain level. In addition, as a team they can motivate each other to increase their effort by the end of the race despite the presence of fatiguing processes.

The pacing patterns adopted by rowing crews during final races followed a quadratic trend line (parabolic-shaped pattern), which is in accordance with the aforementioned rowing literature (2,13,20). However, during the heats a linear trend line with a positive slope better described the pacing patterns. One explanation could be that competitions in rowing are elimination races, so that performance of the rowing teams becomes closer from heats to finals, leading to the observed difference in pacing pattern. For example, once rowing crews are aware that they have performed well enough to qualify in a heat, they can adjust pacing accordingly (e.g., slowing pace by the end of the race as indicated by the significantly longer time in the fourth compared to the third quarter). Another explanation could be that crews, which are hopelessly out of contention, may reduce their effort so that rowing speed decreased significantly by the end of the race. However, in the finals, where crews are more evenly matched in skill and ability, teams will attempt to finish in the shortest time possible. Therefore, a final spurt as indicated by the shorter time in the fourth compared to the third quarter might be important to finish in front position (14).

Because of the observational character of this study, we cannot infer a causal relationship between success during rowing competitions and the distribution of rowing time. Therefore, care is needed when generalizing the present findings to other kinds of sports or groups of athletes. Another limitation of the present study refers to the use of official split times. They only enable a rough characterization of the boats' overall pacing pattern, and do not provide detailed insight into the distribution of rowing time throughout the 2,000-m race. However, split times have the advantage of being derived from real competition scenarios, which are free of experimental manipulation, like fixed exercise intensity, fixed duration trial, or prescribed pacing behavior. Furthermore, the use of official split times offers an analysis of rowers' and rowing teams' pacing pattern which is free of testing equipment applied to them. From this an impact on the performed pacing behavior is barred.

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Practical Applications

In conclusion, pacing pattern in heat races was better described (i.e., higher amount of variance explained) by a linear trend line with a positive slope but followed a quadratic trend line (parabolic-shaped pattern) during finals. The latter is consistent with that reported in rowing literature and indicates an anticipatory regulation of exercise intensity, whereby athletes monitor and then regulate their energetic output throughout the event. The former may indicate the attempt to conserve energy for subsequent rounds or reflect the reduced effort made by losing rowers and rowing crews or both aspects. In sum, this requires rowers and their coaches to develop different pacing patterns for the heat and the final races. In single boats, the pacing pattern was better represented by an increasing linear trend but the amount of variance explained was virtually the same for both the linear and the quadratic trend component in team boats. The absence of a final spurt in single boat races suggests that the physiological status of the rower plays an important role. Therefore, training elite single boat rowers might, for example, be focused on the ability to control the timing and rate of decline in rowing speed.

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Keywords:

race analysis; performance; elite athletes; boat class; qualifying round

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