Rowing is a sport in which athletes race against each other on a 2,000-m course relying on both aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways and the simultaneous development of strength and endurance to drive the boat across the finish line. The typical race lasts between 5.5 and 7 minutes, engages approximately 70% of a rower's total muscle mass, and generates an average power output of 450–550 W (21). Rowers depend mainly on aerobic metabolism for the bulk of the race, maintaining an energy output at a rate greater than 90% of their maximal aerobic capacity for a period of 6 minutes (10). In contrast, combat sports is a collective term to describe a competitive sport where 2 combatants fight against each other, which requires high levels of dynamic and isometric strength, aerobic and anaerobic conditioning, flexibility, and speed (11). Matches are characterized by multiple rounds of 3–5 minutes, consisting of short phases of maximal intensity activity spaced by brief recoveries. Combat sports are intermittent in nature and demonstrate a heavy reliance on the phosphagen system and glycolysis early on in the match and then steadily declines as the contribution of aerobic metabolism increases in subsequent rounds (2,9).
Rowers require not only strength but also finesse while working as a group of individuals in unison to propel a boat through the water. Conversely, combat athletes use a variety of skills, including strikes, takedowns, chokes, and joint locks, with the ultimate goal of controlling and submitting their opponent. Although the 2 sports appear to be on opposite sides of the sports spectrum, the metabolic demands required are strikingly similar, specifically when looking at the upper-body anaerobic profiles of elite judo players and rowers (19). To be successful in both rowing and combat sports, one must not only be able to maintain a high aerobic capacity but also be able to buffer the highly acidic muscle and blood concentrations that occur during a race or match. A closer examination of the training used for both sports reveals that they share a common goal, to increase muscle buffering capacity and delay fatigue while improving power and explosiveness to maintain peak performance during competition.
Traditionally characterized as an endurance sport, rowing places a high demand on both the aerobic and the anaerobic energy systems, as indicated by blood lactate concentrations that reach as high as 19 mmol·L−1 after 2,000 m of maximal rowing (18). Interval training is frequently used in rowing training during the months leading up to competition season to increase the volume of training performed at or near race pace. Repeated sprint training is commonly used as a method of interval training and includes repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise with short rest periods, with the goal to perform each work bout at the same intensity (16).
Interval training, which is described as periods of high-intensity work alternated with brief periods of low-intensity work/rest, is commonly used to train both the aerobic and the anaerobic systems to strengthen the cardiorespiratory system and improve recovery times (3,12,13). Replacing longer bouts of exercise with short duration, high-intensity intervals can lead to significant improvements in aerobic and anaerobic parameters while delaying muscle fatigue (23). The purpose of interval training is to repeatedly stress the body, resulting in chronic adaptations and improving metabolic and energy efficiency. During periods of highly anaerobic work (maximal exercise lasting 60–90 seconds), an increase in hydrogen ions and inorganic phosphate occurs leading to a decrease in muscle pH and ultimately muscle fatigue (1). Metabolic adaptations to interval training have been shown to enhance the muscle's ability to remove such metabolites and facilitate the resynthesis of the energy stores, glycogen and creatine phosphate (8,20). Such adaptations should enhance an athlete's ability to generate high-power outputs for a longer period (6).
Mahler et al. (15) examined rowing performance and physiological changes after different training seasons in collegiate female rowers. After 3 months of anaerobic training on the ergometer, which consisted of interval-type work performed at 80–100% maximal effort, rowers improved o2 at the anaerobic threshold (AT) by 18% as well as heart rate response at anaerobic threshold. Similar changes were observed in elite male scullers during a comparable training intervention (14). Anaerobic metabolism can contribute up to 33% of the total energy requirement (21) and is essential for the beginning of the race and for the final sprint across the finish line. Because of similar patterns of energy utilization, one could assume that combat athletes would greatly benefit from a similar interval training program. Table 1 describes the 3 pathways for energy production and their application to training.
Additionally, a study examining the physiological responses to short-duration, high-intensity intermittent rowing demonstrated that using a protocol consisting of a work to rest ratio of 15:15 seconds allowed rowers to train for prolonged periods at or slightly above competition intensity (7). Rowers were able to maintain 80% of their maximal oxygen uptake and 90% of their maximal heart rate, with relatively small increases in blood lactate concentration during the intervals. Interestingly, this protocol was used by the silver medal winners in the 1992 World Rowing Championships. They found the protocol to be successful because it allowed them to cover a relatively large volume of their training at race pace, without the accumulation of metabolic by-products (H+ and Pi) typically seen with traditional tempo training. Conversely, Mavrommataki et al. (16) found a work to rest ratio of 1:2 was most beneficial when completing repeated 1,000-m sprints. Using a longer rest period, rowers were able to maintain a higher peak power during the first 500 m of the second work bout, with no change in mean or peak heart rate.
Recently, rowing ergometer training has been used by combat athletes (specifically mixed martial arts and wrestlers) as a method of metabolic conditioning (4). Ergometer training can be an effective supplemental method of interval training because it involves the coordination of both the upper and the lower body to develop maximal power while improving both aerobic capacity and power output. The rowing stroke is performed by extension of the legs, followed by extension of the trunk and flexion of the arms, with successful rowers producing approximately 75–80% of their power with their legs and about 20–25% with their arms during the stroke. Figures 1–3 demonstrate the proper motion of the rowing stroke. With the majority of muscle mass engaged while rowing, ergometer training provides an attractive alternative to the traditional methods of training for combat sports (i.e., treadmill runs, shadow boxing, sparring, and bag punching), which places a great amount of stress on the body, specifically the ankles, knees, back, and shoulder.
Ergometer training can be used as an effective weight loss tool for those athletes who cut weight before competition. Because of the nature of the sport and the involvement of all major muscle groups, rowing has some of the highest energy expenditure values recorded (5). Lightweight rowers will often increase training volume on the ergometer before weigh-in to help achieve the specified body mass limit. With the dual purpose of improving aerobic and anaerobic parameters as well as reducing body mass while maintaining or increasing lean body mass, ergometer training for combat athletes may prove to be extremely beneficial.
To emulate the intensity during a fight, work intervals should be kept around 30–60 seconds long, with minimal recovery in between. A work to rest ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 should be the goal of training because it best emulates the duration of fighting and rest periods during a match (17). While training on the ergometer, the focus should be on keeping the rest periods around 60 seconds or less while eliciting >90% o2max and maximal heart rate during the work periods. In addition, Tabata et al. (22) found that 7–8 sets of interval training at a ratio of 1:1 led to profound effects on both aerobic and anaerobic capacities, increasing o2max by 7 mL·kg−1·min−1 and anaerobic capacity by 28%.
Additionally, ergometer training could be used in conjunction with fight simulation workouts. For example, a workout could consist of a 500-m ergometer piece, followed by sparring, striking, or partner work for 1–2 minutes depending on their fitness level. After a 1-minute rest, the circuit is repeated for 10 minutes or the typical length of a fight. Tables 2 and 3 provide sample workouts to train both the aerobic and the anaerobic energy systems.
In summary, when designing a conditioning program for combat athletes with the ultimate goal to improve speed, power, and endurance, incorporating ergometer training may prove to be advantageous to the fighter. Conditioning the body to buffer highly acidic conditions, as well as increasing muscular endurance and enhancing oxidative capacity, can be achieved through high-intensity ergometer training and may help prepare athletes for the high-intensity bouts experienced while fighting. Before starting a rowing program, it would be beneficial to consult a rowing coach to ensure proper technique and minimize lower back strain that may accompany incorrect form.
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