The History of Indoor Rowing
Indoor rowing is a relatively new sport. It originated as a way to allow competitive water rowers keep their rowing fitness over the winter months, when the weather was too bad to allow them to row on open water. Quickly it caught on in gyms and fitness centres, for a few good reasons: it is a very effective cardiovascular workout; it is difficult to do in a dangerous manner (ineffective manner, yes, but it is hard to hurt yourself on one); and it provides an absolute and unequivocal measure of your performance. It is the last reason that changed the indoor rower from a piece of exercise equipment into a new sport.
The Rowing Machine
The standard model for serious indoor rowing is the Concept 2, from Concept 2. It consists of a seat and a slightly inclined rail, on which the rower slides. At the low end of the rail are footrests. Behind the footrests is a handle attached to a chain, which powers a flywheel. The flywheel has vanes on it to act as a load, and the rower can vary the amount of air passing over the flywheel to vary to load by means of a damper. Attached to the flywheel are speed sensors, which are in turn attached to a performance monitor. By monitoring the acceleration and deceleration of the flywheel, the performance monitor can work out how much power is being generated by the rower, and consequently how fast they are going.
The performance monitor is the heart of the system - it has a display that tells you exactly how well you are rowing (which in rowing is traditionally measured in the unusual unit of time per 500m). It also measures various other parameters: number of strokes per minute, heart rate, calories burned per hour, power output in watts and so on. The performance monitor is the part of the machine that means that you can get onto an indoor rower anywhere in the world, quickly set it up to be identical to any other machine, and see how well you are doing.
The other part is you. You sit on the seat, strap your feet to the footrests, and pull on the handle. This is probably how most people have used the rowing machine for the first time. When you pull on the handle, the performance monitor starts up and shows how fast you are going. The natural human reaction is to look at the speed, and think "Hmm, I wonder how fast I can go?" So you speed up. After about one minute you are gasping for breath. If you last two minutes it'd be amazing. You will almost certainly be surprised at how quickly you stopped. Welcome to the wall.
The reason indoor rowing exhausts so quickly is that it places large aerobic demands on most of the major muscle groups for an extended period. Without training (lots of training) you will not be able to supply sufficient oxygen to all the muscles demanding it. This places most of your muscle groups into the anaerobic mode, which limits you to about 90 seconds of effort before they simply stop. It really hurts too. (This page describes what happens to your muscles when you are exercising, and why the wall appears so suddenly.)
If on your second attempt (assuming there is one) you remember how fast you went, and try to beat it, then you be hooked. The indoor rower will become one of your main pieces of exercise equipment. This is as far as a lot of people take it.
If, however, you find yourself in the gym starting to tailor your exercises to improving your rowing times, then welcome to the sport of indoor rowing. Quickly you will learn pacing, and then you can start improving your times. There are two ways of doing this - become fitter, or improve your technique. A fitness improvement is inevitable if you row regularly, and there are no end of (good) training programmes to allow you to target specific aspects - weight control, strength, endurance, specific distance.
Technique is different: like perl, there is more than one way to do it. The basics of the stroke are the same, but the speed you repeat the stroke at varies considerably, even amongst the elite. It comes down to a balance between pulling really hard, and pulling very frequently. The unusual thing is that there does not seem to be an optimum that you should strive for. The only way to do it is, after you have mastered the basics, to listen to your body and determine what is best for you.
Racing The Clock (and yourself)
The classic rowing distance is 2,000m. Everyone who does any sort of rowing at all knows their 2k time. The first time you try the 2k you will probably collapse in a heap at about 1k, gasping for breath (this is called "fly and die").
After a few attempts you learn what speed your should go at and then you are ready for a personal best attempt. Before you start a P.B. attempt 2k you will do a few minutes warm up to get your body ready - loosening the muscles, and getting the aerobic pathways opened. Have in mind a target pace - 1:45 for a 7:00 minute time is a noted milestone. Set the monitor to show your average pace during the race. Check your heart-rate is about 100 beats per minute.
And go. Pull hard during the first few strokes - get that flywheel spinning. Hit your rhythm and pull slightly faster than target to get your average down. After a minute the pace is correct, and 300m has gone by. Your heart-rate is now 140, and you're starting to sweat.
Keep the rate the same, keep the power up, and hold your technique. Wait for the 1000m mark. It arrives at three and a half minutes - your heart rate is now 175, the sweat is pouring off you, and your breathing is heavy. You're on target, and the pain begins.
Into the final thousand, and you start gasping for breath. You are sucking air into your lungs as hard as possible, and it's not enough. Your heart rate peaks at 184 - it won't go any higher. Your arms and legs start burning badly as you go get toward the 500m mark.
At 500m you think, just for one stoke, of stopping. But - you are just inside the target and you only have to endure this for another 100 seconds. You can't give up. Keep going - see how you feel after another 10 stokes and then decide.
400m - ten stokes later - and the power starts fading from your arms. All you can do now is up the stroke rate to compensate. Your world is just the display with distance and your current and average pace - all you can do is pull fast enough, and hard enough, to keep these saying less than 1:45.
200m to go and you start to feel the tingle that means your blood-sugar is low. You're getting light headed, but you know you've judged it right. All you can see is the monitor but now the figures stop making sense - you've forgotten your target. All you look at is the distance to go.
It says 100m - you know you can up your stroke rate now to get every ounce of energy into the flywheel. Pull, pull, pull and wait for the end.
At the end you collapse against the wall gasping for air - this time you didn't pass out or throw up. Don't even think about trying to stand up - you can't. Your heart-rate is still 184, your breathing is ragged, your muscles are burning, and your vision is swimming. You are not be wondering why you do this, because you are not capable of rational thought.
After about half a minute you collect your thoughts and reach for the performance monitor, and display the total time. Success - 6:58.6: a new personal best. Suddenly, everything does not seem so bad - a big grin breaks out on your face, and in a minute or two you'll recover a bit, grab the towel to absorb the sweat, drink some water, and row some more (slowly!) to cool down and fully recover.
Things will never get any easier as every 2k you do to the best of your ability will be as bad - they will take less time, as you will get quicker, but they will feel as bad.
That was my experience when I recently broke my personal best (which, to put it in context, just narrowly beats the world record for the 70-79 age group). This interview gives Matthias Siejkowski's far more impressive experience from when he broke the world record.
The trials in the pursuit of personal goals are one of the reasons that indoor rowing is popular, perverse as it sounds. As well as physical fitness it requires mental strength to row at your limits, and rowing improves both. There are no excuses for failure but, equally, success is purely your own work. This is a very effective spur to improvement - the buck stops at you.
Racing for the Elite
In addition to rowing alone, some models of indoor rower (suitably equipped) are capable of group racing. Group racing, as the name suggests, allows a group of rowers to start simultaneously and race each other, with feedback via the performance monitor, and a computer screen which shows the positions of each "boat" as if they were in a regatta. This leads to scenes of mass suffering such as the British indoor rowing championships (BIRC), and the World indoor rowing championships. It is at these sort of events that world records tend to be set - it is all very well racing yourself, but the adrenaline flows when racing others.
To make things a little bit fairer for everyone there are different categories: male and female, lightweight and heavyweight, and age bands (in decades). The age-bands will probably reduce to half-decade for over 40s for the sensible reason that the best 40 year olds are considerably better than the best 49 year olds.
"Racing" Others for the Rest
Although events such as the BIRC, and other smaller events, are open to anybody (and lots of lower ranked rowers go), most rowers row for fitness and personal achievement rather than glory. There are a number of different facilities available to allow ordinary mortals to have fun while getting fit.
Online racing is gradually gaining popularity - this allows people on different continents to race each other on a virtual "lake". This all happens in real time, and you see the view of the race update in real time.
The online ranking is the probably the most used. This takes the form of a log book where you can enter your sessions (date, distance, and time) and if you do an event distance or time (there are 11 of these, ranging from 500m to 100,000m - yes, it takes over 6 hrs to do this) you can rank it against everyone else who has ranked that distance this year. The rankings provide a useful incentive for improvement, and it is fun to watch as you rank a new time to see your position on the boards go up. Coupled with this are the forums, which are well used. These act as an online mentor, buddy, support, and encouragement group, and there is a wealth of experience to draw on there - including current and former world record holders, and several national champions.
Finally, for the paddlers, there is the nonathlon - this takes 9 of the ranking events, and assigns points to you on the basis of your performance against what is world class at your age and weight. This allows me (a 37 year old male heavyweight) to compete against a 66 year old female lightweight on equal terms - the 66 year old female lightweight (called "Old Granny") is beating me good. But I'll get her.