Lightweight rowing sees overhaul of training regimen this season

by Justin Kramer | 4/16/18 2:20am

Dartmouth men’s lightweight rowing has shaken up their training regimen this season with a scientific lactate training program.

Hired from Wesleyan University before the season, assistant coach Trevor Michelson recommended the new training approach. Michelson brought into the fold former German National Team coach Guenter Beutter to craft the team’s lactic acid training program. 

“When I came here to Dartmouth, I thought that we had a good amount of improvement to be made physiologically,” Michelson said. “I thought it would be a really great way to start fresh, try something new to get guys to buy in, and it worked out pretty well.”

Lactic acid, described by Michelson as being responsible for the internal burning sensation caused by burning body fuel, allows for training to be focused less on achieving specific times and more on physiologically conditioning an athlete for maximum physical output.

Ben Adler ’18 provided a succinct description of training based on lactate zones.

“The idea behind lactate training zones is that your body’s ability to recover is what improves your performance and is strongly correlated with levels of lactic acid in your body,” Adler said. “You should be training in certain zones for certain amounts of time in order to optimize improvement.” 

Michelson outlined the training program on a more specific level, accounting for the relationship between heart rate, lactic acid and performance.

“What we do is instead of giving them a split to train off of, we had someone come in and check their blood levels to see what amount of wattage these guys can produce at a certain level of blood in their body,” Michelson said. “That correlates to heart rate, and we can then time training there in the hopes of producing more wattage at the same level of exertion, that same lactic acid level.”

Rowing is primarily an aerobic sport, in which athletes use oxygen to fuel their  muscles at least 80 percent of the time. Part of the lightweight crew’s vision with lactic acid training is to minimize the amount of time athletes spend training anaerobically — without oxygen — which occurs above a specific lactic acid concentration. 

“By working just under that anaerobic level, you can push at what point your body becomes anaerobic farther and farther away, which just means you can be going faster and faster,” Michelson said. 

Because rowing is such an aerobic-intensive sport, a high volume of rowing is essential for a team to succeed. According to Michelson, rowers spend 700-800 minutes of training per week from September to May.

“If you’re trying to build your endurance, your aerobic system, you’re going to do your exercise, whether it’s running, cycling or rowing, at a pretty low intensity for a long time,” Michelson said. “Sometimes you’ll hear 140-150 beats per minute for your heart rate. You want to be training at this consistent rate, get your heart pumping, get your body being really good bringing oxygen to your muscles and develop your capillaries and mitochondria.”

Many team members, including Michelson, bought in to the program precisely due to its highly customized nature, which gave individuals ownership over their own training regiments. 

For captain Robbie Van Voorhis ’18, the past few seasons of mediocre training regimes compelled the team to be more in favor of the lactate zone training.

“What made it really appealing was that it was a digression from our previous training plan in years past,” Van Voorhis said. “Results have shown that those training plans didn’t necessarily give us the level of success we wanted to [achieve], so I was already more open to the idea of adopting a new training plan.” 

The organized and methodical approach of the new program also enhanced its reception. 

“It’s a more scientific approach, the way that the training plan has developed,” Van Voorhis said. “I think that having a more data-driven, evidence-based foundation already makes it easier to adopt because you have so many data points that show that it works.”

The team’s faith in the new lactic acid system has been rewarded thus far.

“We’ve seen improvement across the board from a physiological standpoint,” Michelson said. “A lot of it comes down to the training, but more of it comes down to how hard our guys worked. They did an awesome job of buying into this training program and giving it their best, giving it their all throughout the winter.”

Adler and Van Voorhis have noticed the effects of the new program firsthand, as they have made major strides both physically and mentally. Adler has experienced a 30 percent increase in his power output this season, while Van Voorhis has attained a renewed confidence in his performance. 

“Because our guys were working at a controlled heart rate and lactic acid level, they could see improvement by staying consistent on the heart rate and see their splits go down and their watts go up,” Michelson said. “It was this constant reminder of, ‘It’s working! It’s working!’” 

The long term effect of the lactic acid program figures to play an even more important role in shaping the careers of the freshmen and recruiting classes to come. 

“I think it will have a really big impact because it will start them off on the right foot,” Van Voorhis said. “They’re training at a new level that is dictated by their current speed, so because the training program makes them faster over a year than another program would, all the training is catered to your new speed. It’s like a positive feedback loop.”

Holding on to their No. 9 rank, Dartmouth aims to utilize their new lactic acid training program to solidify their spot in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship Regatta. 

“The general trend is constant upward trajectory that carried us through the winter until we got back on the water,” Michelson said. “Now it’s about moving to maintaining the fitness and still building a little, but starting to get ourselves ready to propel the boat.”