Rio Olympics 2016: Training With The USRowing Team
Every four years, the world’s greatest athletes come together to compete on sports’ biggest stage for a chance at one of the oldest, most coveted awards. The story-lines are endless and over the course of 17 days, mankind is witness to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. But a lot more goes into these events than the coverage on television shows us. And while many athletes give it their all for seconds, minutes, sometimes even hours, the amount of preparation can’t be overlooked.
One sport that requires possibly the most significant amount of training is rowing.
This time around, in Rio, there will be 14 different competitions: six for women and eight for men. The majority of races take place within the first week. Much like track or swimming, rowing requires an incredible amount of endurance, along with a hefty diet – proving to be almost a full-time job for those hoping to achieve greatness. But how exactly do the country’s best rowers prepare themselves for the biggest event of their lives?
How do Olympic rowers train?
Above Philadelphia – one of rowing’s collegiate hot spots – lies in Princeton, New Jersey, home to the headquarters of USRowing, a facility that lends itself to some of the sport’s best athletes. The state-of-the-art facility provides a select few with the opportunity to prepare and hone their skills for the world’s biggest rowing events, thanks to gym access on land as well as nearby water for rowing exercises. While the center is open year-round, it’s certainly taken full advantage of more during the warmer months, as many of the rowers then migrate to areas such as central California in the winter.
“The biggest difference between the coasts is – the distinct lack of affordable Mexican food on the east coast, which is vital to my training operation [laughs], and it’s so much more humid on the east coast, so you consume a lot more water,” said Seth Weil, a member of the Men’s Four Boat Team.
Weil, 29, was born in California but currently resides within a short commute of Princeton. Traveling across the country and around the world isn’t cheap, which is why Weil, along with most of his cohorts, work to make ends meet as they prepare for their sport’s biggest events, such as Rio. He’s seemingly put his degree in aerospace and mechanical engineering from the University of California-Davis on hold in the hopes of one day standing atop the podium, gold medal around his neck, with the National Anthem playing in the background. However, that dream requires a ton of determination.
It’s been well-documented what Michael Phelps – now undoubtedly the greatest Olympic athlete ever – eats during his training schedule, which was an estimated 12,000 calories during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Well, rowers aren’t too far off of those numbers. Given the amount of energy expelled on a typical training day, whether it’s in the gym or in the boat, a hefty set of meals is required to regain strength and stamina, two things that are drained with each and every workout.
On average, rowers will eat about 5,000 to 7,000 calories a day and with six meals consumed during that time, it works out to be approximately 1,200 calories per meal.
“We try to eat roughly six times a day,” said Glenn Ochal, a member of the USRowing men’s eight team in Rio. “It’ll be before the morning session, right after the morning session, right before the afternoon session and right after the afternoon session and then dinner and then a maybe a smaller meal at night. The goal is to eat once every three hours, essentially – so we try to eat a lot of small meals.”
Ochal, who grew up in Philadelphia, knows what it takes to qualify for the Olympics, earning a bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics, while receiving USRowing Male Athlete of the Year honors that same year. And, after a taste last time around, he’s hungry for more – in every sense of the word.
The rowers require good carbohydrates to meet their caloric goals. Of course, it wouldn’t be too difficult to load up on Wendy’s or Chick-fil-A each and every day but those options fail to provide clean calories, instead containing a significant amount of fat and sugar. The bulk of what the rowers eat consists of lean meats as well as vegetables, sometimes with very little accompaniment. Making sure to properly eat and hydrate is incredibly important for the rowers, since being famished or parched before a race is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a professional rower.
“Your body is a machine and it’s like a car, if you have an expensive car, you want to put good fuel in it,” Ochal added. “You don’t want to eat a lot of processed food or a lot of sugars. It’s really important to manage yourself and what you put in your body, to make sure you’re ready for the workouts. ”
Working For The Olympics
The typical rowing race lasts about six minutes, which doesn’t sound like a lot. However, when athletes are using every muscle in their body, it can prove to be tedious – especially if unprepared.
“It’s not quite a sprint, it’s not quite a marathon,” Weil said. “I’d equate it to running a mile uphill.”
Since the event takes place in the water, you’d think all the preparation would be done in the water, but that’s not necessarily the case. Rowers spend about 75-percent of their training in the boat, with the other 25-percent on land, in the gym. Typically, the USRowing team will have 17 workouts per week during its peak training timeframe – the year before the Olympics – and the workouts, much like the sport itself, are mainly aerobics-based, to build up the endurance for repetition. Lasting about two hours each, there are three weightlifting sessions, four front row machine sessions and the rest is done in the water. Putting on strength is typically done on land, either in the weight room or with the odometer of the rowing machine – and it can prove challenging when combined with stamina.
“It’s a tricky game to play, because you want to be able to produce some sort of power but you also want to be able to sustain that power for the whole race – you sort of throttle intensity and volume together to get that blend,” said Weil, last year’s USRowing Male Athlete of the Year. “As we sort of get closer to racing, the intensity increases and the distance decreases, then we start to build more of this like power endurance kind of physiology.”
The most aggressive workouts came last year but the intensity is certainly there during the months leading up to the Olympics, though rowers tend to cut back in the hopes of not burning out. But these athletes aren’t pushing it as fast as possible, instead, it’s more like distance running, as they typically give about 65-percent and are able to go for hours at a time. This could be the explanation for why some of the sport’s best are able to continue to perform well much later in their careers.
“The goal is to do cardiovascular fitness, to build up what we call our aerobic base,” Ochal added. “That’s how you build your capacity by just doing tons, and tons, and tons of volume in the boat. If you add all of those strokes up, all of those practices up, all of those weeks up, all of those months up, it kind of builds your aerobic fitness slowly. For this sport, it’s why people peak at a later age, like the peak age for rowing is like 28-30 because it takes time for people to develop and to build their cardiovascular system by doing loads of aerobic training for years and years.”
The Power Of Zika
It wasn’t long ago that the USRowing team for Rio was selected and once the joy subsided, there were likely many questions that had to be answered – the biggest of which was the Zika Virus. Spread by mosquitoes, Zika – which is related to West Nile and yellow fever – can be deadly in some cases and with a recent outbreak in Brazil, it became the major story in Rio for most media outlets. So much was made about the virus that several star United States athletes declined their invitation to compete.
Both Ochal and Weil were certainly aware of the virus and its capabilities, as the USRowing staff made sure to inform the entire team of the risks involved when traveling to Brazil. Plus, the precautions taken were ones they were used to – ones the team has to adhere to whenever it travels the world.
“I never once thought about backing out,” Ochal added. “For rowing, this is like the pinnacle of our sport – it happens once every four years. I know some athletes from other sports like golf, or tennis, or basketball, might be backing out – and while I understand, it’s an honor to represent your country and everything, it’s not the pinnacle of their sport, of their competition.”
Weil shared the same sentiment, admitting there was never a reason for concern.
“My primary concern will always be going as fast in the boat as possible and any other concern falls underneath it. I’m not too terribly worried other than going fast – that’s a big concern.”