equipment · fitness · flexibility · fun · gear · martial arts · Rowing

Rowing, Multitasking, and Positive Side Effects.

After years of planning to buy a rowing machine, I finally got one a couple of months back and I am thoroughly enjoying using it. 

I love that I don’t have to put much thought into the how and the what of exercising with the rowing machine.  I can use it at any time without having to put on specific clothes and I can choose to have a harder workout or an easier one without having to make a specific plan. 

It’s a kind of automatic exercise for me which is really good for my ADHD brain – there are few, if any, choices to make in advance and that means there are very few potential obstacles between me and my workout.

Plus, I like the very nature of the movement back and forth, the repetition has a soothing element to it.

A person in an inflatable T-Rex costume is using a rowing machine in a small living room.
This does NOT look soothing. I hope I look a little smoother than this when I row. Image description: a GIF of a person in an inflatable T-Rex costume is using a rowing machine in a small living room with potted plants all around. Because the head of the costume is so far above the person’s head, their movements look very jerky.

And, I like that I can do a very specific type of multi-tasking – watching YouTube videos – while I row.

I enjoy learning by video but I don’t often make time to do so. Combining my exercise with videos is a win-win situation – I am doing two enjoyable things at once and my brain and body are both busy so I don’t get any of my usual feeling that I should probably be doing something else. 

I even pick out my videos the night before so there is little between my pyjama-clad self and my exercise session in the mornings. I can get up, let the dog out (and back in!), grab some water, take my meds,  and then head to the basement to row. It’s all part of my waking up routine and it really feels great. 

Speaking of feeling great, my rowing has brought me an unexpected positive side-effect – my hips have loosened up considerably.

A GIF of a cartoon duck spinning his hips in a circle while standing in the spotlight.
Maybe they aren’t quite *this* loose but they do feel good. Image description: GIF of cartoon character Daffy Duck standing in a spotlight with his wings up behind his head, his hips are moving in a very loose circle.

Because of long-ago sessions at the gym, I knew that my arms, back, and legs were going to benefit from using the machine but I hadn’t really thought about how the set  of movements required to row would help my hips, too.  

I sort of have a ‘trick’ hip. It’s mostly fine but every now and then I’ll do something that will wonk it out and it will take me a few days to get it to calm down again.

Practicing kicks at taekwon-do has often triggered my hip in that way but I only realize it *after* I have done it. I’ve done a variety of things to work on it (with various degrees of consistency – I’m still me after all) but nothing has been especially helpful. Until now.

About three weeks after starting regular rowing sessions, our Thursday night TKD class was all about practicing sidekicks and angle kicks. Normally, with a night full of those kicks, my hip would wonk out at some point during the evening and I’d either have to reduce my movements or do something else entirely.

This time, however, I was tired but my hip was completely fine. I was puzzled at first but as I was pulling my leg up and back into position for one of the kicks, I realized that the motion was familiar. It’s not exactly like the position of my leg as I pull all the way forward on the machine but it’s similar. 

I didn’t have any trouble with my hips that night. And, more importantly, I didn’t wake up stiff or in pain the next morning. In fact, I rowed for a bit longer than I had the day before. 

It turns out that my rowing was setting me up for new success with taekwon-do. 

A person rotates on one foot while holding the other leg in the air before doing a high kick.
Okay, this is just straight-up wishful thinking on my part. Image description: GIF of a person standing on one foot, spinning in a circle and then executing a very high kick. Their hair is in a ponytail, and they are wearing a pink shirt and black leggings.

That’s a pretty good side-effect for an activity I was enjoying already. 

Have you ever had one type of exercise ‘accidentally’ help you in another like that?

Tell me about it in the comments! (Pretty please.)

accessibility · fitness · Guest Post

Guest post: Sam (the other Sam) rows for years and finally falls in and finds out it’s not so bad after all

Sam is a recreational rower and sociologist.

competition · racing · Rowing

My first ergatta!

This weekend I took part in my first ever ergatta, like a rowing regatta but indoors, using rowing machines. It was a very nice, locally organized event for high schoolers, the London High School Invitational Ergatta, to which we’d added a Masters’ class event. It was just our local group racing + one person from away which also made it less nerve wracking.

I enjoyed the mood and the atmosphere: the young racers, keen coaches, and excited parents.  It was fun to watch their technique and see some of the blazing fast times of the seniors just finishing high school, on their way to university rowing teams.

Our masters group arrived early and we had ample time to warm up with the ergs set aside in the space we usually use as a kitchen and meeting room.

We received some terrific advice from our coach in the days leading up to the race. He told us to pick a 500 m split time for which we’d aim in advance. Don’t try to wing it. “Pick something that you think will be challenging, but — importantly — something you’re confident you can hit.” His advice was to settle into that split time as soon as possible–ignore the adrenaline rush from the start (very hard for me–I’m a go out fast and collapse kind of gal!) and save the energy for the final sprint.  2 km is longer than you think, he wrote. And yes, indeed it is. You can’t all out sprint for 8 min but 8 min isn’t quite an endurance event either. It’s a tough distance. (You can read more about 2 km tests here.) He advised us to wait til the last 250 m and take up the pace then, going all out with everything we have left for the final 50 to 100m.

Terrific news. It worked!

My 500 m split times have been going down in the monthly 2 km tests we’ve been doing, from 2:11 for the very first one to 2:07 most recently. I picked 2:07 as the pace I’d maintain and while I couldn’t quite resist the urge to sprint a bit off the start I did remember the advice and held it steady at 2:07 for a long stretch. I had lots left in the tank to sprint at the end, finishing with a 2:04 split time. A new personal best.

I also won the women’s masters category. I finished first after the guys. I have a new hat. See photo below. But really the new PB matters more since there were women who would’ve beat me if they’d raced. Winning in a time trial like that is partly a matter of luck about who shows up.

Also, for some people it was their first time racing. It was my first rowing race but not my first race. I’ve done lots of running, triathlon, and bike races. And knowing how to handle getting ready for a race and how to deal with pre-race jitters helped, I think.

This time I finished in 8:16. My goal is for a sub 8 min time which seems doable. I wasn’t as wiped out this time as I have been in other 2 km tests. I think I could have picked something lower than 2:07 to hold but I didn’t know if I could do that so I didn’t try. Next time…


It’s 2 km day!

Today I completed my second 2 km erg test as part of the Off-Water Masters Program at the London Rowing Club. Part of my goal for the Fittest at Fifty campaign was to try something new and rowing is that thing. To find out more, read Row, row, row your boat!.

Each month we’ll be doing a 2 km erg test which will both measure our progress and form the basis for future training efforts. (For example, we did a workout earlier this week at +10, where +10 is 10 seconds above your 500 m split time for the 2 km effort. I did the last 2 km with a 2:10 avg so my goal for that workout was to avg 2:20.)

This is familiar to me from the cycling world. When I was training with the Vikings Cycling Club in Canberra we did monthly field tests–two 5 km time trial efforts, with a recovery in the middle–and sent our times into our coach. Another time we did monthly 15 km time trials, different distance but same general idea. Again, that’s a sure way to track progress and to match people for team trial events. We also used those times to see if we’d adequately recovered during our monthly rest and recovery week.

One thing that’s different is that for rowing on the erg we divide into two groups so that we can cheer one another on. I like that. I always do better with people screaming at me.

I think I was pretty much guaranteed to do better this time around since I have a better idea of the technique: fast, short strokes at the start to get the flywheel spinning, then an all out effort, then before you blow up settle into a pace you can maintain for the middle. For the last 500 m you sprint again.

Here’s my times, last time and this time to compare:

Nov 2nd:

2 km time 8:45.4
avg split 2:11.4

Dec 4th:

2 km time 8:30.1
avg split 2:07.5

What will January bring?

Here’s Coach Jay on How to Pull a 2k test

He’s also got some more thoughts on a favourite theme of mine, pain and suffering. (You can read my post, Why are painful workouts so much fun?)

The 2k test became a staple in the rowing world in 1995, when the Charles River All Star Has Beens changed the format of their little event from 2500m to 2k. Everyone can blame these clowns for the invention of the dreaded erg test in 1980. They thought it would be “fun.” Thus the erg, never very popular before, became synonymous with pain.

You see, there is a big difference in discomfort between a 6000m and 2000m test. As I’ve written before, the 6k is a test of endurance and mental toughness. The 2k emphasizes endurance, power delivery, mental toughness, and pain tolerance. The 2k hurts you, if you do it right. It hurts you a lot, and being mentally prepared for that pain is far better than not knowing what you’re walking into. So, off we go.

I loved only one thing about 2ks, and that was the feeling of the first 350m. All the nervous energy would burn off, and most people get to their target split without too much trouble. (Always have a goal or target for a 2k. Always.) After that first 350 is the beginning of the “fun,” because the rower starts to hurt.

Not a lot at first, but enough to be noticeable. Lactic acid was produced in that first 200m burn, and it ends up in the muscles where it was born, so the legs start a little complaining. The best route here is to find that goal split and concentrate on “building the piece” of as many of those splits in a row as possible. If 1:40 is the goal split, make sure every stroke is there at 1:40. An early indication of a piece in trouble is the inability to hold that goal, with the splits jumping around with every stroke.

At 1500m to go, I’d like to take a little power 10. Nothing serious, just 10 strokes to push the splits down 1 or 2 and get ready for the worst 500m of my life. Because the 2k is going to fail or succeed right in that second 500m, and the mental toughness of the athlete will decide it. Right there, I would usually think, “I can’t hold this pace. I need to back off,” because here it really starts to hurt and you are not even halfway done yet!!!

Read more here.

And here’s what it really looks like! No vintage waves, long hair, or wild wind.

row2 row

Aikido · diets · martial arts · Rowing · running · team sports

In praise of rest days

Fridays are my new rest days and I’m liking it. I’m a bit of a weekend warrior (running, cycling, rowing, soccer, AikIdo!) and it’s nice to start out Saturday fresh. Traditionally I’ve rested on Mondays–post weekend–but now I’m doing Crossfit that doesn’t quite work with my schedule.

I’m looking forward to a weekend of active fun. I’m doing test review in Aikido and I enjoy the intensity and focus of that process. My indoor soccer team plays our 3rd game Sunday afternoon and so far we’ve lost one and won one and I’d like to kick the stats back into our favour.

I’m especially happy today that it’s a rest day because I did a bit more than I bargained for on Thursday. Crossfit included rowing and then rowing practice included weights. Too many deadlifts!

It’s also a sleepy, grey rainy day with snow in the forecast.

What does this mean for me? First, I get to sleep a bit later (though not this morning, spouse’s early morning train to Toronto alarm woke me up, followed by a phone call from teenager at basketball practice who’d forgotten a much needed item.) Second, I try to eat very well on recovery days, lots of protein and colourful veggies. And third, I do keep moving but just regular stuff like walking the dog, housework, stretching etc.

In the spirit of feeling good about rest and recovery days, I thought I’d read some other women fitness bloggers on the practice of rest days:

Sit yo ass down! The importance of rest  by Krista Scott Dixon at Stumptuous

What does rest day mean to you? by fitknitchick

Focus on rest days by Fitnessista

How To: Incorporate Rest into Your Fitness Routine by Fitblogger

Enjoy your Friday! I will. Back on the mats at Aikido tomorrow morning.

Aikido · Crossfit · Rowing · running · training · weight loss

Is it time to ditch exercise?

Exercising, working out, or training? I almost never use the first of these terms and I have a strong preference for the 3rd. Here’s some thoughts about why.

Recently the media reported on a study from the University of Alberta that showed shows like The  Biggest Loser put people off exercise with its extreme depiction of what exercise involves.

From the U of A website: Researchers in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation found that watching a short video clip of The Biggest Loser fueled negative attitudes toward exercise, raising further questions about how physical activity is shown in the popular media.

“The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative,” said lead author Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. “People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you’re not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is—that it’s this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong.”

Read more about this here.

For me, the word ‘exercise’ has negative connotations, even without The Biggest Loser. At best it sounds dull and joyless. I use the word to describe physio rehab that I do. Those are exercises but that’s about it.

I’ve been active a lot this weekend but, physio aside, none of it has been something I’d call exercise. Saturday mornings I go to Aikido where I practice and I train. The emphasis is on skill development and training seems to me to be the right word. True, I got really hot and sweaty during hajime training but getting hot and sweaty wasn’t the point. Moving fast, without thinking, putting the techniques in ‘body memory’ was.

Saturday afternoon I had a soccer game. We lost against the Chocolate Martinis. (An aside: I think nothing screams ‘middle aged women playing soccer’ quite like the team names. Last week we won against Cougartown.) Was that exercise? I ran fast and played hard but I wouldn’t describe what I was doing as exercise. I was playing. We were competing. Yes, it’s a recreational league but we do play to win. In the end we lost but we had a lot of fun.

And Sunday morning I’ll be at the rowing club for an early morning erg session. Again, there’s a lot of technique involved and I think of it as training, not exercise per se. For example, we did a really challenging drill Thursday night trying to match a pace slightly above our 2 km test pace but with a much slower stroke rate. Tough work and really hard to concentrate on technique. Usually my bike ride home from rowing is much slower than my pace on the way there.

Most weekends I also take my dog out for a 5 km + hike in the woods. Usually we run together. I love being outside and I like the feeling of running on trails in the woods.

So Aikido, soccer, rowing, bike riding, and dog-jogging. But no exercise?

I’d say in one sense that’s right. I do these things because they’re fun, a big part of what I think of as the good life. I spend a lot of time as an academic in my head, with words, books, and ideas but being physical really matters. It’s a key part of who I am.

No wonder inactive people are put off by The Biggest Loser’s participants. Those people are not having any fun. It’s joyless. They are exercising for one reason and one reason only, to lose weight. If that were my reason, I’d have quit a long time ago.

My advice to people who want to be more active is to find something you love, something you enjoy, something you’d do anyway even if you didn’t lose weight. We need to experience more joy in our lives, joy in moving our bodies in ways that feel good.

For you, that might be dance, yoga, walking, or gardening.

For me, I’m a competitive person and I like races and games with winners and losers. I also like skill development and getting better at something, like testing for new belts in Aikido, crit interval drills on the bike, or learning the technique involved in rowing.

It’s clear with cycling, the sport I love best, that it’s not medicinal exercise, taken in daily doses for health related reasons. Instead, at various times I’ve trained and raced. These days more often I ride for fun with friends. I also often commute on my bike and use it for practical transportation.

Even Crossfit–the one thing I do to which the term ‘workout’ really applies–has both a skill building (weight training, Olympic lifting) and a competitive element. It’s ‘as many reps as possible’ or ‘so many reps for time.’ I usually focus on competing with myself but other people there seriously train for the Crossfit games.

If exercise, as a term, works for you, great. But for many of us it misses the mark.  For us, let’s ditch talk of exercise and talk instead about all the fun physical activities that are part of the good life. I think sharing the joy in physical activity is a better route to getting more people moving than in prescribing exercise in medicinal doses.


Row, row, row your boat! (Trying something new)

One of my goals in the “fittest at fifty” campaign is to try a brand new sport or physical activity. I’ve often admired rowers–it looks so beautiful and like cyclists, they get to play outside in the sunrise. I love watching people at rowing practice as I ride along river and lakeside bike paths. But it’s nothing I’ve ever done before.

An aside: I’ve been tempted in the past to try rowing but been put off by weight categories. Light weight rowers are tiny. I think the cut off might be 130 lbs for women. But the heavyweights tend to Amazon proportions. Often they’re 6 ft tall or more. When I was younger I would’ve been strongly encouraged to “make weight” to row as a light weight, I think. I’m only 5’7 and in theory that’s doable. Not without ditching some muscle these days. As I mentioned in an earlier post I’m currently 122 lbs of lean muscle and bone.

But I think that matters less as a Masters level rower and competing for fun. At the encouragement of a friend, I attended two sessions this week at the London Rowing Club and I’ve joined their Off-Water Masters Program as a beginner. Our first coached day covered basic erg technique (like this, 7 Steps To Seriously Effective Erg Technique). Since it’s Canada in the autumn/winter we’re inside for quite a few months though they also have a tank to practice in-water technique. Rowing turns out to be very technical. (You experienced rowers can insert knowing chuckle here.) Lots and lots to learn (I like that) and I think I’ll never be able to look at people using the rowing machines at the gym the same way again.

The second day was our first 2 km erg test. Here I discovered that rowers and cyclists have something in common, a love of suffering! So that’s one transferable skill from cycling.

Since I have no shame and part of the joy of a new sport is I have no idea how bad this is, I’m happy to share my results here. I’m a beginner again, I love that. In fact, I think it’s one of the best things about being in reasonably good shape is that you can try new sports and activities and focus on technique rather than the fitness barrier. We’re going to repeat these monthly and results are posted on the bulletin board at the club so we can track progress. I’m just a little bit competitive (even if just with myself) so I like that. 🙂

Here’s my November 2 km erg time and splits

110 drag factor
2 km time 8:45.4
avg split 2:11.4

400 m 2:00

800 m 212.6
1200 m 217.2
1600 213.8
2000 212.8

What I really like: There’s a keen coach. I need that. Like cyclists, rowers like to suffer and that matches my sports profile. A time trial is a time trial.  There’s also lots of women my age.

What I’m not so sure about: It’s more indoor exercising which isn’t really my thing. I worry the technique might be too tricky to acquire at my age. I’ll report back.

In the meantime, I’m watching videos like the one below on proper erg technique.