Why Training Secrets Don't Exist

By Patrick Rufo | March 2, 2015

Remember when Rocky fought Ivan Drago in Rocky IV and we saw the montage of all the crazy training Ivan did behind the Iron Curtain? The communists believed that if they could impress their excellence at sport upon the rest of the world, they would be seen as a successful society in spite of the iron curtain and were the first to devote truly serious resources to research efforts in rowing training and development. After the fall of the iron curtain, East German experts like Jurgen Grobler were free to wonder the globe – and they did. National governing bodies (or NGBs: a descriptor for organizations like USRowing) began to concentrate on restructuring their selection, development, and training protocols based on research that was in large part founded in the Soviet era in order to ultimately improve their national teams. Some NGBs were better at integrating this information than others – their success correlated a large degree to their funding. There are no training secrets – though fragmented understanding of athlete preparation and development creates the illusion that they exist.

USRowing pales in funding compared to peers. The organization’s entire annual budget (coaching education, JR/U23/senior national team, events, etc.) is approximately $7.5M annually. Most Americans in the rowing community aren’t aware that the GB Rowing national team’s budget (just the senior team) this Olympic cycle is $40M (£27M) or that the nation of Australia has a 164 acre campus in Canberra that employs full-time researchers in “sports nutrition, performance analysis, skill acquisition, physiology, recovery, biomechanics, athlete career education, strength and conditioning, psychology, sports medicine, physical therapies, talent identification and applied performance research” (the AIS) expressly for the purpose of providing sport-specific support to their NGBs. Additionally, while USRowing and Rowing Australia’s budgets are similar (Australia’s is higher) – AIS’s structure allows cutting edge understanding of best practice on every level whereas there is no such support in the US. The US is at a deficit here but also at a deficit in its ability to disseminate the information to the coaches at the coal-face. There is also little incentive to use the information as compared to say, Canada – where coaches must complete a certain levels of qualification to be on the ground at certain regattas. As a result of the lack of information flow, we sometimes see coaching for everyday athletes in the US that copies elite collegiate or national team training programs and expects optimal development as a result.

Countries with smaller populations (and resources on the private level) have developed a more streamlined pipeline of development and training protocols than the US given the relative strength of their NGBs. While the US has vastly superior resources on the collegiate level, there is little beyond goodwill in an otherwise competitive industry to facilitate the spread of rowing specific physiological knowledge. This creates pockets of thought; most US collegiate coaches are self-taught. Some utilize research journals – and some run their own proverbial research laboratories. However: all will agree there is a lack of uniform agreement in terms of best practices.

So, it should come as no surprise why some in the community (juniors, in particular) strongly believe in the concept of “training secrets” when in actuality they’re just experiencing the same thing those in medieval times may have when they encountered a “wizard” or “sorcery.” There is method to the madness and a well-researched developmental arc is available. A would-be solid collegiate rower should not be discouraged when they perform a workout they’ve gleaned from a top ten collegiate program and fail to meet it.

As such, there are two key tools for those seeking to better their training without the support of millions or government funded R&D on the cutting-edge level. First, research – and second, perspective. This may seem utterly simple – but we live in a society (particularly juniors) where getting things instantly is the norm. The beauty of rowing is that this is not the case – regardless of whether you have a solid training program or not.

Basic research like Volker Nolte’s Rowing Faster – and if one would like to harken back to the good old days the East German manual of rowing, Rudern (“coxswains should be well schooled in communist ideology”, anyone?) – prove helpful to 99% of American juniors. Googling “rowing physiology journal” provides a host of peer-reviewed articles.