A 2k test on the erg is one of the definitive physiological tests of our sport. It requires as much mental preparation as it does physical. Unlike a 6k where your endurance and mental strength are being tested, a 2k test analyzes both of those in addition to your power output and resistance of and resilience towards pain. This isn’t like going to the doctor to have a dislocated shoulder reset – it doesn’t hurt less if you don’t see it coming. It hurts more. Accepting the realization that your body is about to experience pain does a lot more for you than ignoring it.
There are infinite ways to pull a 2k and everyone’s strategy is different. Instead of reading this and thinking it is the definitive guide to developing your 2k game plan, use it as the framework to help build your own. Assuming you’ve all pulled a 2k before, you should know where you start to feel fatigued, where you start to hit that mental roadblock, and where you realize you need to go NOW. During races, coxswains use landmarks to help us call certain moves; the points I just listed are your landmarks.
The Start: 2000-1800m
Race plan: High 20 followed by 5-10 to lengthen out to your base pace
Go out of the gates hard here. Get your stroke rate where you want it within 2-3 strokes, making sure they’re controlled and not erratic. Know where your splits need to be and aim to get there within the first five to eight strokes. Take these first 10-15 strokes to get all the jitters out of your system – let the adrenaline take over.
As you go through strokes 14, 15, and 16 get ready to lengthen out. In 3, 2, 1, BOOM on this one – explosive press off the stretchers, control the slide on the recovery, drive it hard. Breathe. Get to your desired stroke rate within 2 strokes and pay attention to your split. Know what you need to be at, get there, and stay there.
At some point there will be a second where you think “I don’t feel THAT bad, I should bring my split down a little more.” Do not, under any circumstances, listen to your brain. Sabotage is the name of the game here and your brain is a master at it.
The Body: 1800-1300m
Race plan: Find your rhythm
This is where you’re going to start feeling the burn in your legs. The first 200m were largely anaerobic but that you’ve switched over to aerobic you’re gonna start feeling the lactic acid accumulation. Ignore it and focus on your splits. Concentration and consistency drives these 500m.
You’ll know you’re in trouble if your splits are sporadic and you find it hard to hold your desired number. If your split should be at a 1:48, make sure every stroke is focused on rowing a 1:48. When you get to 1500m, take a ten for … something. This is a good opportunity to check yourself and do one for form, rate, or power, if you want/need that boost to get yourself refocused on hitting your target splits.
The Pain Cave: 1300-700m
Race plan: Breathe, commit, attack
These are the worst 600m of a 2k. I like to break this part up into two smaller chunks: 1300-1000m and 1000-700m. This is where your brain is going to start saying “stop, I can’t do it, the tank’s empty, if I fake a heart attack maybe I can get out of this, wait – I don’t need to fake a heart attack, I think I’m actually having one”. Pieces are determined to be successful or not successful in this next stretch, so above anything else, your mental toughness has to prevail here.
A lot of times I’ve seen rowers get to this point and start feeling defeated by the number of meters left on the screen. They take a break from their split for a stroke or two and then it’s all over. There’s no coming back from those off strokes. You have to recognize that pulling a 1:46 is going to burn just as badly as a 1:48 so you might as well push through and stay on that 1:46.
When you get to the 1000m mark, take a 20. These next twenty strokes are for you to feel your body and what it’s still capable of. I like to call this “the attack”. Go hard like you did at the start without changing the stroke rate. Control your breathing and your body and push through these few hundred meters. When you see the meters get to triple digits, don’t get complacent. You made be halfway done but you still have another half to complete. If all is going well, you’re still holding the splits you had around the 1500m mark.
After you finish those 20 strokes, take 5 to lengthen back out. Try to maintain the same split and stroke rate while getting as much length as possible. For most people it’s entirely possible that they don’t even see the 900-700m chunk go by because they’re inside their own heads.
The Second Half: 700-500m
Race plan: (re)Focus and prepare to start shifting the rate up
This isn’t supposed to feel good, remember? The third 500m is typically the slowest part of the piece. You’re suffering hard right now and the physical aspect of the test is taking a backseat to the mental part. Remind yourself that pain is a good thing and that you can’t quit yet. Make a shift with the stroke rate and push your split down by a second. Drive through these 200m.
The Build: 500-350m
Race plan: 10 at 500m to recommit – no turning back
All eyes on the end now. Coaches really look at this last 500m to see whether or not you went faster here than during any other part of the piece. Maintaining your split here is important. Take a 10 or 20 at the 500m mark, but don’t push your split down and let it immediately come back up. If you push it down, keep it there.
Watch your stroke rate coming into 400m. Make sure you’re not losing control and letting it creep up as you approach the end of the piece. While you want to be giving everything you’ve got, you still want to be able to give a little bit extra at the very end, so it’s important to not release that extra burst of energy too soon.
Around 400, start to gradually push the split down while letting the stroke rate come up a beat or two. This shouldn’t occur all at once, instead over a gradual period of a couple strokes. Make the commitment to go and GO.
The Sprint: 350-0m
Race plan: Stay controlled at the higher rate and go balls to the wall to the end
This is it. The legs are going to be begging for the end of this piece but you have to fight through the pain and maintain your technique. I’ve heard of some rowers who sprint at half slide and exaggerate their upper bodies to give the legs a break, which makes absolutely NO sense since the smaller upper body muscles are no match for the larger muscles of the legs. Stay long with the legs and don’t shorten your stroke as you bring the stroke rate up at the end.
Some additional important things to remember:
Eat something no later than one hour before your race. You can eat a regular meal 3-4 hours before your test because the digestive system will have done it’s job by the time you get on the erg, but as time ticks down your meals should get smaller to ensure it’s digested by the start of your piece. Don’t eat anything within an hour before your test because not only do you not want to get sick before, during, or after but you most especially do not want your stomach drawing blood away from where it’s needed most – your muscles.
Also, make sure you’re hydrated. Dehydration leads to cramps and there’s few things worse for a rower’s psyche than having to stop mid-2k because of a muscle cramp.
Don’t skip the warm up. 20ish minutes before your test is about when you should begin getting ready on the erg. Before this you should do your normal dynamic warmup or stretching/rolling routine that you usually do before practice.
When your body feels loose, get on the erg. If your coach has a specific warmup for you to do before your test, do that. If not, it’s up to you what you do. Ideally you should row around 2/3 pressure for a few minutes before moving up to 3/4 pressure. Throw in a couple of practice starts, followed by 5 high strokes and 5 lengthening strokes to mimic your full starting pattern. Spend about 5 minutes rowing at steady state pressure with some “bursts” thrown in every minute.
Following the completion of the full warm up (and assuming you’ve timed in correctly), give yourself at least 30 seconds or so to just sit at your erg and get in the zone. Grab one more drink if you need it but don’t spend too much time just sitting otherwise your muscles will cool down and negate the time you just spent warming up.
Right before the start
Close your eyes. Take a deep breath, sit up a little taller, and remind yourself that you are prepared for this. No negative thoughts, questioning, doubt, etc. is allowed.
Immediately after the test
Do not – I repeat, do NOT – make a big scene by flopping on the ground and lying there. The best thing you can do immediately following the test is keep moving. Don’t try getting off the erg right away and walking around though … the post-2k jelly leg syndrome can lead to some nasty injuries (fun fact, this is how I dislocated my knee).
It’s best to stay on the erg and row lightly for a few minutes to cool down so that the body can begin clearing all the metabolic waste from your system. The heart and liver will work to filter the lactate from the blood, which takes time, but the process is helped by keeping the body moving. If you don’t cool down and just let the lactate hang out, it can be a couple days before it’s fully cleared from your system, which means you’ll be in some serious pain.
You should do an active recovery that involves rowing around 40-50% for at least 5-10 minutes. Your coach should account for this if there aren’t enough ergs for everyone to do the test at once. Your muscles will use the majority of the lactate during the cool down, which will aid in helping clear it faster. When you’re tired you instinctively want to not do anything but after a hard erg piece it’s imperative that you keep moving and cool down. Just like the warm up, don’t skip this.
Let your coxswain know if you want them to cox you during your test. If you don’t want them to talk to you, don’t assume they know that and don’t get pissed at them if they try to cox you. They’re just doing their job. Make it clear that you don’t want any coxing but be polite about it. Sometimes coxswains can take a rower telling them not to cox them as that rower saying their coxing sucks, which most of the time isn’t true.
If you want them to cox you, talk to them well before your test (like, the day before) instead of waiting until 5 minutes before and telling them every spot you want them to give you a power 10. They won’t remember all of that. If you talk to them ahead of time, they can write down where you want to take a burst, where you want to start your sprint, what you want to be reminded of, etc. and then cox you through your piece without any hiccups.
Getting on the erg with a plan is much more beneficial than getting on and just pulling until the meters read zero. It all goes back to being prepared for the pain. Obviously I’m writing this from a coxswain’s perspective since this is usually how I approach 2ks but I think one of the best ways to come up with a strategy if you’re stumped on how to do, particularly if you’re a novice or haven’t done that many erg tests, it is to talk to a coxswain on your team. Ask them where, why, and what they do during a race. This will give you some insight into what they look for and why they think it’s important to make moves at certain points in the course.