Efficiency of Motion

After a 2-week Christmas hiatus from rowing on the water, I’m a bit rusty and I’m relearning some previous lessons. Today was my second day back on the water, and to my surprise the workout was a pair of timed 5k pieces. Conditions were fair with a headwind on the first piece and a tailwind on the second.

Now I assumed because I had recently added a new skill, well at least got the first taste of it (putting my blades square in the water at the front-end by rolling my hands up- a small but very significant step) on my last day of rowing before the break, that I would instantly be out in front of my teammates on these pieces. My assumption was absolutely incorrect. Yes, I had my first taste of rowing efficiently, but it was a very gentle cadence and I have not developed the skill to implement this efficiency at a high cadence. Furthermore, I had forgotten the frustrations I had experienced when I throttled my efforts and returned with disappointing results.

In rowing, when your movements are efficient, the boat runs and you maximize boat speed. Consequently, if your motion is inefficient you will fight the boat’s run and kill boat speed. I am a common victim of my own overzealous efforts leading to physical exhaustion, inefficiency and the destruction of boat speed. It is incredibly frustrating to not realize you are shooting yourself in the foot all the while wondering why you are in pain. This is not my first time doing this, but after-all the first step to correction is realizing you have a problem, right?

The first piece was spent spinning my wheels which left me exhausted. During the second piece, I had very little gas in the tank and so I settled down, gave the reduced effort that I had and was shocked at the result: boat speed improved dramatically. Additionally, I was calm and smooth. I’m posting this so I never forget this lesson again: do not allow overzealous effort to destroy efficiency and boat speed.


VO2 Max Testing Today

I had the opportunity to VO2 max test today with #OpenSculling at Tidal Elite Performance Center and J. Braun. This was my second test ever, and I forgot how horrible the last few minutes of this test are. The first video shows me going strong at mid-test and the last video shows it can get pretty ugly at the end.

VO2 max testing is the gold standard to establishing heart rate zones for heart rate zone training. Back before making an Olympic bid would have ever been conceivable for me, I began on the road to a healthy lifestyle at 350lbs and the goal of rowing for 45 minutes a day, four days a week maintaing my heart rate between140-150bpm. Admittedly, this heart range was a “semi-educated” guess but it turns out to have been a great starting point to establish the cardio-base that improbably led to my Olympic pursuit. I am a big believer in heart rate training.

I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome Polar heart rate monitor to not only monitor my heart rate, but to also give me a good estimate of calories burned. After losing more than 100lbs, tracking calories burned and calories consumed were critical metrics to helping me whittle down to the single digit body fat percentage nearly a year ago. I’m back on this train currently, as I strive to hit the sweet spot for competing at as close to 220lbs as I can possibly get (6% body fat for me).

July Wrap-Up

Following a very rough start in July, I capped off the month with the very best sculling I’ve ever done yesterday during a 20K steady state workout on an incredibly calm, glassy day on the Potomac. I’ve finally submitted myself to near-complete relaxation (and less intensity) to yield a relaxed smooth stroke. This goes against the grain for me because I’m a nose-tackle at heart and progress for me has always looked like explosive disruption. Literally every day of rowing, coupled with great coaching, is an evolution for me. I’ve only been in a racing scull for a month now, but I’ve come along way with the coaching efforts of Reilly Dampeer, Sam Stitt, Paul Guthrie and Guennadi Bratichko. Yesterday saw, Reilly’s instruction on stroke sequencing, Sam’s advice to be in the moment, and Guennadi’s advice on timing all came together on the very same day!

Guennadi’s feedback yesterday, was “you look like a real rower” and “I wish had a video camera to capture this moment”. Hopefully the moment stays with me, as I try to recreate this feeling on Monday. Its a feeling of stability in the boat, effortless stroke length, and allowing the boat to run through the recovery.

I began July racing for the first time ever in novice heats at the Independence Day Regatta in Philadelphia and at Capital Sprints. Racing was an ugly and frustrating experience, but I learned a great deal from it. First, I experienced how easily I can throw out all of the coaching advice the second the gun goes off. Second, I realized how long of a journey I have to make. Knowing I most likely have a minute plus erg advantage on the competition, I must have been real horrible during the races finishing in the middle of the pack. This tells me that I had the poorest technique out there.

Now let’s see how much further I can develop in August and September before my next race, Head of the Potomac.

Week of May 11-16

This last week was my first full week of training on the water following a 10-day period where I was out with an injury. I spent between 9-10 hours on the water drilling technique with another 8 hours spent in intense cardio. I had another 2 hours in physical therapy, working on small stabilizer muscles that I had neglected but which contributed to the nerve entrapment in my hip that has had me down.

I’ve made a ton of progress in the Maas 24, finding a very stable and consistent stroke with much improved oar control, blade depth, propulsion/acceleration. My training teammates were on the dock on Friday de-rigging their shells in preparation for their trip to the U.S. PanAm Trials starting today and commented on the last week’s progress something to the effect of “a few days ago you could hardly row that thing and you now you’re in command”. I’m just shooting for a semblance of competence, and the opportunity to graduate to a racing shell. I believe I’m very close!

First Time in A Racing Shell, albeit with Training Wheels

Last night I finally had my first stint in a racing shell taking out a double with my teammate/mentor/coach Sam Stitt. Sam sculled in the 2008 Olympics in the double, is the unofficial team captain, and arguably possesses the most efficient sculling technique in the U.S. He also happens to be quite a character (perhaps I’ll get him on the vlog soon). For those of you wondering, if you want rowing lessons from Sam, you probably won’t be able to afford his “priceless” pricetag (I only got in because I beat him on my best day at a 2K test during his “retirement year”).

Conditions were fairly suboptimal on the Potomac last night with the wind howling, a bit of swirliness and cross-currents and an armada of high school boats out on the water. This said, Sam rowed us over to a narrow branch of the Potomac that wraps around Theodore Roosevelt Island where we had flatter water, no traffic, and all evening for me to have at it.

Being new to rowing, I’m very unfamiliar with rowing jargon. Sam kept talking about a “set” boat, and I had no idea what he meant. As I come to find out, it is when one of the scullers holds his/her oars out feathered on the water to balance the boat. Once the boat is set, the remaining oarsmen can have a dance party or a highly stable environment (the boat is typically unstable) similar to what is created by training wheels on a bicycle. From there, Sam had me drill for close to an hour with a very narrow focus on the movement with my hands.

Rowing on the erg, your hands don’t do much other than hook the handle. However, in the boat, my hands feel like they are in a constant battle with one another which is a consistent reminder to me to cut my already stubby fingernails. The reality is your hands shouldn’t be in a battle with each other and you just need to channel your muscle memory to have a smooth, fluid movement enabling the oars to move efficiently in & out of the water. That is what we worked on for an hour. Seems boring, at least that is what Sam told me, but these boring things are revelations for me. Your hands coming in/out of the stroke use the LIFO inventory method (meaning the last hand draw-in is the first hand to shove-out). I had never thought about this before because my hands have mostly lived in chaos and war thus far in the dozen or so times I’ve gone out on the water. So, Sam gave my hands a lesson in civilization and he echoed the recurrent theme in all of my instructors thus far, smooth is fast. It was a great opportunity to train proper muscle memory, and I’m sure I could use another 1000+ hours of this so I’ll have to drill this on my own.

Still working on the vlog. I’ll get it soon.



April Update

So, the 2014-2015 winter was unusually brutal and lengthy in DC this year which means I spent zero days on the water with the team following a single session in late November. This said, I spent nearly the entire winter on the erg with the team (the Potomac didn’t melt off until early March) and changed my erg technique from poor to decent (still not super efficient but good enough to avoid injury). I placed 3rd at mid-Atlantic Erg-Sprints with a 6:04 2K time and then hit a 6:01 2K in March. I was reaching hard to go sub-6 minutes, but faded in the last part of the piece. I am close, but not there yet.

My weight has seem some fluctuation from my 227lb low in November, well mostly it’s just been higher. Not having the opportunity to be on the water, took the wind out of my weight-loss sails. I’ve spent most of the last 3 months in the 240lb range. I’m now in the process of rapid descent back below 230lbs (shooting to hit 220lbs as I’ll need to maintain 220-230lbs for the next 18 months to make my Olympic goal a reality).

I had the opportunity in March to get three on-water sessions while in Hawaii courtesy of the Honolulu Rowing Association. It was nice to be out there, but I was mostly clueless on how to progress to elite technique.

I had my first days on the Potomac last week (Thurs-Sat). Paul Guthrie (a former assistant coach for Open Sculling) and Reilly Dampeer (the head coach for Open Sculling) took me out, and began what will likely be a long journey of guiding me from my complete novice level to an elite level. These coaches are elite coaches and have little experience (or more likely no experience) coaching a novice. This will be a tough journey, and I’ve decided to start a YouTube channel to document the experience. Stay tuned, I’ll be posting videos shortly.

Transforming from Fat to Elite

The Short Story

photo(4)I was a 350lb investment banker and former collegiate nose tackle who needed to lose weight and get in shape.

I made the decision to take-up rowing for casual aerobic exercise which ultimately transformed my body (120+lb weight loss) and cardiovascular health enabling me to compete as a 2014-2015 U.S. Rowing National Team candidate and a 2016 Olympic Hopeful.

The Long Story

Why Rowing

“You need to lose weight and exercise regularly.  I would be happy to refer you to a bariatric surgeon”.  Knock me over with a feather!  Was the cardiologist speaking to me? I booked an appointment with a cardiologist due to a family history of heart attacks which took the lives of nearly a half-dozen family members between the ages of 30 and 55. My father miraculously recovered from his heart attack, prompting me to mitigate potential genetic and environmental risk factors so I would have every opportunity to live. At the time, I weighed 350lbs., and I worked long hours in a high-stress career in investment banking. This was the catalyst.

I had just moved to the Washington, D.C. metro area and it was late fall, not exactly an ideal time to begin a new exercise regimen. Furthermore, years of football as a 325lb. collegiate nose tackle with its accompanying laundry list of injuries (primarily my back/joints) had stripped me of many conventional exercise opportunities. I had dabbled in cycling when I lived in the Bay Area, and yes, its a chore to haul 350lbs along the hills of San Francisco and Marin. I felt “seriously taking-up” cycling heading into the Winter was not a smart move, and after growing up staring at the black line of death in a swimming pool I knew I needed to find something else. So, despite having never used a rowing erg, I ordered one with the comfort of knowing I had a 30-day money back guarantee!

Learning Process

Erg Cost

Depreciating the erg over weight lost, kilometers rowed or increased life expectancy make this purchase decision a no-brainer.

After I ordered my rowing erg, I had to share the news with my wife and work into that conversation my intent of storing the erg and using it in the annex off of our family room. With the blessing of my doc, I argued my plan persuasively to my very skeptical wife. She was less than pleased I hadn’t consulted her on my four-figure (not quite but she was rounding up) purchase, and she was not on-board with the aesthetic enhancement I had planned for our home. My arguments would have been much stronger had I known how low the depreciation rate would be (see figure X). Nonetheless, my message was accepted by my incredibly supportive wife who hesitantly agreed to allow me to proceed on a conditional basis.

Given my complete lack of rowing experience, I decided to turn to the internet to learn how to row on my erg. With a good 30 minutes of instructional video, I was prepped to begin. My first row lasted all of five minutes. Yes, my abs were not prepared to pay the rowing tax and within five minutes I had serious abdominal cramps. Fortunately, abs adapt quickly and I made it to my 20-minute goal on my second row. Outside of online technique videos, I was virtually clueless about every other aspect of rowing including where I should target my workouts with respect to the various metrics on my erg monitor. Quite frankly, the only real guide I had was a time goal and my basic Polar Heart Rate monitor to ensure I was exercising below my target bpm ceiling (which I had unscientifically chosen as 150bpm). Thus began my rowing adventure.

After a couple months of casually rowing, working my way to three to four, 20-30 minute workouts per week, I decided to step-up my game and really try and lose some serious weight. This meant actually dieting and setting a goal of rowing four-10Ks each week. My diet plan was basic:

  1. Eat Steel-Cut Oats with craisins and walnuts for breakfast along with the occasional 1-4 egg whites
  2. Eat a protein shake as a meal replacement once a day (either lunch or dinner)
  3. Eliminate: Sweets, bread, white rice, pasta, additional helpings (no seconds) and eating after 8pm

For rowing, I had seen gradual improvement and, with my limited knowledge and experience with cardio, decided a worthy goal would be a sub-38 minute 10K time while maintaining my heart rate in the 145-150 bpm range. With my diet plan and rowing goal in hand, I began on April 1, 2013. I dropped 20lbs that month and then 18lbs the next month. Cumulatively, since purchasing my erg, I had lost 50lbs and was feeling really good at 300lbs (a weight at which I had previously been physically dominant in college football). This, along with a somewhat reduced commitment to my dieting principles, explains how I only lost 1lb in June. I didn’t have a specific target weight, but I figured maintaining a weight below 275lbs would be perfect for me. In July, I began closing in on my cardio goal and lost another 10 lbs.

Years before I began rowing on my erg, I had discussed rowing as a potential outlet for my future children (if this sounds quirky, just know when I began dating in college I was more likely to date based on athletic potential than any other factor) and had decided that rowing was well aligned to some of my greatest genetic physical/athletic strengths (superior leg strength, long-torso and long arms). Identifying rowing as a good sport for my children was another factor why I chose to row for exercise so I could learn the sport and hopefully sow the seeds of interest in my daughters.

The Genesis of An Olympic Pipe Dream

As I began to close on my cardio goal, I realized from an on-line rowing community that my 10K time, despite being intentionally constrained by a 150bpm ceiling, was really good…90th+ percentile good amongst a population of thousands of rowers.  I began to wonder, if I really gave a decent commitment to rowing if I could become competitive enough to qualify a fringe country such as my ancestral homelands of Samoa and American Samoa for the Olympics (I had understood there is often a lower hurdle in these countries to encourage participation)? After-all, who wouldn’t want to go to the Olympics? Some say this sounds like crazy talk,  but on a relative scale its not as far-fetched if you understand my athletic background. At BYU, even amongst my teammates I was 99th percentile strong, particularly when it came to Olympic lifting. My high school weight coach, Mike Burgener, who also happened to be a U.S. Jr. Olympic lifting coach and who is currently the Head Olympic Lifting Coach for Crossfit, at one point suggested I quit football and pursue an Olympic path as an Oly lifter.  I was a solid college football player and never had the opportunity to reach my potential in the NFL as a knee injury prevented me from participating in Fall camp after receiving several free-agent opportunities. Additionally, my mother had been a World Class swimmer (6-time U.S. National Swim team member), and so I figured I likely inherited some aerobic ability which had never been realized as a lineman (linemen are like alligators: sprints≤10 yards≤long-distance).

To Do List

Oversimplified? It’s all relative. When I met with the coaches they gave me a two item list: weigh 230lbs and row a 5:50 2K.

Through a series of conversations with various friends, I was led to a U.S. Rowing partner program based in Washington, D.C. where a dozen or so elite rowers train (many of whom are U.S. National team members and Olympians). I gave the coaches my pitch and they invited me out to ride in the launch during practice. After selling them a bit more, they invited me back to do a 2K benchmark test (my first one ever). I performed the test and the coaches appeared to be impressed by the negative splits I posted in achieving the targeted time of 6:30 (particularly on the last leg). The coaches suggested that my Olympic musings were likely achievable if I were to apply myself. They set some targets for me and offered me some training guidelines and advice. They welcomed me to train with them once I reached a weight of 230lb.

At the time, I was 290ish pounds and had never conceived as possible the idea of weighing 230lbs. In fact, I hadn’t been 230lbs since my freshman year in high school. In college, my lean-body weight alone had approached 270lbs (albeit those glory days were nearly a decade past at this point). The coaches told me that training for rowing would change my body and that I wouldn’t have a problem hitting 230lbs. I wasn’t fully convinced, but I decided to try anyway given the limited down-side. I figured my “Olympic Journey” would be like eating an elephant…just take one bite at a time.

Meeting the Mark

Fast forward 6-months: I had trained every morning as the coaches had instructed, and had begun to integrate with the team, primarily in erg testing. I posted a respectable 2K time slightly north of 6 minutes at the Atlantic Erg Sprints competition in February, but I had been dogged with injuries and my weight was caught in a range between 260-270lbs. I decided to perform a 6K test on my own in my family room. I hit 19:37, a time just shy of the U.S. National team development standard. I realized the bottleneck was not going to be cardio, I just needed to lose weight or all of this was for not.

Between March and July I continued to train, but kept my focus on reaching 230lbs. I felt like I was trying everything to lose weight, but to no avail. Finally, I decided that my “Olympic Dream” would not be realized if I weren’t out on the water every day with the team before winter’s arrival. I was desperate, and I decided that desperate times called for desperate measures. I decided to experiment with a plant-based vegan diet which would deprive me of eating meat but would ensure my calorie quality increased dramatically. I started losing weight but it did not endure past a couple of weeks. I needed to be more disciplined on consumption volume, so I decided to also experiment with intermittent fasting. That worked for a couple weeks, but the weight loss eventually decelerated. I decided to give-up my post-rowing juice consumption which was as high as 24-ounces (I had been told there was no way I could train without the fruit juice to replace the depleted glycogen in my muscles). Suddenly the weight, began falling off, and I was still completing my workouts. For the first time ever, I discovered what my ab-muscles look like (yes, I actually have some). Suddenly, I’ve reached  beyond my 230lb target (shedding more than 120lbs). Suddenly, my body fat percentage hits the single digits. Suddenly, I’m wearing size 32 jeans. Suddenly, I’m training daily with the team on the water, and suddenly I’m a legitimate 2014-2015 U.S. Rowing National team hopeful.

Row Fast, Row Hard or Row Home

I’ve been asked what inspired me to use a heart rate monitor from the beginning of this journey, given my lack of experience in cardio and heart rate zone training. While there are several obvious reasons, it really comes down to dsc_0097competition. Whether competing with myself or against others, I am like an unbridled stallion and will literally expend every physical resource in my body to win. Absent a heart rate ceiling, I likely would have killed myself by going faster and harder than my heart could physically handle. However, with the proper parameters, I have molded myself into an elite endurance athlete.

I have yet to compete in a single race in a scull and going to the Olympics requires rowing harder and faster than all of your competitors. However, I have demonstrated the aptitude, discipline and persistence required to reach my goals. While I don’t know exactly what the journey ahead will be like, I do know I’ll keep eating the elephant one-bite at a time and sharing what lies ahead on this blog.  Thank you for your support!