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There are a lot of non-rowers out there amongst my readers – and some pretty impressively fit ones, I’ll be the first to admit. Now, I’m guessing some of you runners and triathletes and body builders have had a go on the rowing machine in the gym every now and then (forgive me while I pause for the rowers to have a quiet snigger; our favourite sport, apart from rowing, is watching non-rowers on the erg). I’m also guessing you’re up for a challenge.

Well, now’s your chance to find out how good you really are at the erg. World Champion rowers Katherine Grainger and Olympic gold medallists Mark Hunter and Greg Searle are giving you an insight into just how hard the selection for the GB Rowing Team is by inviting you – yes, that’s you – to take your own trial on a rowing machine.

For the month of February the team is running The Nation on Trial initiative: the chance to take your own 2km trial, whilst also raising money for the event’s charity partner, The Stroke Association. 2km is the distance of the Olympic rowing course and is the standard length of race at the World and British Rowing Championships.

The 2k erg test is also possibly the hardest thing a rower ever has to do; and most rowers have to do them at regular intervals. They can, in some clubs, make the difference between getting a place in a boat and watching from the bank.

So, back to the challenge. Here’s how it works. Anyone of any ability aged 16 and over can register on the event website www.nationontrial.org and access expert training advice on how to use a rowing machine as well as hearing messages of encouragement from World Champions such as Grainger, Richard Chambers and Searle. You train and build up to rowing 2km as fast as you can on a rowing machine at a local gym or rowing club. You record your time as many times as you like on the event website between 1 and 29 February; this will show how you compare with friends and workmates as well as with the entry standard for the GB selection process.

Who knows? You might find you get a taste for it. You might decide to try out rowing on the water. You might even find you’re one of that rare breed of people (count me out) who actually enjoy the erg. Just one thing, though. Ergs don’t float.

 

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So, I finally got back on the erg today after a break of almost three months. Just a gentle paddle, as it were. 10 minutes with the dial on 1, low rating, nothing that might risk any searing pain.

As a training session, it was nothing to write home about. But what a relief to be back on the machine that has given me so much pain and trouble.

There’s nothing like an injury to make you grateful for what you’ve got. I’ve got a way to go before I’m back to strength and fitness, and I’m still not sure when I’ll be back on the river, but seeing a little glimmer of light on the horizon has made me happier than you can imagine. It’s good to be back.

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Last night at the club, the difference between the two sexes couldn’t have been more obvious – or could it?

It's good to talk

First up for land training was the women’s squad. No sooner were we through the door than the talking began (with kit to discuss, relationships to dissect and injuries to compare, there was plenty to say) and there was a fair bit of laughter as we set up the weights. One stray man arriving early carried his erg into the changing room “to protect his ears”.

An hour later, just as we were finishing our stretches, the men arrived. One by one they strode in purposefully and went straight to the erg. No chat. No laughter. All very serious and… manly. No sound but the whooshing of the rowing machine. You could practically smell the testosterone.

It might be tempting to conclude that this is a fine example of the division of the sexes.

Well, maybe, but let me just say this. Don’t be fooled by the frivolous chatter and banter, or even by the make-up and matching kit. Behind the cute exteriors lie hearts of steel (and some rapidly growing muscles). Watch out, boys. Here come the girls.

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It’s a bit of a cliché, but one I’m always grateful for. However feeble my erg score (and it’s feeble enough to be kept a closely guarded secret), I can always comfort myself with the thought that ergs don’t float – by which I mean that what you do on a rowing machine doesn’t necessarily translate into what happens on the water.

You can be all grunt and heft in the erg room and achieve massive, macho scores, but if your technique on the water is lousy – if you’re missing the catch until half way through the stroke, or you’re flying up the slide like an elephant on castors – you can waste all of your (admittedly impressive) efforts.

So if there were an erg that mimicked what happened on the water in any sort of realistic way, we’d all be pretty interested, right? Well, yesterday I had the chance to try out some WaterRower rowing machines that claim to be the nearest thing you can get on land to the real thing.

My attempts on the various models were overseen by Leander rower and Olympic hopeful Alan Sinclair, whose most exciting claim to fame – and sorry, Al, for bringing this up rather than your more serious achievements – is being Robbie Williams’ body double in the video for The Flood (just pausing for a moment here to let the Take That! fans pick themselves up off the floor).

Anyway, with Alan there to help me, what could possibly go wrong?

On the WaterRower and still smiling

First on trial was the basic WaterRower, which you’ll probably be familiar with. It was smoother and quieter than a Concept2 (sorry to mention them, but if I don’t, someone will). Other than that, it felt pretty familiar.

What a face! This is harder than it looks...

Definitely a step up was the Oartec Slider. This is a dynamic rowing machine that is designed to give the most realistic feeling of rowing on the water, and is supposed to be kinder to your back. What marks it out from a static one is that the frame moves (if you’ve ever put a static erg on a frame, you’ll have an idea what this feels like). When you push off with your legs, they move away from you, rather than you moving away from them. The whole experience is more fluid – always good in a water sport.

I can’t deny I didn’t quite get the hang of it in the short time I had to try it out, which explains the faces I was pulling (probably just as well that you can’t see Alan’s face as he watches my efforts…). I was pinging backwards and forwards, sometimes hitting front stops and sometimes back stops, which is not how it’s supposed to work. I would imagine, though, that if you can get to grips with it, it could be a very useful bit of kit.

What could possibly go wrong?

Finally, the machine I’d been waiting to try – the Oartec simulator. It’s huge and metallic and looks like something that would-be astronauts might use to test their suitability for space travel (though I’m assured it does fold down into a more storable size). What is so unusual about it is that rather than just having a straight handle on a chain, it is rigged with separate, solid handles for sculling or for bow or stroke-side rowing.

This really is more like the real thing. We had it rigged for sculling, and the motion really did feel exactly like the sequence of movements in a sculling boat (right down to the sculler’s knuckle that I managed to sustain within a minute of climbing aboard). On the erg you don’t use exactly the same muscles, especially on the upper body, as you do in a boat; with this one it was much more familiar.

Again,

"Have you started pulling yet?"

it took a little while to get used to it and to get even a moderately respectable score (I’ll never live down my shame when Alan peered at the monitor and asked if that was the sort of score that I’d normally be achieving. No one is supposed to know). But I really think I could come to love it (all right, like it, at least).

For a start it looks really cool (come on, that matters!) and anything that is less like an erg and more like a boat is always a winner for me. Best of all, if you’re looking to improve, you could use it to work on your technique in a meaningful way.

So, as I said, with Alan in charge, what could possibly go wrong? Well, nothing much, except for the small matter of me breaking one of the machines. And which one do you imagine I managed to break? Yes, you guessed it.

Of course, they were all very lovely about it and said it wasn’t really broken and there was just a belt that needed re-attaching or something. But still…

Ah well. Even if my erg scores are nothing to write home about, at least I’ve shown that I’m strong enough to break a monster machine. That has to count for something.

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I know it’s unlikely. Me, pint-sized, featherweight and spectacularly unsuccessful novice rower, firmly in the Masters *cough* category, rowing the Tideway with two of Britain’s finest U23 rowers. Has to be a joke, right?

Well, actually, no. Today I joined GB U23, Olympic hopefuls Ben Duggan and Nick Middleton in a mixed quad for a paddle out of London Rowing Club in Putney. You can look out for us at Henley next year (OK, now I’m joking).

It was all thanks to the good people at Oartec who were there to showcase a selection of their rowing machines (of which much more in my next post – together with photos, technie stuff and even a shameful confession on my part).

Ben and Nick, together with fellow Leander member Alan Sinclair, told us all about what it takes to cut it as an international rower (a whole lot of work, calorie counts to die for and an attitude to alcohol that would put the England rugby team to shame – and again, more of all of that in a later post, too). We got a chance to try out the ergs (actually fun when you have an international rower supervising it – must suggest that to our club captain…)

And then our boat arrived.

Admittedly, it wasn’t the finest or fastest craft in the world – a “virtually unsinkable” tubby rigged as a quad – but who’s complaining when you’ve got internationals at bow and stroke? Nick took the bow seat, fellow journalist Dominic Hart (sports ed at the Daily Mirror) was at 2, I sat at 3 and Ben at stroke.

Now then. Remember what I said in a previous post about everything melting down when you’re rowing in front of the clubhouse and wanting to impress people? Now imagine that the people you’re wanting to impress are not the club captain or even the mocking juniors, but the best rowers you’ve ever met and are ever likely to meet. Exactly.

Needless to say, the Little People got a fair amount of revenge in. Struggling with a sticky gate on stroke side that made feathering a challenge (yeah, yeah, blame the boat, why don’t you?), I certainly reinforced my novice status, catching several crabs and generally rowing my worst.

But it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world. How many people get the chance to practise their sport with their sporting heroes in actual, real life? OK, so I may have rowed like a beginner, but I was rowing like a beginner with Britain’s best.

So a massive thank you to Oartec. A massive thank you to the Leander boys for being so patient and generally amazing. And despite their best efforts, a big yah-boo-sucks to the Little People.

GirlontheRiver 1,000,000: Little People: 0

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Although rowing legend Matthew Pinsent  declared this week that #FF stands for Friendly Follow rather than Follow Friday (and who am I to argue with the likes of him?), I shall continue with my three-week-old tradition of running a Friday blogspot.

A last-minute recommendation has had me clicking on Carlos Dinares. Its raison d’etre is the promotion of the dynamic erg, but if you don’t mind this there are some brilliant articles about rowing, with a useful  focus on how to make the boat go faster, so it’s definitely worth a rummage.

Next up, and closer to home, is the surprisingly poetic Rusty Rigger, a blog brought to us by Bristol Ariel Rowing Club (just far enough away from Monmouth to prevent them from being arch-rivals). There are lyrical descriptions of the river, enough pleasingly Grumpy Old Man observations to make me chuckle and more honesty than most rowing blogs tend to manage (not every outing is a good one, after all). Go read.

In a brief departure, this week I’m also recommending a tweeter rather than a blogger – please, please take a look at @YoureARowerWhen. It is, as the name suggests, “dedicated to all the crazy things about rowers that non-rowers just don’t understand” and gave SonOnTheRiver and me a good half hour of laughs reading its tweets and laughing in recognition.

And finally, in a shameless bit of self-promotion, I’m going to point you in the direction of Rowperfect which has an eclectic blog featuring – oh! – none other than GirlonTheRiver in a guest post this week – but also news, views, some regular funny stuff and other rowing-related bits and pieces. Always worth checking out as you never know what you’re going to find.

Have a great weekend. And if you happen to find yourself at Monmouth Head, come and say hello – I’ll be the frazzled one frying bacon and looking longingly at the river.

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Any excuse will do

If this morning’s weather is anything to go by, summer is drawing to a close. For rowers that means only one thing. As regattas give way to heads, we have to face… the Return of the Erg.

Of course the rowing machine is not confined to winter training; who can forget the pain of the minute-on, minute-off sprint sessions before Nat Masters? Yet there’s nothing quite like a long stint to strike fear into the heart of the most dedicated rower. Nothing – really nothing – on the water ever seems to hurt as much as the erg. Sure, we’re told to learn to love it, but does anyone really enjoy it?

This year I swore I’d give myself a head start and begin my winter training in the summer. So why is it that my erg (an ancient Model B with rust patches and a dodgy monitor) is gathering dust?

Here are some of the excuses I’ve come up with just this week for avoiding Erg-Torture:

1. The dog needs a walk.
2. I’ve only just washed my hair.
3. It’s too close to breakfast.
4. It’s too close to lunch.
5. I’m a bit hurty after boot camp.
6. I need to tidy my room.
7. It’s time I started writing a blog (hmmmm…).
8. I don’t have enough calories in my system.
9. I must just put a wash on.
10. Come Dine With Me is about to start.

What are your best and worst excuses for not exercising?

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