The Rowing Reality Check (a.k.a. Erg Testing)

If you decide to row competitively, you will likely have to take an erg test. These are very simple in theory—they tend to be a specific distance (usually 1,000, 2,000, or 5,000 meters), or time-bound (e.g., as many meters as you can row in 20 minutes).

If you are a rower, you know that these tests are anything but simple. If a test has been announced, there is no mental peace until that test is over and done. The very thought of them can be terrifying.

So what is it that makes erg testing so horrific? I’ve thought about this a lot. Why can’t I just row the @!#$! thing and be done with it? Why do I mull it over…and over…and over? Why do I come up with a strategy, then ditch it, then rework it, then try it, then change it halfway through a test (at my own peril)? And what the heck is so scary about this thing anyway?!

My analysis has brought me to the development of Lauren’s Rule of Competitive Rowing. This is the idea that encapsulates what competitive rowing means.

The time has come, dear Novice Rower, to share the Rule with you. Here goes:

Rowing hurts. A lot. And when it hurts, you have to keep going. Sometimes for a long time.

There you have it.

The best description of the Rule is in one of my favorite rowing books, The Amateurs by David Halberstam. Mr. Halberstam was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wanted to determine why elite rowers work unbelievably hard without any hope of the high salaries or endorsements other elite athletes enjoy. The level of pain elite rowers endured especially intrigued him:

 Rowing, particularly sculling, inflicts on the individual in every race a level of pain associated with few other sports. There was certainly pain in football during a head-on collision, pain in other sports on the occasion of a serious injury. That was more the threat of pain; in rowing there was the absolute guarantee of it every time.

That’s what happens during an erg test. Guaranteed pain. It’s not whether or not you’ll be in pain. It’s when. When will it hit you like a truck? And after the pain begins, how long can you endure it without breaking apart, slowing down, or stopping?

But there’s the rub, rowing friends. To make it stop, you need to stop rowing. And here’s something else that sets rowing apart--slowing down or stopping cannot be considered as options. Because once you start to row, you can not stop or slow down until the race is over, the piece ends, your coach or coxswain tells you to weigh enough, or something goes shockingly wrong. If you stop or go slower, your entire boat stops or slows, and you lose.

Race over.

If you have others rowing in the boat with you, you’ve just ended their race, too. Definitely against their will. You’ve lost their trust, and your credibility is gone. Why? Because those racing with you are enduring and managing and fighting the same pain that made you stop or slow down. The difference is, they endured it. You did not.  

An erg test measures you up while it tears you down. It shows a score to your teammates, but it reveals to you your inner demons in glaring Technicolor. Erg tests make you tough, they build character, and they make it clear what manner of rower you are. They also make it painfully clear how far away you are from the manner of rower you someday hope to be.


Our next post introduces the first in an occasional series, “How Rowing Found Me.” Experienced rowers from all over will share how they became rowers and the most memorable novice rowing experience they had. Don’t miss it!

photo credit: Prise d'eau? via photopin (license)