What most gym athletes call rowing, I call erging. When I am rowing, I am on the water sitting in my single, facing backwards, lightly grasping two sculling oars. It looks simple, but really, it’s not. The rowing stroke is surprisingly complicated. For many athletes, refining blade work and learning how to move one’s body in the boat to maximize speed takes years to master. The elusive nature of the perfect stroke offers competitive rowers a wonderful challenge and a prompt to invest time and money in coaching and equipment.

My first choice, always, is to be outside on the water. I’ve rowed for years on the Mississippi River and as it runs through St. Paul it is a working river. Fragile, tippy, rowing shells share the river with steamboats and barges that communicate by blasting a series of horns, which tell us where to move. They throw large wakes. The river is a stunning combination of urban and wild and offers a different combination of light and current every day. It’s always beautiful.

When I can’t be on the river, I erg. Since joining crossfit I’ve learned that only rowers refer to rowing machines as ergs or ergometers. An ‘erg’ is a unit of work and the rowing machine is an incredible way to get in some offseason dryland work.  Most rowers train on the Concept2, but there are other choices such as the water erg and the increasingly popular RP3 dynamic erg.

The erg is an integral part of any competitive rower’s training regime and each spring athletes train for a 2k test, considered the ultimate fitness challenge. It has been said that if you don’t find yourself inside some sort of terrifying pain cave with lactic acid coursing through your muscles, if you don’t feel like you are going to lose your breakfast, you just didn’t try hard enough. That drama aside, all rowers know their 2k pr. Coaches use this number to boat athletes and to recruit. My very smart son observed: ‘The 2k test isn’t a test of fitness, it’s a test of pain tolerance.’

If you want to give it a try be sure you warm up really well first. Take ten or twenty minutes to get your heart rate up and break a sweat. A good warmup might be the following ten-minute piece: Hold a rating of 16 strokes per minute for the first minute and then increase your stroke rating by one beat each minute for the first five minutes. You will be at 20 strokes per minute five minutes in, at which point increase your stroke rating one beat every 30 seconds for the next five minutes. By the end of five minutes you should be at 30 strokes per minute.  Follow this up with a few one or two minutes pieces at race pace and then give yourself a five to ten-minute rest.

Most rowers break their 2k piece into three sections. You want to start out fast with a few hard, short strokes to get the wheel spinning. Your first 15 strokes can be well below your target split, and should be. This is where you get the erg wheel spinning and give yourself a little head start. These first strokes will feel powerful and effortless, and you will believe that you can hold that fast split for the entire piece. You can’t. After that initial burst, it is imperative you bring your split down to slightly slower than your target average, your cruising speed.

The trick is to finish the first 500 meters with an average split that is one or two seconds slower than your target. Lower your split one beat every 500 meters, this is called negative splitting and is a very effective strategy. When you have just 300 meters to go, at the end of the piece, go like a bat out of hell to the finish and then, to let everyone know how hard you worked, dramatically fall off of the erg onto the floor and writhe around for a few minutes. You can then compare your time with other athletes of your age and gender here.

Sarah photographs, lives, and ergs in St. Paul, MN.