Rowing: The damaging day when I reached my physical limit

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The Independent Online
Seventeen years after his retirement following the Moscow Olympics, Hugh Matheson, the Independent's Rowing Correspondent, returns to competition in the Perpetual Indoor Championships this weekend. Preparation, however, has been far from straightforward.

The last weeks before racing bring it all back. Nothing in 17 years since has matched the slow growth of nerve and physical awareness that comes from knowing there will be a test to destruction at the end of the month.

The point, for an oarsman, of the rowing ergometer - or indoor rowing machine - is that it is pure effort. In a boat race there are always outside factors, such as the wind, that reduce the degree to which you can drive yourself and the test ceases to be one of raw power and becomes watermanship.

Of course strength and fitness count here too, but at the end you are unlikely to be utterly cleaned out. The difficult water prevents the athlete from following each stroke of purely applied power with another. The boat rocks, or the steering shifts, and a correcting stroke is required and the power comes off a fraction.

The machine offers no such relief. It is unavoidably exhausting, which means, of course, that the competitor must find a level of performance, of output, that can be sustained for the whole of the 2,000 metres of the race distance. In effect, you want your last stroke to be, genuinely, your last. If you are properly exhausted you stop. So, something you can keep up for six minutes-plus has to be found which will bring you within sight of the finish before the physical system begins to collapse.

The designers of the ergometer have thoughtfully provided a computerised monitor which reads the power applied to the oar handle and prints it out in various forms, of which the most useful is the time it will take to cover 500m at this speed, called the "500 split".

Most who use the ergometer measure themselves against the 500 split throughout the day's programme. It is easy to calculate the end result. A target for 2,000m of 6min 25sec (which is mine) might be achieved by averaging 1min 36.25sec per 500m through the piece. It can get more sophisticated: you could go a little quicker for the first quarter at, say, 1min 35sec, then steady through the middle 1,000m at 1min 37.5 sec, then blast for home, only when the line is in sight, and another 1min 35sec will do it.

Now if you are Greg Searle, James Cracknell or Matthew Pinsent, all world or Olympic champions in real rowing, but also champs indoors, you know what you can sustain to the nearest fraction of a second and you race to that pattern of output without a blink until the last blast.

For those who have entered the game late, finding the pace without testing to destruction is difficult. If you go too hard, as I have a couple of times, you either find the output is too low and the test over before it is complete or that you stop before the finish line.

After testing in the Loughborough University laboratory and being deeply upset by the finish time of 6min 44sec, I went to Oxford to join a group training for the veterans' Boat Race next March. There, without warning, we were dropped on to the machines and told to do a 2,000m piece without pushing to the limit. I dropped the strokes per minute to 28, five below the rate at Loughborough, and spun through easily in 6min 33sec without, seemingly, digging an inch below the surface for extra effort.

No problem, says I, push a bit harder in the race and you'll dip under 6:20 and be close to the winner of your age group. But on my return from Oxford I found that I had pulled a muscle on the back of my ribcage.

This stopped me breathing above couch potato rate and prevented all training for a week. When it was possible to work again there were fewer than three weeks to go. So I did five days of 60-minute sessions, at 18 strokes to the minute, and was able, daily, to lower the 500 split until I ended up at 1: 50.2 for the entire one-hour piece. Each day, as it improved, I thought: "That's another couple of seconds knocked off the final time."

So I rang Sean Bowden, coach to the British Olympic eight, and asked him for a programme to take me through the last 10 days to the race. I should never have boasted about the uprising strength which seemed to flow from the long training sessions. He devised a set of shorter, intense pieces, mostly segments of the race - 500m and 1000m rows, repeated several times.

It was when I came to the two-times 1500m session that it all came unstuck. Then I hoped the target would be 1:35 per 500m. But when I tried it, I got half-way through and was unable to carry on and experienced the worst kind of psychological damage bumping into your physical limit can bring down on you.

Despair. A race in five days and you don't even know what a sustainable rate might be, and, whatever it is, it will be much slower than seemed possible a week ago. Already the taste of Sunday has gone from nectar to ash.