Saturday, March 02, 2013

How to: Pull a 6k Test

UPDATE: I'm bumping this post up as well, so all three "how to" are at the top of the stack.

The 6000m erg test has become a staple in the rowing world since the US National team instituted it nearly 10 years ago. Prior to the 6k, most long test pieces were twenty minutes in length, with the oarsman striving for the greatest distance rowed in that time frame. That test was a hold over from the gamut erg, which measured a number of revolutions produced by the rower over a set amount of time. I don't have any images of a gamut, but rest assured, gentle reader. The gamut was evil. They made the Concept II B look like a Cadillac.

The 6k is usually tested in the fall and winter, when crews are concentrating on endurance. Not only is endurance tested, but mental toughness. A coach's thinking assumes that anyone can "hold their breath" and "tough it through" a 2000m test. The 6k requires concentration and mental toughness over a long time that can't be faked.

The critical moment of a 6k happens in the middle of the piece. As I've said many times before, rowing races are usually won in the middle, when a crew's fitness and technique pay dividends over the explosiveness of the start or the burning agony of the sprint. A 6k emphasizes the middle of the piece, because the start and sprint are such smaller portions of the total work.

From 4000 meters to 2000 meters to go, the rower will struggle against increasing exhaustion. This is very different from the increasing lactic acid pain that builds during a 2k. Because of the emphasis on aerobic work, the exhaustion an oarsman battles during a 6k feels more like a power drain. The key to having a successful piece is consistency during this section. The oarsman should have found a sustainable rhythm fitting his goal during the first 2000m. Simply pulling the same average split through this section of the test will usually bring a positive result.

Sounds simple, right? Sure. I usually had the "I can't do this" moment during this stretch. Exhaustion sets in before the halfway point, and most people just want to back off just a little to conserve energy for the sprint. That's the problem and challenge of the 6k. If the rower backs off just one or two splits during the middle, those splits are usually gone forever. You can't just hop back "up" to that faster pace; that takes mental energy that should be reserved for the sprint. Now the rower is struggling just as hard to hold a slower pace. Think about it: the difference in real energy required to pull a 1:55 rather than a 1:57 is tiny, just a few percentage points. The mental energy required to get back to 1:55 after two minutes pulling 1:57 is massive.

Finally, why really "save" anything for the sprint at all? In order to make any significant of difference in the "average split" in the final 750m, the rower has to carve off 10 seconds per 500 and hold that through the final 750. If the rower has waited until the final 500, it is too late to "salvage" a good result. Once second "average split" is far too much to make up in the final 500m of a 6k.

I always started my sprint at 1500m to go, by pushing down whatever split I was pulling every stroke by one second. A longer "push" makes a bigger difference in the final time. There would always be energy for the final mad dash, which is really for the coach to watch his crew and measure how much pain tolerance everyone has.

What lesson to take from all this? Emphasize the middle of the piece. Every stroke is an opportunity to build your average towards what you want it to be. Push in the last 1500m and trust that your inner crazy will always be there for the final 500m. Just don't trust that final 500m to save you from a bad piece. As always, win your race in the middle.


Anonymous said...

This is a really helpful piece of writing. I just took a 6k test today, more for lower cardio than an all out race-pace test, but because I have been inactive for 2 weeks during the crew off-season, it was more dificult than ususal. I was reading about the 4k-2k section, and I realized how true it was. Now I understand what my strategy should be, and I think that that will greatly help out my time.

the better steve said...

Great article, Jay. It reminded me how much more I like pulling 6k's than 2k's. Hopefully we get to do one soon...

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say thanks for posting this article. I had to do a 6k test for the first time today (normally in the UK we do 5k tests but we've got a new coach with new ideas so today we had to do a 6k!) and reading this last night was invaluable. By anticipating the middle 2000m struggle and remembering your advice I managed to just sit back and concentrate on keeping a constant split for that period, knowing in my mind that races were won in the middle... It worked perfectly and made the whole thing just that little bit less horrendous! Thanks :)

Coach Jay said...

I'm glad everyone found this so helpful. Erg tests are very important to coaches because we need data to back up our "gut feelings" when selection time comes around.

Just because coaches like to get these scores doesn't mean rowers don't detest erg tests any less. I couldn't stand them when I was a rower. Having a plan of attack to get through just makes the misery a little more bearable. :)

Anonymous said...

Could you clarify how you do your sprint? You say:

"I always started my sprint at 1500m to go, by pushing down whatever split I was pulling every stroke by one second."

That sounds like you take a second off your split every stroke -- this seems pretty impossible to do consistently for 1500m, unless you start out at around a 5:00 split or you're rowing at a really low rate, like 12 spm.

Coach Jay said...

No, I'm saying that my sprint starts by taking whatever average split I'm holding at that point and pushing down one split. Hold that new pace from 1500m to go until 750m to go, then "step" again one or two for the final 750m. If there's anything left in the tank in the tank in the final 250, go nuts.

Anonymous said...

Can't thank you enough...
I am a novice rower, and I breezed through 2k season, but I am having trouble this season. I had no problem with the first few 6ks but now that my coach is pushing my goals down it is getting tough. I couldn't make it through the "wall" of the peice yesterday, and pulled an aweful peice. I asked to try it again tommorrow, and hopefully if I concentrate on the things you say, I will make it.

Anonymous said...

Great writing... Thanks so much for taking the time to put this out there. Its nice to have a strategy going into something as exhausting as a 6k.

PS. Just wanted to let you know: I'm a J16 rower, and I usually DO drop about a second from the average split in the last 500m, by pulling around 10 seconds less than my average split (1:51 or so).

Coach Jay said...


I have to be honest: were I your coach, I would encourage you to use a bit more of that great sprint energy through the first part of the test. Think of taking all that energy that you've got for the sprint and "sprinkling" it over the first 5000m of the piece. You might get a faster result overall. :)

Anonymous said...

As a novice rower I found this article tremendously helpful, especially since I primarily did mid-distance events in track and swimming and didn't really know how to approach such a lengthy test. I'm going to refer back to this when fall rolls around :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. I'm a lightweight rower and I've rowed for 3 years now. I've always excelled in the spring but never really been good at 6k's. I think I will be able to perform much better with your advice.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post.
For cross training during the summer, I would like to simulate a 6k on the bike machine by doing a 25 minutes piece. Since the only split in biking is your heartrate, I would like to know the average heartrate throughout the piece.
I've never done a 6k, and I would like to know what kind of pain I have to deal with.


Anonymous said...

I must disagree with your disparaging remarks as concerns the gamut erg. I believe the rowing world has suffered much with the decline in the use of the gamut. Talk about mental toughness - the C2 has nothing on the gamut in that regard. The gamut will chew you up and spit you out just for the fun of it! That is why it is the best land rowing device!! :-)

As a matter of fact, I'm on the hunt for a port and starboard pair of gamut ergs. If you happen to know of any that are just collecting dust, I'd love to have them.

All that aside, I quite enjoyed your article. Thank you.


Michael said...

I pulled my first 6k a couple weeks ago following this strategy and managed to get a 2:04.6, only .2 splits lower than two of my friends who are both taller and much heavier than me. We have another 6k next week and I hope to break 2:04. What kind of training would you suggest for getting a lower 6k score?
Thank you so much for all your advice!

Anonymous said...