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Wednesday, January 27 2021

Rowing Physiology

Determining Training Levels

Heart rate (both resting and maximum) and blood lactate levels are ways of determining training levels/intensity. Listed below are descriptions used in determining training and fitness levels.

Resting Heart Rate (RHR) – RHR is your heart rate taken at rest with no movement.  It is best to take your RHR first thing in the morning, before you get out of bed and at the same time each morning so that you can get consistent data.  RHR can tell you many things about your training.  First is that as fitness improves, RHR should decrease over time. RHR decreases, in part because as the heart gets stronger it can hold more blood and pump more blood per stroke.  This means that the same cardiac output can be maintained at a lower heart rate.  As fitness improves, athletes will see quicker returns to RHR levels after workouts and between workout pieces.  Monitoring and recording your RHR can prevent over training and reduce the risk of getting sick.  RHR becomes elevated when your immune system is fighting off illness.  If you have an elevated RHR of 6-8 beats, this may indicate your body is tired (under stress) and you may be getting sick.  At this point you should consider not training until RHR has returned to normal.  RHR can also be used for calculating training intensity (see Karvonen Formula).

Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) - is the maximum rate that your heart will beat for a given exercise.  MHR was generally calculated by subtracting your age from 220.   Research has showed that this formula is not very accurate.  Athletes of the same age can have very different MHR.  For an experienced athlete the best way to determine MHR is to take a step test.  This is an incremental test where power is increased over a timed interval.  Heart rate is recorded at each interval and the test is stopped at when the athlete cannot increase power any more.  The heart rate is recorded at this time and this is considered the MHR.  For someone new to training, taking 220 – your age is ok to use.  MHR is very important to know as training intensity is based on a percentage of MHR.  This is called Training Heart Rate (THR).

Training Heart Rate (THR) - once MHR is determined, then the THR can be calculated.  Each workout should have a prescribed THR based on the goal of the workout (aerobic, AT, transportation).  This is usually a percent of the MHR.  Here you would multiply your MHR times the intensity of the workout.  An example would be .75 x MHR = THR.  The goal for this workout would be to not to go above the THR.  This is especially true for aerobic and anaerobic threshold workouts.  Training above THR can lead to over training.

Training Heart Rate using the Karvonen Formula – Training heart rate can also be calculated using the Karvonen formula (or heart rate reserve method).  Here an athlete's resting heart rate is taken into account when determining the THR.  The formula is: THR = (MHR – RHR) x training intensity   RHR.  This will usually elicit a slightly higher THR than taking a direct percentage of the MHR.  The physiological basis of this formula is the difference between resting and max heart rates for a given athlete represents the reserve of the heart for increasing cardiac output.

Lactate Testing – Lactate testing is a far more precise way of determining THR, rather than using a percentage of MHR.  Blood lactate levels increase with increased exercise intensity.  A sub-maximal step test is used to determine the transition between aerobic and anaerobic processes.  Lactate testing can better determine training levels and be used to determine training effectiveness.


Baechle, T.R. Editor. 1994. Essentials of Strength and Conditioning/National Strength and Conditioning Association. Champlain, IL: Human Kinetics.

Davenport, M.L. - Editor. 2004. Level II Candidate Manual. US Rowing Coaching Education Program (7): 100-108.

Hagerman, F.C. 2000. Physiology of Competitive Rowing. Exercise and Sports Science (54): 843-872.

Nilsen, T.S. 2001. Intermediate Rowing Physiology. FISA Coaching Development (2): 34-51.

Nolte, V. - Editor. 2005. Rowing Faster. Champlain, IL: Human Kinetics.

updated: 13 years ago