Tuesday, 18 January 2011

How to be(come) a lightweight

Sorry for the lack of post-age in a while - hopefully things will get a bit more regular once term gets going and there's something resembling an ordered timetable for me to follow. I thought I'd write a bit about how being a lightweight rower actually works. An image of scrawny men may come to mind, but not so - in fact, most lightweights actually weigh more than the 72.5kg (11.5st) limit for most of the year. If you're like me, significantly more. So here's a bit of an excerpt of what I do.

The squad, which is now down to 12 oarsmen and 2 coxes, recently got back from a 9-day training camp in France. In fact, make that Southern France, really near the seaside and beach. Sounds lovely and quite relaxing, doesn't it?

To me, I'm afraid it no longer does. For us, it meant training 3 times a day, every day. This wasn't too bad in itself as these sessions were generally finished by 4pm, but the amount of energy expended did mean that we generally lacked the motivation to do anything much more demanding than sit around munching on malt loaves and procrastinating in front of the laptops many of us had dutifully brought to uphold the theoretical possibility of getting some work done. In fact, some would go as far as to describe our time in France, somewhat simplistically but scarily accurately, as a repeat sequence of wake-eat-row-eat-row-eat-row-stretch-shower-eat-chill-sleep.

On a tenuously related note, malt loaves are awesome! These unassuming brown, squishy blocks which, let's be perfectly honest, don't look like the most appetizing thing in the world, are actually tasty and, given their stickiness, sort of fun to eat. I had my first taste of them in France and am impressed.

For many rowers they are the staple of choice and, to be honest, I don't know why they bother printing the nutritional info for 1/10 of a loaf on the packaging. I have some difficulty imagining anyone eating these things as intended (sliced and buttered...); it seems so much more convenient to wolf the whole thing down in one sitting. Maybe unsurprisingly, people have also had the idea of speed-eating these bad boys, and doing so seems all the more impressive after knowing how much they indeed tire out the jaw.

But I digress. To be a lightweight then, it first takes what it takes to be good at any other sport. A fuckload of training. Out of Cambridge sports teams, the rowing clubs are probably among the ones that train the most, although this isn't necessarily reflected in their status in terms of full Blue sports. A Blue sport is one of those Cambridge things that we pretend are important but nobody else actually knows what they are - full Blue sports are basically the oldest and/or most traditional sports in which a varsity match/race takes place annually against Oxford. As more and more sports became increasingly popular, Half Blues were introduced so these athletes could earn these so-called "University colours" as well. These days, the debate about which sports should or shouldn't get a sporting Blue keeps cropping up, and lightweight rowing is a prime example often used: we train as much as the heavyweights and put in the same effort etc etc, so surely we, like them, should get full blues.

From a fairness point of view, this is absolutely true, but, hard as it seems to accept, this is not the principle upon which the Blue status is based. And while a Full Blue would be nice, I have to say that ultimately, it really doesn't matter all that much to me. Much rather, it's nice to know that the people I row with at CULRC do it not because they want the status represented (within the Cambridge bubble, at least) by a Blue but because they want to do the sport and do it bloody well.

And enjoying the sport and the training, and being willing to accept all the changes in lifestyle that getting up at 5am several mornings a week and training twice a day entails, is a pretty key part of what we do.

The other part of being a lightweight, of course, is getting to our target weight. Since there is not only an individual maximum weight (72.5kg) but also a maximum average of 70kg which the crew must attain on race day (the official weigh-in occurs a few hours before the race), all crew members have to have as low body fat (generally ~5%) as is healthily possible. After all, fat will only make the boat go slower because it constitutes extra weight, and if losing it doesn't impede performance then it's a win-win situation.

The way of going about this, who would've guessed, is to diet. Luckily, though, given the amount of calories we burn every day, a diet for us is what for other people would constitute eating normally, or even a lot; it should just be healthy, which is a shame because it's a well-known law of nature that the less healthy something is, the better it tastes (Epic Meal Time provide ample evidence of this). But generally, dieting doesn't involve starving ourselves. I learned this the hard way early on in the season when I, being among the heaviest guys in the squad, tried to maintain too high a calorie deficit (i.e. input fewer calories than you burn). I ended up unable to complete a training session and needed a bit of a talking to. Usually, I end up eating about 3000 calories/day, with some people eating more than that. So, from an conventional point of view, we're not starving. :)

ps. Training camp was actually great fun - the squad came together a lot, and CUWBC were there as well. I think a good time was had by all, so this post isn't pity-mongering. :)

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