Masters Class: Less is More -- Erik Borgnes

Borgnes at Phatwater

Borgnes at Phatwater

Preface: Erik Borgnes is like the rest of us; a paddler with a job (Physician-Radiology) and a family. Yet, in spite of a busy schedule, he finds a way to take his training to the next level.  After his recent course record and subsequent interview at the Chattajack, I was shocked to find that the 50 year old Borgnes spends only three days a week on the boat.  Even more compelling was that he often spends this time on a 400 meter pond and a 1 mile lake!   

The holy grail for the Masters athlete is to find a non-invasive but highly effective training plan that cuts through superfluous methods and focuses on maximizing efforts. Critical for those (all?) of us that don't make a living paddling but want to do our best come race day.  I was struck by the simplicity and clear reasoning behind his program.  Nothing is convoluted.  Nothing is wasted.  

Thank you Erik for the great insight.  Honestly, it was a struggle not to keep this for myself.-JD


Joseph Di Chiacchio asked me if I would lay out my 3 day a week on-water training plan for him, so here it is:  I'll preface this by saying that my training plan isn't anything groundbreaking.  It's more or less just basic "stuff" that has been concentrated along certain lines and has had other lines completely removed.  It's what I do now and I think it works pretty well for me.  Of course, your results may vary....

I find that it's a constant struggle to fit the training time that I'd like to have into my busy work and family schedule.  I know others feel the same way.  So, with limited time to train, my program over the years has become whittled down to about three days on the water each week.  With such limited time, I like to plan my paddling so that almost every minute on the water has a purpose and a direction of concentration.  I work on one specific facet of paddling at a time - and I’ll break it down into what I view as important, and why I think so, below. 

As we are told, we all have a genetic potential for how much work we can do at maximal effort - our max VO2.  Supposedly, this is largely genetic, but more importantly, after we've trained for several years, this doesn't improve anymore and supposedly drops by about 1% per year from when we were about 30 years old.  What does improve year over year, though, is our efficiency (though, in incrementally smaller amounts), which we can train with technique work and with time on the water.  Strength, strength endurance, power, and power endurance can improve, too.  These ideas are what I base my on-water training program on. 

If you think about the distance racing that most of us masters are doing, you’ll probably see that there’s really very little time that we are in “the red zone” where our heart rates and ventilatory rates are near their maximum.  Because of this, I think that long max VO2 type intervals are pretty much a waste of time for us.  Why?  They offer limited specificity to how we’re racing. And because the stress is so high during each interval, the specific total training load, for how we race, from each workout session is reduced.  Plus, I think the additive training stress of these types of sessions over a season leads to overtraining and burnout in a masters age paddler.  So, instead of stressing my max VO2, I’ve come to see training optimization simply as maximizing the training load at lower “gears," done in such a way where the load is directed towards stressing the working muscles rather than on the cardiovascular system.  (Just to be clear, I do paddle near my max VO2 occasionally during paddling races, and that's fine.  I also occasionally go into and out of my red zone when out on a run or a bike ride about once each week or two).

Here's another way to think about it:  Suppose my VO2 max on a bike or running is 60 ml oxygen per minute.  In the boat, it might be 45?  (I really have no idea, though I know it will be considerably lower).  In any case, if I were to surmise that my heart and lungs can deliver oxygen and take away CO2, etc. to my working muscles at 60 ml per minute in those other sports, then it's probably not the rate limiting factor in paddling, where I'm only at 45 ml per minute - at least that's the logic that makes sense to me.  So what this tells me is that to improve my endurance speed, I need to increase my paddling muscles' ability to do more work - not my heart and lungs.  I can do this by increasing the number of muscle groups that I use effectively when paddling, and I can also build up the power and strength capacity of my paddling muscle groups.  

I break down surfski racing into four key things that I need to work on.  For one, I need to be as efficient as possible at my steady state 1-3+ hour racing speed.  I also need to be able to adjust to changes in the pace, up or down by about 0.5 mph or so, and do so with as little added stress as possible.  I need to be able to quickly power up and sprint for a wave or for a wake in front of me.  And lastly, I need to have the endurance to finish a long race comfortably.

The backbone of my year ‘round training is my mile intervals and it's been that way for years.  I’ll start out in the spring with about 4 or 5 and, if I’m training up for a long race of up to four hours or so, then I’ll do up to about 18 of these 1 mile long intervals.  As for speed, I’ll paddle each one at or just under my 10 km racing speed - which is about the speed that I would do a flat water 10 km time trial.  For me, that number is about 7.9 to 8.0 mph on a good day.  So, for my one mile intervals, I’ll do one mile at 7.7 - 8.0 mph, then take 30 seconds to a minute to turn around, and then repeat until I’ve completed my session.  If it’s windy, then I’ll watch my HR monitor too, and base my effort on my HR while heading into the wind, and on my speed while paddling with the wind.  I try to stay just a tiny bit below my 10 km race pace effort and HR to minimize the stress load.  Because these are over in 7-8 minutes, and because the intensity isn't too high, I find each one easy enough to get through, and also that adding more of them isn't too onerous a thought.  The interesting point comes after you've done 8, 12, 16... of these, because you come to understand that the specific stress on your paddling muscles after 16 intervals at your 10 km race pace is very different from that of 16 miles at your LSD pace.

The second type of session that I’ll do is an interval session that’s done at a speed just above my 10 km race pace.  I do mine at about 8.4-8.6 mph.  The critical thing about this interval is that the time / length of the interval is long enough to maximize the feeling of being at that steady state speed, but short enough so that I don’t climb up into my max VO2 / red zone area, so I’ll end the interval at about the point when I’m starting to breathe faster and I’m feeling near the point of crossing over into “oxygen debt.”  For me, these are about 1 minute 40 seconds long, or about 400 meters at that speed.  Once I stop, I’m mostly recovered in 30 seconds and then I’ll meander back to the start and then begin the next interval about 3 or 4 minutes later feeling fully recovered.  The second key thing about these intervals is that I'm going for volume at that interval speed, and not trying to maximize the speed that I do each interval.  So, again, I’ll start out the season at 10 or so and work my way up into the 20’s. To think about these another way, if I did 10 of these, I would have done 4 km at 8.4 mph and stayed well away from my max VO2.  On the other hand, if I were to paddle at 8.4 mph for 4 km in one long interval, I'd have hit my max V02 somewhere along the way, failed to maintain my speed, and limped in at the end.  If I had attempted to cover that same distance broken up into 1 km segments, each one would be spent at my max VO2, and I'd be pretty thrashed by the end.  Also, it would take me a week to recover from doing either of these latter two sessions.  By breaking them down into about 400 meters each, though, I can paddle twice the distance in a single training session with less stress and easier recovery.  And that’s my goal - to maximize the specific training load and to minimize the training stress.  Again, doing one of these isn't difficult, but doing 10, 15, 20, etc. changes things entirely.

The last type of session that I routinely do is the LSD session where my objective is to simply paddle for at least 3 hours using good efficient technique.  Why 3 hours?  I feel that that’s just beyond the time in me when my working muscles start to feel burdened by the changing metabolic state of running out of glycogen, and if I'm not trained up for distance, that's where I'll start to bonk.  This is really a very different type of session from the others.  This is simply an energy supply and adaptation session where the goal is to paddle, taking in only water (no calories), until you feel a bit “bonk-y”, and then to force yourself to continue on for another 30 minutes or an hour so that you load or stress your energy systems.  After several of these, done once every 7-10 days or so, that “bonk-y” feeling won't even appear because you’ve adapted, and then stretching it out to 4 hours or longer will be easy to do.  

If I get another session on the water, I’ll do something that trains maximal power - yet again, another session that’s completely different from the others above.  For these, all I’m focused on is delivering maximal power to each and every stroke as efficiently as I can.  I gauge my technical and power efficiency by the maximal speed that I reach.  These intervals are 30 strokes in length, counting both sides, and done from a rolling start of about 6.5 to 7.0 mph.  I try really hard to make each and every stroke “perfect” in its execution from start to finish.   These are surprisingly tough mentally because I feel as if I have way too much data coming in to process regarding my timing, my catch, my pull, exit, legwork, etc from each individual stroke.  Also, the idea for these is to use big powerful strokes, a lower stroke rate, and let the increasing power of the strokes push the boat faster as opposed to allowing an increasing stroke rate to pull the boat faster - if that makes sense.  So, your stroke rate increases as a result of increasing speed, and not the other way around, in this training session.  For these, I’ll do 20-30 of them with a couple of minutes of easy paddling in between, so this is an easy 1 hour session for total time on the water.  

I do 1 mile intervals because one lake that I train on is only 0.98 miles long.  Years ago, when I trained on a longer lake, I did 9 minutes at my interval pace, and rested for 1 minute because it allowed me a convenient way to keep track of my time in 10 minute blocks.  My 8.4 mph intervals are that speed because that speed feels about right on the other lake that I train on, which is 400 meters long.  Doing 8.3 mph intervals over a slightly longer course or 8.5 mph over a slightly shorter course would likely be just as effective.

I have no illusions that my way of training is the best way to train nor that it's optimal for everyone.  But, I can say that it is very simple, the sessions are easy enough to get through, and I find that I'm never subconsciously dreading to get out on the water.  Instead, I find that while I train hard most every week, I'm usually feeling refreshed and ready to go for the next one.  Lastly, whatever you decide to put into your training plan, I think that having confidence in that plan is vital, because if you aren't confident in the value of what you're doing, then your interest and effort won't be as high as they could be.