Can we make the ergo better?

The resurgence of interest in indoor rowing that is bleeding out of Crossfit into proper rowing should be grimly satisfying for those who care about the popularity of rowing. To put this popularity into perspective, the 2016 CrossFit open saw at least 245,000 men and women sign up to, amongst many other things, row a 55 calorie piece on the Concept2 during just one week. This is close to 20 times as many people as registered a 2k time with Concept2 during the whole year.

Those 245,000 men and women, they all paid $20 for the privilege too.

Those 245,000 do not include those partaking of the “trendy new crew rowing” classes springing up using the water rower (forgive them) for its music friendly properties and WaterRower’s genius trick of providing a “dumb” model with a very basic performance monitor for a hell of a lot less money than the standard model. Ideal for the spin type “crew” classes that GQ and Men’s Health seem to be promising as the next big thing.

So given this enormous resurgence of interest in rotating fluid mechanics via an effort and return cycle and the apparent explosion of cash that this must be generating, what could be done to make the damn machines better.

To look at this properly I broke Ergo users into four categories. Yes I have a background in STEM.

  • The On The Water Rowers – The purists, training to be fitter for the boat, typically the best indoor rowers, but also prone to talking utter bunk when they should know better. Think they own the ergs, the water, the Concept2 company and everything in between. Keen to teach but only on their terms. These were once my people.
  • The Heathen Barbarians of Crossfittaria – Enthusiastic amateurs, poorly served in the rowing information stakes (pacé Dark Horse Rowing), often completely unsuited to the rowing movement. Keen to learn. They actually pretty much do own the Concept2 company by now. I wish these were my people for they have exceptionally buff muscles.
  • Competitive Indoor Rowers – a group of slightly aspergic masochists, occaisionally lacking in technique stakes, but making up for this in enthusiasm, in-depth knowledge of human endurance physiology, an unsettling appetite and admiration for human suffering, especially their own, a desperate desire to make the flywheel go faster, and quite frequently they are redeemed from all sins by their ability to pull incredibly hard. Wherever else I have been, whatever else I have done, these were, are, and always will be, my brothers and sisters in arms.
  • Gym Rowers – use the machine for 5 mins to warm up for the elliptical. Hated with a passion by all the above. In the same way that ants hate an elephant. We hate them, they don’t know or care that we exist, and they could have us “removed” from their world if they did. The largest group and most in need of “A Better Ergo”.

So for the Gym Rowers….

We clearly need a machine that has all the advantages of the C2 Ergo, the constant comparability of output from day to day, the low impact full body workout, which is capable of extracting maximum work levels in a relatively small amount of time. At the same time, it would be good if it took less skill to use well, and less time to become proficient, possibly whilst putting less strain on the lower back and using the ever popular abdominal muscles a bit more.

It’s called a SkiErg

If you are one of the 6 people reading this, and you happen to own a gym…..go buy a couple.

Without actually being too flippant that’s the Gym Rowers taken care of. An air braked cardio device that can provide a damn good work out for the whole body, will warm you up with little risk of injury over five minutes, whilst being technically simpler to use, than the erg, this is a great machine.

But it ain’t a rowing Ergo and that’s what I like using and chatting about

What everybody else needs!

  • A way for two people on different sides of the planet to row against each other via the internet – It’s called Live Rowing, BoatCoach, and RowPro. Go play.
  • A quieter ergo that isn’t made of wood and doesn’t feel like an insipid lwt weight toy when you put the work on – this is a huge ask, short of accepting that Water Rowers are not as awful as I make them out to be, I can’t really posit a solution, short of a Concept2 water erg, which would seem like a massive sell out. Unless of course we took a leaf out of the animal kingdom
  • A better seat. The barely cushioned piece of high impact plastic that serves as a seat right now is a bit of tragedy. Particularly if you have a skinny arse and prominent seat bones. Improving it is not that simple, as anyone who remembers the mess that the much more comfortable Model B seat could end up in. For me the current neoprene rubber seat pads are pretty useless and I always use a folded up towel. So do enough people that there must be a market for a solution.  The Danes reckon they have come up with said solution, but it costs 1/8th of a model D and looks like a sex toy. There is something better out there!
  • A way to change the music without taking your hands of the handle. The C2 Ergo is somewhat unique amongst cardio machines in that you cannot do anything else with your hands or feet, for more than a second or so if you want to keep rowing. So if you are crunching out a hard piece and……“Into Dust” Mazzy Star drops onto your playlist…..then you have a problem. You either have to take 5’37” of 90’s downers, which will cause you to suffer, slow down, or even handle down, (yes it is true) or you have to faff around blindly trying to flick the track onto something ……UP…..and then you are going to lose time, momentum and willpower that you could have used better.

So here is the plan – a little device that clips onto the Ergo handle, and connects via Bluetooth to your phone that controls volume, pause/play, and fast forward.

Buttttt….if we are going to do this, let’s do it right. Let’s synergise the PM5 top smartphone cradle, Bluetooth wireless head phones and a massive downloadable music and video catalogue on a server somewhere in Iceland. What you then need is a little trackpad that you can hook onto the Ergo handle, that mimics what your thumb does……ON THE SCREEN OF YOUR SMARTPHONE.

Yes, this would have to be done for less than £30, it couldn’t only be erg specific, it would have to be sweat-proof and shock proof and rechargeable, but the ability to interact with your ‘phone, or tablet, or PC whilst still rowing, is a potentially massive step toward popularising the ergo. Just think of the gamification

Fundamentally these last two ideas will make it easier for more people to spend more time on the ergo. Top plan for Groups 1-3. But specifically….

The On The Water Rowers, and what they need!

A kick up the backside principally, and a clear understanding of the need to modernise before the entire sport gets slung from the Olympics by 2029, but otherwise…..

  • Cheaper Slides – For a spot welded together collection of mild steel U beams and off the shelf castors, the slides cost a lot. I am not privy to the economics of their production but the economics of their purchase are prohibitive. Novice water rowers can learn a lot from erging on slides, slides can reduce injury risks for high volume training and make ergers better water rowers. Making them cheaper would make rowers better and erging more interesting.
  • Comparing water work and erg work – This should be an easy one, one phone app, on one device, that tracks your percentage of max heart rate, your efforts on the water, your efforts on the ergo, and compares and contrasts these with your crew mates, in your boat, and across your club. Who is getting more shove in the boat for less burn?
  • A way of judging the movement of the handle and the seat – Currently the PM5 only tells you how and when the flywheel moves. The genius of Dan Eiref’s Ergdata and Boatcoach apps will tell you the length of your stroke that you actually accelerate the flywheel for. What’s needed next, is someway of identifying the dead space, where you are moving the seat, or the handle, without causing the flywheel to accelerate. Eliminating the dead space in the rowing stroke appears to be one of the secrets of the British Men’s Eight’s dominance at the Olympic Games.
  • Real time weight adjustment calculation – There already exist the weight adjustment calculator for On The Water rowers battling it out for seats in the boat. It is a pretty simple calculation so stick it on the PM5 or your phone as a real time read out. You could have both your raw score and adjusted score on the screen at the same time if you wanted, as long as you were racing for the most distance in a set number of minutes.
  • A rowing stroke consistency metric – So, moving into proper sports science for high volume Ergo users here, but it has been shown by scientists, with white coats, and clipboards and such, that fatigued, unrecovered runners, have a less consistent running stride pattern than well rested athletes. Measuring how consistent a rower is, from stroke to stroke might be a very good way of telling how much they do or don’t need to take the night off. Like I said, only really applicable to the hardcore Ox Brookes types out there, but could be really useful and valid.

The Heathen Barbarians of Crossfittaria

I am going to come out and say it, if you are “great” at Crossfit you will probably have a long way to go to get “great” in the traditional Ergo events of 2K and 5K.

Unless you resort to training practises commonly used by amateur bicycle time triallists.”

Or your name is Sam Briggs.

But the Heathen Barbarians use Ergos competitively in their hundreds of thousands and have a wonderfully enthusiastic berserker attitude towards it which must be applauded. Which rather puts them in the same meme pool, and needs and wants profile as…..

The Competitive Indoor Rowers

The first two needs of these increasingly closely related groups are completely intertwined with one another so here goes –

  • The Replacement of the Calorie – The inclusion of the “Calories” setting and “Cal/hr” output measure was a hastily put together, ill thought out, ineffective, increasingly outdated exercise in unnecessary populism, which has created some weird and unproductive incentives in the rowing world, and objective outside observers are recommending it be shut down henceforth. Just like lightweight Olympic rowing really. Boom. But seriously, we need to replace the Calorie as a linear measure of effort on the ergo, and the 300 Cal/hr for free that is added to your score in some miserable, half-baked attempt at producing a weight handicapped output score. The calorie and the Cal/hr score has led to so much confusion and misinformation in Crossfit circles that I want to see a replacement created for it in the next PM5 software update and its abolition in the one after that.  I recommend the good old fashioned “kilojoule” with a “kilojoule/min” score thrown in. No extra 1255.2 kilojoules per hour given to you for free. If you pick up 173 of these KiloJoules on a six minute test, you have just reached legendary status. (2000m…). What is more using kilojoules will allow you to set up…….
  • ……a meaningful, verifiable, real time, weight, sex, and age handicapping (or factoring) system for two people rowing against each other – if you are racing for kilojoules its becomes really easy to work out who has the best power to weight ratio in the room. Or on the internet. As each stoke is taken. That way your 60kg bikey type can race the 110kg prop forward on a level playing field and find out just who is prepared to push themselves harder.

Problem 1) – people will lie about their weight. Solution 1) –  Bluetooth equipped smart scales, hook up the scales to the PM5 and you have a verified weight for the piece. Or just trust that people will enter their weight accurately in the Box, or Rowing club, or the gym where they are rowing. And done, a five minute race to see who puts out the most kilojoules per kilogram.

Problem 2) – people will lie about who is on the machine. Solution 2) – all connectivity will take place via a mobile phone mounted on top of the ergo with at least one camera pointing towards the rower. Automatic finishing sprint selfies for posterity anyone?

But let’s not stop there. With the data set that C2 has in the C2 logbook, they must be able to come up with a reasonable power ratio between the sexes. Let’s feed that into the Handicapping calculation. Girls Vs. Boys anyone?

Finally, and this has already been done by the epically brilliant Andy Harris, and Paul Nield of the Nonathlon competition, we can give everyone a handicap according to their age. I think the effect of this, being able to enter to data, weight, age, sex, etc, into the smartphone on top of your PM5 and then race off against a 110kg twenty nine year old man, when you happen to be a 65kg, fifty five year old woman, would revolutionize the erg as a competitive device.

This would require no special hardware, either in a gym or club setting, and at indoor races you would just need a witnessed weighing scale next to each machine.

  • Connectivity – The Ergo is almost unique among exercise machines in its ability to measure output consistently from day to day and fairly from machine to machine. It seems perverse then that there are currently one or two, increasingly outdated HRM’s packages that pair with the increasingly out dated and unsupported PM4, and none that I know of for the PM5. The Bluetooth+ on the PM5 should be able to speak with every mobile phone app out there particularly Suunto Movescount , Polar Beat, Endomondo and Googlefit so you can compare the “distance” you have moved, or “calories” burnt with the heart beats that it has cost you. What could be so important about this idea is that you could end up comparing every other training activity you do, via your heart rate, to your output on the C2 Ergo or Skierg. Which are totally consistent and reproducible measure ways of measuring human effort.

Given the recent contraction in the popularity of wearable fitness trackers (Fitbit Misfit, Withings, etc), a lack of compatibility/connectivity with these could actually seem like a work of minor genius by Concept2. But it was probably just head in the sand stuff.

Everything above, takes thought, technical savvy and some people who are very good at making apps, that make rowing machines, smartphones, and weighing scales talk to each other. But all of this has already been done to a lesser extent. It just needs someone to make the investment to bring it all together.

The Extra Mile!

This is where I imagine that software and engineering companies are actually falling over themselves to risk huge amounts of capital on the idea that within 5 years one third of the population of the western world will want to use an Ergo at least four times a week.

  • Gamification – This is potentially a big deal in cycling right now with the compatibility between the Zwift computer program and the variety of “smart” indoor cycling trainers out there (basically a bunch of people trying to do for cycling what Concept2 did 30 years ago) and even what RowPro does for rowing. These programs let you compete, on an indoor machine, over a virtual course against all comers on the internet. But….both of these little games only let you row, or cycle, there is no steering, and very little tactics. You just go faster than the other guy. I think that this is a lack of ambition. So here’s the next step for you. Turn the Ergo handle into a Game pad, and play a computer game. Whilst rowing. Where how hard you can row matters for the game. As an idea “Dogfighting Dragons” is my favourite. Your character is a dragon, each time you take a stroke, your wings flap and the amount of available flame you have to burn other dragons increases. The harder you row, the faster, further and higher you can fly without flying into the ground. If you see another dragon. Fly up to them and burn them to a crisp; if they turn to get out of your way they will need more watts to maintain altitude; if they fly into the ground before you do, you win. Gain points by burning or crashing other dragons and exploring the aerial world around you. A totally varied and interesting work out. If you have been proscribed UT2 training, go for an altitude or distance target, intervals probably means combat or acrobatics, or both. I suppose we could let the cyclists in on the act, but they we would have to be handicapped by the lack having to do work on the game pad they were holding. I have no idea how much money this would cost or if anyone would ever actually play. Other than me.
  • Insentivisation” of Erging through gamification– Either way Concept2 needs to get into computer games, specifically MMORPG’s. No wait, come back, I haven’t finished. If you have a life offline you may not know that an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game) is an online computer game where, in between bouts of gloriously un-PC joint enterprise murder, mayhem and pixilated slaughter of a chosen out group (usually Orcs, or Goblins, sometimes Dragons), players have to perform many hours of repetitive and mundane mini tasks. Often this is small bouts of murder and mayhem. A player will do this to gain “experience points” which makes their character in the game better at killing. It’s the equivalent of culling badgers in order to become a better US Marine. Ok so the plan is…..imagine if player could gain “experience points” by ERGING!!!!       The problem with this is that MMORPG’s take a lot of time out of someone’s day, as does rowing. The two are not compatible hobbies, unless the free market intervenes. Imagine if the Ergers of the world were able to sell the Watts they had farmed as experience points to their pasty faced and wan Gamer counterparts. For actual money. Now, just how dreadful is your next 18k ergo?

This is not that out there as a concept as it seems, first a lot of Gamers already do pay other people to earn experience points or the equivalent, for them. All it would take would be a deal between Concept2 and the World of Warhammer and we are away.

The cash that could be earned by this idea is not immense I’ll grant you, but I just love the idea of hordes of physically under developed, social self-exiles, co-opting dozens of physically overdeveloped social self-exiles as their paid galley slaves. Quite which way the exploitation in this relationship would run would fill several Sociology PhD theses. And would represent infinitely more value than the average Sociology PhD thesis.

Here are my ideas on making the Ergo a better, happier and more exciting place for all its users. Not all are entirely practical, but many are. None are costed, but most represent an opportunity to make Ergers happier and poorer. This has to be worth looking at.

Anno Dryseagacker (May 2017)


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