When a World Record is 26 years old (set in July of 1991) It means something. In the Rowing world, indoor or on the water, there is no WR older than Leo’s 1:10.5 at 500m on the rowing ergometer. We can all wish that the pictures and video would have been preserved somewhere in the Concept2’s archives, but back in the early ‘90s it was not as easy as it is today with the internet.
In Part I of our discussion with Leo (@leoyoungsynergy on Instagram) we talked a lot about how he started rowing, sat on the rowing ergometer the first time and his favorite Concept2 model. I knew it was time to get into the nitty gritty of his World record attempt, as well as the training leading up to it and the future of indoor rowing.
Andras Hordos: What did your preparation for the 500m record look like? Was it just get on the rower and go for it with the thought of feeling lucky that day?
Leo Young: No, Not at all. I trained very seriously and specifically for a whole year. Pretty much like Sam Loch has done recently in his attempt to break the record. Back then the rowing world record for 500m was 1:15.6. It was held by an American Olympic discus thrower who medaled at the Olympics. He was a very large and powerful athlete. When I rowed I was always better over shorter distances than longer ones so I thought I might train and see if I could break that record. Almost one year out, I wrote to Concept2 and I asked them what I would have to do. We didn’t even had email back then so I had to write a letter (laughing). So, I wrote a letter to them and asked them what I have to do to break the World Record and what were the verification conditions, so they spelled it all out for me.
AH: How did the Record Validation go back then, since now it only says “Witnessed at public club” on the Concept 2 website? (From Concept2 website as one of the possible verification requirement – “Rowed in public with witnesses present who can be reached for confirmation of the performance. “Public” is defined as a health club, fitness center, rowing club, indoor rowing race, trade show or regatta where Concept2 is present, school, university or special event in a public setting (for example, a fundraiser in a mall”).
LY: In the letter from Concept2 they told me I had to nominate certain people to be approved to officiate the record, I had to take a video and console screenshot photographs of it. So, I wrote to them back and got them to approve one of the exercise physiology professors, Dr. Anthony Shield from QUT to be the officiator. I nominated a specific Concept2 approved date and location which was advertised as a World Record attempt and that all happened about a year out, after which I immediately started to train for it. The attempt was witnessed closely by more than 40 people as well as by many more who couldn’t get close enough to get a good view.
It was not like it is now when you can simply get on the ergometer and if it is a good day and a good time you just send in the verification code. Back then there were no verification codes, you had to perform at a planned date and time. It was a bit like any race, where you have to perform on the day and in the moment. If you had a bad day you couldn’t just decide to come back two days later and give it another try. I sent the video and photos to Concept2, but because back then no one took it that seriously, those tapes and photographs are long gone.
AH: How do you remember the training leading up to and the day of the attempt?
LY: When I did it, I went much quicker than I thought I would. I just had a very good day. Up until a year before I did some 500m time trials and I could go 1:15, but I didn’t row another 500m until the day of the attempt. I avoided it like plague. But I had a particular workout that I’ve used that I knew was accurately indicative of what I could do for a 500m race.
I was doing 8 x 250m pieces with full active recovery in between them, so about 5 to 8 minutes of active recovery. Whatever pace I could average for the 8 x 250m pieces was the worst-case scenario I could do for 500m. A week before the official times trial I did this test and on the first 2 of the eight 8 intervals I was aiming for just around 1:12 pace, but and I did them very easily and I thought it felt like I was only just warming up, so I thought I pick up the pace a bit. On the last 6 intervals, I went at a pace that felt more appropriate and I averaged 1:10.4 pace. The second last 250m piece I completed in 34.2 seconds, which made me really confident that I could do a really good time on race day. But up to this day I’m still surprised that I actually managed to average that fast a pace on the record attempt day.
The interesting thing is that the wattage on the day that I did 1:10.5 500m in, worked out at exactly 1000 watts on the PM1 console, just as it would be on the newer monitors (exactly how the online calculator on the Concept2 website would calculate it). But I think is all about having a very good day.
AH: What do you think about the recent select few who tried to beat your record?
LY: Recently we were witnessed Sam Loch’s attempts. He was definitely strong enough and fit enough to do it. I think that whilst he had some holes in his training approach, if he would have had a perfect day, it was certainly within his potential capacity to do break the record. We talked a lot initially, as he obviously wanted to research all the relevant information he could for his training. Some of his training was very similar to mine, but he did some things differently too.
The person currently with by far the most potential to beat the record is Ross Love (read the interview with Ross here). He is a great athlete, with great mental capacity, who could possibly beat the record if he simply manages to stay pain and injury free for long enough. Because of re-occurring back problems, it is a shame that he has never had a really good day mentally, when he was also really fit at the same time.
AH: How much of it is mental?
LY: being in the right place mentally on the day is massively important. You can do all the training under the sun and you can get your strength and fitness to your ultimate potential, but on the day of the attempt you just have to be in that perfect place, you could say “in the Zone”. You need perfect flow and everything needs to come together and it needs to feel effortless. I know when I did the record attempt, when I finished it my first thought was that I hadn’t gone hard enough and I need to jump back on the rower and do it again, because I felt I could do it much faster than that, if I had tried harder. It literally felt so easy, like I was doing nothing. I remember that I kept trying to slow the machine down, because I thought I’d burn myself out too early in the effort. With the model B erg with the PM1 monitor you couldn’t row faster than 1:07, because otherwise the monitor started to scramble itself. So after 3 strokes, I had to back off already and sit on 1:07’s and 1:08’s and try to settle it back to 1:10, but I was just kept going 1:09 pace and it almost felt like I couldn’t go slower than that. I basically spent the whole attempt trying to slow down. It was just too perfect of a day and it just happened easily. I dropped the stroke rate as low as 38 and I never got higher than 44. My average stroke rate was between 40 and 42 strokes per minute.
AH: So, the PM1 monitor on the Model B basically helped you to pace during this piece?
LY: Basically, it helped me to slow down and not to blow out too early. Going faster than 1:07 could have screwed up my scores, which would obviously have been disappointing.
AH: How much technology today or in general do you think can help someone to beat the record?
LY: Massively. Even just the monitor now shows so much more information than it used to. Now you have a lot more instant feedback when you are rowing. Even just the distribution of information on the internet makes a huge difference, because now you can jump on YouTube or Instagram and see what other people do and take some instant leads for your training. When I did it, I had nothing to go on whatsoever. Today there is a lot more guys that are really quick. When I broke the record, it took at least 10 years before anyone was able to be faster than 1:15 again and only one person had cracked 1:14 up until a couple years ago. Now all of the sudden it has opened up significantly for any number of people to potentially take the record. It is interesting to see guys like Anton Bondarenko (UKR) who is 25 years old, who can go 1:11.9 on 500m and can go well below 5:50 for 2000m at the same time. It shows me he has a lot of potential.
When I was rowing I was really scientific about it. I always planned out what I did and why I did it. Sam did a great job on showing people that you need to be methodical and organized to do what he attempted to do. Someone like Ross Love really knows how to listen to his body and train very smartly. You can see more and more people becoming more and more intelligent regarding their training.
AH: What do you think makes someone able to break your record?
LY: One of the things guys lack is the ability to complete the last 100m on the 500m attempt. There is a massive difference between a 1 minute piece and doing 500m. Athletes dramatically underestimate how important the aerobic engine becomes over that last 100m. Everyone is really good on building alactic power utilizing the ATP energy system and they even have good lactate tolerance, but what they all lack is good maximal aerobic power. I used to have a max VO2 of 7.6 L/min which is pretty good and even when I did 5:51 2000m, even without seriously training specifically for it. In my opinion, what Sam possibly did wrong, was that even though he had a good aerobic base already, he eradicated pretty much all aerobic work from his training altogether. It was partly the right approach, as I was probably the first person to advocate that if you want to go really fast you need to minimize the volume of low intensity steady state aerobic work you do, because you end up slowing down your fast twitch fibers too much, but you can’t eliminate it all together. You still need to do relatively short, very slow recovery workouts to replenish the aerobic enzymes and mitochondria that get destroyed from building up lactate during the hard intervals. You also need to do max heart rate work to develop maximal aerobic capacity, which will come to play in the last 100m. Lots of guys can go fast for 50-60 seconds, but they are in trouble after that.
AH: If we are talking exceptional aerobic power, what do you think of Rob Waddell’s 2k Record (5:36.6)?
LY: I think Rob’s record is amazing but I’m not sure that if Matthias Sijekowski could have rowed 2000m in his peak, whether he may have been potentially able to break Rob’s record. Unfortunately when he was at his peak they were racing 2500m and he was much older when he came back to row the 2000m. That of course is not taking anything away from Rob’s amazing record. But the reason I’m confident someone will break his record one day, is because of the time that has been done by Josh Dunkley-Smith. If you look at his time relative to his height and weight, then ‘pound for pound’ (or relative to his height) his time for 2000m is arguably better in relative terms than Rob’s time is, proving to me that one day a big enough athlete with the right genetics should theoretically be capable of breaking the 2000m record.
AH: How much do you think weight and height is relevant in terms of records?
LY: When it comes to a 2000m row weight in its own right is largely irrelevant. Everyone talks about it, but it doesn’t really matter much at all. Height is more important, but contrary to common belief, it has nothing to do with longer levers. There is no advantage in big levers. Overall height matters because, in general terms, all other things being equal, the size of someone’s heart is directly correlated to their height. The taller you are the bigger your heart is potentially and therefore your potential VO2 is bigger too. Of course, a lot of things genetically need to be in place, but good height is a good start. Josh Dunkley Smith is 3” shorter than Rob Waddell so his 5:39.6 is a great performance in relative terms.
AH: In your opinion which one is the best record of all time on the indoor rower?
LY: You can’t get past Rob’s record. His record is what everyone takes most seriously historically and there is so many attempts to break it. The 500m record was historically never in that realm, in terms of prestige, but as the time trails over 500m become more and more popular, partly due to its now extensive use as a fitness test in the armed forces, police and fire services, in many codes of football and many other sports and perhaps most importantly in CrossFit circles, so it now has a lot of exposure. Then of course there is Ross Love’s 100m record. But you also can’t ignore the 5000m record, where they now extraordinarily holding sub 1:30 pace throughout the whole piece (Mohamed Sbihi – GBR – 14:54.5). All of these records in their own ways are amazing.
AH: What do you think of the future of indoor rowing? In a few weeks in Wroclaw Poland at the World Games there will be rowers representing their Country from all over the world. What do you think of that race?
LY: I think that the World Games are a great thing. My biggest disappointment is that Ross Love won’t be there due to his injuries, as in his prime he could have been great. I think it is extraordinary that guys like Pavel Shurmei (BLR) and Anton Bondarenko are going to do both the 500m and the 2000m races. There will be many great indoor rowers representing their country. What is also interesting is that many of them will noticeably be absent, as it is the first time where there will be an indoor rowing event where people are going to be drug tested, very effectively leveling the playing field. It would be great to see Pavel do well, since he is probably one of the oldest guys in the field, along with Graham Benton (GBR). It is great that the sport that has grown so much in the last few years.
AH: What do you think about athletes from other sports coming into indoor rowing and beating World Records? Like Cecilia Velin (SWE) who is a kayaker.
LY: I think it is great for the sport. You also have CrossFit athlete Samantha Briggs who broke multiple World Records. The kayakers are quite interesting. I’m a kayaker myself nowadays and the guys and girls from this sport who never rowed in their life or never even sat on a rower, still do very well. They are just such good athletes. A lot of them do cycling training as well when they cross train. They have unbelievably fit and strong upper bodies and with bike cross training and a little lower body work, they will definitely have an advantage. I think we are going to see a lot more of these sorts of athletes start to have an impact.
AH: Can you tell our readers 3 things that can make them better in indoor rowing?
LY: The first thing is the main difference between other aerobic sports and indoor rowing is that in this sport you just have to be stronger. Strength training is pretty critical. Things like doing deadlifts, squats and seated cable rows need to be your bread and butter. When I did my record, I was able to deadlift with 230kg (507lbs) for 20 reps in row (touch and go) and that sort of strength endurance is critical.
You also need to work hard on developing your max VO2, but the most important thing is that if you want to row fast, then you need to learn is how to relax and be composed, even when going at full speed. When you watch good guys on the water on or on rowing machines, the best guys look like they are doing it easily. One of the things Sam Loch demonstrated well, is how easy he was able to make a very fast pace look. It is absolutely critical to remain really smooth, composed, relaxed and has is got to look effortless. As soon as you tense up and try to muscle your way through it, you won’t go very fast for very long.
AH: Now you are enjoying your Vacation. Do you have time for training?
LY: Actually, I’m on a cruise ship the only available equipment I can train on is a rowing machine, so now I’m forced to jump on the erg a couple of times a week again, after pretty much more than 20 years off the machine.
AH: Any future plans with rowing?
LY: When I’m 60 years old, I think a pretty cool thing to do would be to crack 6 minutes for 2000m.
AH: When do you think someone can break your record?
LY: I think it can be broken very quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone breaks it in the next few months but it equally would not be totally surprising even if no one can break it for another 20 years, or so, but it will simply take a really good athlete having a really good day, where he is truly in the flow and in the zone at the right time. But it will be broken. I was only 98kg when I did it. Weight and total muscle mass makes a big difference over 500m. If there is a big powerful athlete weighing 140kg, who learns how to row properly, he should be able to beat it. Theoretically it shouldn’t be that hard to break. If I was able to do it at a weight of less than 100kg, then a way bigger athlete should be able train for it and successfully break it. It is inevitable. I have no doubt it will be broken. I’m happy with so many people attempting to go for it in the meantime.
We said goodbye and hung up. Leo probably took advantage of the sea around Crete and went for a dip in the Aegean Sea. I was so inspired I had to go training right away. I rowed a nice tempo 5k which gave me time to think and soak in the spirit of rowing a bit and appreciate Leo’s performance even more. At this point I felt that he wasn’t just the owner of the longest standing rowing World Record and an indoor rowing legend, he became my friend. I can just hope you feel the same. His spirit, knowledge and drive was shining through him over that 50 minutes we were able to talk. And we can all hope that in a few years we will see him with a few more World Records and with some crazy times at the 60+ category…this time all documented and published. Until then let me know Concept2 if you have a storage room with old administrative junk in it, I’d be happy to look for that tape from the 90s.