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Demystifying the Drag Factor

by Mayrene T. Earle | Jan 03, 2006
Now that rowers in northern parts of the country are well into erg season, I’ve been hearing a lot of questions from masters about the so-called drag factor.

Now that rowers in northern parts of the country are well into erg season, I’ve been hearing a lot of questions from masters about the so-called drag factor. What is it? How do I set it? What do I set it at? Why did Concept2 develop the drag factor anyway?

Let’s start at the beginning. What is this mysterious thing called drag factor? On its Web site, Concept2 explains that drag factor “is a numerical value for the rate at which the flywheel is decelerating. The number changes with the volume of air that passes through the flywheel housing. Since higher damper settings allow more air into the flywheel housing, the flywheel decelerates more quickly, resulting in a higher drag factor value.”

Here’s another way to understand it. On any erg, various factors affect the speed of the flywheel, including the temperature and density of the air, wind and a dirty flywheel, to name a few. Drag factor allows each erg to compensate for these variables to create level conditions on different ergs.

Wow. For us fossils who have been around rowing forever, this is pretty fancy stuff. Certainly we’ve come a long way since the Gamut ergs, with their distinctive zhinnggggg dinnngggg dinnngggg dinnnggggg, zhinnnnggggg dinnngggg dinnggg dinnggg sound.

Of course, the real question rowers want answered is what is the magic number for drag? The answer is there is no magic number. It’s different for everyone. Where you set your drag factor will depend on your own size, weight and conditioning level, as well as the size boat you row.

That said, you should set the drag so the feeling of your drive on the rowing machine is as close to possible as your experience on the water. In general, scullers will need a higher drag due to the slower leg speed on the drive in a single. Those who row in an eight will have a lower drag, reflecting the faster drive speed.

To give masters specific rowers parameters for setting the drag factor, I asked various masters and coaches to share their experiences. Here’s what I learned. A 45+ male lightweight rower told me he rows with a drag of 115-120. He used to row around 130, but as he ages, he’s discovered that he has to watch the stress he puts on his back. A 35+ lightweight male told me he likes to row with low resistance of 100 because it feels more like being on the water and is easier on his back. A 60+ lightweight woman rows  between 100 and 110, and  a 50+ heavyweight woman rows at 120.

At MIT, the heavyweight men row at 130-133. Coach Gordon Hamilton told me he likes his team to emphasize quickness, regardless of the type of workout, unless they are doing a specific power workout. At the University of Tennessee, the varsity women test at 122, because that’s the national team standard. They lower the drag to 115-118 for steady state pieces. Casey Baker from FIT points out that Rob Waddell won the CRASH B’s with the drag set as low as 99!!! 

You’ll find a chart of recommended drag factors on the Web at www.concept2.co.uk/guide/guide.php?article=damper_lever.

But all of these are guidelines only. This is not an exact science. However, you should find that setting the drag factor at the right level gives you a comfortable ratio with maximum power transfer.

There is a common misconception that rowing the erg has to be hard. This is not true. In December, I asked rowers participating in my “Erg Inspiration” virtual training sessions to do three steady-state workouts each week. Their intensity was to be 65% of their maximum, which they calculated by adding 20 to 25 seconds to the 500 meter split time of their most recent 2K test. During these longer pieces, usually 45 to 60 minutes, I have them row with a smaller drag factor to avoid lower back injuries. 

My best advice to you is to vary the drag factor to learn what works best for you. Start by rowing with the drag factor set where it feels most like you are on the water. Row several pieces in a practice, same distance and same stroke rate, while varying the drag factor between the pieces, until you feel what’s best for you.

I like Casey Baker’s advice about setting the drag: “Like anything else in rowing, test, change, test, change, re-test, adjust, get some grey hair, cuss.”

Mayrene T. Earle, M.Ed., is founder of MastersCoaching. She conducts masters rowing camps and clinics around the world and has a private life coaching practice. Contact her at mayrene@masterscoaching.com.

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