Rowing as a sport is incredibly nuanced. While not perhaps as popular as other sports, the technique, teamwork, training, nutrition, and combination of aerobic and anaerobic exertion requires a high-level skill set.
This week, we have on Mike DiSanto to delve into the life of an Olympian rower and learn more about the sport. Mike has unique insight: He represented America at the 2016 Rio Olympics, balances a full-time job with a full-time athletic career, and was an early user of our ketone ester when it was being researched at the University of Oxford.
Geoff: Mike, welcome to the new office and new studio.
Mike: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Geoff: Yeah so last time we spoke was when you visited our office a few months ago. I know that you're four weeks out from the world championships. How's preparation? How's training? How's that going?
Mike: Yeah, it's going great. Been training a lot, you know we haven't had much in the way of time off recently. But I think things have been really positive and looking forward to the last couple of weeks before racing begins.
Geoff: How does that typically look like? Obviously rowing ... probably one of the most intense athletic events, but I would say is probably less well-known in terms of how people train for it, how people prepare for it. What does a training block look like for you guys? Are you guys on the lake, in the ocean, rowing every single day? Do you cycle your training? What does it typically look like?
Mike: Yeah, well I think the main differences probably revolve around coaching philosophies or styles. My current coach, who has been the Olympic coach, I think in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 ... I think he's a big believer in intensity. What that entails for the athletes is we're still rowing 10 or 11 times a week we're out in the water. There's quite a bit of side by side work. We're competitive pieces. You're always trying to beat the guys next to you and you're very ...
Geoff: Are these two-man crews?
Mike: Anywhere from two-man to four-man to eight-man. And you're very aware that pieces count in that he's recording times and results.
Geoff: There's an expectation that this is the ranking for the world championship squad, Olympic squad.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. It's good.
It brings out the best guys to show up to every practice and ready to go.
I've been in other programs where it's much more endurance-based. You're out there and maybe you have a heart rate monitor in your watch and you're told to be in this heart rate or training zone for 80 or 90 minutes. I think there's pros and cons to each one. It involves a lot of time out rowing in Oakland, where we're training. We're training out in the estuary. There's an added element of ... there's boats out there. Occasionally you'll see a sea lion. The water moves underneath you, which is rare because when we go over to the world championships in Bulgaria, it'll be a perfectly flat, 2,000 meter course, still water.
Geoff: Interesting. Does that make your training harder than the actual match?
Mike: I think it will, yeah. There's a lot more variables where we train now than when we get over there. I think that's something that we'll notice. Maybe it's only a subtle difference, but I think it is important.
Geoff: Usually you want to train the same exact specifications as the match. Do you think you'll get an advantage because you're training in a harder water? Or is that going to trip you out a little bit when you go over to Bulgaria and it's a perfectly flat, still lake, no?
Mike: Yeah, I think it's actually maybe a little more tricky and challenging to train where we currently do. We're very lucky we get an opportunity to go and train on a reservoir out in Orinda. That is flat water so you can get accurate times to test different line ups and combinations within the boat.
Geoff: Okay so you get to train on a harder surface where there's more variables and you also get to train ...
Mike: Exactly. We get the best of both worlds.
Geoff: Okay you get both.
Geoff: Okay cool. Obviously we're doing 10, 11 sessions a week, you're doing like twice a days?
Geoff: What does that look like on a day-to-day basis? It sounds like you have a training block going into the competition in four weeks. I guess on a weekly basis or a daily basis.
Walk us through. What did you do yesterday or today?
Mike: This current coach is a very big proponent and advocate of all the guys having jobs. Not just a little job here or there but full-time, 9 to 5 jobs. Most of the athletes, myself included, have work, and we work anywhere from 6 to 9 hours a day. He's really tailored our training program all year to allow us to go to work from 9 to 5, then get back in training. I'd say a typical week will start on a Monday. I'll wake up probably around 6, get my stuff together. I live two minutes from the boat house where we train over in Oakland. Just a brief commute. I'll get there. I'll do some dynamic stretching and then we'll get out in the water around 6:40 or so.
Geoff: You do this fasted, no breakfast?
Mike: I do all of this fasted, yeah. For a few reasons. I know in an endurance sport like rowing, I think it helps ... you probably know the science behind it a bit better, but some of the channels for teaching your body how to tap into its fat stores ...
Geoff: Right, you're putting your fat metabolism to the test.
Mike: Also I find that I have such big dinners that I rarely have an appetite in the morning. The only exception is when we have hard pieces and then I'll have ...
Geoff: Oh like competition, like special days?
Mike: Then I'll try to have certainly a lot of coffee and maybe a shot of ketone ester. Then we'll get off the water by 8:15, 8:20. Everyone will just disappear off to their jobs.
Geoff: An hour and a half of rowing.
Mike: Yeah, very efficient pretty much from the time you shove off the dock until you get back, the practice never stops. It's just continuous. Whether that's hard pieces or whether that's just a longer, lower intensity row. Then we all meet back at the boat house around 5:15, 5:30. I either do a brief weight session or some stretching, just another warm up. Then we're back out rowing at around 5:45, and probably back on the dock again around 7:20, 7:30. You rush back home, make yourself some dinner, maybe watch some television and you're back to bed. It's a pretty jam packed day. I think we're making the most of each day. That's a good feeling.
Geoff: It's actually pretty efficient if you think about it. You're doing four hours approximately a day times seven. Under 30 hours a week, which for an Olympic professional athlete is ... It's a lot. You guys are basically doing two full time jobs. You guys are literally ...
Mike: Yeah. It's something I think all of us are used to because we came up and most of us did this in high school where you had to balance a sport on top of your academics. Then certainly all of us have done it in college where it's the same thing. In a way you just replace schoolwork with ...
Geoff: A job.
Mike: Work work yeah. It's nice that instead of tests or quizzes you just get ...
Mike: Yeah. That's nice to look forward to.
Geoff: Is that typical against international squads?
Mike: I would say it's pretty unique.
Geoff: Yeah because I imagine that other countries literally they're probably training, I don't know, 50 hours a week.
Mike: Yeah I think other countries, not to say we aren't professional, but they tend to take more of what you would think of a professional baseball or football player here where that's all they do.
Mike: I think part of the reason is that you have a lot of rowers in the US that have gone to pretty good schools and coach says this and I think he's right on with it.
The biggest thing that works against US rowers is their opportunity cost. Instead of rowing, you're passing up a career.
You get, I think, pretty thoughtful, good guys who end up continuing on. When you're 22, 23, 24, you're willing to make that sacrifice. When you get a little older, you're starting to think I'd like to settle down. I'd like to ...
Geoff: Have a family ...
Mike: Exactly. I'd like to start making my way. This is allowing guys to do both. Have a job, have a meaningful job, and also train at a high level and compete at a high level.
Geoff: That's pretty impressive, compared to international squads where they're just full time physical specimens basically.
Geoff: Do you guys feel like a disadvantage or do you feel like because your time is so focused you actually have a creative outlet for your intellectual pursuits? Do you find that as a strength?
Mike: I guess at first it's easy to think how are we going be able to do this? As the year has gone on, I think I've probably been performing as well as I've ever been able to. I think part of the reason is that maybe on the surface it doesn't look like physiologically or physically the best thing to do, but for me it allows me to mentally and emotionally unplug from potentially stressful or anxiety-ridden practice when you're going through selection and you unplug and you have to throw yourself into work. I think it's really helped me a lot. I think it takes a pretty progressive coach and a pretty open-minded coach to allow guys to do that.
Geoff: I'm sure like he gets judged on how well the US team does.
Geoff: If he's like okay and I'm going still let my guys go and have a full time job.
Mike: Yeah I guess we'll know more in four weeks. I'm optimistic and I think the objective results along the way have been promising, so hopefully we can ...
Geoff: Yeah, what are the expectations? I know that the US is obviously a powerhouse of an Olympic sport squad. How does US typically rank in terms of Olympics and world championships?
Mike: The women have been dominant. In the women's 8, which is the blue ribbon event ... it's like the heavyweight of boxing. The women have won 2008, 2012, 2016. They got silver in 2004, so they have a very strong legacy and tradition there. The men have been a bit more up and down there, so we're hoping to get it back, re-establish it. I think you do all this training and you're certainly not doing it to go over there and finish second or third or miss the medals.
And that's okay. I think you take confidence from the training. It's good to have a good goal, but a realistic goal.
Geoff: Maybe this might be a stupid question but you read and hear how different athletes respond towards placement. It sounds like if you are fourth you feel really, really bad because you missed you placing the medal. For third, you're really happy because you're all on the stand. Second, you feel really, really bad because you didn't get gold.
Geoff: Is that true in terms of how you think about it?
Mike: I can speak to ...
Geoff: I know in Rio ...
Mike: Yeah, we finished fourth in Rio, so I can speak from personal experience. I think there's two things at play. One is the small picture, just how the regatta played out. Then you have to contextualize that within the big picture. I think within the big picture I'm not okay with it, but I understand there were certain things that went well and didn't go so well. Within the regatta, I think just a younger crew. At the end of the day you've got to go out there and on the finals day you've got to have your best race. We didn't do that. That was very frustrating.
Geoff: You felt like you left something on the table.
Mike: Yeah, you don't want to get off the water and feel that that wasn't our best race. I think it's an easier pill to swallow if you go out there and you're like we had the 10 out of 10, perfect piece and we still ...
Geoff: Three squads had the perfect race and still beat us.
Mike: Yeah but it's good and I think it forces everyone to take a step back and we look in the mirror and say what more could you have done as an individual or as a teammate.
It just shows you that the margin for error on that level is so small.
If you want to go back and put your cards back on the table, or chips back in the middle of the pot, that you've got to be ready for that. This time you're going back for a much different ...
Geoff: Yeah so you were on the US 8 and the ...
Mike: Yeah I was.
Geoff: Did you do the 4? There's a 2 and 4 and 8 for the Olympics.
Mike: In rowing there is sweeping. Think one person, one oar. Then there's sculling, one person, two oars. I am on the sweep team. I went to the world championships twice, in 2013 in Chungju, South Korea. Then in 2015 in France in a town called Aiguebelette, which is a stunning place to row. I was in the men's pair. My pair partner and I each had one oar, and we did all right there. In the Olympic year in 2016, I made it into the 8 for Rio where we finished fourth.
Geoff: Cool. Yeah this might be a good time to go back a little bit in history. Obviously you have a very credentialed international career. How'd you get into rowing? Did you have parents that liked rowing?
Geoff: Obviously our mutual friend, and our HVMN colleague Brianna, I think she got into it because her dad was a rower. They were doing a cross-Atlantic little journey and she was inspired to learn there. I'm curious how you got into rowing.
Mike: It's a funny story I guess. I grew up I guess playing baseball. That's what I was really adamant about.
Geoff: Classic American.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. I was really passionate about it. I loved it. I was respectable for a while and then I went to high school. It was an all-guys school. I think very focused on athletics. I was competitive there but as I got older my baseball started slipping a bit. I used to be a pretty good hitter. All of a sudden I'm not such a good hitter anymore. I guess like one thing led to another.
Geoff: It's like you just couldn't see the ball coming or just like ...
Mike: Yeah I couldn't make contact and that's a big part of ... They say as a door closes, a window opens. The other part of this school I went to you had to play a different sport every season. I wasn't able to just play baseball. I played football in the fall, I wrestled in the winter, and I played baseball in the spring.
Geoff: Damn. It was like a three varsity kid?
Mike: Eventually I got there, it took a while. What happened is I picked up wrestling when I got there. The wrestling coach, him and the rowing coach were friends. This was my sophomore year. I was 15, 16. He was like, "I think I've got this guy who's a wrestler, who I think you should look at for the rowing team." He comes over and we're talking about it. He's trying to convince me to row. I'm like, "I don't know, I've always played baseball." I had my deposit down with the school to go on like the training camp for the baseball team down to Florida. I think a day or two before we were set to leave, I was just like okay, let's give rowing a shot. Baseball wasn't quite working out. This coach really wanted me to try his sport. He was like, "Look, no strings attached. Worst case, you try it for two weeks and you decide you want to go back to baseball." That was fine with me.
Geoff: What do you think like was the eye for talent? Clearly you're a super talented rower, but when you're 16. I know we talked about this before but your physique is not a classical rower, right?
Mike: No, not by any means.
Geoff: You were a 6'8" ...
Mike: Yeah super lanky.
Geoff: Tall lanky dude.
Mike: Yeah I think what they is that I was tough and I was willing to work hard.
I think there are some intangible things you can't teach people.
And I think I was very lucky to have my wrestling coach draw those things out of me. I'll be totally honest, before I started wrestling I think I was pretty soft. I don't think I knew what it meant to really push yourself. Very luckily for me that translated past just the athletic field and into the classroom or into work. What does it really mean to push yourself to the limit and really pursue something and throw yourself at it? I had a coming out, if you will, when I was 16 in that wrestling season. I think it launched me into rowing. I think it launched me into a lot of good things.
Geoff: You had the two week trial and I guess loved it, or enjoyed it. Or you hated it and or what?
Mike: Yeah I guess I was like, "This is cool." There was just like a really good energy on that team. I didn't know what I was doing but everyone was so positive. I think the group of guys that were on that team, it was just a lot of fun. It was guys I had played football with. That was the thing that that rowing coach in high school looked for. He didn't look for like traditionally good rowers. He looked for kids who were athletic and were willing to work hard and push themselves. You had kids that played hockey or kids that played football, or kids that did all these other sports come together.
Geoff: Where'd you go to high school?
Mike: It's called Belmont Hill. It's about 15 or 20 minutes outside of Boston.
Mike: All guys school.
Geoff: Okay, okay, yeah. Makes sense because like I don't think there's a lot of rowing in California.
Mike: There's some. Actually, believe it or not, Morin and Newport in SoCal is pretty big. Morin and the Oakland Strokes are the two really big ones in the Bay Area. Yeah, we just had a great experience and I stuck with it. I realized that I was actually pretty good at it. I think it's like anything, you taste some success and you just want more. I guess the rest is history.
Geoff: Yeah, were you guys state champs or?
Mike: Yeah we won like the national championships my junior year.
Geoff: You were really damn good.
Mike: Well I mean there's a lot, there's other guys on the boat so.
Geoff: You guys had a good rowing program.
Mike: Oh yeah, the coach is incredible. I think since 2000 ...
Geoff: I mean national high school champs is no joke. You guys were good.
Mike: Yeah I was very lucky to have him as a coach, but like I said, a lot of really good teammates and other rowers on that team. He's probably coached I would guess between ... since 2006 and now he's probably coached around 10 boats that have either like won or got second at the national championships. I'm long gone but he's still producing results. I think it's more of a testament to him.
Geoff: Yeah that sounds like he's just got a program down. I think talking about physique, there's actually an audience question here. Louis asks what is the ideal physique? I think we just touched upon it, right? The classic rower type is like a very tall, lanky individual.
Mike: Yeah I would guess probably 6'4", 6'6", in that range. Probably 210, 215 pounds. You know, when you think like a prototypical, if you were just to look at people walking down the street and you see someone like that, you'd be like, "Oh I'd check him out as a rower."
Geoff: Right. The idea is like a torque from the long limbs.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. It's just like, it's a sport of leverage. You get a little bit longer stroke, a little bit longer arc. You just apply a little bit more force.
Geoff: Your physique ... you're not quite 6'4", right?
Mike: No on a good day we'll say 6'1". On a good day.
Geoff: Okay. You're overcoming the not ideal physique. What is your edge? Clearly you're performing at world class, top of the world Olympic level. Is it your training or discipline, your stamina, like you have more power than the typical average?
What makes you overcome some of the disadvantages from not having the ideal physique?
Mike: I think a lot of coaches that were also willing to look past it. There are coaches that are like, "Oh you don't fit the mold. We're not even going to give you and opportunity." High school, college, Oxford, now the national team. Coaches that are just like, "Okay, if this guy can go out there and row and perform. "Also I think, I remember spending a lot of summers, lot of time training, doing extra work. Before I even understood how the physiology, how it all worked, my freshman year after college I just spent so much time in the boat house, every day.
Geoff: You just outworked everyone.
Mike: Yeah. For a long time I think that was like the equalizer for me. Not to say that I don't now, but I think as I've gotten older, I've tried to be a little bit smarter with how I've worked. I think you can still go back and rely on that and outworking everyone and that's something that I still try to do. It's also now focusing that in. How can I work hard and be smart about it?
Geoff: Yeah I think that's been I would say a more recent development in sports science, where before like 1980s there wasn't even a notion of professional sports. If you look at like Roger Banister, for example, he was an Oxford medical student that like happened to be a runner and broke the four-minute mile. Really in the last like 20, 30 years you had the cash machine of the Olympics. The athletes don't get paid for Olympics, but like professional, NBA, NFL but the Olympics is a massive business for the sponsors and the host countries and what not.
Well then you really had this huge rise of the professional athlete class. I think there's been a lot more science in how to best train athletes. I think that has shifted from gentlemen athletes from like 1980s previously to then people just like working out all the time. Oftentimes that gets into over-trainer injury. I would say in the last 5, 10 years there's been an emphasis on recovery, recovery, recovery. Set up your training blocks where you have intense periods and really relaxed periods.
Geoff: What does that look like for you or is that part of the US program? Or is that something that you think about like very cognizantly to make sure that you're fully recovery, you don't get injured?
Geoff: I mean my sense talking to professional athletes is that getting injured is the worst. You totally stop progress, regress and it takes so much effort to get back to healthy.
Mike: It does. Yeah. I was lucky not to run into any of that until I actually got over to Oxford. I went over there to do my master's degree and as I was mentioning a bit earlier, the coach there was just a big believer in volume, so lower intensity, high volume.
Geoff: You did your undergrad at Harvard, right?
Mike: Yeah. Sorry, yeah.
Geoff: Okay so I guess so it would be interesting to compare the programs and compare the evolution.
Mike: Yeah so Harvard I got to row for a coach, Harry Parker, who unfortunately passed away a couple years ago, who was there for 51 years, and again, gave me an opportunity to prove myself even as like a smaller guy in the program.
Geoff: I imagine you were like a recruited athlete, right, if you were like a national champ?
Mike: Yeah but believe it or not, even at like 17 or 18 you have guys going on and who are, albeit at the junior level, but they're world champs or competing at the world's level. I wasn't even that good and to be totally honest, I almost missed the freshman boat. Rowing was one of the last sports, maybe even the last sport, to have a freshman team. They just did away with that a few years ago. Of the 16 or 17 guys on our freshman class, I was probably, in an 8 man boat, I was like the eighth guy in. Like I said, that following summer it just really gave me some incentive to work hard. I was like, "Well look, you almost missed out on the freshman boat. Imagine how much harder it's going to be when you get into the varsity team."
Geoff: Harvard must be a top rowing program, I assume, for D1 colleges.
Mike: Yeah so two really good schools on the west coast, the University of Washington and Cal Berkeley. On the east coast it's Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown are generally ... those are more or less your top six. Yale's been pretty dominant recently, which hopefully will change. The old rivalry.
Geoff: Safety school.
Mike: Washington and Cal are very strong. Washington won like five national championships in a row not too long ago. They're kinda the pre-eminent rowing school at the moment, I would say. I was there under Harry and he really left the ball in the guys' court to do as much or as little training as they wanted. We only had really six organized practices a week at Harvard. The rest was up to you. I think the guys who were competing for the varsity boat would probably do like 3 or 4 extra workouts a week.
The program really rewarded guys that were self-motivated and didn't mind putting in some extra hours.
Mike: From there, I graduated in 2012 and I spent a year with the US National Team. As I mentioned, made it into the pair, went to the world championships in Chungju, which is about two hours south of Seoul in South Korea. Then I had been accepted to a research program at Oxford in psychiatry.
Geoff: Oxford has a very strong rowing program.
Mike: Yeah and a terrific coach. That's where I started to probably run into a bit of this like over-training where the duration was so much. I came from this I think probably typical American mindset of more is more. It was scientific and as measured a program as you could ever hope or ask for. It was great. We were always given these training zones. In my first couple years I would rarely stay in them. I thought oh, I can push harder. I didn't fully appreciate because-
Geoff: So the training zones were based on your heart rate.
Geoff: So it's like okay, be in the anaerobic threshold. Don't be ...
Geoff: ... like maxed out, like maximal threshold.
Mike: I just thought ...
Geoff: You were just going maximal the whole time through.
Mike: I guess the philosophy at Oxford was more of a polarized training. So when it's easy, go easy. When it's hard, go as hard as you can. I was probably spending a little too much time in that gray area.
Geoff: The easy days aren't easy enough.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. Then that takes away from how hard you can go. I learned the hard way in the fall, especially in my second year there, with some disappointing scores. Finally I got it through my head that maybe I just do need to go a little easier. Injuries and over-training, they're terrible. I think probably the worst thing that people don't account for is you're away from the team. In these team-driven sports like rowing or a lot of other professional sports, that can just take a toll on you.
Geoff: Like emotionally.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, because you're on your own. You have your separate training program, and you can just feel very isolated. I think that's coupled with being injured, so you're already maybe disappointed or a little upset about that. It's just like a double whammy. I totally sympathize.
Geoff: Yeah, no, it just reminds me a lot of like our friends in the military. You have your brothers or your comrades in arms. If you're injured you're away from them and you lose your sense of identity a little bit.
Mike: Exactly, yeah, yeah. It can be pretty deflating you know if the team's going down to row at 1:30 and instead of that, or whatever time they're going to row, you're off on the bike on your own. I guess ultimately we're social creatures and social beings, and to not have those interactions with people, whether it's on the bus or in the boat or just like you said, that camaraderie and that feeling of belonging on a team. It can be tough.
Geoff: One thing that you mentioned I think that's also been something that's come up in a previous conversation is you don't go easy enough on you're easy days.
Geoff: What is an easy day like? What is that supposed to look like for you? What did you do wrong? I think it'd just be interesting if you tease into that a little bit.
Mike: Well that is definitely something, that's probably my main focus now is like you said, recovery. When we get days off I really try to think mostly about a mental release. What is going to be good for me mentally. I say what's going to make me happy. That's been my main focus, I think, probably in this last year. Maybe this isn't the best thing for me recovery-wise in terms of like a physiological textbook. You should be like resting with your legs up and sleeping as much as possible. I think we're working and we're working out, like you said, it's a lot of hours in a week.
You get this time off and I think there is this mind-body relationship that we don't fully understand yet, but a happy athlete is probably going to be a good athlete.
Saturday's I'll try to come into the city and catch up with people and maybe have a few beers. Where in the past I'd be pretty reluctant and resistant to that, now I'm much more focused on it. We'll have Sunday morning off and won't have training again until Sunday afternoon. I'll try to go on a bike ride, go on a hike or go to the beach. Something that I would enjoy and I guess do even if I wasn't rowing. Just to I guess enjoy that part and have that part of my life.
Geoff: Interesting. We had a conversation with Jeff Bercovici who is an author. He wrote about extended longevity of athletes. One of the patterns he saw was that the best athletes were the happy athletes, the people that really love the sport. Curious to get into your head a little bit. You've rode for 10 plus years by this point, right? Twelve years, right?
Geoff: What's the attitude when you go on ... I mean, is it something that is a job? Is it fun? Is it a craft that you want to keep perfecting? What's your mindset and thoughts towards the sport and towards the practice?
Mike: I think with rowing, with anything you take very seriously, I think there can be times where it's very tough and very challenging. It does feel like a slog. There are going to be days where the boat's rowing really well or you perform at an incredible level. Those are the days that I think make it worth it. One of my teammates who's retired said this to me and I think it's the truest thing I've heard about rowing. I would imagine most athletes feel this way. The lows can be pretty low but the highs are as high as you'll probably ever experience. I think that's why you keep going back. You know, like winning a big race or having an incredible PR, those feelings of just like, "I've put so much time and effort into this and it's paid off." That feeling of it all being worth it is unlike anything else.
I guess my mindset with rowing ... I don't know if I'd say it changes frequently. I don't view it as a job. I'm not exactly sure why I don't view it as a job. I guess there are these added elements of being down there with guys that you're friends with and great friends with, and you get to spend time with. As I said, it can be really tough and trying at times. But hopefully at least a couple times a week you think yeah, it's all worth it. All this time, all this effort. It's certainly worth it.
Geoff: Yeah so obviously given our audience and our community here, people are really keen on nutrition. We talked a little bit about how you go into your usual morning workouts fasted. What does the rest of your meals look like? What is the timing of those meals? Is it super thoughtful? Or are you just, you know ... a lot of professional athletes that sometimes are like we just eat candy because we just aren't disciplined. There's the samurai's who have a very, very rigorous protocol towards exactly what they put into their body. Where do you sit? What does your typical program look like?
Mike: I'd say this is something I was probably at one point much more of a samurai in terms of what I was eating. Now, again, I'm more of a believer that sometimes you've just to do what makes you happy. Not to say my eating is bad but sometimes I'm like, "Oh you know what, I want to go get ice cream. I'm going to have ice cream." A couple years ago I'd feel so guilty if I had ice cream. I would just like I wasn't doing everything in my power to do what was best for my training away from rowing. I'll get back ... I'll generally eat some like full fat Greek yogurt with a lot of hemp seeds and nuts.
Geoff: That's pretty high fat.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. I'd say I'd try to tend towards a ketogenic diet.
Mike: Most of the time. I'm not perfect by any stretch, but I'm definitely like aware of sugars and carbohydrates. I do eat them but I just ...
Geoff: Especially as an athlete. I mean you need carbs.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. I do try to stay away from them en mass. You know I eat pizza, I eat pasta but ...
Geoff: It's sparing. It's a choice. It's not like your mainstay.
Mike: Yeah. At night for dinner I'll generally have steak and vegetables. Then maybe if my roommates make rice, I'll have a scoop of it, but more because I need it or I know I need it. I'd say when rowing's done I'll probably ...
Geoff: You have a late breakfast post-workout.
Geoff: Do you have like a lunch?
Mike: I do. For me it's pretty simple, and some people find it really weird. It's toast with peanut butter right around like 12 or 1:00. I have two slices of toast, lather it up with like the WholeFoods freshly ground peanut butter. There's something about it, I just love it. I can eat it every day and never get sick of it. I'll look forward to it. It fills me up and I know that if I have to go perform in the afternoon then I'll be ready to do that as well.
Geoff: That's literally what you eat every single afternoon.
Mike: For lunch, yeah. Then again you know, maybe some more nuts. Big into cashews and almonds.
Geoff: Okay. Yeah I mean that sounds pretty ketogenic, besides the toast, but it's fine. You're probably expending a ton of glycogen. Yeah full fat yogurt ... it's hard to find, no?
Mike: I just grab the stuff at Trader Joe's because I love the taste of it and I know that sometimes what they use to replace the fat in terms of flavor ...
Geoff: It's like sugar.
Mike: Yeah. It's not great for you. I don't by any means view fat as the enemy. I know some people do but no I mean I cook my steaks in quite a bit of butter. You know ...
Geoff: I mean that tide is shifting. I think a lot of that science is getting re-looked.
A lot of our community is very interested in fasted workouts and a ketogenic diet. It's interesting to hear that it's working for you and how you're performing at the elite level.
Mike: Absolutely. No I'm a big believer in it.
Geoff: When do you have like your dinner?
Mike: Late these days, probably around 8. That's probably not as much by design. That's kind of like ...
Geoff: Post-work, post-workout.
Mike: Yeah. So we're not getting off the water until 7:20, 7:30.
Geoff: Oh man.
Mike: I need to like ... I'm lucky because I only live two minutes from the boat house. I just run home. If I had a steak in the fridge ... steak or fish a lot of nights.
Geoff: After you eat you just go right to bed basically?
Mike: Yeah actually I have a blow-off period but by 9:30 ...
Geoff: You're exhausted.
Mike: Yeah. I'll be ready to go. Except for actually when we do like piece days, so hard days. I have a lot of caffeine. Probably more than is healthy. This is a plug for you guys but an honest plug. I have struggled to sleep those nights. Instead of going to bed at 9:30 or 10, it's more like 11:30 or 12 by the time you actually fall asleep. I was talking to Brianna, who's one of your employees. She was like, "Well why don't you try one of our products?" She sent me some or I'm not sure who sent me some but someone sent me some. I tried the Yawn stuff and I was like okay, I'm not really feeling it, I'm not really feeling it. Then all of a sudden it was just like all right, lights out. It was perfect. We had pieces this morning, I have a pill I'm going to take when I get home around ...
Geoff: Yeah glad to help awesome to hear.
Mike: ... 8. Yeah I mean, it is terrific. Because that's been, I'd say ... I am a big believer in sleep. It is tough when one or even two days of your week you're getting reduced sleep because you're just so amped up from all the adrenaline.
Geoff: I mean so you're kind of averaging like seven-ish hours a day. Which is ...
Mike: Yeah. Maybe just over that. Because I'll probably wake up around 6 or maybe slightly before so I'd say probably maybe closer to 8. You know, we get to sleep in on the weekends a touch. That is like probably one area if I looked at it as the years go on and as we get closer to the Olympics, that's probably one area where I'll continue to say look, I can be quite a bit better here. Maybe I should try pushing bedtime forward half an hour.
Geoff: Yeah I mean it's just hard if like your practices end at 7:30 ...
Mike: Yeah, it's incredibly hard. My roommates are very good at it. So there's no excuse but for me not to also be like okay, it's time to go to bed.
Geoff: I mean, if you're preparing for Olympics, does it make sense? Like shift up your afternoon session? I mean, you're going to Tokyo, here's our last training block, let's like have a 3:00 afternoon workout as opposed to like a 6:00 workout.
Mike: Yeah well I think ...
Geoff: You can actually go to bed at like 9 and like eat dinner at 6 you know.
Mike: Well I think it's currently really good because you're allowing guys to keep training and work with their full time jobs. I'm sure I'd be totally supportive of it ... Couple of months out from the Olympics, it's probably time to put everything else in your life on hold, at least for a couple months and just really focus it.
Geoff: Yeah so we'd be remiss to not talk about it but Olympic Village, Rio.
Mike: Ask away.
Geoff: Yeah I mean, how was that experience? How was hanging out with the celebrity athletes or at least seeing them I imagine. Obviously it's just like a special moment that not a lot of people get the opportunity to be in such a global event.
What was it like parading with the athletes and all of that?
Mike: The Olympic Village was great. The best way to describe it is just this kind of big apartment complex, maybe call it 20 twenty-story buildings. The countries with big teams, so the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, they'll each get their own building. Then there are smaller countries will have ...
Geoff: Were these buildings constructed just for you guys?
Mike: Yeah, yeah, with the idea that after the games they'd turn into just like an apartment complex. I was in the Team USA building with ... I guess before you go down there you can opt to either stay in the Village or stay closer to your venue. We opted to stay in the Village. A lot of teams, as far as I could tell, also decided to stay there. With the notable exception's the basketball team.
Geoff: Because they're all like 100 millionaire ...
Mike: Yeah, exactly, but cool story about that. The opening ceremonies, I think, were on a Friday. Our first race was a Monday. We opted to just dress up in the garb, take some pictures at the Village and not go, just because it's a huge song and dance.
Geoff: Right, it's long. I mean I'm sitting at home, I'm like I'm not, I can't, this is boring, it's boring.
Mike: Yeah and we all decided you know it would be a cool thing to do but at the end of the day, we're not here to march in the opening ceremonies. We're here to compete. We dressed up and we're getting ready to go down and just take pictures in the Village. We're pressing the elevator button and you know the door opens and guess who's in there? The Team USA basketball team. We were just like standing there, they're standing there. They're like oh boy, we just want to get down to the buses. Before the door shuts all the way, my teammate, who's like the little guy who steers the boat, kinda like the jockey. He's just like, "Wait a minute, we've got to get a picture."
He like runs and puts his hand back in the door and it opens again. Everyone else is just sitting there starstruck. They were like, "Whoa look at these guys." Like Kyrie Irving, Carmelo, Boogie Cousins, DeMar DeRosen, and it's all these guys you see on TNT all the time. The door's shutting again and he's like, "Guys, I need a picture." One of them's like, "Come on man, it's so hot. We can get a picture at the opening ceremonies." He's like, "No, we're not going." So he's there, and I can send you guys the picture if you want it.
Mike: You can see that Boogie Cousins is not thrilled. He's so upset. But Carmelo, he has a huge smile on his face. What we hadn't realized was that for security reasons, I guess, no matter who you are, even if you're a Team USA basketball star, you need to go to the Village and get the buses from the Village to the opening ceremonies. They had been allocated rooms in the Village just to get changed for this event. They were going down to get on the buses. And we, as luck would have it, were pushing the elevator button as they were on their way down. You know, that was great. Then you see other athletes, Michael Phelps.
Geoff: Did he stay in the Village?
Mike: He was, yeah, yeah. Not that we had any conversations. He just seemed very focused in on what he was about to do.
Geoff: Were people fan-girling each other? Or everyone's a professional, everyone's clearly the top of their field?
Mike: No. It really depends. You know Usain Bolt is there. Everyone's going up for his autographs.
Geoff: So like Usain Bolt like mega-celebrity of the athletes.
Mike: I'm not sure but he might've even had like a bodyguard or someone with him in the Village. I think he may have, yeah. Then you see I think Jokovich was in the Village. I mean, at some stage I guess we had this attitude as a group of guys ... We're very lucky. The Olympics are two weeks. Our last race is the end of week one. You still have all of week two to be ...
Geoff: To enjoy.
Mike: Yeah exactly. And to ...
Geoff: Be a tourist.
Mike: Exactly. And go up to these athletes, and you do. There are venues around the entire Olympics that it's like if you're part of Team USA, no matter who you are ... If you're me or if you're Ricky Fowler, the golfer. Okay he probably gets treated a little bit better, but you're still welcome to go in there. One of them is a Team USA house, which is just this house, right on Ipanema Beach, literally across the street from the ocean.
Mike: If you're an athlete or a family member of an athlete, you get to go in. It's food and beverage pretty much from 11am until midnight every day.
Geoff: It's like a nice luxury beach house to just like kick it.
Mike: Yeah, exactly, music, you can just go there and hang out at any point. So that was cool. I will say this, I know I get asked this question probably more than anything. You know I think people have this idea about the Village just being pretty debaucherous but it's not, or at least in my experience it wasn't at all. I didn't even realize this but there's a no drinking policy in the Village because athletes are competing up until the last day of the games. The last event at the Olympics is always the marathon. I'd been done for, I don't know, seven days. I forget exactly how the closing ceremonies timed up. The marathon had gone off that afternoon or that morning. We were at the closing ceremonies and the last medals that get presented are the Olympic marathon medals, which is pretty cool. You're at the Olympic Village, closing ceremonies, everyone's there. Yeah so in my experience it was nowhere near as wild as it ...
Geoff: Right like they always write up like a million condoms were shipped to the Village.
Mike: Well it's funny, the only people we saw going for the condom dispensers were coaches.
Mike: Because they put the condom dispensers in the dining hall, which is enormous. It's probably 2 or 3 football fields long.
Mike: It has to house, I don't know, 10,000 or so.
Geoff: How are the coaches getting busy?
Mike: The thing is, the condom dispensers make this incredible noise. You know those quarter machines you put into?
Geoff: That’s awkward as hell. It’s announced to the world.
Mike: Exactly you spine it three or four times and then something falls out. The acoustics of that, or so it’s just projected it, you’d hear that and look over your shoulder and be like who’s getting … Without a doubt, I’d say 9 times out of 10 it was coaches. I’m not sure that’s who those were for.
Geoff: I guess it makes sense for coaches because their job is done. The guys get their girls lined up. Once the event is done …
Mike: That’s true.
Geoff: I think this relates the question here. Aaron asks, “Which athletes do you look up to and why?” It sounds like there was some tennis, basketball folks that you looked up to just because they’re celebrities. In your own career, there’s clearly a couple of coaches that were seminal to your development. Are there rowing athletes that you look up to?
Mike: Yeah, in terms of rowing athletes, there’s one guy. He was a guy I looked up to when I was at Harvard. His name is Malcolm Howard. He was a Harvard athlete. He graduated in ’05, won the Olympics in 2008, silver in 2012. I got to row with him at Oxford my first year there. He was the guy I looked up to the most in rowing. He’s been a mentor ever since. We talk weekly. He’s just been such a positive influence in my life. He’s been there before. He’s done it all. Anytime I’m struggling or I need to bounce an idea, he a person I always reach out to. Then I’d say in terms of more traditional athletes, probably Larry Bird, believe it or not, in that he was an exceptional basketball player but not because of any innate physical talent, but because he worked hard and he was tough.
Geoff: I feel like we’re kind of young to see him in his heyday right?
Mike: I guess you grew up in Boston.
Geoff: He’s a Boston legend.
Mike: He’s a Boston legend, yeah. My dad watched him play, so my dad would tell me about he’s so clutch. He was like anytime the Celtics needed it, they’d give Larry Bird the ball and he hit it. He played through back injuries. He was a tough, tough guy. There’s stories about him. The way it works at the garden in Boston, you have the Bruins and you have the Celtics there. You have the ice, then when there’s a Celtics game, they put the parquet down over the ice. The way they would do it is that there would sometimes be dead spots on the floor. He would go around the entire garden with a squash ball or a tennis ball and find out where the dead spots would be. If he’s playing defense, he could position a guy into it for the steal, or he would know when he had the ball, where to go, where not to go.
Geoff: It’s really a home court advantage, because he knew that there were different temperature spots, interesting.
Mike: Yeah, but just like the effort that, that would take to do on a regular basis, and how hard he worked just to get to where … three time NBA champ, I think a one or two league MVP. You look at him and you’re probably not like, “Oh this guy’s a great basketball player.”
Geoff: He’s a gangly looking dude.
Mike: Exactly. As somebody who grew up in Boston, he’s a guy I’d say I look up to the most.
Geoff: That's real cool.
One thing you touched upon, that I think is also interesting, is at Oxford you were very quantified in terms of how you measure performance.
Obviously a lot of folks listening probably are interested in quantified self, different biomarkers that you track. Are you super nerdy with everything you track? Are you more intuitive? Another way to ask the question is that there are some athletes that I talk to that are animals in the sense that no measurement. I just want to feel the course, fuel my body, understand my body intuitively. Other athletes are like, “I measure everything. I am like a scientist in how I treat my body.” Obviously everyone is a mix of both. I’m curious to get your thoughts and what biomarkers, if you track any biomarkers, are you most interested in, and then two how do you think about intuition versus science.
Mike: I guess this goes hand-in-hand with how I’ve treated my diet. At Oxford it’s very regimented, very scientific. We wear a heart rate monitor every practice. It gets recorded. You upload it so the coaches and physiologists can look at it. You get your load score at the end of each week through training peaks. Then you sit down and every six or eight weeks you have some form of testing. Step testing and then max testing as well, just to see how you’ve progressed.
Geoff: What’s step testing? What’s max testing?
Mike: For us, I think it was six four-minute steps. Each one gets progressively harder. Basically checking your lactic acid production and checking your heart rate to make sure those are lining up as you shift through these different zones.
Geoff: At the end of four minutes they just prick your ear and collect your lactate.
Mike: Exactly. They collect blood and then they have I think centrifuge. They spin it up. I don’t understand all the science behind it, but I trust that they do. They could say basically, “Look this is where we see your heart rate and we see that you’re producing this much lactic acid. This many millimole at this heart rate. We think these two things go together, so yeah, we think this is the right training zone for you.”
Geoff: That makes sense. You basically … so I’m understanding and interpreting here, you essentially plot out your heart rate to lactic acid production, and then find the right exact zones of where you should be in when you’re training.
Mike: Exactly, yeah.
Geoff: I guess it evolves over a training block. It’s like okay you’re improving your lactic acid production. It’s more efficient or lower for a set heart rate. Let’s evolve your training protocol.
Mike: That’s cool to see. Maybe you’re at 250 watts and that requires at the end of an hour’s session, that’s 2 millimoles. Six or eight weeks later maybe it’s 1.7 millimoles of lactic acid. Before you know it it’s 1.3, 1.1, 0.9. You see objectively. It’s not like, “Oh no. I wonder if I’m in better shape.” It’s like no, no, you are in better shape.
Geoff: Yeah, you’re producing 50% less lactate.
Mike: Then we do max testing, which for us was always a 5K.
Mike: On the row machine. You set the monitor for 5,000 meters as quick as you can go. It was funny. We did comparatively such little maximum effort stuff at Oxford that you always felt incredibly nervous. It felt like this was huge. This is eight weeks of my season condensed down to this one …
Geoff: One number.
Mike: Yeah, one number. Now I’d say it’s almost the opposite. Right now I do just a lot of testing and a lot of …
Mike: Yeah, a lot of max effort stuff.
Geoff: Once a day? Once a week?
Mike: I’d say max ... max twice a week before the team moved out here in February. A lot of guys were still located on the east coast, so unfortunately the water freezes and we go on the urn on the rowing machine. Yeah, it was like twice a week on the rowing machine just as hard as you can go.
Geoff: 5K … how long does it typically take a lead athlete?
Mike: The world record was set by a guy who I was at Oxford with. That’s a big boost of confidence for the coaching. It’s like, “Oh yeah, this guy’s been for four years. He just set the world record.” I think he 14:54 or something like that, which is a 1:29.4 split, which is incredible. A lot of people can’t even hold that for 2,000 meters. He held it for 5,000. We always joke-
Geoff: That is brutal. I think I mentioned to you. I have been playing around with an odometer a little bit. Yeah, 500 meters at that is like …
Mike: Oh that’s no joke.
Geoff: I want to throw up. I think I could do … I don’t even think I could pull on the sub 130. I could probably pull high 130s for 500 meters or something.
Mike: It was exceptional. He is more or less my size, so to do it at my size and weight is even more impressive.
Geoff: How does it feel when you’re doing a 5K maximum in 15 minutes as hard as you can? Are people puking afterwards?
Mike: Some guys, yeah. Some guys will get a bit more dramatic and fall off. It really depends on your pacing. If you’re in shape and you pace it well, then it hurts a lot.
Geoff: You’re a professional. You know how to do it.
Mike: Yeah, but if you’ve mis-paced it or maybe you’re a little sick, or something has happened, that’s when it can get really painful. You mentally have this idea where you should be.
Your perception of reality and actual reality can sometimes be pretty far apart.
Just like that disappointment in between can be pretty painful both physically and the realization.
Geoff: You get the live data in front of you.
Mike: Yeah, you have the screen right there.
Geoff: You’re just like, I want to pull 129 and you go off strong and then you’re like, I can’t hold this.
Mike: I think if it’s going well it probably shouldn’t hurt for the first two-thirds of it. Everyone else is different, but if you’re really feeling it before halfway, that’s probably a sign that you might want to slow down a little bit, that today is not going to be …
Geoff: Was the guy who broke the world record using ketones? I know there was one of the studies and the participant … I don’t exactly know what distance they did, but it was a world record set using the ketone ester. It was a different one.
Mike: I think that was a 30-minute every 20, which measures … it’s a test of aerobic capacity but also power. It’s a set stroke rate. It’s like, “Go as far as you can in 30 minutes at this specific stroke rate.”
Geoff: Right, 20 strokes per minute.
Mike: This one is just go as fast as you can as hard as you can. Any stroke rate you want.
Geoff: As someone who has played around with an ergometer, what stroke rates are you guys targeting during practice and then during competition. As a layman 20 is fairly low, like someone that just goes to the gym … a normal steady pace would be around 30, high 20s maybe. Just someone who is pulling a normal consistent pace.
Mike: For us, we’ll never really go lower than 18, but then when you’re competing there’s three facets of the race. You have the start, which are the hardest strokes you’re probably going to take, but they’re also the highest strokes you’re going to take. You’ll be up to anywhere like 44, 46, 48. Then you’ll settle down probably to the high 30s, 38, 39. Then you have the sprint, so it’ll come back up. Probably not quite as high as you were at the …
Geoff: The stroke is quite high. You guys are obviously working hard.
Mike: Oh yeah. I think the general principle behind rowing is it’s distance per stroke. If you can get even a millimeter more distance per stroke than your competition, you’re taking who knows, 230 or so. It adds up. It really is a game of inches, sometimes even less than inches.
Geoff: Yeah, I think I’ve just seen some of the highlights where it’s literally neck to neck at the very, very end.
Mike: Yeah, the gold and silver in one of the events, is the men’s single scull. One guy, two oars. The gold and the silver was separated by … it might have even been down to the thousandths. At that stage you can’t reliably say.
Geoff: It’s brutal.
Mike: In swimming, for example, if that happens, they share the medal because they say we can’t build these swimming pools with an-
Geoff: An error range.
Mike: Exactly, an error range where we know that you were starting and finishing at the exact same point. Swimming pool is what 50 meters? I can’t imagine a 2000 meter course-
Geoff: In open, natural water.
Mike: Right. For it to come down to that, it’s like every stroke matters. Everyone who has rowed for long enough, you’ve probably been on the winning side of that and the losing side of that. When you’re on the winning side, you just think, “Man, I’m happy.” You’re thankful but when you’re on the losing side, you wish you had gone just a little bit harder at some point in the race. You wonder could I have gone a little bit harder? What more could I have …
Geoff: I’m sure you could have, on the downside, these nightmare scenarios where I took a little bit of a break 40% in. I could have pushed harder. Heart rate, lactate are a couple of things that you guys are smart about. Anything else? I know that heart rate variability is …
Mike: Yeah, that was the other one.
Geoff: Obviously that has a lot of interest recently. Is that something that you still look at in terms of a sign for recovery? Do you actually use that as a way to size up or load up your training blocks?
Mike: I’d say since I’ve moved out here, I’ve really gotten away from more objective, in terms of measurements, my biomarkers. That is something that we use a lot. There were a few apps. One of them is easy enough that you can just use the light on your camera of your phone to measure it.
Geoff: You just put your finger on the camera.
Mike: Exactly. I guess it can pick up your heart pumping blood, so it can pick up the variability. That was something we used. There was a warm up that our physiologist devised my last couple of months at Oxford, so I’m sure it’s progressed. I’d say sometimes you just know.
That’s where I think I got too focused on the numbers. I didn’t take a step back and say, “How am I actually feeling?”
I think there is a big element of subjectivity as an athlete where you need to say, “How do I feel?” There’s a lot of techniques to monitor this. It could be as simple as just writing down either on a spreadsheet or on a piece of paper, it’s the stoplight method. I think that’s something that they use in Australia. If you feel good that day, it’s green, if you feel okay it’s an orange, if you feel bad it’s a red. It’s a subjective thing. You go, “I don’t feel that great today.” That’s a red. If you have enough of those days in a row, it’s like, maybe something is up. Maybe I need to take some time off. Maybe I need to go talk to the coach. I think it’s really about finding what works well for the athlete. For me, I’d say right now where I’m at, it’s probably more the subjective method, like how am I feeling.
Geoff: Do you feel like that's because you become more in-tune to your body? You just know your machinery so well now, where it's like, I've sene the numbers, understand my general zones. I know exactly how I feel when I get this threshold of heart rate. That's the strategy for me now. I'm going to be an intuitive animal. Like a Cheetah is not measuring his footsteps. He's just running 60 mph.
Mike: I think you do it long enough ... not to say that you know everything by any stretch of the imagination, but you do know yourself pretty well. I think it can be, in some regards, a distraction. For me, I go out there and now I just try to row the boat. Maybe it's an over simplification, but it's like, "Oh if I feel that the boat needs more, I'll give it more. If it feels like it doesn't need as much, then I won't give it as much," but with the expectation that when it's time to perform, embrace and when the clock is on it, as our coach says, it's going to be everything I've got.
Geoff: Is it also just based on the coaches? I know that we had Connor Barwin on the program, who is an NFL guy. It was interesting because he went through a couple of different coaches, like Chip Kelly, who I believe was super into metrics and he had Peterson, who was much more intuitively. He had an interesting perspective around what was valuable and what was not valuable in terms of how serious one should look at metrics. It sounds like Oxford is metrics-driven. US nationals team less so?
Mike: Yeah, I'd say our current coach has a great idea of what is very important and maybe what's more peripheral. I think he's right. He says, "You have a boat, some oats, some good athletes and a coach, and that's all you need." I think unfortunately, and I've been guilty of this myself, you get too caught up in things that are related but maybe only second or third order. They are peripheral. I think it's like having a balance. It's like, "Well, if the rowing isn't good and the guys aren't in shape and they're not good rowers, then all of the other things in the world aren't going to matter." If you have all of those things taken care of, in that order, then that's when you can start to say ... I think there is at times people get like, "Oh well we need this supplement, or we need this or that." It's like well maybe if you were just-
Geoff: A better athlete.
Mike: Yeah, maybe if you just focused a bit more on your technical side of rowing, or if you spent less time worrying about all of these other things, like these more peripheral things.
Geoff: I think that rings true to myself as well. I think one I would say downside, if there is a downside, to the Baja and quantified self-movement in the communities that you have people that are so obsessed with these random markers, or these supplements, or these little hacks. It's like, "You don't even look that healthy."
They're trying to hack their sleep or their diet, and they're not even doing the basics right, exercise, sleep, and eat well.
They're just focused on figuring how to optimize their sleep or doing a four hour super hack of diet. If you're not doing basic stuff, you're doing it backwards. Make sure you get the low hanging fruit first, and then optimize and tweak. I think people in the Baja community are just like, "Hey these are some magic things that you should look at." People gravitate towards these shiny objects and they forget at the end of the day if you're a runner or a rower, the bets thing to do is row a lot. Don't play games.
Mike: I think that's a great point. Do the fundamentals. Do the foundational stuff really, really well. Then if you get all that stuff done really well, then it's time to explore. I think often, exactly like you said, people get caught off on a tangent. They're like, "Oh that's like okay, pretty good." I think people often look for shortcuts. Sometimes they think this is a shortcut for actually doing the work, when in reality there's nothing legally available that's a shortcut. If it is a shortcut, there's probably a reason. It's probably not a legal shortcut.
Geoff: I understand that intuition. Oftentimes you get the munition returns from rowing. It's like okay, we're doing the same thing over and over again. It's getting harder and harder to improve on this one single metric. I'm going to find another aspect to practice on or I can shift my attention to. Then you start investing more and more times into things like tertiary things, and you forget to actually do your basic thing. As we wrap up here, I want to get a sense of pre-race, what's going through your mind, are there rituals that you go through to mentally gear up for the big day.
Mike: Pre-race, I wake up that morning and depending on when the race is, there are subconscious things that I feel when I wake up that morning. I think one of them is this maybe quietness and this want to not really talk, but to be very internally focused. I know some guys listen to music, but I just want to stay as relaxed as possible. I don't want to go over the peak on the arousal curve. I think that was something early in my athletic career, I was like, "Oh I need this music." I'd get really hyped up and then it would be my time to go out and perform and I'd feel flat.
Geoff: Flat because you're just too hyped up on-
Mike: Adrenaline. It's like, "No, stay relaxed. Stay relaxed." These days I'd say caffeine is something ... coffee.
I don't drink coffee unless it's for maximum performance.
I think the last time I was in here I was talking to you guys. I'll have five or six cups when we do racing. I know that's probably more ... it's probably 200-300 mg more than most people would say is the recommended amount for an athletic boost.
Geoff: So that's like 500-600 mg.
Mike: Yeah, I just love that feeling. It gets the adrenaline going. It gets that fight or flight going. When you're racing or you're about to line up in any sport, it's not like you're just going to walk off the start line. It's like, "No, it's time to go."
Geoff: You've been playing around with the ketone ester?
Mike: Yeah, definitely with some of our longer endurance stuff, I've been playing around with it, but hopefully this coming winter I'll be able to use it some more when we get some really objective measurements, especially when we start doing longer pieces on the rowing machine.
Geoff: I used to work out with a lot of music, especially when I'm doing longer runs. I think it's distracting.
Mike: It can be, yeah.
Geoff: You get overly hyped or you listen to the words and singing along. It's not the rhythm you actually want to be going or something. I think that's interesting to be within yourself and find the focus internally rather than having music to hype you up. You're almost zen going into the race.
Mike: I can't think of too many sports where when you're actually out there performing, you're able to listen to-
Geoff: It's illegal for rowing, right?
Mike: There's no music. Well I guess when you're on the rowing machine you can have music. It depends on the coach if there is music playing or not. The coach at Oxford, no music when you're testing. He's like, "Well there's no music when you're in competition. I think yeah, it's a little thing to have. It gives you a little mental edge. Even if it's only a perceived mental edge, then that can be just as worthwhile.
Geoff: I've seen some research where if the rhythm of the music actually matches your cadence, it helps reinforce the cadence. I'm just speculating here. If you have target stroke or hits, it's like okay we want to do 44 strokes per minute in the first quarter. You time it out and it's matched to music. I just wonder if that could be a little hack that would actually be beneficial.
Mike: In rowing, what I find surprisingly helpful is having other people generating a rhythm, whether it's on the machine or in the boat. That's something I think, as you get better in rowing ... I'm sure there are anecdotes in other sports, running, cycling or swimming, but there are guys that you find you just match up better with. You prefer to be with them, not just because they are good in their own right, but because there is this synergy. The two, three or four of you are just working together. It just gets the best out of everyone. There is definitely something in terms of this rhythmic boost.
Geoff: It's one thing that I thought was so natural or unnoticed in rowing technique. You guys shift your stroke rates dynamically. You see someone coming up towards you or trying to catch someone. How do you guys line up the stroke rates? You watch on TV ... everyone is a machine, very, very synchronous.
Mike: A lot of practice.
Geoff: Are you guys spotting the guy in front of you? Who sets it? Is the coxswain saying, "Hey go faster, go slower." How does it all work?
Mike: Generally the coach will say, "This is what I want." The stroke man is the guy who is up in the front of the boat. If there is a coxswain, the two of them will work together. There are some boats where there is no coxswain. It's just a one-man boat or a two-man/woman boat, or four-person boat. It's up to the guy who is stroking it to set the rhythm.
Geoff: The stroke guy is the guy that everyone gets to see.
Mike: Yeah, everyone is looking at him or her. They set the rhythm for the crew. The best thing you can do, being behind them, is just follow them. Even if what they're doing isn't technically the right thing to do, what they are doing is the right thing to do, because they are stroking it. That's something that takes a long time to figure out. You get guys that are, for whatever reason, better in that seat. Then you get guys that are, for whatever reason, better following than they are at setting a rhythm. I think the big picture it's very simple, but it's very nuanced.
There's a lot of subtle things that go on that I think to the casual observer, you don't appreciate it.
Oh the boat isn't actually always set. If you're not rowing well together, then the boat flops around a lot. That is frustrating as a rower and also really slows you down. The oars are dragging along the water.
Geoff: It doesn't feel stable. You just can't push full power.
Mike: For whatever reason, I think because you have to really develop a lot of these fine-tuned movements, it does take a long time.
Geoff: Everything at the highest level is so much nuance. It's hard to explain why you're doing this one specific thing. It's like I don't know, 15 years of doing this. What do you do outside of full-time work, full-time rowing? It sounds like you have your time off where you relax. What's your off days look like?
Mike: I guess I just try to spend it with friends in the city. I'm really close with my friends on the team, but sometimes the best thing for everyone is to go out separate ways. Some guys like to do one thing. I'd say every other weekend, we'll spend weekends together. We'll either go get dinner, we'll go out to a bar and have a few beers. I'm lucky in that I have a lot of friends who live around here. I get to jet off and see them. I love the beach. I love hiking. I'll try to do-
Geoff: Just outdoors stuff is pretty awesome.
Mike: I feel like this is one of, if not the best place in the world, to be outside. Every day is more or less perfect, especially when you come from the east coast. I love Boston. I love New York but-
Geoff: Enough frozen for a third of the year.
Mike: Yeah, right now it's 95 and 100% humidity. You don't want to be outside because of that either. It's 60-70 degrees, sunny for the most part. It's a good place to live. There's a lot of good things about it.
Geoff: What's next for you? I know you have the world championships. Obviously that's probably where your mind is at. I guess it'll be interesting to ... What exactly is that going to look like? The second part of the question ... what are you looking for, for the rest of 2018? You're looking forward to Tokyo, right? What's next? What's new for you?
Mike: We're here for one more week and we leave next week. We go to Princeton, New Jersey, which is about 75 minutes outside New York. It's where the women's national team is still based and until last summer or even this fall/winter, the men's national team is based there as well. I don't know how either team ended up there, but that's where they've been for a long time. We'll be there. That's, I think, to get onto a body of water where our coach, who I mentioned had coached for three or four Olympics, he has a lot of historical data. If we do pieces on this body of water and we go this fast, that's a really good indicator that we're able to go over. Also it breaks up the flight to Bulgaria.
Geoff: Right, you can shift the time zones a little bit as opposed to just boom.
Mike: Exactly. I think it's eight hours from the west coast-
Geoff: To Bulgaria.
Mike: ... to mainland Europe.
Geoff: That sounds about right.
Mike: England is eight or-
Geoff: I make this phone call often.
Mike: It's a lot.
Geoff: Yeah, eight hours, eight hours.
Mike: We'll break up the flight. We'll leave Princeton after a week and we'll get to Bulgaria a week before racing begins, so probably 12 days before the final to fully acclimate, get used to the water there. I think the duration of those sessions will be greatly reduced. Start tapering up, getting ready to go. It's good. You want to feel like you have too much energy. That means you've done it right.
Geoff: When do you completely stop? Is it three days out? Two days out?
Mike: You'll keep training at least once a day. There is always the threat of going too easy for too long. I think that you always want to have some intensity just so your body isn't totally shocked by, "Oh man, we have to go really, really hard." Obviously coaches have different philosophies with that. Yeah 16th is the big day on the calendar. After that we'll be in Europe for a little while. See some friends in England. I'll go home, back to Boston, see my mom, dad and my sister. It'll be really good to just chill out.
Geoff: Little bit of a breather.
Mike: Yeah, talking about recovery. I think having two weeks totally off, three weeks totally off in the short term might seen daunting to some people, like, "Well how can I take that much time off?" Long term, I don't think there's anything better you could do. You get it back so quickly.
Also, I think it just lets your entire body shut down, repair itself, gear back up.
I think for me I found it to be mentally healthy too, it makes the long hard months much easier when you've had this long break.
Geoff: How many months have you been training up towards the world championships?
Mike: I took the biggest break I've ever taken in my life almost a year ago, five weeks. Pretty much all of August and part of September, or something like that.
Geoff: Basically like a full 11 months in straight since then.
Mike: Yeah, but before that I was talking to my parents. I think the longest I had ever taken off before that was about seven days. Just looking back on it, I don't think that's enough. As you get older, like I said, you'll be smarter. You just need to be in tune and you just need to say, "What do I need?" When I feel like the time is ready to get back to training, you want to be itching to come back. You don't want to be seven days off and then be like, "I'm not ready to go back, but I feel like I should." You want to be like, "No, look in the mirror." Be like ooh. I need to get back to working out. I've put on a few pounds.
Geoff: Awesome. Well good luck in Bulgaria.
Mike: Thank you. I'm sure we'll do well.
Geoff: Which events will we be watching out for you on that?
Mike: The men's eight.
Geoff: Men's eight.
Geoff: Okay, so the heavyweight big cahuna.
Mike: Yeah, blue ribbon. I think it's the last event of the regatta. If it's not the last, it's certainly one of the last events of the regatta.
Geoff: Good luck.
Mike: Thank you very much. Thank you so much for having me in.
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