"... you should always set the damper through the monitor rather than the lever."
Drag is an interesting subject. We sit down on the indoor rowing machine and what’s one of the first things we do? We choose our resistance level by setting the flywheel damper somewhere between 1 and 10, impacting the drag factor of our workout. One of the most common questions our RowUK coaches get asked is ‘Where should I set the damper?’.
The idea of the damper is to allow air to escape the fan cage at a given rate. The higher the damper setting, the quicker the air escapes the cage and sooner the flywheel slows down. With the flywheel rotating slower each stroke, it will feel 'heavier'; like the handbrake is on or you’ve set your bike on a big gear.
If you put the damper lever down, it will close the cage more and the air circulating inside will be trapped, thus keep the wheel spinning. Therefore, if the cage is dusty or it has a towel hanging over it (or even someone standing close to the flywheel) this will affect the calibration of the drag. Some machines get cleaned out more often than others, therefore you should always set the damper through the monitor rather than the lever. You should also clean out your fan cages once a month.
As a general rule, a good drag factor will be between 110 and 140 depending on your weight, the stroke rate you want to maintain for your session, and the length of your session. 110 is good for most lightweight women (55-60kg) and 140 is about right for a heavyweight man (85kg+). The only time you'd have the drag higher is when you might be doing short and very slow power sets to increase strength. These are rarely used these days as similar outcomes are mainly achieved through good technical strength and conditioning training. For reference, a new Concept2 machine has a drag factor of 90 - 100 on damper setting of 1 and 210 – 220 on damper setting of 10. To display your drag factor, select ‘More Options’ and ‘Display Drag Factor’.
To give you an idea, when I trained top-performing juniors, we asked the girls to use around 125 and the boys 135 for their tests. Bearing in mind, over 2,000m, the girls could go sub-7:30 and the boys sub-6:20... at least. For longer continuous pieces (somewhere between 12km and 18km) we would bring the drag setting down to around 115 and 125 respectively. This is because these long sessions require a lot of strokes at 18spm. This low stroke rate is important to allow the physiological adaptations needed to create an endurance athlete, but it also allows the fan cage to slow more than with a high stroke rate, hence a lower drag is advisable.
Shorter pieces, typically rowed at a higher stroke rate, are better suited to a slightly higher drag setting. For example, a 3 x 15 minute session might be rowed at 26 spm and set at 125/130 for a heavyweight man. These are not hard and fast prescriptions however, and opinions will vary from coach to coach.
The indoor rowing machine can also be a little more unforgiving on lower backs than the water in some respects. A lower drag setting over a longer distance makes almost no difference to an athlete's splits but it protects the back and also helps to develop certain technical aspects, such as how to use the correct muscle groups through the drive phase of the stroke (clue: core, hips, glutes and quads).
So, in the end, it is very much a personal preference and dependent upon what adaptation you are trying to train during a given session. The one thing I would say is... avoid 10.
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