Team USA rower John Graves details the effects of high altitude rowing on Lake Dillon |

Team USA rower John Graves details the effects of high altitude rowing on Lake Dillon

John Graves, one of the country's best rowers, is currently spending 16 days training out of the Frisco Rowing Center in preparation for next month's Head of the Charles in Boston and the qualifying process for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Liz Copan /

FRISCO — Heading into his final go-round at the world’s largest two-day rowing regatta — next month’s Head of the Charles on the Charles River between Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts — elite American rower John Graves changed his pre-race prep.

It brought him 2,600 miles west to the Frisco Rowing Center on Lake Dillon, where he is undertaking two weeks of high altitude training on the 9,000-foot high lake.

The 31-year-old U.S. Rowing Senior National Team member is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and said he and his coaches decided a session of high altitude training could prove beneficial. It could help him not only for Head of the Charles but also ahead of the qualifying process for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Graves initially considered high elevation spots in California and Flagstaff, Arizona, before his father, Harry Graves, pointed in the direction of Summit County.

Harry Graves thought Mark Stormberg, former U.S. National Team program manager at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, could provide the most ideal high altitude training environment for his son. After a week of single sculls rowing, including one doubles session out on the water with Stormberg, Graves feels good about the work he’s put in on the lake. His focus is on staying cognizant of how his heart rate is affected during single sculls practice sessions each morning.

“All of my training is heart-rate capped,” Graves said. “That’s kind of what I mean when I say that, ‘If my heart rate is right up against that threshold, I need to back off pressure-wise to keep the heart rate in the right zone.’ So that’s challenging. But it’s mainly challenging mentally.”

Graves said rowing at 9,000 feet has been about as hard as he expected. The six-year veteran of the senior national team has exerted himself here in Summit before, during days out Nordic and downhill skiing.

“For a given speed, I’d say my heart rate is probably 15 beats higher here on average,” Graves said. “And then I’d say if I was going off of speed on a given heart rate, my speed right now is 5 or 6 seconds slower per 500 meters. That’d be 24 seconds slower over 2,000 meters.”

Out on Lake Dillon, Graves said he’s been focusing more on the endurance element of rowing. Last month, Graves was in more of a sprint mindset in advance of the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz, Austria. At the biggest competition in non-Olympic years, he and the top U.S. team’s four-man sculls boat finished in 13th place. That slotted them outside of the top eight spots to automatically qualify for Tokyo.

One of the country’s best rowers — John Graves, of Princeton, New Jersey — chats with Summit Daily News sports and outdoors editor Antonio Olivero about the effects of rowing at high altitude and why he chose to train on Lake Dillon for 16 days in advance of next month’s Head of the Charles race in Boston.

That race, just like races in Tokyo next summer, was conducted at the 2,000-meter distance. But with the 5,000-meter Head of the Charles next on his slate, Graves has been using his time on Lake Dillon to focus on his endurance, rowing distances of about 16 kilometers.

“It’s a different stimulus and way to challenge your body,” Graves said. “You are really taking away all of your power and capability.”

Graves said he can even notice the altitude’s effect on his heart rate while falling asleep.

“I can feel those extra 10 to 15 beats,” Graves said. “It’s working a little bit harder to stay afloat.”

Graves has podiumed several times at the Head of the Charles Regatta but never won. He hopes to change that during next month’s single sculls race. As such, he’s been rowing almost exclusively single sculls while on Lake Dillon.

Graves said he noticed the altitude’s effect on him from his first stroke earlier this month. In all the strokes since, Graves has kept an eye on his heart rate, as he knows how it relates to his lactate readings.

Graves said two to three times a year Team USA rowers undergo lactate tests, which gauge the body’s lactate readings via pricks of blood every six to seven minutes when undergoing a step test. Graves, like other elite athletes, knows how his lactate readings and heart rate relate to each other, signaling to him how much more or less he should push himself during training.

Those numbers and their correlating effects are amplified here at elevation, Graves said. As such, Graves has been rowing while keeping his heart rate in his lower two zones. The first zone is a heart rate below 140. The second ranges from about 140 to 152.

During his time here in Colorado, Graves is splitting his training at 9,000 feet in those first two zones with rows down by Denver in his higher zone, which pushes to 179 beats per minute.

Aside from rowing, Graves has also been cross training here via mountain biking and road cycling. He’s checked out the backcountry trail network outside of Keystone. And before he leaves, he also hopes to ride up and over Vail Pass.

Though it’s not rowing, Graves said his afternoon biking sessions also benefit him while here at elevation. It all leads up to the Head of the Charles and then the preparation process in Florida through the winter for Olympic qualification. Come spring, it’s go time for Graves’ Olympic hopes.

For now, though, he’s smitten with Summit County.

“It’s just like a playground out there,” he said.

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