Repurposing The Vasa Swim Ergometer

There is an old bike racing adage, "A good summer is built in winter," and the same can most certainly be said for triathlon. The problem is, whoever said that probably did not have to deal with a "real" job, Daylight Savings Time, and the dreaded, winter 3:30 PM sunset. So for all of us fighting to squeeze in training with a conventional 9-5er, we're essentially left with two options: train in the dark or train inside, both of which basically suck. But before you resign yourself to a long, dark, depressing winter of weight gain and self-loathing, as usual, your boy FBD has you covered.

At this point, you're likely thinking, "I know what he's going to say, ‘use this time to work on your swimming'." Well, you're half-right. And of the half that you have right, that is only about 25% of the story (so does this mean that you're only 12.5% right? We'll save this highly philosophical discussion for another day, as you've got workouts to do). Yes, winter is a great time to work on your swimming, but what if I was to tell you that you can work on your swimming without the dreaded 5:00 AM alarm, crowds, and hassles associated with hitting the pool?

But wait, there's more - since as we all know, I am the Executive Editor for Winter Sports and All Things Awesome (I decided I was entitled to a title upgrade), you may also be thinking, "Why is the winter sports editor writing about swimming, swimming is not a winter sport?" Again, fair question. The answer lies in the fact that I'm rolling all of the aforementioned elements (and more), into one Earth-shattering column about something for which you are likely already aware, but most likely under-utilizing: a swim ergometer. But this is not just any swim erg. And this is not just any column.

Ground Zero

Let's start with the obvious: a swim erg is, as the name implies, an excellent way to work on your swimming. In fact, the literal definition of the word ergometer is, "a device that measures work." If, like many triathletes, you began swimming competitively later in life (as I did), chances are you have some technical issues with your stroke. As I did. This particular swim erg is made by Vasa.

While nothing beats time in the water, dry-land technical training can work wonders. I'm speaking from personal experience, as videos, good coaching, and a swim erg helped me work my way up right next to all of the cool kids in the coveted "Lane 1." I didn't progress quite far enough to be able to crank out hundies on the 1:15 like the big thumpers on the good sign of the lane marker, but I did managed to scratch and claw my way to respectability, doing sets on the 1:25, thanks in large part to a vastly improved body position and perhaps most importantly, a good catch. I am positive that this would not have happened without the coach/video/erg trifecta. Much has been written by people vastly more qualified than me on the finer points of swim technique, so I will defer to the legions of swim coaches out there about the many merits of these tools and how to optimally combine them. If you're serious about improving your swimming, you're crazy to not do this.

Moving on however, is when the story gets good. Wait, what? Moving on from swimming on the swim erg? Yes. The main focus of this piece is really on how versatile a training tool a swim erg can be for many things other than swimming, in particular in the winter training period.

Since I like to keep most of my columns focused on my favorite topic, me, it should come as no surprise to you that I'm going to go full circle here and immediately bring the discussion back to my forte, winter sports - you know, real sports. Since last Saturday night marked the official beginning of winter misery for summer sports, I spent last Sunday afternoon converting a swim erg to a ski erg. Why? Partially because I'm a lonely, lonely man, but also because I'm a savage (and a laser-focused one at that) and I will not be denied my winter gains. Or like the meathead lifters at my local gym call them, GAINZ!!!!

DIY Gainz generator

Years of experience and adherence to a wide variety of winter training plans have taught me one thing in particular: the best winter training plan is the one that you actually do. For most people, this means a plan that they actually enjoy. Sure, you can grind out some soul-crushing sufferfest training program for few winters, but does this approach have any staying power? My experience over decades of training and with a very wide cross-section of athletes in many difference sports says no. If it's not fun, you're not going to stick with it. It really is that simple. Have no fear though, as this is where I come in, as it just so happens that I am super fun. And so is Nordic skiing.

If you're been following along at home over the past few years since I've arrived on the scene here at Slowtwitch, you've undoubtedly noticed that I've taken several different tacts to get you out there Nordic skiing - hopefully you finally caved in and some point and gave it a whirl, and you've not only enjoyed yourself, but you've come back in the summer and crushed it in your triathlon racing. If you're new to this column, this site, or this planet, or for some reason I still haven't convinced you yet, here are the links to why you should cross country ski this winter. Heed these simple instructions and great personal satisfaction, increased fitness, and a decreased bank account will soon follow. 

If skiing on snow is geographically implausible or greatly limited, the ski erg is the next best thing. As is the case with my swimming example, if you did not grow up skiing, it can be a challenge to learn as an adult (I speak from experience here as well). Also following the swimming example, much in the same manner that the swim erg can help your swimming, the ski erg can be a great way to make dry-land gains for skiing. Oops, sorry, GAINZ!!!!

The story doesn't end here though, as the ski/swim erg that I tested also has attachments for kayak and SUP, both of which are also right in my wheelhouse. Many Olympic skiers train in surf skis (racing kayaks) in the spring (something you should consider as well, but that's a story for a different day) and the FBD is no exception. I've done some big races, paddled massive waves in Hawaii, and like every other summer sport, keeping my mojo going in the winter is always a challenge, so when I saw that this swim erg could also be converted to a kayak erg, it took me about a millisecond to want to test that option as well. 

Turns out "N + 1" applies to more than just bikes

The deal with kayaking and SUP is the same as swimming and skiing - endless horsepower does you no good if you can't get that power in the water effectively and the erg is great for training technique as it allows you really isolate and emphasize your catch, hand position and finish. Are you starting to see a theme here? It's actually quite interesting how not only is there a lot of cross-over in the specific techniques and muscle groups involved in all of these sports, but the language and nomenclature is even the same in many cases. You can easily substitute your swim coach yelling at you about "not dropping your elbow," for your kayak coach yelling at you to "not drop your hands." In a somewhat alarming trend, I speak from experience in both examples. My ski coach yells at me about my hands, elbow and much, much more, but he also hates me, so let's leave him out of this for now. 

Just when you thought that your mind couldn't be blown any further, I'm going to up the ante and throw out one more option - surf training. I know, I know, this is primarily a triathlon-focused site and I'm the winter sports editor for Christ sake, but hang in there with me for a second: surfing is to me what Nordic skiing might be for many of you - something I love, but find very difficult to do given my location in the country (mostly Colorado, but also lots of airplane seats and East Coast traffic jams). However, being the typical Type A, OCD lunatic that defines so many an endurance athlete, I can't just show up to a surf trip, I have to show up ready to perform at the highest possible level. 

This adorable and potentially debilitating attention to detail makes it mandatory for me to invest  as much sport-specific preparation as allowed by law, which translates to, you guessed it, training on the erg. Even when I was swimming a lot, my ribs and sternum would get sore in my first few days of surfing due to the pressure of the board on my chest while paddling. With my excellent swimming fitness I could paddle for hours, but if I hadn't been surfing in a while, I always spent the first few days of the trip with sore ribs. The erg solves this problem nicely, not to mention the fact that it gives me the opportunity to "cram" for a surf trip in my garage at 9:00 pm when the pool has long since closed. This video is a little "salesy,", but it makes some very valid points from a credibly source and it nicely shows just how applicable the unit is for surf training

As useful as this machine can be, it is very important to point out that none of these dry-land simulations are the same as doing the real thing, so please do not buy one of these room-filling beasts (more on that later) then come crying to me when it doesn't perfectly replicate "real" swimming, skiing, kayaking, etc. I will go on record right now saying that it does not. It's good, but it's not perfect. In addition, I'd rather drive cross-country with Jordan Rapp and my Great Dane Pwolfgang, in a cargo van with no radio, air conditioning or heat than do even one workout inside, but indoor training in the winter is like pesticides and birth control, a necessary evil. All is not lost though, for if you can find a way to keep it fun and interesting, you're already winning the battle, and thanks to all of these different sport options, good music, and a good attitude, this erg can be fun. I can generally only muster up two of those three.

Given the fact that most of you even vaguely considering the purchase of a swim erg will be primarily using it for swimming, how to build the swim configuration seems like a logical place to start. Assembling a Vasa swim erg is fairly simple: you get three boxes of parts and a decent supply of pieces, parts and other detritus, but for anyone with above-average intelligence and a reasonable supply of patience, you'll be up and running, er, swimming in no time. I did it in under an hour. As opposed to the ski erg mount shown in the above photo which requires very little room, Vasa recommends an area 10' x 4' to use this sucker, so while this is not unattainable, it is a decent amount of space, so please factor this in accordingly. 

The "conversion" from the swim set-up to surf paddling isn't a conversion at all, just a switch of techniques. If you can't figure this out, you shouldn't be surfing or swimming at all, anywhere, in particular if it is a venue that I frequent, as I don't want to run into you in a lane or line-up. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. A monkey could make this adjustment.

Next in the hierarchy of complexity in the erg conversion process is the switch from swim-capable to kayak-capable. A "kayak conversion kit" is required, but don't be frightened, this can be a simple as a set of foot plates - bolt this plate onto the monorail, unclip the swim paddles, clip in the kayak paddle, and presto-chango, you now have a kayak erg. This easy conversion option does mean that you're sitting on the swim bench which is fine if you're used to slapping your way around the Jersey Shore like a Jerry in a POS rental kayak, but serious paddlers are going to want to buck up for a legit kayak seat. In addition to the extra outlay of cash, this also obviously requires you to remove the swim bench and replace it with the kayak seat. This is not that difficult and I recommend it for all serious paddlers.

Moving up the ladder of conversion, confusion and hassles is the change-over from swimming to SUP paddling. Like it's seated-brethren the kayak, the change to train SUP can be quite simple, or you can make it complicated. The easy way to do it is to simply unclip the swim paddles and clip in the SUP paddle shaft attachment. This will require you to stand at a bit of an angle to the machine otherwise you'll hit the monorail on each paddle stroke. Personally, I don't think this is a big deal, but don't breathe easy just yet, as the next paragraph may change your mind.

The more complicated approach is to remove the monorail from the swim erg and mount the main unit to a wall, therein freeing up the space directly in front of the erg for various balance trainers. This is a bigger commitment, but it also gives you more options: very valuable options too, as board balance in incredibly important and the addition of a balance trainer also provides a much better workout. It is also worth noting that the wall mount process required here is basically the same as the steps necessary to configure this device as a ski erg, which I explain in more detail shortly. Since you are likely quite confused by this point, here is a video showing the wall mount option and a balance trainer (sold separately, batteries not included, your mileage may vary, offer not valid in Alaska or Hawaii) 

Is it possible to "cheat it," and simply place one of these balance tools off to the side of the swim erg monorail if you're like me and too lazy to mount the main unit to the wall? Maybe, but I didn't try this, so this sounds like a good question for the manufacturer. I was on the phone with them a few times regarding the ski erg build and I can tell you that they are very receptive to questions, ideas and innovation, so hit them up if you're an "outside the box" thinker and you want to mount your mystery configuration in your treehouse on the moon, using only organic, recycled materials that you hand-forged over the heat of your compost pile.

Speaking of going outside the box, where you're going to have to dust off your tool belt is if you want to dive in to the wonderful world of the ski erg - as noted above, this requires approximately the same investment as the conversion for super slick SUP set-up and one that I am very pleasured to report that I executed with relative ease. To do some level-setting here, I'm probably right about in the middle of the handyman spectrum: I have buddies who've build their own houses 

This is not my workbench

And I have friends who are bewildered as to how a toaster works - I am somewhere in-between.

Nor is this my workbench 

I have a decent set of tools and moderate experience with all of them, yet I'm also not above using my screwdriver handle as a hammer from time to time, in particular if it saves me a trip up and down the pesky stairs to the basement (don't lie, we've all been there, I just own it). So, with this in mind, I was able to go from start to finish in just over an hour, with probably more time than necessary lost to a somewhat disorganized tool bench and an unwelcome game of hide and seek for the correct size ratchet head. If you're dying to see what this hack looks like in real life or even more to the point, how to use it to take your ski awesomeness level off the charts, as usual, I gotcha:

Once this process is complete, switching back and forth from the ski set-up to the swim/surf/paddle config is fairly quick and easy - four bolts to get'er off the wall and two more to lock it back down to the monorail and you're off to the races. Now, having said this, even though I have no problem doing a four hour ski or ride, we have already clearly established my fondness of avoiding work, so in the name of full disclosure, would I go through this rigamarole every few days? No, probably not. What I would do (and will do) though is get the erg set up for skiing in the off-season, then switch it over for surf paddling as I get ready for my next surf trip. How much switching around you'd want to do is completely up to you, your training/racing goals, and your overall aptitude/tolerance with tools, but I can say with a clear conscience that if you're main focus is triathlon, it would be easy to have it set up for swimming for the early winter, then to feed the stoke as you get fired up for your big Nordic training trip this February, clear out some space in the garage for the main unit, mount up that sucker and hit the ski training hard for a month or so. Follow this program and you will be laughing your way away from your buddies on your ski trip as you double-pole off into the horizon, while their little, under-powered bird arms flood with lactate.

It is also worth noting that there are a few other set-up options. In my discussions with Vasa, their CEO told me that he has seen people use a floor/wall mount in conjunction with some strategic pulley placement to achieve several different training modalities and therein also creating a more seamlessly between all of them. I'm going to call this the, "In-And-Out burger" option. If you're not familiar with perhaps the greatest burger chain ever, shame on you, but for the purposes of this discussion all you need to know is that it is possible, even encouraged, to order items not listed on the official menu in this fine establishment. 

Off the menu and off the chart

This philosophy applies here as well. There are all kinds of options for mounting, accessories, activities, etc., way too many to list here, so the best advice I can offer is to call Vasa directly and tell them what you have in mind. Based on my experience, I think they would be happy to work with you to help you build your dream erg, even if it means ruining your home and marriage in the process - you'll probably be winning races in no time, but you'll probably also be living in a van down by the river, so I'll let you crunch the numbers here.

For any even semi-regular reader of any of my work, you most assuredly deduced long ago that I was on the leading edge of the curve in lots of different areas, but let's deal with the elephant in the room - Is it crazy to have all of this crap in your garage, or even more to the point, in your spare bedroom? Of course it is. But is this any crazier than sitting around all weekend watching football, screaming at the television during an event for which you have absolutely no control over whatsoever? Probably not. In fact, one could certainly make the argument that choosing to invest one's time into activities for which you do control the outcome is infinitely more rewarding both mentally and physically. So while the path I'm outlining in this missive is certainly and sadly much less common than the jock-sniffing, couch-surfing route, I don't believe that it is any more absurd. In fact, I'm of the opinion that it is actually much less absurd. The fact that you're reading Slowtwitch means you likely agree, even if you have never previously thought about this in these exact terms. Translation - I hereby grant you the authority to go fill your home with more crap. You're welcome. 

Since I am an ordained minister (true story), the power that I am bestowing upon you here trumps any other financial or domestic concerns, so keep that in your back pocket when your angry wife comes storming into the garage furiously waving your latest credit card bill as you wrestle with your newly-acquired giant pile of parts. Don't panic - I told you up front that this review was quite comprehensive, so I also have satellite imagery of abandon warehouses, expressway overpasses and railroad yards when you can park your new van-house, should all of your fellow triathletes also asked to leave their more permanent and tornado-proof places of residence beat you to all of the good parking spots down by the river.

I realize that we are covering a lot of ground here - it's what I do - but hang in there, we're almost home. If you've made it this far, you're most likely in one of two categories: 1.) "This all sounds a little too good to be true, but I am intrigued" or, 2.) "This all sounds like a ridiculous waste of time and money, but I hate my stupid job and while this guy is clearly a nut, reading his rambling prose is marginally better than work." FYI, I am fine with either, as there is no such thing as bad publicity.

If you're in Camp 1, let me again reiterate, none of these activities are a replacement for the Real McCoy. Also as I noted earlier, training inside sucks and I generally avoid it like the plague, but it is tolerable in limited doses and in some instances, it can even be preferable. For example, starting your workout seconds after waking up or walking into the house has enormous value for every time-crunched athlete, and training in your living room is infinitely warmer and safer than the conditions awaiting most residents in the Northern Hemisphere who opt to venture outside in the next four to five months. We've already covered how indoor training is also very good for drills and isolating particular movement patterns, but this is so important it merits repeating one more time. I don't want to give the impression that the erg will solve all of your problems though, as it won't: if you buy an erg, Trump will still be President, you will still need to do some training in the dark and the cold, and indoor training will still be mind-numbingly boring, but if you have the money, space, time, and focus, the pluses definitely outweighs the minuses.

If you're in Camp 2 (not to be confused with "number 2," which happens a lot outside your van down at the river, so be careful and for heaven's sake, NO FLIP FLOPS) and you have a tried and true winter training routine that works for you, good on ya. Mixing it up and trying some new stuff might be a welcome break, one that in turn would likely lead to some breakthroughs next summer, but I'm not your mother and no one knows your mind and body better than you. If you truly are psyched, fit and ready to hit it this winter, there's certainly a lot to be said for the ol', "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy. 

Having said that, I've been around the block a few times though (looking for parking places for my van, for reasons I'd rather not go into) and I've seen more than my fair share of triathletes come blasting into the sport, attack it for a few winters, then flame out. Once that happens, it becomes a foot race between your cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist line to see which one can ring the bell first. Don't be, "that guy" (or girl, no letters please). Winter training is both very tough and very important, so I strongly recommend you take my advice and roll some of these ideas into your program to keep you in the game for the long haul, with a commensurate level of stoke and fitness. You body, mind, spouse and cardiologist will thank you later.