Benedict Tufnell
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Empowering: Our take on the Nielsen-Kellerman EmPower Oarlocks

by Benedict Tufnell

After announcing their development last year, Nielsen-Kellerman launched the much anticipated EmPower Oarlocks in early 2017. Looking a lot like the sort of affordable, on-board technology that has revolutionised cycling training over the last decade, could this be rowing’s equivalent?

Unwrapping the Oarlocks
The smart oarlocks provide instant, stroke by stroke readings of power, catch/finish angles, slip, wash, stroke length and more, neatly via the NK SpeedCoach head unit – a product many rowers will already be familiar with. Unlike complex telemetry systems, installation and setup is relatively quick and simple. Install the gates, calibrate, and you are ready to row. They link to a SpeedCoach via Bluetooth and once initial pairing is completed, will automatically connect every time you switch it on. Customisable displays on the SpeedCoach include all of the usual data, plus:

  • Catch Angle
  • Max Force Angle
  • Finish Angle
  • Force
  • Slip
  • Power
  • Wash
  • Average Power
  • Stroke Length
  • Work per Stroke
  • Effective Length
  • Average Work per Stroke
  • Max Force

The NK SpeedCoach GPS allows you to customise up to four different screens, so you can setup the displays for different scenarios such as technical outings or more power-based training and racing.

Why is power so important?
Coaches have always relied very heavily on ergometer testing – for good reason: it removes the guesswork. It provides a quantitate analysis that is not affected by external factors such as hydration, fatigue, water conditions, in the way that heart rate or boat speed measurements always will be. Cycling has almost entirely shifted its focus to power-based rather than heart rate training.

Above: The EmPower comes as a one-piece, fully integrated unit.

It’s not suggested that a power meter replaces a heart rate monitor – each are telling you very different things. Power is the input of effort to move the boat and heart rate is a relative measurement of your physiological response to that effort. Using a heart rate monitor and power meter together will allow you to see how your body is responding to training as well as giving a far more accurate measurement of the work being done.

Our thoughts
It should be noted that the EmPower can only display a rough force curve using the data points of the catch and finish angles and the peak force angle. However, this need not be a deal breaker. As NK points out, “after years of looking at and coaching with force curves, there is still no agreement on what makes a ‘good’ curve.” A valid point.

And what about cost? All-in, for the gate and head unit, it will set you back around £1,000 (US$1,200) which is very similar to the sort of price you would expect to pay for a similar setup in the cycling world. When you consider the potential of the EmPower Oarlocks to maximise your training and performance overtime, it certainly appears a worthwhile investment.

Flex field display options

For coaches, power measurement in the boat has always been the holy grail. While not new (telemetary systems have existed for decades), the EmPower Oarlock is the first all in one, neatly packaged and easily accessible system to have come to the market. It’s entirely possible that we could see a shift away from traditional selection practices such as seat racing and ergometer testing as the sport catches up with new technology and coaches put increasing faith into that technology.

Rodney Siegel is an Australian sports scientist working with rowers at the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS). They have been using the EmPower Oarlocks for several months now. We asked for his unbiased opinion.

How have you been using the EmPower Oarlocks, and with what level of athletes, and for how long?
Power is an extremely valuable measurement tool for training and racing. In rowing, where environmental conditions can play a large factor in many of the variables we currently measure from day to day, such as boat speed and heart rate, power is a constant. By using the EmPower Oarlocks, we are able to calibrate the training stimulus and performance to the environmental conditions. This gives us a more complete understanding of the training stimulus, load and performance of our athletes. We’ve used the EmPower Oarlocks with athletes across the spectrum, from Olympic medalists down to our development athletes. We’ve been using them on a day to day basis since our January training camp to open the year.

“We’ve used the EmPower Oarlocks with athletes across the spectrum, from Olympic medalists to our development athletes.”

How did you get on with the oarlocks initially – in terms of setup, analysing data etc.?
The EmPower Oarlocks were surprisingly easy to set up. They are extremely easy to install and calibrate. That being said, we have had a few teething issues, which are to be expected with a brand new product, but all in all they are very user friendly. In terms of analysis, there is currently no software provided by NK to analyse the data, however data can easily be exported in both csv and tcx formats to perform your own analysis in various other software products such as Excel, TrainingPeaks and Golden Cheetah.

How have you used the data they provide? Has it influenced coaching/workouts?
The opportunities are endless. In the initial stages, we’ve used it mostly in an observational way – looking at what kind of power our athletes are producing for different types of training sessions, races, and in different environmental conditions. We’ve looked at how the power, boat speed, stroke rate and heart rate data match up, correlations between these measurements, differences between ergometer and on-water power, and on and on. It has provided great information to our coaches and athletes about what outcomes they are actually achieving from an output point of view for various training sessions. Also, how these outcomes may confirm or contradict what we previously thought, and how we might manipulate training going forward to get the outcomes we’re after. We have a PhD student who will commence our program in late July and their job will be to tackle all of these questions, and probably many more!

Have you used other telemetry systems and if so how do these compare? Do they offer something new?
Prior to the release of the EmPower Oarlock system, we exclusively used the Peach Innovations power system, which has been around for many years now and works in a similar way in that power is measured through the oarlock. The two systems are quite different in their set up, functionality and the information they provide. While the EmPower system is much more like a true power meter, the Peach Innovations system provides much more information from a biomechanical point of view. The way I like to think of it is that if you want to track the daily training stimulus very simply each and every day, the EmPower Oarlock system is fantastic. When you require more in-depth biomechanical information, the Peach Innovations system is the way to go. We have also very recently received some of the Weba Oar Power Meters. These are different again in that the power meter is attached to and measured on the oar itself, as opposed to in the oarlock. We’re in the process of comparing the systems against one another, as well as determining the validity and reliability of each system. Both offer something slightly different, and we’re still very much in the process of determining what information is valuable, and how we can use it to manipulate training and racing to enhance the performance of our rowers.


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