It’s 5:30 in the morning and the gray fog dissipates from the banks of the Charles River. The air is cool for a July morning, slightly damp, and the river is amazingly still, like glass. In the distance, all I can hear is the combination of oars hitting the water and fiberglass boats skimming over it.
I’m at an early morning training session for one of the best Olympic rowers in the world. Genevra Stone – Gevvie for short – is a two-time Olympian who lives in Boston and trains on one of the most iconic rowing rivers in the world. We met her at the Harvard row house, a building with dark mahogany walls, creaky floorboards, large banisters, and white light that gleamed through the high windows. I felt like I was walking through a hall of champions rather than a training center.
Growing up, going to med school, and training in Boston, Gevvie is a Beantown girl at heart. “There was a crossing guard in the apartment I lived above for 6 years and we’d see each other every morning as I walked to the T,” Gevvie says. “Every morning we’d have a 1-minute conversation about the weather and what’s happening in the sports world. I love that because that’s what people in Boston do, we share the bond of whatever sport is in season and how miserable the weather is. But we have it pretty good as far as I can tell.”
At a young age, Gevvie was always around rowing. Her parents were both on the US national rowing team in the 70s so the lifeblood of the sport carried from generation to generation. Every Fall, Gevvie’s parents would bring her into Boston for the Head of the Charles – the biggest rowing regatta in the world. Gevvie and her sisters would play around the docks while their mom and dad would compete. “As a kid, I was definitely aware rowing was a tight-knit and special community. But instead of watching the races I always found myself a little distracted by the caramel apples.”
Entering high school, Gevvie actually resisted joining the rowing team. She thought to herself, “this is what my parents do. I want to do something different.” But after a few seasons, she began to acknowledge that maybe her hand-foot-eye coordination wasn’t one of her sweet spots. “Soccer was really not my sport so I switched over to rowing, which proved to be a good decision,” Gevvie said. “I learned to love it on my own terms. My parents didn’t push me into it and I personally made the decision to transition myself from soccer and lacrosse to rowing.”
Gevvie’s passion for rowing shines through her training. Her precision from beginning to end has rightfully given her the elite status of a champion. She does triple sessions Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which consists of a morning row, afternoon lift, and another row in the evening. Tuesday and Thursday she rows twice, Saturday she rows in the morning with an additional afternoon row or bike. Sunday is Gevvie’s “active rest” day so she practices yoga. In total, when Gevvie is in full training she is working out 16 times per week.
With a high volume training plan such as this, I had to ask the question: ‘Where does train smarter not harder come into play?’ Gevvie says, “Since rowing is an endurance power sport, you have to put a certain amount of miles and minutes in. No one trains once a day and is the fastest in the world. You have to put in enough minutes and you have to watch what you’re doing when you’re not training. That’s where the “smarter” comes in. Everyone puts in about the same load on the water so it’s really what you’re doing off the water that matter – taking those naps, getting enough sleep at night, stretching, foam rolling, going to physical therapy, eating right. The little things make a big difference.”
Just like most endurance sports, pushing your body to the brink of exhaustion is something that is commonplace, especially in rowing. This training mindset magnifies the significance of the need for recovery in an athlete’s overall training regimen. In Gevvie’s case, she begins to notice a difference in her recovery scores as the week goes on. Monday looks great, Tuesday looks better, then there is a slow decline through the remainder of the week, which is to be expected. “As long as my WHOOP Recovery Score starts to improve over the weekend, then I don’t worry too much.”
Gevvie’s recovery includes a healthy dose of WHOOP analytics that helps her predict performance. “If my resting heart rate (RHR) is above 52 then I may be getting sick because it’s usually 48-49 pretty consistently.” In addition to her RHR, Gevvie pays close attention to her Heart Rate Variability (HRV), as it fluctuates more during her recovery. “When I came back from racing in Europe it took me a long time to get my HRV back up. Despite having a recovery week, my HRV was below 50 for 2-3 weeks. Since I’ve been wearing WHOOP, HRV has been a good measure of my training fatigue, and my resting heart rate has been a good measure of whether I’m about to get sick or not.”
Sleep seems to be the running theme elite athletes are concerned about. The increase of sponsorship dollars, media buys, and overall demand on elite athletes is creating a perfect storm of lost sleep. Understanding the effects of sleep deprivation on athletic performance has been widely studied in the academic world, but it’s only now that this is becoming more of an issue as this so-called “sleep storm” increases.
The value Gevvie places on sleep wasn’t always there. Gevvie jokingly told me that she used to laugh at her teammates that were strict about getting their nine hours of sleep. “I was like, come on guys, live a little!”
It wasn’t until Gevvie started to master every facet of her sport that she started looking elsewhere for improvement. “The British rowing team has a 1% theory, just get 1% better at everything. Sleep, nutrition, stretching, rowing…everything. If you’re 1% better in the little things, it will add up to more than 1% in the water, which is the difference between 6th and 1st.”
Now Gevvie finishes her morning workout, has a quick breakfast – which she proudly admits she can eat fast to maximize sleep time – and then heads back to bed. “As soon as breakfast is over, I’m back to sleep before my afternoon lift.” A typical conversation between Gevvie and her coach goes like this:
“Sorry, I’m a little late, coach. It took me a little longer to get out of bed.”
“What do you mean? You were up 2 hours ago.”
“I mean from my nap.”
“Gevvie, it’s 10:30 am, you already took a nap?”
Gevvie’s need for sleep doesn’t just extend from night to early morning, rather it’s a mentality she holds constant throughout her day. The sleep insights WHOOP has revealed has changed the way sleep fits into her training and recovery. “I just assumed that if I went to bed around 10:00pm and woke up at 5:00am that I was getting 7 hours of sleep. After wearing WHOOP, I realize I’m really only getting about 6 and ½ hours of sleep, which sounds a lot less than 7.”
“I now start getting ready for bed at 9:00pm. I’m probably in bed at 9:15 – 9:20 on an average night which makes a big difference because it pushes my sleep above 7 hours, which is important. I’ve seen more than a 1% change in my sleep, which is great. And if I can get more than 1%, I’ll grab it.”
With the Olympics coming up, Gevvie’s focus on peaking becomes a top priority. Like many athletes competing in the games, there isn’t a full-season to turn things around if they’re not performing. They only have one shot, one moment to make history or not.
“I just try to think about having my fastest race. The training is still the same and the goal is still the same – peaking and going as fast as I can for 2000 meters. WHOOP is helping me move toward this goal by helping me prevent overtraining because I will have to peak in both the semifinal and in the final. There are enough fast women out there that you can’t wait until the end to show your cards. If I can do this in the Olympics, then these games will be a success.”