The heart of January is the heart of winter erg training, and what better way honor the erg than with an interview with Mike Cavistion. Mike is inventor, teacher, and practitioner of the Wolverine Plan, one of the most intense training plans in the sport.
Mike is an accomplished indoor racer, winning the CRASH-B three times, setting the 40-49 lightweight world record in 2002- which is still the record today. He has a Master's degree in Kinesiology from the Univerisity of Michigan where he lectured on the subject for fourteen years. His most recent coaching stint was as the conditioning coach for the Michigan women from 2001-2004.
Currently, Mike trains current and prospective Navy SEALs as the Director of Fitness at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, CA.
row2k: Describe how you became interested in the physiological side of sports.
Mike Caviston: My undergraduate degree is actually in Anthropology, though I've always been interested in the science of performance. After a couple seasons of coaching, I decided some formal education in sport science would be useful, and began working on my degree in Kinesiology. I recognize the limitations associated with the application of laboratory research to the playing field, and I value the testimonials and anecdotal evidence of athletes and coaches, but I am definitely what you would call an evidence-based practitioner. I comb through hundreds of peer-reviewed articles every year.
row2k: What drew you to rowing in particular?
Mike Caviston: My high school graduation present was a month at the Outward Bound School at Hurricane Island, Maine. We spent a lot of time sailing in 30-foot open pulling boats, and I wasn't having a lot of fun, being generally cold, wet, and seasick. But when the weather was calm we broke out the oars, and I really enjoyed the physical challenge and took as many extra shifts from my classmates as I could manage. One of the instructors suggested I take up crew when I got to U of M. I didn't know much about the sport before that, but when I got to Ann Arbor in 1979, I found Michigan had a rowing club, so I joined, and stayed involved as a rower and then coach until 2004.
row2k: You designed the Wolverine Plan in 2001, can you describe the general structure of the plan?
Mike Caviston: Well, I actually designed the nucleus of the plan in the mid-'80s, and steadily refined it as I gained more experience and knowledge. When I began working with Michigan's varsity women for the 2000-2001 season, I put together a document to outline the basics of the plan. When I eventually made the document available on the internet, I gave it the title "Wolverine Plan". You can find it online here, but I caution anyone who is interested to recognize the document was never intended to be a complete representation of the WP, and shouldn't be treated as such. It was just a simple reference for the athletes I was working with, to supplement the information they got from me during practice. The WP document is sketchy about several aspects, especially the scheduling of workouts. I have also revised and expanded the performance tables in the original document. Over the years, I've provided some very detailed annotations and explanations on the Concept2 training forum, for anyone willing to do the research. Other people have created their own interpretations of the WP, but I don't endorse them, so be wary. Some day, if I ever find the time, I'll put everything related to the WP together in one training manual.
The structure of the Wolverine Plan is pretty simple, though it has certainly been criticized by some for being confusing and complex. You do need to spend some time learning some basic rules and terminology. There are four different workout categories, unimaginatively called Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4. The core of the program is Level 1, a high-intensity (2K pace or faster) interval session totaling 4K in increments of 250-1000m. I'm a big proponent of taking adequate or ample recovery to allow the appropriate intensity. Level 2 involves longer intervals ranging from 1500-3000m, totaling 7.5-8K per session. Level 3 involves prolonged, continuous rowing at a fairly steady pace of moderate intensity; I advocate building up to a distance that would take at least 60 minutes to complete. Level 4 is the category that strikes most people as unique, or even peculiar. The workouts involve relatively low stroke rates (generally 16-22spm) in constantly varying increments lasting 1-4 minutes. The paces for each rate are strictly prescribed based on best 2K and are held constant as the season progresses; the workload is increased by gradually adding more strokes to a given time period (e.g., 40 minutes). Some people have overemphasized the strength or power-per-stroke nature of these workouts; they are actually designed as transitional endurance workouts, but with a very controlled intensity proportional to 2K power. Besides Levels 1-4, the WP has specific guidelines for warming up before workouts and proper pacing during workouts.
row2k: How/why did you initially decide to structure the plan this way?
Mike Caviston: Performance over 2K depends on the ability to do two things: 1) produce large amounts of energy (via the phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative pathways) and 2) resist fatigue (by disposing of the byproducts of intense muscular contractions, such as hydrogen ions, potassium ions, and ammonia). So training needs to reflect these physiological demands, and the trick is to come up with the optimal combination of high-intensity interval sessions and prolonged, lower-intensity endurance sessions to achieve both goals within the time constraints faced by college athletes. The college model involves 6-8 sessions per week, including one Level 1, one Level 2, one-two Level 3s, and three-four Level 4s. This model can be reduced for junior or club athletes and expanded for elite athletes.
row2k: How successful has the plan worked for your athletes?
Mike Caviston: I'm especially proud of what the Michigan women accomplished, both on the ergs and at NCAAs, during the time I spent with them from 2001-2004. Several assistant coaches and athletes I worked with in that period went on to introduce the Wolverine Plan to other programs with measurable success. Other coaches of club, junior and college programs, both from the US and abroad, have adopted the WP based on information available on the Internet. Some of these coaches have contacted me directly, and others I've heard about second-hand, so I'm not sure all accounts are accurate. As for indoor racing, again because of the Internet as well as my networking at races in the US and Europe, many people of all ages have followed the WP, and several now have hammers and a couple have set records in their age groups. I've communicated with athletes from every continent, including some researchers working in Antarctica.
row2k: What are some of the staples of the Wolverine Plan? Any workouts that make the athletes cringe?
Mike Caviston: If you mean "staple" in the sense of principal or fundamental workouts, Level 4 are most frequently performed. How athletes respond depends on the length of the session; 40 minutes is pretty enjoyable but 60 minutes or 2 x 40 minutes, not so much. Level 1 workouts are only performed once a week, but 8 x 500m shows up pretty frequently in that rotation, since it is hard work but still pretty fun, and doesn't leave you wiped for the next couple days. As for a workout to make you cringe, I'd have to say 4 x 1K. It can really leave you physically and mentally devastated, so I don't put that in the rotation any more frequently than every 3rd or 4th week.
row2k: You have won the CRASH-B a few times, were you using a version of the Wolverine Plan to train for those wins?
Mike Caviston: Definitely. I fine-tuned the WP during the 3-4 years leading up to my 40th birthday so that I'd be ready to perform at CRASH-Bs in 2002. I set an age-group record, but more impressively (to me, anyway) I also set my own lifetime personal best record, even though I had been able to perform at an elite level in my 20s. The program I was following was exactly the same as what I had the Michigan athletes doing, except I was doing 10-11 sessions per week to their 6-8.
row2k: You work with the Navy SEALs now, how did that come about?
Mike Caviston: I always enjoyed teaching and coaching, but I had spent more than 25 years in Ann Arbor, so I was ready for a new challenge. I had spent a couple years surfing the Internet every now and then, looking for new or interesting opportunities. I made a few inquiries and sent out a few resumes, but nothing really developed. Then one day I found a posting on a web site that lists government jobs, including the military. One job description for a position with the Navy blew me away, as if it were written especially for me. I applied and got a phone interview, and then they flew me to San Diego for a personal interview. The folks at the Naval Special Warfare Center were enthusiastic, but the process of getting hired was frustratingly complicated and took several months. But eventually things came together and now I'm the Director of Fitness at the NSWC.
The job itself is great, testing and challenging me all the time, and the location is fantastic. I provide information about fitness and training to candidates as they prepare to enter the Navy. I help oversee the SEAL candidates pre-conditioning program that takes place in Great Lakes, IL between boot camp and shipping to Coronado. I talk to students at BUD/S (which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training) about conditioning, nutrition, and psychological strategies for performance. I work with the SEAL Instructors to optimize the training curriculum during the different phases of BUD/S. So, my job still involves elements of teaching and coaching.
row2k: The Navy probably keeps you pretty busy, are you still involved with coaching rowers at all?
Mike Caviston: Oh, sure, at least in an advisory capacity. Every now and again I get a call or an email from one of those coaches or athletes I worked with, asking for advice or clarification about some aspect of training or racing. Actually, the C2 erg is pretty popular with SEALs, and God knows most of them could use a little coaching. They tend to be very enthusiastic but, shall we say, technically challenged. It's really not a good idea to go up to someone who is a highly trained combat veteran and tell them they suck, so I pretty much wait for them to initiate contact, but they know my background and I've got a few guys who come to me periodically for a little coaching.
The job does keep me really busy, but I hope to connect at some point with one of the many rowing programs in the San Diego area that might be interested in applying some concepts from the Wolverine Plan. I've been out to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista a couple times, but not when any rowing was going on. I'd love to get a chance to see some training or testing out there.
row2k: I'm sure the SEALs are a pretty tough group, how do rowers stack up?
Mike Caviston: Of all the men who begin the process of becoming a SEAL, more than 75% drop out. The Navy tracks all sorts of information that might predict which individuals are more likely to complete the program, including affiliation with various sports. Some sports that tend to predict greater success include triathlons, rugby, water polo, wrestling, and rowing. Rowers are used to working hard for long periods of time, in uncomfortable conditions, in lousy weather, with little or no extrinsic reward. Any SEAL can respect that. I would never claim that I could have been a SEAL, because nobody can know until they actually go through the process. But my training as a rower has served me pretty well, and at my age I can keep up with and in some cases excel at the conditioning routines SEALs typically perform (but don't tell any of them I said that, or they'll be making me prove it).