The training and diet of an olympic rower

Wednesday, October 12, 2016. Author Martin Cheifetz

90 minutes with Govert Viergever

It is always an honour and a privilege to speak with elite sportspeople who represent their club or country at the highest level.  These sportspeople make huge personal sacrifices and show incredible dedication and determination to achieve success at the top echelon of their sports.  In some sports like golf, tennis, or football, those huge sacrifices can also come with enormous financial rewards.  In other sports, success is not rewarded financially, but is paid in pride and glory.  Rowing is one of these “pure” sports….hours, months, and years of gut-busting training, the pride of wearing your nation’s colours, competing at the Olympics against the best in the world, where the margin of victory may be a fraction of a second, and your success will not be measurable in your bank account.  

For anyone who has ever attempted to scull or row a boat, or even use a rowing erg at the gym, you’ll have a vague idea as to how brutal the training and competition can be.  Take one look at an elite male rower and you can’t help but marvel at their physiques.  These guys are beasts.  Tall. Lean. Angular. Powerful.  Rowers are the definition of “Strength in Motion”, generating a huge power output for several minutes at a time, requiring efficient technique, determination, and the psychological and physiological strength to overcome the pain barrier that can define the margin of victory in national, or Olympic competition.   

In short, to make it to the Olympics as a rower, you need to have it all, and with that in mind, FitnessGenes is proud to introduce you to Rio 2016 Olympic finalist, representing the Netherlands in the Men’s Coxless Fours, stroke - Govert Viergever

FitnessGenes (FG): Firstly, congratulations on making it to the Olympics and qualifying for the Finals.  That had to be an absolutely amazing thrill and a huge amount of pressure.  At FitnessGenes, we didn’t have the opportunity to test you early enough in your training cycle to have an impact on your preparations for Rio, but now that we have, it is always interesting to hear what you learned about yourself from the DNA analysis and the changes you will be making to your diet, training and recovery protocols as a result of your DNA test results.

Govert Viergever (GV): Yes, thank you.  Being at the Olympics was a dream of mine since I was 14 and I knew I wanted to be the best in the world, so making the Finals was indeed my biggest accomplishment so far.  As far as FitnessGenes, moving forward, the analysis I received will definitely give me the knowledge to make better decisions with my diet, training, and recovery, all of which make a difference in race results at this level.

(FG):  What are some of the changes you will make to your training based on your recent FitnessGenes analysis?

(GV): I always thought of myself as a power athlete, but it turns out that I have both power alleles and endurance alleles.  I always hated endurance training because the lactate would bother me.  I could deal with pain for 6 minutes (which is the length of a long race) and it takes so much concentration not to think about it, but with endurance training, you need to deal with the pain for 2 hours.  The gene test says I have a slow rate of lactate clearance which is a huge genetic disadvantage.  

This confirms what I learned in blood lactate tests administered by our national team.  In lactate threshold tests, my levels go very high because I don’t break it down, so the tests kill me, whereas they don’t seem to bother the other guys.  

When you get confirmation and have the knowledge, you can make better decisions. At the highest level, it’s all about making the right decisions, and knowing where you can find the gains. For me, because I’m smaller than the other guys, I need to work smarter and more efficiently, so the FitnessGenes test tells me exactly where to focus to make better decisions.

So for me, I needed to work on lactate clearance, and that’s where the endurance training came in. Previously, I hadn’t done much endurance training because I thought, “If my race lasts 6 minutes, why do I need to be out training for 2 hours?”  The answer is mitochondrial density.  The mitochondria use lactate as an energy source and the more mitochondria you have, the faster you can clear the lactate.  So by doing more endurance work, as well as intense intervals with shorter rest periods during that endurance training, it improves my cardiovascular system, it improves my lactate clearance, and it helps my recovery….all of which will help my performance on race day.

FitnessGenes was also helpful in confirming the ideal rep range for me in the weight room.  I love the gym; I love fitness; I love weight lifting; and it really gets me fired up to lift as heavy as possible.  I’ve always enjoyed lifting in 12-15 rep range and interestingly, my FitnessGenes test confirmed that for my genetic make-up, this has the best hypertrophic effect for me.

(FG): What are some of the dietary changes you’ve made or will be making as a result of your FitnessGenes analysis?  

(GV): I’ve unfortunately had some digestive issues is the past, so have already been extensively tested in order to stay competitive at the highest level. My FitnessGenes results gave me DNA based confirmation of things I already learned through other types of tests, but for example, I know I should be eating a high fat, high protein, low carb diet.  Genetically, my body is efficient at burning fat for fuel, so I can do my endurance training in a fasted state, training my body to burn fat as a preferential fuel source and sparing muscle glycogen until I really need it.  This also helps with my mitochondrial density and I feel better not eating a lot of carbs.

My FitnessGenes test also told me that I was lactose intolerant, which in a dairy driven country like the Netherlands isn’t great, but I’ve eliminated all dairy products from my diet and the difference has been night and day!

(FG): What does your average training diet look like?

(GV):   I eat about 50% of my calories from healthy fats like salmon, egg yolks, avocado, coconut and MCT oils, and bone broth; 30% very high quality protein and 20% or less from quality carbs like sweet potatoes, pumpkin and white rice.  Interestingly, if I keep this same ratio during my rest periods, I also find that I’m not gaining weight, I’m not gaining fat, and I generally feel better.  I’ve also reduced my overall training volume with no negative effect on performance.  

(FG):  What other points did you learn from your FitnessGenes DNA analysis?

(GV): I learned about my caffeine sensitivity, so no coffee late at night, but before a race caffeine really gets me going.

I learned that I have Medium capability for recovery after training (which also helps explain my perpetual exhaustion and overtraining when I was younger), so I need to focus even more on good quality sleep. Recovery is a whole art in itself.  You need to get really good at it, but if you suck at it, your performance can really suffer.  At the elite level, you really have very little recovery time, so you need to know exactly what to do to get maximum benefit from the minimal time available.

(FG):  In your physically demanding sport, rank the importance of genetics, training, and mental toughness.

(GV): From a genetics perspective, you have to not suck at any aspect and by doing tests like this, you can figure out how to train around any genetic weakness.  From a training perspective, obviously, you have to put in the hard work, but there’s only so far the training will take you.  In a race at this level, you’re competing against guys who are physically and technically as good as you are, so it’s all mental.  The only difference between you and the other guys is in the mind, and the beautiful thing is that there’s no limitation on how strong the mind can be.  You can train the mind when the body is tired and there’s unlimited growth potential for your mind, even when your physical strength begins to decline.

(FG): Who was your biggest motivational influence?

(GV):  There’s two:  In general that’s Arnold Schwarzenegger.  He’s exceptional.  What he has achieved in 3 different fields is incredible.  Of course he has great genetics, but he’s applied the same principles that brought him success as a bodybuilder to 2 other diverse fields and I think he’s amazing.  I’d love to meet him.  

The other is Gijs Vermeulen, who is my big motivation in rowing.  He’s another guy that is not huge, but very technically gifted.  Rowing looks simple, but it is not.  It is very technical.  A rowing stroke is like a golf swing.  I have watched his videos so many times and he showed me that you didn’t need to be the biggest guy to be successful.  He’s a Dutch Olympic Silver Medalist in Athens 2004 and he’s the reason I wanted to be a stroke.

(The strokeman or stroke is the rower who sits in the stern of the boat and determines the cadence or stroke rate of the other rowers, and is often the official or unofficial leader of the boat for media duties-Ed).   

(FG):  If making the Olympic finals is your biggest accomplishment as a sportsman, tell us about your biggest disappointment.

(GV):  Yeah, that was the World Rowing Championships in 2014 in Amsterdam.  Back then, I was the stroke of the 8’s (the 8 man boat) and we had a very good season the prior year so expectations were high, we were competing at home, and the King was there watching our race.  However, there were problems within the team in the months leading up to the race, and then in front of the home crowd,  it just couldn’t have gotten any worse as we didn’t even make the finals.  Apparently, even the King wanted to know, “What happened to the 8’s?!”.  I had to give interviews afterwards and the journalists were killing me and I was so ashamed.  They have a name for the 8 man crew - the Holland Eight - which has always been a medal winning team, and the journalists were asking me, “With this kind of performance, are you still allowed to call yourselves the Holland 8?”  As the stroke, you get all the fame, but you also get all the shame.

(FG):  What are your future goals….another Olympics or two?

(GV):  Definitely one….Tokyo 2020….as long as my body is still improving and my mind is still improving, and I’m getting faster, I will continue the sport.  I love the feeling of getting better and performing at the highest level and I will definitely miss it if I stopped now, and I want that medal….I want that gold medal!

(FG):  Any parting thoughts?

(GV): If you’re not one of these physically talented guys who can look at a weight and get stronger, you need to find other ways of getting stronger, so testing, analyzing, and retesting is what the next generation athlete is going to be like, so I would encourage people to invest in themselves and invest in testing. I wish I would have had all of these gene results 10 years ago because it really could have made a huge difference in my diet, training, recovery, and overall performance.

(FG):  If you win Olympic Gold, we’re well connected with Arnold, so we’ll make sure he’s at your celebratory dinner!

(GV):  That would be the most awesome celebratory dinner in the world!!


Govert Viergever

Olympic Finalist Rio 2016 Men’s Coxless Four

Height 1.84 m

Weight: 85kgs

Residence: Amsterdam

Boat Position: Stroke

Quote: Rowing is a beautiful sport because it’s easy to learn and hard to master

Follow Govert on social media at or

Opening photo credit:  De Telegraaf 11 August 2016 via Twitter.  All other photos courtesy of Govert Viergever

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