Here are some recommendations for the 2K on the erg - what rowers call an "erg test." Of course, there is no magic bullet. When I first started this I thought I could just write, "Go as hard as you can. That's it." And while that's actually true, I think there are some important things for people who are unfamiliar with this distance to keep in mind. The goal is to remain consistent and calm throughout your piece.
Why Be Consistent?
This is a test of endurance. So going out like gangbusters at the beginning will not bring your score down. You wouldn't start a marathon with an all-out sprint for as long as you can go; if you did, you'd hit a wall, then look up and remember that you have another 25.8 miles to go. The same is true here, even though it's a much shorter distance.
This is not a piece that you can approach with a "just go out hard, and then hang on" mentality; to do so is called to "fly and die" - a term used in the rowing world and I'm sure in other endurance racing sports. Think of this as running as fast as you can for this distance, a mile and a quarter, while carrying a weight. Or, better yet, doing seven or eight minutes of deadlift high pulls, with 30 reps per minute - or 210-240 deadlift high pulls for time. No breaks. You can't do 30 reps in 45 seconds, then pause for 15 seconds, than go again for 45 seconds. Just a steady 30 reps throughout each minute. If you do this, you have to be consistent and relaxed, and settle into a good breathing pattern.
Splits & Rating
All rowing pieces are broken down into 250m and 500m increments; your goal is to look back at your "splits" - your time per 500m - and see very little variation among the different 500s. (You have the option to display splits on your erg, along with calories and watts; rowers use the 500m splits.) Your first and last 500s will naturally be a little faster than the middle two 500s, but otherwise there should be no glaring differences.
If you've pulled a 2K test in the past, a good thing to do on your next 2K is to shoot for the exact same score, but to do so with consistency. For example, if you pulled an 8:20 the last time you did it, that's 2:05 splits (2' 5" per 500m), on average. So the next time you pull a 2K just sit on 2:05 splits the whole time. If that feels too easy, then go for 2:04. But be conservative.
Also, your rating, or stroke rate, should be largely the same throughout. The rating is generally 28-34 per minute for the body of the piece. I always tended to be around 30-32.
2K PLAY BY PLAY
I'd like to lay out the 2K sequentially, in order, starting with the warm-up. Keep in mind, though, that throughout the test you must focus on breathing, good posture, relaxation, and LENGTH. Do not ever shorten up your stroke. Ever. This is all especially true when you are really hurting.
Do a gentle warm-up, at least 10 minutes. I liked starting at 3:00 splits and knocking down the split by 10s every 300m until I got to 2:00 or 1:50. Very easy. Take a break to stretch or go to the bathroom. Then do a few harder pieces. I always liked doing a few 20s (in rowing speak, this means "20-stroke pieces" - so a 10 is a 10-stroke piece, a 30 is a 30-stroke piece; beyond that you start using meters or minutes for measuring pieces). After the 20s, I liked doing one or two minute-long pieces at race pace. If you do this, rein it in - don't get caught up in the excitement and go harder than your target pace. After this, do one or two 10s at your sprint pace - what you will do at the beginning and end of the piece. Again, don't go crazy
"Paddle" - i.e., row lightly - for a few more minutes just to flush things out.
Throughout the warm-up stay long and relaxed.
You can take another break if you want. You are now ready to start.
For the erg, you can do your start in two or three strokes. At the start, sit at half or three-quarters slide - not at full slide (more rowing terminology, sorry - the "slide" references have to do with how far up the rail your seat is; so "half-slide" means your seat is about halfway, and "full slide" means your seat is all the way up). Keep your back a little more vertical than you normally do when rowing. Focus on being relaxed. Take a few deep breaths, then squeeze to the finish - go hard, but don't jump. Just lean back. Once you're done with that first stroke, don't waste any time getting back up to the catch for another short stroke (again, not full slide), which is much quicker - instead of a squeeze, you now want to kick it. For the third stroke, you can establish length.
Take 10 really hard strokes at a pretty high stroke rate - 36-40. Then immediately settle into your rhythm. You'll feel great at this point, but once you get to about 400m your energy systems will switch over from anaerobic to aerobic, making for the first mental obstacle of the piece. So just relax and get into your groove. Establish your breathing pattern, and make sure you are long.
Again, do not go nuts at the beginning. This is a long piece, and you have to think of each stroke as a brick; you're building your piece, brick by brick, and you have to be patient. If you go too hard at the beginning, your time won't be better in the long run - you'll hit a wall and you'll have a hard time digging yourself out later. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors.)
400m or 500m In
Take a "power 10" - literally, 10 more powerful strokes that help you get over a hump - just to kick down the split a little, and use the 10 as a chance to focus on being quick and light. Focus in on your legs doing the work during the 10, and keep your arms and shoulders relaxed at the catch and during the recovery. The 10 takes you over the first hump. (In rowing, the way to deal with difficult moments is to go a little harder.) Your rating may go up a little on its own. After the 10, settle back into your rhythm, and make sure you're long.
The middle 600 - between around 700m and 1300m in - is about the hardest part of the piece. My second 500 was always my slowest of the whole piece, when I realized, "okay, uh, this is happening"; part of my third 500 always had the worst splits, but the end of the third 500 was, for me, when I started to tighten the screws, so that segment always ended up being faster than the second 500.
This is where you kick its teeth in. Take a power 20 - really aggressive, but again, not inconsistent with the rest of the piece. In other words, if you're at a 32 throughout the piece, don't go to a 40 here; at most, your rating will jump one or two beats. (I guess I shouldn't stress this too much, because the reality is that you won't be able to go crazy anyway.) The 20 at the 1000 helps you get through this. Kind of.
The third 500 is really hard for most, but some also actually like it because you're past the halfway mark and just taking it home. In a rowing race, this segment can really determine the result.
Once you're done with your power 20, just check in again on your length and breathing.
500m to Go
Take another power 10.
400m to Go
Squeeze your split down a bit more. This is the calm before the storm. Don't let the splits float up - keep it down.
250m to Go
Kitchen sink time. Just go for broke. You can put up with anything for 21-25 strokes. If you're a fast-twitch athlete, you'll love this. You should jack the rating as high as you need to - I always had a low rating in general, and I'd be at a 40 or higher at this point.
There are various games you can play in your head to help you get through the piece - you're used to this from all the other training you do. I found myself counting much more than necessary, just to help me through. For instance, from 750m to go until the end, I counted pretty much every stroke. I tricked myself into thinking that each stroke would be 10m, and always felt a little better knowing that each stroke was actually a little more than 10m. (Yeah, it can get that stupid.) I think this is a personal thing, and while I'm happy to share other thoughts on little mind games you can play, I think it's better for you to develop them on your own. But the best thing you can do throughout the piece is maintain length and make sure you're breathing sufficiently.
Some videos to check out
Here's Xeno Muller ('96 gold/'00 silver in the single, the one-man event), and Rob Waddell rowing in a double.
'00 gold in the single and apparently the best VO2 max of any athlete ever tested, according to Wikipedia
Incidentally, Waddell is the world-record holder on the erg: 5:36.6 or something like that. That's INSANE. My best was 5:51.8, perfectly respectable internationally. But 5:36 is phenomenal. I raced against Xeno in college.
Here's Xeno, with Rob Waddell to his right, on ergs
They're using RowPerfect gizmos, which keep the entire erg on tracks so as to roughly simulate the feel of a boat.
Here's a guy that Xeno is coaching in the single
He looks really good - simple, direct drive. Don't know who he is