Joel Naukkarinen, also known as the ‘Rowing Finn’, recently added to his formidable rowing accolade by breaking the world record in the marathon distance of 42 195 metres on the erg with a time of 2 hours 20 minutes and 6.9 seconds, giving an average 500m split time of 1:39.6, beating the previous world record set by Ben de Wit in 2016 by over a minute. World Rowing asked Naukkarinen about his mindset and preparation to achieve this feat. 

When asked why he was attracted to row such a long distance, Naukkarinen sounded as much like a philosopher as an elite rower, “If you immerse yourself in the ergometer, focusing solely on the sensation of the movement, and learn to dismiss distracting thoughts while ignoring any discomfort, the marathon quickly becomes the most rewarding workout of the week. I have been addicted to that feeling for many years: losing my sense of time and feeling chills on my skin. Everything in the world stops, and there’s no stress whatsoever. It’s a kind of meditative experience and the most empowering moment of the week psychologically.”

This mental state has been fortified with a lot of sweat and effort. Naukkarinen reckons he’s rowed the marathon distance at least 100 times and had already claimed the Finnish record. He has also sat on the rowing machine to do the even longer ultramarathon 100 km and broke the World Record in 2018 in a public event in Kupio, Finland, in just over six hours and six minutes, with an average split of 1:49.8. As a result, Naukkarinen says, “I am quite familiar with the marathon performance. I know my technique, settings, pace, rate and rhythm. In advance, I visualise the entire performance on how to maintain a pace of under 1:40.”

Naukkarinen credits his spouse, Lida Niemi, as a crucial support, who held both the vital role of the DJ and a professional sports dietitian. Naukkarinen says, “I ate well in the days leading up to the performance. My diet is always carefully thought out and prepared. During the performance, I consumed 2.1 litres of carbohydrate-rich fluid and 120 grams of carbohydrates per hour.”

Staying focused on a long-distance row while staring at a small screen is a real mental challenge for most. Naukkarinen explains how he tamed his mind: “A more important skill than ignoring feelings of discomfort is coping with one’s own thoughts. It’s easy to enter a mental landscape where emotions or thoughts lead to failure. An active mental process is required, where one observes one’s thoughts, reflects, replaces harmful thoughts with better ones, and directs one’s thinking in a way that would most likely create an ideal state at that moment. You have to know how to extinguish or mute emotions that are not meaningful in that state and reinforce and create desired emotional reactions and ultimately the emotional state.”

While Naukkarinen answer seems matter of fact, it didn’t mean the world record feat was straightforward. During the endeavour, when there was 26 to 22 km left on display, he recalled, “I had intense muscle pain and wondered how it would turn out since I hadn’t completed full marathons this winter. I had to push those thoughts out of my mind. Towards the final 1 km, I realised I was on the verge of fainting, and I was afraid I would wake up on the floor just before the end. I asked my wife to psych me up for the remainder of the journey, and I finished the performance strongly.”

While recovering from a marathon might take weeks for most rowers, Naukkarinen quickly rehydrated after losing 2kg in sweat and started his next training session within a few hours. Even more remarkably, a few days later, he set a 100m personal best on the ergo in 12.7 seconds, with a 1:03.5 average 500m split.

Reflecting on long-distance rows, Naukkarinen undoubtedly believes they help with building endurance; however, he also thinks the benefits can be transformative mentally. He concludes, “As a medical doctor and neuroscientist, I believe the effects on brain function are extensive. It surely influences various mental functions and, ultimately, shapes the kind of person you become.”

Naukkarinen has certainly shown the world the type of person he is! You can follow his journey on Instagram via the account rowingfinn.