The Bee Keeper

Having set out to rescue his queen, Filipe Salbany hung in an oak tree with a catchbox of bees over his shoulder, watching the sunrise. “It was so beautiful I lost concentration. Silly really, I got stuck and thought oh I haven’t released the beehive. I tugged the strap to release it, but I pulled the wrong one - it was the only thing connecting me to the tree. I dropped nine meters.”

A minor misjudgement with painful consequences. Filipe is someone who usually pays close attention to the details. The Oxford University Boat Club (OUBC) physiologist loves examining every aspect of Oxford’s training program. He discusses his unique approach to physiology and his passion for beekeeping which helps keep him grounded, sometimes all too literally.

Perhaps stemming from his early Steiner education in a Waldorf School in South Africa, Filipe takes an unusually hands-on and holistic approach to his role as physiologist. He describes his role as part-mentor, part-coach and part-biomechanist.

“I pick up a lot of things when I coach; overtrained athletes will open up their back too early in the stroke and their stroke rate comes up because they can’t activate the muscles in the right way.”

Filipe believes “marrying the biomechanics with the physiology” is key and in his program, there is no separation between the two. He explains that unlike other sports rowing does not have a “very good” relationship between the two systems.

“My heart rate was down to twenty-four beats a minute. I’d broken five vertebrae, my left arm and cracked a rib. What your body can do is quite extraordinary.”

“In cycling you have immediate feedback - you can’t take the pressure off the pedal because your power drops, pulling harder on the handlebars won’t make you go faster. In swimming when the technique falls off the speed drops off very quickly, but rowers will carry on using all the different body parts to achieve a power.”

His observations are particularly prescient given the restrictions imposed by the UK Government via the Covid-19 guidelines. Current Boat Race trialists will have less time on the water to prepare for the race. Filipes says the club with the athletes that buy into the program the quickest will have the advantage. Both Cambridge and Oxford rowers have spent much more time alone than previous years on the rowing machine without the support of teammates or coaches.

“A leg driven stroke is most effective but on a rowing ergometer the rowers do not get a true feel for what it is they should actually be doing. An ergo will not measure the force applied to the foot stretcher. I’ve seen people not on the foot stretcher at all, well, if you do that in the boat, you’re not going anywhere and they aren’t training the specifics.”

Filipe says fatigued rowers often make their movement more “economical” by opening the back too early, but this will “lose physiological input”. Incorrect movement patterns might “keep a rower’s heart rate in the correct zone and their power level up but actually the load is too great” and they are not achieving the intended leg-orientated training objective. So, programming an optimal training load is key.

“We look at what we feel is achievable and how much an athlete can cope. It works out at about 12 hours a week which is substantial. When you are doing that amount there is still a good level of training stress.”

Eighty percent or more of their training load is “zone two”. Zone two is aerobic training, designed to build base fitness and stamina. The hallmarks of a typical zone two session are low stroke rate, low intensity, and high mileage, for example sixty minutes on the ergo pulling a prescribed split at rate nineteen. Filipe does a lot of testing to define each individual’s prescribed split and “get the zones right”, something he believes the national program misses.

“British Rowing for example will use 2 mmol per litre and 4 mmol per litre of lactate as their measure and then plot all their graphs. But these markers will be affected by glycogen levels and a whole lot of other stuff. When you don’t have a conveyor belt of elite athletes coming through you’ve got to be a bit cleverer with what you do. It is not the thirty hours a week of GB Rowing, but we are still achieving a lot.”

Filipe joined OUBC in 2007 and is proud of their progress: “The proof of the pudding is that our athletes keep improving. It is not some random lactate test, the improvements are across all parameters.” Another difference between the Oxford system and other setups is the absence of weight training. Despite not lifting weights the squad’s peak power tests are still “very good”. Filipe says the Oxford men are hitting between 800 and 1000 watts and they are “not the heaviest of athletes”. He notes the wide spectrum OUBC rowers he works with.

“We recently had a young kid out of juniors drop his 5km from 17:29 to 15:58. And internationals like Malcolm Howard and Mike de Santo, who have been rowing for many years come here and set PBs. Stan Louloudis went 14:50 for his 5km on this type of training and it would be a brave person to say that Stan wasn’t achieving his potential. It shows we are doing something right.”

Perhaps, the results come from Filipe’s ability to flex the program. Aligning with his technique-first model of training he says high intensity pieces might not arrive at the same point each season.

“…some guys might row an eight perfectly level and it is all fantastic but if you’ve got to try and develop technique then you can’t be doing those hard sessions. The guys will just go downhill. Some years we introduce intensity a little bit sooner than others. It may be as late as December when we are preparing for trials eights.”

“If we win, so what? Maybe we win because Cambridge are poor. Well, that doesn’t justify what we’ve done as being correct.”

The program continually evolves. Ten years ago, a section of the squad was “overtrained” despite completing the same training. Filipe realised this group trained first. He says there is a big difference between training in the morning and training in the afternoon: “waking up earlier” puts “extra load” on those athletes. Now, Filipe quantifies this additional load and tends to do the physiology testing in the mid-morning.

Filipe still gets a kick from cracking physiology problems and enjoys scrutinising the details in a high-performance environment. Year after year, win or lose, Filipe searches for what the OUBC squad could have done better.

“If we win, so what? Maybe we win because Cambridge are poor. Well, that doesn’t justify what we’ve done as being correct. A couple of years ago, when there were rough conditions we felt we had a chance to win that race but needed lots of things to go our way. We lost the toss and then forgot to turn the pumps on. It’s small things like that that can make a big difference.”

But more than the review process, the performance analysis and the physiological data it is the connection to the athletes that motivates him, even trumping the historic rivalry with Cambridge.

“Win or lose the Boat Race - forget it, that is beside the point! The point is you are getting better athletes physiologically, better athletes as people, better athletes technically. For me, it all about getting the best out of the athletes. And you’ve got a coach who is looking at the minutiae, who is always asking how can I make it better? Every year we do this. That has been really special.”

It was Oxford’s Chief Coach Sean Bowden that lured Filipe away from the pink palace to the dark blues. Filipe had been Head of Coach of the Women at Leander Club.

“I worked with Debbie Flood, Frances Houghton, Sarah Winckless, Rebecca Romero - she’s one of my best friends now - all of those women. I learnt a huge amount.”

His rowing path began at Winchester College as Master in Charge of Rowing. Winning results and placing two of his schoolboys in the GB junior team caught the attention of British Rowing. Filipe earned a spot on a coaching mentor scheme and worked under Harry Mahon who led the GB eight to Olympic gold in Sydney. In 2001 Filipe shepherded a young Matt Langridge from Norwich to his first World Rowing Junior Championship gold medal in the single. It was the first time any British athlete had won that event.

“I did quite a lot with the national team until I started having run-ins with Jürgen (Gröbler, former Great Britain Chief Coach), we were at logger heads because he was overtraining all the youngsters on the team. But that is just politics.”

Sean’s propensity to tear up the play book and receive feedback appealed. They met at Oxford Brookes laboratory where Filipe taught physiology. He tested Sean’s physiology and wrote a physiological report.

“I was testing his physiology and he was testing me as a physiologist and as a coach. Not that I knew at the time.”

Filipe passed the secret Bowden test and was invited to OUBC to look over the squad data.

“I suggested how to do things better. And Sean was prepared to listen and that for me was transformative. To this day fifteen years later, I mentor him. I look at his coaching. The biggest thing for me was seeing a coach who had coached at such a high level with so many athletes and yet was prepared to go back to basics. Back to grassroots.”

More recently he has started to work with the Oxford women’s squad too.

Filipe’s own roots are intriguing. Born in South Africa to parents from Mozambique with one set of grandparents from Mozambique and the other from Portugal. His Portuguese grandparents returned to Portugal in the 1950s.

“My grandfather owned a farm. He was quite high up in the village and he set up a beekeeping cooperative. I started being around bees when I was about five years old.”

The elder generation worked the bees and Filipe learnt the traditional beekeeping methods, of using very little smoke, bare hands and no veil. By working without gloves Filipe “felt the bees and the heat of the hive” and noticed they “bite before they sting”. He was taught the importance of paying attention to the environment.

“My grandfather always used to say ‘Filipe when the farmers spray the grapes the bees will die’. And as a child - I had this fascination with insects, and I didn’t want things to die. That always stuck in my mind.”

Back home in South Africa he took charge of the beehives at his local Waldorf school. The African bees were quite a bit more aggressive, but he continued to keep bees throughout his life; in exile, in war, and in Wallingford.

“My parents were members of the African National Congress. We went into exile in Zimbabwe and I went into the military. I used to come back from the military training camps and handling the bees put me in a good place. I’ve worked bees in the war zones in Mozambique, in Angola and in Botswana. I still find now with the pressures of rowing and physiology I like to be around the bees, it is something... it is like surfing. It sort of grounds you. That’s my thing with bees.”

Although it is not always so mediative and healing. Six years ago, Filipe learnt to take the bitter along with the sweet. He fell nine meters from a tree while attempting to recover his swarm.

“I was falling, hitting all those branches and at no time did I feel panicked. I landed on my back. I don’t remember much.”

He was knocked unconscious for about twenty to thirty minutes.

“I woke up. The bees had fallen out of the catchbox, so I stuck them back in. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want to look down at my trousers, I thought I was going to bleeding everywhere.”

He crawled to his car and managed to get home. Filipe laughs as he remembers telling his wife: “I had a little bit of an accident. I fell a couple of meters, but I think you better call the ambulance.” As the ambulance drove him away, he went into shock.

“My heart rate was down to twenty-four beats a minute. I’d broken five vertebrae, my left arm and cracked a rib. What your body can do is quite extraordinary. The only thing I thought of is getting back home. Anyway, I saved the bees and that queen actually lived for five years and produced a very good line of varroa resistance.”

No doubt Filipe will hope his dark blue charges are as virus-resistent en route to this year’s Ely Boat Race.