How to Make Rowing Machines Work For Your Endurance Training

By Christine Palmquist | July 30, 2019, 1:48 p.m. (ET)

Rowing

The first rowing ergometer was created in 1981 — just in time for me to spend four grueling years on one as a collegiate rower at Cornell. Now, rowing machines are common at most gyms.

You may have eyed an erg from your treadmill and wondered if it might be worthwhile to fit rowing in your triathlon training routine. The short answer is yes — rowing machines can be an excellent addition to your triathlon training, but you must know few important things about them to use them safely and productively.

Best Reasons to Row

Rowing provides a non-impact, whole-body workout that translates well to almost any endurance sport. Rowing builds strong legs — great for building cycling strength for triathlon. The motion also creates an incredibly strong core which helps with all three of the triathlon disciplines. It is easy to get a challenging cardiovascular workout on an erg. If you want to go hard, rowing gets your heart rate up easily. Finally, an erg can be a great way to spice up an indoor workout, warm up for a strength session or get out of the outside elements when necessary.

Erg Basics

Before you try rowing on an erg, I recommend learning about proper stroke mechanics and the basics of how the machine works. Look up websites for commercial rowing machines and you will find technique instruction, videos and diagrams, and sample workouts. You can ask your gym’s trainer to tell you how to strap your feet in, start the machine and how to read the computer display. You will also want to learn how to use the damper setting, which determines how much air is allowed into the flywheel housing. The more air, the more air resistance. A higher damper setting is like adding more friction to the erg. A trainer may also be able watch your form and make corrections to avoid back injuries.

Rowing Metrics

Stroke rate: This is displayed on the upper right corner of the computer display. In general, the higher the stroke rate, the harder you are working. Typical stroke rates range from about 20 strokes per minute (spm) for very easy rows, to 38 spm or higher for hard race-like efforts.

Power: Power is displayed in the center of the computer display and can be shown in the following units: watts, calories or 500-meter race pace.

Distance: Most erg workouts will be measured in meters. 2000 meters is the standard competitive rowing distance. Sprints are often 500 meters. Longer off-season races are approximately 5000 meters.

Technique

The rowing stroke is divided into four parts. The “Catch,” the “Drive,” the “Finish” and the “Recovery."

The Catch: the very front of the stroke – where your legs are compressed, your back is relaxed, and your arms are about to guide the “oar” to catch the water.

The Drive: The drive is the main part of the stroke and is initiated by the strong muscles of your legs. Then, the biceps, core and back engage to hang onto the oar and finally finish the drive as the legs are fully extended.

The Finish: The finish is the back of the stroke - where your back, quads, glutes and core stabilize your position as your arms finish the drive and get ready to recover back to the beginning.

The Recovery: The recovery is the process of sliding forward back to the beginning of the stroke. The arms push the oar forwards and the hamstrings/calves contract to flex the legs.

Beginner Rowing Training Sessions

Row #1: Your first row should be a short, gentle row. Try rowing for 3-5 minutes at a stroke rate of about 20 strokes per minute. Then, stop, stretch and see how you feel. If all is well, repeat this same 3-5 minutes 1 or more times.

Row #2:  Experiment with Stroke Rate and Effort. Alternate 1:00-3:00 minute moderate efforts with 1-minute rests. Row the first interval at a stroke rate of 20, the second at 22 spm and the third at 24 spm. Finish with 10 minutes of steady-easy rowing to get used to pacing a longer row.

Row #3: Row 4 x 5:00 as (2:00 at 20 spm, 2:00 at 22 spm and 1:00 at 24 spm) with 2:00 easy rowing rests.

Row #4: Row 2 x 10:00 at a moderate effort with your stroke rate between 20 and 24. Rest for 2:00 after each.

Row #5: Alternate 1:00 strong with 1:00 easy for 20:00. Stroke rate should be between 20 and 24 spm.

Aerobic Benchmark: When you are ready. Row a steady 30 minutes and see how many meters you row. Repeat this test every few weeks to monitor progress.

When you get a few weeks or months of rowing done, you can test at a harder effort level. The 2000-meter row is the most typical indoor and outdoor rowing race distance. Give it a shot and see how you do. If you want to race on rowing ergs, you can find indoor races all over the country.

Rowing is an efficient way to increase your fitness, get stronger for cycling and break up indoor training sessions with some variety. Be sure to learn about the machine and the technique before rowing long or strongly and be patient with your body as it learns to love the new motion.

Coach Chris Palmquist is a USAT LIII coach and Head Coach at Team MPI (www.teamMPI.com) and can be reached at chris@teamMPI.com. Chris has been coaching endurance athletes since 1993.