Hopefully your training is going well and you’re feeling enthusiastic about your times, power output, and other progress markers. But no matter how motivated you might be now, there may come a point when the daily grind of miles on top of miles starts to mount up. Maybe you’ll hit a plateau that you can’t seem to overcome. Or perhaps your body or mind will tell you — in the form of excess soreness, joint pain, or just sheer boredom — that you need to shake it up for a while. In which case, what are you supposed to do that’s different from your usual training but will allow you to maintain or maybe even improve your cardiovascular fitness? Rowing is a possible solution to spice up your training. Here are four compelling reasons why.
1. Reduce Joint Impact
If your typical routine includes at least a couple of days a week of traversing trails or pounding the pavement, it’s likely that your hips, knees, and ankles are taking a beating. Sure, it might not feel like it right now if you’re using max cushioned shoes or are still fairly young, but you might not be able to outrun joint issues forever. While taking collagen and other supplements can help address joint pain and cartilage degeneration, it will also pay for you to take a break from high-impact training periodically. Rowing offers a way to train your cardiovascular system with low to no impact on your joints.
2. Get Maximum Bang for Your Training Buck
Another benefit of using a rowing machine (or erg, as it’s also known) is that it’s a very efficient training modality. Compound exercises that involve moving multiple joints through wide ranges of motion burn more calories and spread the load so that force isn’t impacting just one or two areas. According to a study conducted by the English Institute of Sport, rowing targets 86% of the muscles in your entire body from head to toe, including big, powerful ones like the lats, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. This means you can get a lot of work done even on days when you need to fit in shorter sessions between meetings, remote schooling your kids, and all the other responsibilities that life throws at you.
Rowing also allows you to toggle between the three main energy systems. You can stay in the green zone with longer, slower distances, and tweak these with lower stroke rates to make them more challenging. Meanwhile, mid-length intervals lasting between one and five minutes will allow you to develop your glycolytic system (which is linked to anaerobic fitness). Finally, short, fast bursts will tax your phosphocreatine system (which fuels explosive anaerobic muscle contractions) and help you develop raw speed and power.
3. Master Different Movements
One of the reasons that your training can start to become more of a chore than a joy is that your body is going through the exact same movement patterns over and over again. As a result, you’re loading the same joints, muscle groups, ligaments, and tendons day in and day out, which can lead to overuse injuries, chronic tightness, and other repetitive strain-related issues.
Rowing provides new movement patterns to master. It allows you to develop the upper body and core endurance needed to swim well, as well as the lower body power that is required to reduce running splits and up wattage and other metrics on your rides. You’ll go through deep hip flexion and perform horizontal pulls that are absent from many other modalities. Once you get your technique down, this will have increased your overall movement competence, while giving your body a break from the same old stimuli.
4. Develop a White Belt Mentality
It feels great when you’ve become a master at a sport or, at the very least, have reached a level of competence where you know what you’re doing more often than not. But such mastery can breed complacency and leave you stuck in training ruts from time to time. Although it can feel uncomfortable to try a new activity initially, you could reframe this as embracing a new challenge and hitting a reset button on your programming. Certainly, rowing is a skill that takes time to develop and, as a result, you might not get the kind of outcomes you’re hoping for right away. But if you stick with it and commit to honing your technique, you’ll get it down soon enough.
Going back to being a beginner and starting a new discipline from scratch will benefit your mind as well as your body. Sometimes the biggest obstacle athletes face is summoning the motivation to show up and do the same thing for the umpteenth time. Taking a break to try rowing will light your brain up as it tries to groove new patterns and pathways and give you a much-needed hiatus from your typical runs, rides, and swims. By the time you get back to your usual routine, you’ll be refreshed and raring to go. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the ups and downs of the pandemic, it’s that we all could do with being more adaptable and open to new things.
Sample Rowing Sessions
To help you get started with rowing, here are some sample sessions. You can probably find a gym in your area that has rowing machines available and almost every CrossFit box has at least a few. If you decide you like training this way and want your own rowing machine, most manufacturers have re-stocked after COVID-19- related supply delays. As with any kind of training, coaching can be beneficial to help you nail both form and programming. Start slowly and build up as you become more at ease. To start with, take longer rest periods between sets, particularly with short, high-intensity intervals.
Long Distance, Low-Intensity Training | Cadence @18-22 strokes per minute (SPM)
3 x 15:00
2 x 20:00
1:40 on, 20 seconds off x 20 to 30
Middle Distance, Moderate-Intensity Training | Cadence @24-30 SPM
4 to 5 x 8:00
3 x 3,000 to 4,000 meters
5,000 to 7,500 meters
Short Distance, High-Intensity Training | Cadence 28+ SPM
6 to 8 x 500 meters
1:00 on, 2:00 to 3:00 off x 10
4 x 1,000 meters