The benefits of rowing for runners and cyclists

April 14, 2017

As you walk into a gym at a peak busy hour, you will likely see the cardio equipment being heavily used, be it treadmills, elliptical, spinning bikes, recumbent bicycles, … All but one, the erg rower. Rowing machines (“ergs”) seat lonely most of the time, normally only used by rowers. Even a short peak of popularity thanks to House of Cards has not made ergs popular. Which is a pity, since for triathletes, cyclists and runners, the rowing machine is probably a great piece of equipment in the gym.

Rowing is a full body workout engaging legs, core and arms. Rowing delivers multiple benefits that are rare to find in any other discipline:

  • Contrary to common belief, rowing is mainly powered by the legs, more concretely the core muscle engaged in rowing are the quadriceps. Having stronger quads helps generate power on the uphills, avoids fatigue, and reduces the risk of knee injuries. From a muscle group engagement standpoint, rowing is a fantastic cross training exercise that complements running. In my case, rowing has allowed me to reduce my weekly miles, maintaining running fitness, focusing the runs on more and faster speed play, and overall reducing the risk of downtime due to injury.
  • Rowing workouts are usually done at maximum oxygen utilization. One thing is for sure, a hard rowing session will teach anybody humility. Next time you get a chance, pop into a Concept2 rower to do a 2,000 meter workout all-out and you’ll see what suffering truly means. Repeated over time, the VO2Max development achieved with rowing is probably only rivaled by cross country skiing. The cardiovascular and psychological strength benefits of rowing cannot be compared to anything else you can do on a treadmill or a bike trainer. Additionally, the maximum heart rate for rowing is slightly higher than in cycling, and even running, and closer to the absolute physical maximum. One possible explanation is that the respiration rate in rowing is higher. Whatever the reasons, the fitness level achieved by rowing will translate well into cycling and running.
  • Achieving a polarized training program distribution of 80% of training volume below LT1 and 20% above LT2 is more natural in rowing. It is harder to row in no-mans land, between LT1 and LT2. For time crunched athletes, rowing, whether in high-intensity intervals or at a low-intensity steady pace is a more time-efficient workout than the equivalent on the bike or the treadmill.
  • Aside quads, rowing also helps strengthen the core and the arms, with less risk of bulking due to excessive growth of slow-twitch fibers.

Whether it’s power development, increasing VO2Max, optimizing training time or simply general strength conditioning, rowing is a fantastic go to option.

But there is also a significant reason why I think more people should be on ergs: rowing will yield quicker returns to your overall fitness than any other cardio work you can do on the gym. Seeing quick returns provides a huge positive reinforcement and triggers a repeat visit to the gym, eventually to become a routing, or even a healthy addiction. Rowing is a low impact exercise -although care should be taken to ensure a correct rowing technique to avoid lower back problems- that will help lose fat, shed those extra pounds, whilst getting stronger muscles and gaining fitness. It is also harder to over train as an amateur.

My own anecdotal experience corroborates this. Having spent much of my youth in the pool, and much later on a short stunt in the single skull, as I finished college I completed neglected my sports habits. Over time my overall health started to deteriorate, and I went from my 75-78kg (165-175 lbs) in college to over 100kg (220 lbs) after a decade of focusing mostly on work. Being close to my 40s I went to my first annual check in 2011, where I was told my weight was a bit high -a “bit” meaning I was overweight but not obese under the US BMI standards-. I knew I had put on weight over the years, but not that it was close to 100kg. I was in shock, and I remained in shock for weeks.

This was 2011. I decided to exercise. And obsessive, I exercised. I bought a bike and started cycling to work. I liked to push myself to cycle really hard to work, but I was exhausted after 20 mins. I lost some weight, but progress was slow. Sports was not “sticky”. There was no miracle.

We moved to China and I started swimming again, as doing sports outdoors was clearly out of the question in the polluted air of Beijing. I swam every morning for a couple of hours like in the old days. Again, some weight went down, but I was 85kg, 10kg over my target. Despite trying, I could not go down. And the time investment was crazy given the little returns. The caloric loss in swimming would not allow this. Plus I was not really seeing fitness increase, or strengthening, just weight loss.

In 2012 I decided to start running. It worked, since running was more time efficient, but my knees started to hurt. Even though I was losing weight, it was not healthy: I was just losing weight and becoming a skeleton, and my knees were hurting. At work people started getting worried I was sick, as I looked too skinny.

In 2013, we moved back to the UK and we bought a Waterrower. I started rowing daily. My weight continued to go down, but after 6 months, I had gained muscle, and I could now run comfortably for one hour. It was time to get back to cycling too. I bought my first trainer, and rescued the bike from the garage. I started swimming, rowing, running and cycling. For somebody like me who travels a lot, doing the four sports means more opportunities to train when you are in a hotel, and less risk of getting bored and tired. It also means your sport specific fitness will be lower than if you dedicated yourself to a single sport. Hence why I started doing triathlon, a separate discipline than running or cycling alone.

Throughout this progression, I still see the introduction of rowing as the turning point. Rowing allowed me to run healthily, by making my legs strong enough so that my knees would not hurt any longer. Rowing helped me lose fat and gain lean muscle mass. Rowing helped me sustain max efforts for longer. Rowing helped me significantly increase my VO2Max, and even see my cycling FTP go up. My weight came down to 71kg at its lowest during this process. Since mid 2015 though I have been working hard to keep it stable between 72 and 75 kg –which is not a magical number, but the boundary for mens lightweight rowing–.

Even though it’s just anecdotal, I hope my progression will help others adopt rowing. Rowing can completely change your fitness level and will make significant improvements to your running and cycling fitness. In August 2014, I did 10,000m all-out on a Concept2 Model D rower, with a final time of 39:28.1 at an average heart rate of 155 bpm, and a sustained maximum heart rate at the end of 176 bpm. Fast forward 3 years, I can now do the same 10,000m session in 39:45.0, but now my heart rate will stay at an average heart rate of 145 bpm and a peak of 163 bpm, whereas an all-out effort will bring me to 37:20.0 at 168 bpm (250w). For roughly the same time and power effort, I can now achieve a 75% mens percentile ranking whilst staying below threshold. All that range between 163 bpm and 176 bpm is effectively VO2Max fitness I have gained. In the bike, I have been similar progression, gone from 328w FTP in 2015 to 340w now. In running, back in 2014 I was doing a 10km in 44 minutes, and now I do the 5km right under 20 minutes.

So, what are you waiting for? Row, row, row your erg!

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