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Rowing for Runners: Winter Cross-training Specials

Concept2 Model D undergoing firmware upgrade

It’s winter for a while in the northern hemisphere, however, we still have more than one long month left. As we all know, winter is usually not the favorite time of runners. Even if you are not afraid of below-water-freezing temperatures and cold rains, there are plenty of facts that can ruin your training. Deep snow can impact your intervals and icy countryside roads or city sidewalks are very dangerous even for experienced trail runners. If you’re training for races which happen to be in spring, like Boston Marathon, Paris Marathon or even a Berlin Half (or Halb, as they call it), you don’t have many options but to do some training indoors. And if thoughts about treadmill make you sick, you should try rowing, as there are some good reasons for that. 


Usually occupied by warming up athletes of cross-fit junkies, these rowing machines are not very popular at the rest of the time. It means you won’t have to wait in line to use it. Even if rarely prescribed for runners by their coaches, rowing workouts will engage a lot of muscle groups – including your core and arms – which are not so active while you run (and if you’re not cross-training in any other way, you’re risking to get the injury):

  • Shoulders and arms. Usually forgotten in the running world, they play a very important role in stabilizing your body and even propelling it forward (and arms thrust comes from strong shoulders; rowing works on both). Study in the Journal of Experimental Biology shows that arm swinging can save 3-13% of your energy while running (compared with holding them in a fixed position).
  • Core and back. There are no doubts of need to have a strong core and back. Your trunk, head and arms weight approximately 2/3 of your body mass, so imagine it all hitting your poor legs with every stride. If you have weak back, pelvis, abs and other core muscles, unable to distribute that load, the weakest chain link (we all have one) will eventually break, ending up with hip, knee or feet injury.
  • Last, but not least – glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Hey, that’s what actually moves you forward.

There’s a more detailed page on which exactly muscles (with their Latin names and drawings) are involved in what part rowing cycle, in case you’d like to do your own research.

And as rowing is considered non-impact exercise (no pounding on your body), it is also perfect workout if you’re recovering from injury.

How to use the rowing machine

First thing before you’re about to grab these paddles – ask the gym coach for assistance. The rowing machine is a simple device and rather easy to understand (at least as much as a runner needs to), but working out improperly may lead to back or arm injuries, to name a few.

If you would like to familiarize with the rowing machine (while you wait for a coach, for example), below are few most important steps.

If you would like to familiarize with the rowing (while you wait for your coach to come to the rowing machine, for example), it’s useful to know that full rowing stroke (or, if I may call it so, cycle) is usually broken down to four parts – Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery:

  1. Catch. That’s where it all begins – your arms extended in front of you, your knees are bent, and your shoulders relaxed and not hunched.
  2. Drive. Push through your feet, extending your legs first and then engaging your core muscles to put you in a vertical position (arms still extended). The drive is finalized by pulling in your arms.
  3. Finish. Further, engage your core to lean back slightly, and draw your elbows that handle in your arms almost touches below your ribs (or your heart rate monitor module, if you wear one)
  4. Recovery. Getting back to Catch position – in a fluent motion, extend your arms, lean from your hips and bend your knees, sliding the seat forward.

There’s plenty of great material (including perfect video) at Concept2’s website, however, I’d like to repeat my advice – for your first rowing machine workout, ask a gym coach for assistance. And even then, until you are rookie rower, it’s very easy to drift from a proper rowing form (hunching, keeping tight hands, hinging too much or too little), so ask the coach for periodic rowing technique check.

Interval workouts

Be it inclement weather outside or your usual running route is slippery as an ice rink – your training program will not replace these VO2max intervals to some magical workouts having the same benefits. Here’s where the rowing machine can help you out. It may not have exactly the same effect, but at least you will get the same minutes of your aerobic time. You may try the following exercise:

Rowing Intervals, 6×3 minutes

  1. Warm-up. 7:00 easy intensity.
  2. Interval, repeat six times:
    1. All-out. 3:00 of maximal effort. Maximal means you can keep this steady effort for 3 minutes and you will be able to do so 6 times. You are doing your best and after a workout, you’re sure you could not do it any better.
    2. Rest. 3:00 at a very easy effort, but do not stop rowing.
  3. Cool-down. 6:00 easy intensity.

Also, if you need to perform some lactate threshold workout – here’s one for you:

Tempo Step Ladder, 2-4-6-8-6-4-2 minutes

  1. Warm-up. 5:00 easy intensity.
  2. Ladder, seven steps:
    1. Step. The first step is 2:00 minutes in duration, easy-to-medium effort; 5 in the scale of 10 (or RPE5). It is followed by a 3:00 rest (Rest period below). Next step is 4:00 minutes are performed with slightly harder effort (RPE6, or 6 out of 10 effort), followed by rest. Steps continue (separated by rests) and their duration goes to 6:00 (effort rises to 7 of 10, which is comfortably hard), 8:00 (longest interval with hard effort – 8 in scale of 10) and then back to 6:00 (7 fo 10, or RPE7, effort), 4:00 (RPE6) and 2:00 (RPE5).
    2. Rest. 3:00 at a very easy effort, but do not stop rowing.
  3. Cool-down. 5:00 easy intensity.

You can almost directly convert your running interval workouts to rowing and enjoy benefits they provide to your cardiovascular fitness.


As most of us are of competitive nature (even if you don’t race in any kind of running events, you are constantly challenging yourself), we love to push ourselves and see how we stand among your club mates, friends or colleagues. In other words – we love racing. And since in winter time there are not many running events to compete, it would be great to find some way to satisfy that kind of hunger.

Some rowing machine manufacturers have various competitions in their websites, where you can upload your workouts (automatically or even manually entering your result) and see how you match in your age group, gender, country, etc. There are a lot of “events”, ranging from One Minute to 42,195 meters (or even more). So it’s really fun to see your standing among your comrade rowing enthusiasts and even seeing your position improved.

If you’re using Concept2 (I’m not so familiar with other brands), you don’t even have to wield special cables, cradles, etc. to be able to upload your result to a competition table. You can use on-site instructions on how to get a workout verification code from your rowing machine and key it next to your workout on their website to make it verified and ranked.

And even if you are not uploading your workouts anywhere, having your 1000 m or 5000 m best time will help you to compare your abilities with your hardened friends from cross-fit.

Saving rowing workouts to online platforms

Problem with most of the gym equipment (rowers included) is that in a lot of cases they do not support any links to modern sports watches, fitness trackers or phones. Or, if they do, they support the technology that your watch does not have, like old Polar if you Garmin or Suunto, or Bluetooth if you sport older Garmin with only ANT+ link. If you’re lucky to have a rowing machine, which is out-of-the-box compatible with a device on your wrist, you won’t have any problems uploading your workouts and you may stop reading here.

If you’re not so lucky, an you’re not a techie who sees connecting everything as a personal challenge (I even upgraded gym’s rower firmware [process seen in title picture] and hooked it to scrapheap Samsung Galaxy S4 mobile to make everything work), you still may find some way to have everything logged to your favorite online platform, be it Garmin Connect, Strava or Endomondo.

First, most modern fitness watches made by Garmin, Suunto or Polar have dedicated rowing activities. They might not be listed on a first page, but check your manual or wander around, and you’ll find it.

This activity will at least log your stroke rate, which, in a combination with a heart rate will be a good start for your workout log. Add distance and average power from your rower (they should have it in some workout history menu on their console – try to find it yourself or ask a gym coach) and you’re ready to start logging your miles on the virtual water while still having fun and gaining fitness.

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