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Rowing - the physical demands

There used to be a strong belief in rowing that you had to be a big, powerful, anaerobic beast to do well. This was fuelled by the fact that most successful rowers were, indeed, of a bigger build with hulk-like musculature. Such athletes trained extremely hard but not necessarily according to the demands of their sport. Given that the race distance is 2000 metres, which typically takes about 6 to 7 minutes to complete, depending on crew size, gender and, of course, it is more accurate to think of rowing as a power endurance sport rather than a strength sport.

Demands of the sport

High strength is needed to generate large force and propel the boat at high speed. Yet the more pertinent factor for you to consider, as a coach or athlete, is the length of time taken to complete. It has been shown physiologically that at least 70% of the energy requirement comes from aerobic metabolism. The remainder comes from anaerobic sources, a small portion of which is alactic in nature. By looking at this physiological breakdown, it is easy to see that there must be plenty of work done to condition the aerobic, or cardiorespiratory system. However, large and powerful a rower or crew, if they lack sufficient endurance, they will remain in full view of the opposition in the closing stages of a race.

Phases of training

Much of your "conditioning" work will be done in the winter months when you will be rowing heavy mileage. It is usual for a large part of this work to be done on a rowing ergometer rather than the water, because of light and water conditions. The intensity of this work has to be low because if your volume of training is high it is impossible to do it at a hard level. The trend in British rowing has followed German examples, where extremely high volumes of training are used at low intensities. It is this type of work that is said to increase the oxidative capacity of the muscle cells. This long duration, low-intensity work will also enhance your ability to burn fat, so if you row in the lightweight category, it will give an added advantage. German physiologists quote percentages above 90% for this type of training in the early winter months. Since the German success rate is good, British coaches have followed suit and changed the emphasis to long, slow training. Percentages, however, can be a little deceptive, because although it may look as if very little quality work is performed in the winter months, the actual amount of time of faster work in terms of minutes may not be much different from the summer. The reason is that the overall volume of training is far higher in winter than towards the competition period.

Any successful training regimen will have work of a variety of intensities throughout the whole year. It is just the change in emphasis of these levels that alter. Threshold work should be performed throughout the year until a couple of weeks before competition time. This gives the cardiovascular system an excellent workout. Similarly, you should be performing high-intensity repetitions throughout the year to boost your V02max. As with all sports, the volume of work must taper down towards the competition period. Maintenance work is still essential during the competition period, so the odd long paddle is needed to work on the aerobic capacity of your muscles, while quality work, used sparingly, can help maintain peak condition.

The training week

There has to be a good mixture of training sessions throughout the week, and the exact structure will depend on the time of year. The long paddles will form the bulk of your mileage, but quality work can be structured in a variety of ways. Longer pieces at a higher level (ideally controlled by heart rates) can form threshold work. The pace will be slightly slower than race pace but the duration longer, 20 to 25 minutes. This can also be split into repetitions such as 4 x 5 to 6 minutes, 3 x 8 minutes or 2 x 10 minutes. Progression can be achieved by increasing the pace at which you travel, as long as you stay in your set heart rate range.

Shorter, more intense training can be used to work on the anaerobic aspect of performance, as well as technique. Such sessions are more frequent in summer but should not be neglected during the winter months.

Strength training is another important area that needs year-round attention. Naturally, the muscles used in rowing need to be strong, but the muscles of posture, which may not get well trained in the rowing action, also need toning to avoid imbalances. Many rowers perform strength training in circuit fashion, but the value of such work has to be questioned. First, if an increase in strength is the goal, the load should be high, the reps low and the recovery sufficiently long. This is rarely the case in rowing training, where lots of reps from one exercise to the next, with little or no recovery, is far more usual. Some might argue that this works on strength endurance, but a more pertinent counter-argument is that the most specific way to work on strength endurance is on the water.

It has to be remembered why these traditional circuit training sessions were first introduced a couple of decades ago. When rowing was lost due to bad light or weather, circuit training was the next best alternative because it gave a good aerobic workout by keeping the pulse raised for a sustained period.

However, nowadays, ergometers are available for rowing, so the customary circuit session has less value. It is also fair to say that the ergometer may well replace running and cycling, two forms of cross-training that have remained popular from pre-ergometer days.

After all, the training that is most likely to improve your rowing performance is more rowing!

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Dunbar (1994)[1] with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.


  1. DUNBAR, J. (1994) Get out of the gym and onto the water. Peak Performance, 43, p. 2-4

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2006) Rowing - the physical demands [WWW] Available from: [Accessed