The rowing machine is as versatile as the triathlete. In one rowing workout, major muscle groups for swimming, biking and running are put to work—no transition required. Rowing develops strength, power and aerobic endurance simultaneously. “Rowing is the endurance athlete’s secret weapon that no one wants to talk about,” says longtime triathlon coach and triathlete Robert Beams.
At first glance, rowing appears to be a swimspecific workout. While this is true to an extent, it’s the bike that gets the biggest boost from rowing. “From a triathlete’s perspective, rowing develops power for cycling better than it does for swimming,” says Will Kirousis, a triathlon and cycling coach. “It’s majority legs; the arms just finish the movement.” Explosive leg power comes into play during the drive phase of rowing. Just look at the triple-digit wattage—arms alone can’t do that.
Still, don’t discount the benefits of rowing for swimming. Rowing builds upper-body and core strength, and the arm pull-through phase mimics the catch phase of a swim stroke. Beams says he’s seen athletes shave seconds off their average 100-metre pace after taking up rowing. “It can’t improve technique but it does build strength,” he says. “It’s also a great tool for increasing range of motion in the shoulders and back.”
Then there’s the cardiovascular fitness component. The full-body constant motion nature of rowing is effective for building aerobic and/or anaerobic endurance. Rowing packs a double punch: It enhances cardio fitness while you strength train.
When to Row
Rowing can break up the monotony of swim-bike-run without taking you too far from the specificity of triathlon. Incorporate it into gym days—row 500 to 1000 meters before or after lifting weights—or do a brick workout that combines rowing with a spin class, running or even a swim.
Rowing is a reasonable substitute when swimming in a pool or open water isn’t possible. Also, rowing is non-weight-bearing, making it useful in rehab situations. “It can keep you healthy and in the game if you’re dealing with an injury,” Beams says.
Just don’t overdo it. “Don’t let rowing replace swim-bike-run, Kirousis says. “Remember, it’s just a cross-training tool. While in season, row after a major event or in a transition period to clear your head. In off-season, use it to build fitness.”
How to Row
Like swimming, rowing is highly technical. Doctor and rowing coach Thomas Mazzone identified the phases of rowing as catch, drive, finish and recovery. In the catch phase, the arms are extended and the legs fully bent. The legs are responsible for initiating force in the drive phase. When the legs reach the point of half extension, the arms follow with a strong pull, bringing the bar into the chest. The legs then extend as you reach the finish, followed by the arms releasing into the recovery. It’s important to maintain good posture throughout the entire movement; don’t slouch or hunch over, especially during the catch. However, it is okay for the back to have some forward-backward movement to enhance power.
A Few Key Considerations
- Don’t set the resistance too high—your power output will drop faster than you might think.
- Set the resistance in the middle and maintain a high velocity and consistent force.
- Don’t hyperextend the knees during the pushback part of the drive, and don’t allow the knees to bow outward.
- There should be no interference between arms and knees. If the bar hits your knees, fiddle with your technique.