Rowing for Runners. Yep. Rowing.

rowing for runnersIf we free associated and I said “rowing machines,” you might say “dated!” “boring!” or “old-fashioned!” but since we’ve been talking #extrasalt challenge, I thought I’d take this opportunity to suggest some #extrasalt you probably haven’t considered.

I’ve been rowing since a pelvic stress fracture three and a half years ago. I tried it on a whim, having no idea this torture-device-looking contraption would rocket my running to a whole new level. So put on your crew socks and strap in, runners. I’m going to show you why rowing is the best #extrasalt you can put on your training.

How Does a Rowing Workout Compare to Running?

Rowing, whether it be on a water rower or the rowing machine at the gym, is not only lower impact than running, it’s also more efficient at building strength and fitness. According to a sports medicine study of cardio exercise options, the amount of slow-twitch muscle fibers in marathoners and rowers was “almost the same, but those fibers in rowers had tremendous diameter.”

In spinning or cycling you can change gears to adjust resistance on the bike; with rowing, your legs ARE the gears. Just like running, the more work and power you put in to it, the more benefits you reap. With proper form, rowing works your arm, leg, back and core muscles all in one stroke.

In just a single 20-30 minute rowing session, with proper form and solid leg pressure, you can burn between 400-500 calories, comparable to the burn you get from a several-mile run.

The Importance of Form

Check your posture – are you slouching? If so, you’re not alone. Runners are known for struggling with good posture since we tend to slouch over when tired, and we often let our neck and shoulder muscles get tense from stress and fatigue. The better our running form and the more our core is engaged, the more successful we are at stabilizing our midline and relying on our powerful glute muscles instead of stressing our hip flexors.

When I first started rowing I would come home with a sore lower back and sore forearms. It took me a while to realize I needed to engage my core, push with my legs and pull with my back. Once I did that, I started seeing improvement in my running posture and overall posture, which does wonders for my back and flexibility. Good form will make or break a workout.

Rowing Jargon

There are three phases to a rowing stroke. The catch is where you begin, legs bent and ready to push off. The drive is when you push off with your powerful legs and pull the handle with your back muscles. During the finish your core is fully engaged as your torso is tilted back (or hinged, as they say in class), your legs are straightened out in front of you, and you have pulled the handle through to your chest.

Over time, I have learned the speed at which I return to the catch phase allows me to have a stronger drive.

WTF Are All The Numbers On The Screen?

Most rowers come equipped with some sort of ergometer, which measures the amount of work you put in to the machine. The two numbers I focus on are mph/kph and my time per 500 meter split. My base time for a 500 meter split is about two minutes and 10 seconds. I try to stay below that, but the lower that number is, the harder I am working.

The greater your leg power is with your drive, the lower your 500 meter split will be and the faster you will go. Just like running, it’s fun to challenge yourself to a PR or get competitive. It always feels good to ‘casually’ notice you’re 500-1000 meters ahead of the beefcake rowing next to you.

In Which I Convince You to Try Rowing:

I get it. You’re rolling your eyes and saying, “This is great, but I just wanna run, dude.” Believe me, I get it. But this is what weekly rowing over the last few years has done for me:

80's rowing machine guyRowing will give you mind powers.

During races, I used to constantly think about where the pain was and wonder how long until it was over. But now I’m better able to concentrate on my form and stay mindful of firing my glutes instead of relying on my hamstrings and quads.

Why? Rowing takes a tremendous amount of focus. You have to be constantly aware of engaging your core, driving with your glute muscles and pulling with your back muscles. I have been injury free ever since I started rowing … coincidence? I think not.

Rowing will make you better at pacing so you can smoke everyone else.

You know that smug feeling when you see someone sprint out of the gates only to be dry heaving along the side of the road as you pass them into the finish? Rowing has taught me about conserving my energy, using it when needed, and saving some in the tank for the end. Since I started rowing I’m always the smug one.

If you got injured, rowing would keep you from losing fitness.

When injured, I was able to completely maintain my cardiovascular health. Rowing can be both aerobic and anaerobic, like a killer speed workout on the track. Most classes I attend are half endurance, with a steady state rate and the other half is sprints (ranging in meters from 100 – 500). The sprints are all out. And I promise you, it is HARD. Very hard. Like I might puke if I have to do another one hard.

Rowing will make you super sexay.

I have never been stronger. I strength train, but not as much as I used to with legs, because rowing gives me a lot of leg workout. My forward drive and push off when racing has greatly improved.

Rowing also builds a stronger core. I mean, I don’t have a six pack and probably won’t ever, but I have five kids, and they did a number on my pelvic floor muscles and added a side of diastasis recti. But since I started rowing my core is noticeably stronger and firmer, and a strong core really can help you stay injury free.


And that, friends, is why rowing is the #extrasalt awesome.

I know not everyone is lucky enough to have an indoor water rowing studio near them, but if you do, SRSLY WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?? RUN THERE NOW! And if you just have a lonely rowing machine at your gym or in a friend’s garage, dust it off and get on. I promise if you try it for even twenty minutes you’ll walk away feeling like you got a great workout.

Have you walked past that lonely rower at the gym without a second glance? Have you tried a rowing class? If you are a regular rower, how has it helped your running?

I am a mom of five kids ages 10 and under in her early 40's who is passionate about running and my job as a teacher. I am a dedicated morning person who balances my days with a lot of coffee, love, and wine. I am currently training for my second Boston Marathon.

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  1. Hey Fennel. I *am* currently injured with a nasty bout of plantar fasciitis. Rowing is saving my fitness and my sanity. I rowed with an intramural team in college and I have always loved it, but I had never integrated it with training to run before. Since discovering how well this works, my coach has moved nearly all my speed workouts to the erg. I haven’t had a chance to test the results yet because I am still dealing with this damn foot issue, but yes, you can absolutely get fabulous payoff from a rowing workout!

  2. Hey! So I’ve been hopping ton the rowing machine at the fitness center. Just for 15 min at a time but thinking I’m going to up this. I like it better than the stationary bike, that’s for sure. I just hope I’m doing it right. My back has never been sore after, so I guess that’s good? And I do need to strengthen my glutes, so if this will help, I’m going to start doing it for longer instead of breaking time up between diff cardio machines. Thanks for this!

  3. After reading the post this morning, I went to the gym and gave the rower a try for the first time. I was sweating after 20min and I could totally feel my glutes doing some work. Thanks for the motivation to try something new.

  4. Wow! I must admit the rowing machine has never been on my radar as far as possible cross-training activities. I both really want to try this, and secretly hope that my gym doesn’t actually have rowing machines because it looks really hard. So confusing!

  5. Great stuff! I’ve tried rowing before, but struggled with good form — and all the numbers on the screen! Never knew if I was really getting a good workout. I’ll give it another try.

  6. Thank you for writing this article friend! I was wondering about it and went to work right after reading this article. Helped me relieve the stress on my hamstrings and utilize gluten instead.

    What are the best after work stretching for rowing and running? Tia