T Nation


Tell me about this sport known as rowing or ‘the crew team’ what does it consist of? Is it primarily anaerobic or aerobic…is there anything that genetically predispositions you to it? (height, weight, being white/black, etc)

There is a team at school, I was thinking of trying to walk on that team. I’m confident I can, just want to know what I need to do prior. I wouldn’t be doing this till sometime next september. (After I finish bulking)



A serious crew team practices 4-6 days a week to prepare for a six minute 2000 meter sprint in an extremely light carbon fiber shell. Offseason trials can be 6000 meters and north of twenty minutes.

Preparations are biased heavily toward rowing machines called ergometers, or ergs for short.

Crew is predominately aerobic, until you begin the drive to the line around the last 500 meters. Then it quickly become anaerobic. A common practice technique to prepare for this is 1 minute on, 1 minute off sprints on the ergs.

Tall and lean is the optimal crew build. Rowers are split into two weight classes; lightweight (<160 lbs), and heavyweight (everyone else). Ideally, those in the first category are 5’10" to 6’ at 160 even, and well north of 6’ at a lean 220 lbs in the second. Race has no bearing.

Crew is heavily, heavily cardiovascular. The ability to sustain a full-bore effort with proper technique for six minutes trumps every other consideration. If you don’t fit the mold above exactly, don’t worry about it. The most recent US Olympic rowing team had a 5’9" guy.


Rowing requires extremely high lactic acid tolerance and aerobic capacity (Vo2Max). Depending on the type of boat and the caliber of the crew, a 2000m race lasts anywhere from around 5:30 and up (usually over 6 mins unless you are olympic caliber)

Generally, those who are taller have an advantage in terms of leverage, and those that are bigger have an advantage because absolute Vo2Max is positively correlated with body weight.
(of course you have to translate all of that into boat speed, which requires hours and hours of water time…)

If you want to learn more about what kind of aerobic/anerobic training is required to improve your anerobic threshold, I suggest checking out this site:

KnightRT: what makes you say that rowing is mainly aerobic? You generally hit the anaerobic threshold after about 30-45 seconds in a 2km race.

Actually, rowing is both aerobic and anerobic.
“We don’t use up all of our anaerobic fuel and then “kick-in” the next stage. Although the muscle is forced to use the anaerobic systems both early and late in high intensity exercise, all energy systems are functioning simultaneously during most exercise intensities to provide ATP for contracting muscle. Their relative use depends on a number of factors, the first and foremost being the intensity and duration of the exercise and fitness level of the athlete.”


So, while having a strong aerobic capacity is fundamental to a good performance, it is not the only factor.

The anerobic system is used solely as the source of energy above 90% of your maximum heart rate. Rowers try to get their heart rate as close to this barrier as possible without crossing over.

…Anyone who has spent time in the “pain locker” will no this. A 2000m race is a gruelling and intense excercise. The amount of lactic acid in your muscles and the subequent pain you will expirience are indicators of anerobic usage. Meanwhile, your heart rate and your lungs are working like crazy in an attempt to provide enough oxygen to produce ATP for your muscles while simultaneously keeping the amount of lactic acid accumulation (and pain!) to a minimum.

I had some trouble phrasing that.

During lesser efforts and in most training, it’s aerobic. During a race, you’re skirting the line.

No one can keep up a completely anaerobic pace for the full duration; at portions in the middle, the boat generally maintains a stroke rate (27-33) that allows enough downtime to clear lactic acid. As this ramps up (most often in the last few hundred meters), whatever capacity exists for strictly aerobic work disappears.


What is crazy is how the olympic level 8’s have a stroke rate in the high 30’s to low 40’s for the whole race…ouch!

oh, and obviously you have to train both systems. Anerobic training is key to increasing lactic acid resistance in the muscle, as well as developing maximal heart function. Usually done with interval training.

KnightRT: okay. I guess it may just be that I’m used to a different style of racing! In bumps racing, you start off a length and a half behind the crew in front, with another crew similarly placed behind you. This extends for about 20 boats down the river. If you can hit the boat above you, then you swap places the next day. This means that racing entails hitting a rating of about 45 off the start, and then dying as the course goes on!

I’m interested in getting started in rowing. Would doing cardio be considered a good way to get in shape for it? or are there better ways?


If I recall… we’d start at 42 for twenty strokes, and then settle into a base of 31. The start alone would easily take us beyond 250 meters. At 1000, we did three ‘power sevens’, which were seven power strokes at a boosted pace, with three downstrokes in between.

With 500 meters left, the pace bumped to 34 for a balls-out sprint to the line.


We had two staples for land conditioning.

A) The 52 card exercise deck. Pushups, up-downs, leg swings, and whatever else correspond to each suit. Lift a card, and do that number until the deck runs out. Multiply by 2 if you’re feeling particularly masochistic.

B) 4-way circuits for exactly one hour. 15 minutes each of running, running up and down stairs, circuit lifting, and 1 minute on/1 off erg sprints.

Do this stuff five days a week for two months, and you’ll be in better cardiovascular shape than anyone at your school.


If you want to row, you better get used to long cardio sessions.

I’m currently training for a 2000m indoor rowing race. During the off-season I was doing upwards of 75km per week spread over 6 sessions. Total training time was about 9 hours per week (7 hours on the ergo and 2 hours weights). Top international rowers will routinely do 200+km per week in the off-season.

Studies of rowers show little correlation between 500m ergo times and 2000m times, but larger correlations between 2000m and 5000m tests. Also, Danish national coach Kurt Jensen has found that there is no relationship between a rower’s 2k time and their maximal pull strength measured on a fixed handle connected to a strain gauge. The message here is clear: if you are training for a 2k race (the international standard), endurance is fundamental to performance.

If you are just starting out and do not have a strong endurance base from another sport (e.g. swimming, cycling, running), I would recommend that you begin your training by getting on an ergo and building up your distances. Don’t worry about speed yet, you can develop it later. Build up to the point where you are comfortable pulling continuously for an hour. Then you will have a base upon which you can build a good 2k performance.

As a point of reference, yesterday I comfortably pulled an hour on the ergo at 1:57 pace and a stroke rate of 24. I’m looking for a 2k time around 6:38 in a couple of weeks.

Good luck with your training - it’s hard work but good fun too.

Don: how tall are you? 24 is a pretty high rating to do your UT2 pieces at. Obviously, I’m not presuming to know about your specific situation, but doing lower rating pieces generally helps immensely. In my case, I found that I had a lot more power over all distances when I started doing 60min+ rows at 18spm, including some UT1 work (eg. 21km at 18spm/1.56 splits). This was great for mental discipline, as well!

I’m 6’1" and 80kg. I’m 2 weeks away from a 2k race so I’m not doing a lot of low rating work at the moment. In the off-season I did lots of long, low rating pieces (up to 90 minutes at 18-20) but now I’ve cut out the UT2 stuff and am doing my longer rows at a higher rating. I wouldn’t say the hour at 1:57 was UT2 - it was on the border between UT2 and UT1. I’ve been in contact with an exercise physiologist who does research for FISA (world rowing governing body) and he feels that, unless technique is a major problem or the purpose of the session is recovery, rowing at rates less than 23-24 is a waste of time. I’m planning to incorporate his advice in my training for the upcoming year.

Xen Nova,

Everyone has made very good points about crew, but I’d like to add one more.

It is clear from the stats you posted on the Building a Better Body forum that you have considerable natural talent for fast-twitch strength and have put a lot of effort towards developing that talent. You should know that although crew is more anaerobic and strength-oriented than other endurance sports, it is still an endurance sport, and you should expect your lifts to go down if you start doing crew.

That isn’t to say that you simply shouldn’t row; crew is, in my opinion, the best endurance sport out there. I just want to make sure that you know that rowing will almost certainly have negative effects on your strength and speed.

Don: ah, okay. The anecdotal evidence of my own experience suggests that low rate work is very beneficial, but this may just be me. I know Cambridge Uni (who just won Head of the Charles :D) do a lot of steady state, low rating stuff, but this may be due to the huge volume of training they do.

Grey Area,

Depending on your fitness level, and what boat you are in, a 24 stoke could be considered low (as in something you could easily do for over 30 mins).

Doing long pieces is essential for building up aerobic capacity and increasing Vo2Max. Taking a periodization approach, you would be doing a lot of long pieces at the begining of the season to build a base (and to work on technique), then slowly start incorporating more speed work and interval training to build up your anerobic threshold and lactic acid tolerance. (although in a general sense building up your aerobic capacity will help with this as well).

Of course if you rowed in college than you already know this.

…Incidently, the Head of the Charles, being a head race, is long distance, (usually 3 miles but this year it was 2.5), so of course doing long pieces would be beneficial!!!

Grey Area - I know that low rating work is popular with a lot of very successful teams, and I feel it helped develop my technique and my stroking power. From a technical point of view, particularly on the water, it can be very useful. However the physiologist I’ve spoken to feels that it doesn’t do very much to develop fitness and that time would be better spent doing higher rating work at a faster pace. Rob Waddell, Olympic Gold Medallist in the single sculls in 2000, does all his general endurance work at 24.

Grey Area - One other minor point. The biggest race of the year for Cambridge, as far as I know, is the Boat Race on the Thames in London. From memory I think the race usually takes around 20 minutes, and this would necessitate higher training volumes, much of which would have to be at lower intensities.

[quote]DonM wrote:
In the off-season I did lots of long, low rating pieces (up to 90 minutes at 18-20) but now I’ve cut out the UT2 stuff [/quote]

The question is how much POWER were you cranking out in your “old” UT2 sessions? What were your old splits as compared to what you are stroking now at the higher rate?

and am doing my longer rows at a higher rating. I wouldn’t say the hour at 1:57 was UT2 - it was on the border between UT2 and UT1. [/quote]

what was your spm for the 1:57 row?

I’ve been in contact with an exercise physiologist who does research for FISA (world rowing governing body) and he feels that, unless technique is a major problem or the purpose of the session is recovery, rowing at rates less than 23-24 is a waste of time.[/quote]

Absolute bullshit. Try erg rowing with low drag (DF less than 115), unstrapped, at low rating (16-20), with high power and tell me that is a waste of time. Better yet tell me that after doing an off-season of that kind of training, and then strapping in and putting the drag back to “normal”… it’s the equivalent of upgrading from an automatic 4 cylinder to a turbo V8 stick. ZOOOOOOOM !!

I’m planning to incorporate his advice in my training for the upcoming year.[/quote]

That’s fine if you want to trade rate for pace. Your erg times will not improve as much as if you try the high power approach.