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Rowing Pacing 101 Part 1

Posted by: Emily Beers

As a former college rower, it’s sometimes painful to watch CrossFit athletes do what we call “fly and die” on the rowing machine. Meaning they go out too hard and crash somewhere in the middle of the workout.

To avoid flying and dying, you need to understand one simple thing: Pacing!

The great thing about the ergometer is there’s a monitor with a screen that tells you exactly how fast you’re going, so you don’t even need to guess!

Before I get into exactly how to pace the row during a workout like Christine or Jackie in Part 2 of this series, it's important you understand a few things: 

Step #1: Understand what the monitor is telling you

Two important numbers you need to understand: Your split time (if the machine is on the meter setting) and strokes per minute.

In rowing, we measure the split based on 500-meters. If your screen says 2:00/500 m, that means you’re rowing at a speed that will have you finishing 500-meters in exactly 2:00. If you’re rowing 1,000-meters at 2:00, that means 1,000-meters will take you 4:00. 2,000-meters will take you 8 minutes and so on and so forth.

Strokes per minute is exactly what it sounds like: 28 s/m means you’re doing 28 strokes every minute.

The important thing to understand is that just because you’re rowing at a higher stroke rate doesn’t mean you’re moving the boat (or in this case, the machine) any faster. In fact, being an efficient rower means you’re probably rowing at a lower stroke rate than the person next to you, and are still managing to put forth a ton of power—meaning you’re moving faster doing less strokes.

Step #2: Get to know what various speeds feel like

Now that you know what the numbers mean, it’s time to get to know what various speeds feel like over various distances.

Our gym did Jackie last week—1,000-meter row followed by 50 thrusters and 30 pull ups. I asked the group of 15 athletes in my class if they knew what an easy 1,000-meter row pace is for them. (I qualified this by explaining I meant a pace where they could dismount the rowing machine and pick up the barbell within 5 to 10 seconds). Only 2 people raised their hands.

The only way to do this is to practice it.

Practice rowing 500-meters three to five times. If 2:15 feels easy, take 5 minutes rest and then see what 2:05 feels like. Try again with 2:00 and 1:55.

What you will probably discover is that going even 5 seconds faster over the course of just 500-meters is insanely more difficult. This is because the rowing machine is designed in a way that mimics a boat going through the water. In other words, it takes water resistance into consideration. Check out this story I wrote recently for the CrossFit Journal. It goes into this very topic. Basically, what you need to know is you have to work really hard on the rowing machine just to go a tiny bit faster. In my CrossFit Journal story, the Concept 2 Founder proved this point by comparing what rowing effort (measured in watts) looks like compared to other movements, concluding that you can save way more time in a CrossFit workout during high-rep power cleans than rowing.

Does this mean you should dog the row?

Not necessarily. It just means it’s really important to get to know your pace, as going out a bit too hard can crush you! I know for myself, if I rowed 500-meters at 1:40, I would tumble off the rower unable to do much for the next 30 minutes. At a 1:50 pace, I would be tired but could recover quite quickly, and at 2:00 I would barely be phased by the effort. 20 seconds for me is the difference between my warm-up speed and a full-blown effort! Just 20 seconds!

In an ideal world, you will get to know what an easy, medium and race pace is for 500-meters, 1,000-meters, 2,000-meters and maybe even 5,000-meters.

Once you know that, you’ll know how fast to hit the row during a CrossFit workout.

Step 3: Practice becoming consistent

Knowing your pace is only good if you’re able to maintain a consistent pace throughout a piece. If your monitor says 1:52 one stroke, then 1:58 the next, 2:02 the following, and then back down to 1:56 the next, then you’re going to struggle way more than you need to.

Think about what it would feel like to run 2 km, where you change your pace every 2 to 4 strides. Not only would it feel awkward, but it would require so much more energy than running at a consistent pace. That’s exactly what’s going on every time you see your monitor make big fluctuations in your pace.

I consider a big fluctuation for a CrossFit athlete to be + or - 2 splits off your target split. This means if your target speed is 1:55, any time you drop below 1:53 or above 1:57, you’re getting off track.

When we used to erg five days a week during the frozen Ontario winters, we used to practice this. We were so in tune with our bodies and our speed that we could literally flip the monitor up and row for 30 minutes and know what speed we were rowing within 1 split. In fact, coaches would tell us to row 30 minutes at a 2:00 pace and I could close my eyes for 20 of those minutes and be confident I was hitting my target.

While that kind of consistency takes a ton of practice, your goal should be to become as consistent as possible with your speed.

Now that you know what your race pace feels like and your warm-up pace is, and you know how to hold a consistent speed throughout a piece, Part 2 will go into how fast you should row during a multi-modal CrossFit workout! Stay tuned.


Posted by Emily Beers on

Emily Beers, hailing from Vancouver, crosses bridges by being not only a CrossFit athlete, but also a journalist. She has been a regular contributor to the CrossFit Journal since 2011. She qualified and competed at her first CrossFit Games as an individual athlete in 2014.

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