Rowing: A Triathlete's Secret Weapon


When it comes to training, most runners and triathletes view strength as a supplemental tool that may or may not help. The cross over benefits from being able to squat heavy weights or do a bunch of pushups might be there, but the exercises aren’t directly correlated to sport performance. However, there is one machine in the gym that has a much higher correlation: the rower.

Rowing is a triathletes secret weapon for several reasons.

Teaches Swim Cadence 

This is an important one for runners turned triathletes because it is so similar to swimming. Most runners start out wanting to flail their arms through the water as many times as possible, similar to running. However, swimming is unique because a slow but complete stroke is a lot faster. The same is true in rowing: setting your cadence at 45 spm (strokes per minute) without allowing yourself to fully drive or recover on the rower is much slower than a complete stroke at a cadence of 25-30. At first it feels harder because your muscles are under tension for longer each stroke, but ultimately the time you save by being more efficient makes up for it.

Reinforces High Elbows

Another great swim specific benefit is high elbows. As you drive through your rowing stroke, keeping your elbows high becomes second nature. For runners turned triathletes this is great because the upper body strength to hold that posture wasn’t entirely necessary in our sport. It’s not an easy skill to develop in the pool, so all the extra work you can do helps.

Builds Hamstring Strength

Hamstrings are the unsung heroes of biking and running. While our quads are the primary movers in biking and the primary shock absorbers in running, our hamstrings play a vital role. The pull phase of both biking and running is almost entirely dependent on our hamstring strength, however, because those sports are quad-dominant our hamstrings are most often underdeveloped. Rowing helps with this because each recovery phase in the stroke is just like a hamstring curl. Learning how to activate your hamstrings might save you valuable time in the bike and run as you decrease your dependency on your quads.

Builds Back Strength

Most core workouts target the core we can “see” from the front: our abs. This isn’t necessarily bad, just incomplete. Our core wraps around our entire mid section and therefore includes our back. Increasing our strength here is essential for several purposes in triathlon: swim form and stability, holding aero, and run form and stability. If we can hold our form throughout the race we waste less energy with inefficient motions. If you couple this with some mobility afterwards to maintain your rotational ability, your form will almost undoubtedly improve in all three disciplines.

Builds Sustainable Power

The explosiveness required to catch and drive during rowing is similar to that of biking. Learning how to sustain high watts over time is key to a successful bike. For triathletes that don’t use power, this is a great introduction to it. It is also another great tool to increase your “matches”. Matches are periods of high intensity over threshold, and it’s really easy to push hard on a rower for short bursts of time, whereas that can be challenging without a smart trainer on the bike. 

Develops Aerobic System Without Impact

It can be really easy to overtrain in the run for both runners and triathletes. Using the rower as another non-impact way to get a workout can be incredibly useful. If you’re prone to overuse injury, replacing a high intensity run workout with a high intensity row workout might save you in the long run. 

For proper swim form and lots of workout ideas check out:

Overall, the rower is a fantastic tool and one that I would recommend athlete use as a cross training method when they are tired of swim/bike/run (especially those of us who don’t love swimming) or as an add on, warm up, or cool down to their current strength sessions or indoor sessions. 

Happy training, 

Coach Griffin

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