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Find the Perfect Rowing Machine Pace

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Last Updated on:

November 15, 2022
a rowing machine monitor to track times

At first glance, rowing on a rowing machine seems easy. Pull the handle and move your seat up and down. Simple right? But ask an athlete to row 500 meters with full force, and they might cry at the thought. The beauty of rowing is in its simplicity, yet it demands the athlete to be highly efficient. Efficiency in rowing is the ultimate marker of success. It will help athletes find the perfect rowing pace and improve their times. 

Before diving into what it takes to find a perfect rowing pace, there are four key numbers and terms to identify: 

  1. Stroke rate in strokes per minute (SPM or s/m): This refers to how fast your strokes are. 
  2. Distance in meters: This shows how far you covered or “traveled” throughout your workout session if you were rowing on water.
  3. Split time in minutes and seconds: How fast you rowed 500 meters.
  4. Time: How long your workout lasted

Body position to improve your rowing machine times

You can only talk about improving your rowing pace if you talk about the mechanics of rowing and improving your body position. The mechanics of the rowing stroke is the resistance that your body creates against you when performing the rowing stroke. To row faster and maintain a good pace, it is essential to nail down the mechanics. And to nail down the mechanics, you must improve your body position

When rowing, it is important to focus on these key points of performance:

  • Keep arms straight, head neutral and level shoulders.
  • Keep shoulders in front of the hips.
  • Shins are vertical.
  • Heels may lift as needed.

Adjust your posture

To improve body mechanics, focus on adjusting your head position and look at the monitor. This will improve hip position and raise your chest, so you don’t round your back. Instead of pushing your hips down the monorail early, you’ll get a much smoother stroke and it will help you stay on pace. 

Adjust your stroke timing

In addition to improving your body and head position, you can find the most noticeable improvements by adjusting the timing of the stroke. The mistiming of the opening of the hips or pulling early with the handle can ruin your connection with the machine and decrease the fluidity of the stroke. This fluid motion will allow you to be efficient, increase your distance per stroke, and reduce the energy you take per stroke. 

What is the key to improve your rowing machine time?

Now that the basic mechanics are laid out, finding a great pace in rowing involves a few key factors. 

1.Split

Your split is very important to understand. In rowing, the split is measured based on a 500-meter distance. For example, your monitor might read 2:00/500m. This means that it takes you 2 minutes to row 500 meters

A novice rower should try to “negative split” the piece, meaning they should aim to make the second kilometer faster than the first. If you’re a bit more experienced and can control your pace and hold a consistent speed for the entire piece. 

2. Consistency 

Learning how to row at a consistent pace will take some time as you know more about yourself as a rower. You want to eliminate speed fluctuations from stroke to stroke. Generally, you want to stay at most 2 splits + or – of your target split. Consistency is the name of the game when it comes to rowing.

3. Practice a pace for different distances. 

Like in track, there are different “races” in rowing. Rowing 500m is a very different pace than rowing 2000 m or a marathon. Keep note of your consistent strokes and learn how to pace over various distances. 

This is where interval training comes to play and is beneficial in building pace awareness. Pick a pace that is easy to maintain and STICK to it. When you find your comfortable spot, then you can start playing with pushing faster times. 

How to determine your pace?

One benchmark rowing trail is a 2k rowing test. To find a 2k pace first, test your max-effort 500-m row. From there, you can expect your 2k split pace to be seven to nine seconds above that 500-m time. 

For example, suppose your best 500-m row is 1:50. In that case, you can expect your 2km average split to fall between 1:57 to 1:59. This means your total time for 2 km would be between 7:48 and 7:56. 

Often, CrossFit athletes average 2km pace is much slower than just seven to nine seconds above their max 500m sprint. This is probably caused by going out hot in the first 500 m of a 2km row, redlining, and slowing down significantly during the rest of the workout. Focusing on keeping a consistent pace (even if it feels too easy at first) for the first 500 will allow you to maximize your performance over the 2,000 m. Don’t fall for the “this is too easy” trick! 

How to determine your target speed?

Now to determine your target speed. Let’s say your target speed is 2:00 for a 2 km workout. You then plan to do your first and last 500 m one second below your target at a 1:59 pace. Meanwhile, the two middle 500 m chunks would be rowed one second above your target pace of 1:59 at a 2:01 pace. 

Considering that you sprint your first and last 200 m are usually slightly faster (usually you sprint the first 200 meters to get settled and set your pace. And you sprint the last 200 because you are almost done and why not put on a show!), this allows you to save a little energy in the middle of the workout, so you can sprint for the final strokes.  

Stroke per minute depend on your level

For a 2k, experienced rowers hold between 32 and 35 strokes per minute on the monitor. In contrast, less experienced rowers are usually less efficient and better off maintaining a much lower stroke rate.

Again, this is why efficiency and body mechanics are so important. You can shave off so much time, and it is so much easier on your body. It is very similar to swimming. The more efficient a swimmer is in the water with how they postion and use their body, the faster they can cut through the water without outputting so much taxing effort. It truly pays to be an efficient athlete! 

How to progress?

Now let’s say you are rowing 500-meter intervals and pick a pace of 2:05 with a 3 min rest in between. The next time you pick a 1:55 pace, and the time after that a 1:45. Were you able to keep consistent times for those intervals? How much harder did each pace feel? What was your recovery after each interval at each pace? 

These are all important factors to consider, especially if you row and pair it with another fitness movement in a workout. What pace will allow you to push hard in a workout without redlining? 

A 500-meter row is a good test for pacing, but it is pretty different than rowing 2000 meters. 

4. Pacing in a workout 

People improving their 500m row time on ergometers

A classic example is the workout Jackie. For an experienced CrossFitter Jackie probably falls in the 8 to 10- minute range. 

If your 2 km time is 8:00, you can probably expect the row in Jackie to be done at about your 2 km speed. The row in Jackie is only 1,000 meters, so you when you come off the rowing machine, you won’t be as tired as you would after testing a 2 km row, and you will have conserved enough energy to get through the thrusters. 

If a workout like Jackie gives you more trouble, then you might pace the row even slower than your 2 km pace. This could look like 3-5 splits slower. 

Adjust your rowing pace if needed

In benchmark workout like Jackie, it is okay to test out different rowing paces. Let’s say you push the splits of the row one time, and you go slower when you test the workout again. Keep note of how your body feels and what your recovery is like after playing around with the pacing. 

Also, it might be an unpopular opinion, but don’t be afraid of redlining in training. If you push the row to your absolute limit, you are learning how far you can push your body and how it will react to other movements. 

Run a test workout to find your pace

Training is a testing ground and it is okay to “bomb” a workout in the name of figuring out your pace. You need to push yourself to that dark place and past your perceived limits to truly know what you can endure and what you are capable of. Of course, don’t do this all the time, but once you have developed good rowing mechanics and have good body positioning, it is okay to toe the line every once in a while. 

5. Fluidity

Overall, if you truly want to improve your rowing and your rowing pace, do not understimate or neglect good virtuosity and good movement. Rowing is all about rhythm and fluidity and to maintain a good pace, you need to always be in rhythm. Always check on your form and your body positioning.

Compare your posture with video tutorials

Ask a coach or video yourself and study how you can improve your movement. I promise that the more effort you put into developing better body awareness and positioning on and off the rowers, the speed will come. 

And finally, as cliche as it might sound, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and stay patient. No one is born a master rower, and yes maybe some body types are more rower friendly, but at the end of the day, the athletes who are consistent with their growth are the ones who are going to see more success and results. 

About Julien Raby