Workout of the Day

Rowing + Data = Results?


You walk into class and see that the workout on the board is a 25 calorie row followed by 3 rounds of 20 burpees and 20 kettlebell swings. What approach should you take on the row? Alternate reality: you walk into class and see that the workout on the board is a 500m row followed by 3 rounds of 20 burpees and 20 kettlebell swings. Should your approach be the same?

The ergometer (usually referred to as the “rower”) is a piece of equipment that we use frequently in our GPP programming, and for good reason. One of those reasons is its versatility. Though the two workouts proposed above may be quite similar in nature, they’re two entirely different beasts. The measurements we use on the ergometer tend to be one of two things: either meters (distance) or calories (energy).

You may be asking, shouldn’t calories and meters be roughly equivalent, increasing as pace goes up and decreasing as pace slows? Well, yes and no. Distance is a simple measurement (on the rower, it is measured by how many times the flywheel spins around), and one that we’re comfortable with. We deal in MPH when we drive, measure pace of a run quite simply, measure how long it will take to get from point A to point B at a certain speed, etc. The relation between pace (speed) and distance covered per unit of time is linear. In other words, if one athlete rows 500m at a 2:20/500m pace and another rows 500m at a 1:40/500m pace, one person will finish 40 seconds before the other -- it is a one-to-one relationship. The increase in pace has a direct linear relation to the decrease in time to row 500m. Fairly simple.

Calories are a bit more complex. Calories measure energy, and in the case of the rower, this is determined by how quickly the flywheel slows down (caused by the drag from air resistance), which gives the rower the number of watts produced, which is then converted to calories. The faster you row, the more drag there is, and the more watts are produced. The details of how it’s measured aren’t necessarily important in this case, but what is important is that power does not have a linear relationship with pace. Rather, power and pace have an exponential relationship (looks like a curve on a graph). This means that while increasing my pace from 2:20/500m to 1:40/500m on the rower will yield a time that is 40 seconds faster (roughly a 29% difference in time), that same change in pace will translate to a time that is almost twice as fast (roughly a 114% difference in time) if we are rowing 25 calories. The change in pace is the exact same, but the resultant change in time it takes to accomplish the designated amount of work is very different. While distance traveled has a one-to-one relationship with pace, calories (energy) have an exponentially increasing payoff as pace hastens. This is why, when rowing the same number of calories, one person may easily end up rowing twice the distance as someone rowing at a faster pace.

Exact numbers differ depending on whose data you look at, but here are some number from my own trials to exemplify my point.

For 250m rowed at a 2:20/500m pace:

  • Total calories: 14

  • Avg. calories/hour: 762

For 250m rowed at a 2:00/500m pace:

  • Total calories: 16

  • Avg. calories/hour: 1016

For 250m rowed at a 1:40/500m pace:

  • Total calories: 20

  • Avg. calories/hour: 1631

With this data, we see that at my slower pace (2:20/500m), it would take roughly 118 seconds to row 25 calories, while at my faster pace (1:40/500m), it would only take 55 seconds. The pace increased by under one-third, but the rate of average calories/hour more than doubled.

If we take this information and return to our original question -- should a workout that starts with a distance row be approached the same as a workout that starts with a calorie row? -- the answer is pretty clear: no. Going faster will always yield a quicker time, but the payoff of a faster pace is much greater with calories. Calories are a measure that rewards power and effort, while distance is a measure that often (particularly with longer distances) benefits from pacing.

The ultimate point is that every time you walk into the gym, the workout is designed to draw out a particular stimulus. Of course this stimulus depends on the context (Are you just rowing? Or are you rowing and then doing other movements? Is it short or long distance? etc.), and therefore it definitely isn't as simple as "go harder on calorie rows and pace it on distance rows," but knowing a bit more about the tools you use and the desired stimulus gives you the opportunity to get better returns.

You get out what you put in, and knowing how to put in the best effort will yield the best results.

Happy rowing today, and go hard.

- Preston Sprimont


  • Row 60s for max calories

  • Every 7 minutes, for 3 rounds...

  • For time:

    • 50m sandbag front carry (AHAP)

    • 30 squats

    • 50m sandbag front carry

    • 20 push-ups

    • 50m sandbag front carry

    • 10 pull-ups