How to Pace Yourself During Distance Rowing

Each stroke on the rower should be at a deliberate and consistent speed regardless of the distance you’re rowing.

As a former college rower, it’s hard to stop myself from getting in there and coaching anyone I see at the gym rowing with uncharacteristic technique.

As a former college rower, it’s hard to stop myself from getting in there and coaching anyone I see at the gym rowing with uncharacteristic technique.

Technique aside for a moment, though, because an even bigger deficiency I witness on a daily basis is a lack of understanding of pace. If you took off on a 5km run, you probably wouldn’t sprint the first 400 meters at your top speed, gas yourself out, and end up walking the last 4.5km. You would most likely aim to run at a consistent pace for 18-30 minutes, or however long a 5km run takes you.

However, when it comes to rowing, I often witness people doing exactly this, as they just aren’t sure what the numbers even mean, let alone how fast they should be going at various distances. Thus, step one of learning how to pace yourself on the ergometer (aka: rowing machine) is to familiarize yourself with the number in the middle of the screen: Your split time.

In this picture, it says 2:00/500m, meaning if you held that same speed for 500 meters, it would take you exactly 2 minutes to row 500 meters.

Understanding and becoming familiar with that various split times is going to be the biggest difference-maker in terms of helping you maximize your efforts during any workout that has rowing. It will also help you avoid that painful feeling of flying and dying—the one that causes you to want to give up and stop.

Understanding the Split: Grade 7 Math In Action

If you’re going for a 2km row and hold an average of 2:00/500m for 2km, it will take you 8:00 minutes to complete 2km.

  • 500 x 4 = 2,000m and 2:00 x 4 = 8:00.

If you hold 2:00/500m for 5km, it will take you 20:00 to reach 5km.

  • 500 x 10 = 5,000m and 2:00 x 10 = 20:00

Whether you’re rowing 2km, 500 meters or 5km, the most efficient pace is a consistent one. The same way you wouldn’t speed up and slow down at different times during a 5km run, each stroke on the machine should be at a deliberate and consistent speed regardless of the distance you’re rowing.

In fact, experienced rowers performing a 2km test piece would basically hold the exact same split the entire race (minus a sprint start and sprint finish, which would likely be a couple splits slightly faster).

But every other stroke would be the same speed. When I was a college rower, I became so in tune with my speed I could flip the monitor up and hit the exact same split (more or less) for 30 minutes, without even looking at the screen, just based on feel.

The great thing about the ergometer is you can look at the memory on the monitor after your row to check out how consistent you were.

Typically, when I look at the memory on the machines of novice rowers, and many of my clients, after they do a 500 meter row or a 2km row, for example, their split time is usually anything but consistent. More often than not they start out too hard and peter out as the race goes on.

How to Consistently Pace Your Row

That’s the goal here—to help you become more familiar with your pace for a 500 meter row, a 1km row, a 2km row, and a 5km row, and help you develop a consistent pace for each.

Below is a simple way to get to know what a sprint pace feels like, versus a medium effort pace, versus a warm-up speed.

  1. After a good rowing warm-up, where you get your heart rate up a couple times, set your machine’s monitor for 500 meters and do an all-out 95 percent effort 500-meter sprint.
  2. At the end, check your memory on your monitor. How consistent was your split? Consistent means each 100 meters of your 500-meter piece was within two to three splits of one another.

For example, if your first 100 meters was a 1:45/500m average, your second was a 1:46, your third a 1:46, your fourth a 1:47 and your fifth a 1:45, you’re right on point.

However, if you started out at a 1:45 split during the first 100 or 200 meters and petered out to a 2:05 and eventually hit a 2:10, you definitely went out too hard and were not consistent at all. After that, look at what your average speed was during the entire piece. Let’s say your average over the course of the 500m was a 2:05/500m.

Next, rest for 5 to 10 minutes and then try another piece where you hit 2:05/500m the entire time, as opposed to starting at a 1:55 and ending at a 2:10. If you’re able to hold a 2:05 the whole time, it will feel a lot easier than the inconsistent first piece where you went out too hard.

Once you figure out what a hard and consistent 500 meter row feels like, you can use that number to figure out how fast to go during a 1km or 2km row to 5km race, or during a multi-modal conditioning workouts that include rowing and other movements (if you’re into that type of training).

As a general rule, if you’re a novice to rowing, you can expect your 1km row to be an average of four to six splits higher than your hard 500 meter row, and your 2km row to be 8 to 12 splits higher than your 500-meter speed.

For example, if your 500 meter effort is 1:45/500m, you can expect to hold between 1:49 and 1:51 for a 1km row and between a 1:53 and a 1:57 split.

As for the 500 meter row, it’s better to use your 2km row as a guide. Aim to hit between 8-10 splits slower than your 2km row. So, if your 2km average split is 1:55/500m, then aim for between a 2:03 and a 2:05 split during a 5km test piece.

Learn Your Numbers

Note that those are speeds for hard, all-out efforts, as opposed to training speeds. But just like lifting, if you get to know your max efforts, then you can choose to go at 70 percent or 80 percent, for example, of your max effort during training. This will only help make your training more effective as you’ll be rowing with intention, as opposed to just hopping on a machine and rowing haphazardly and without a plan.

Best case scenario, you get to know what a test speed and a training speed is for various distances, namely 500 meters, 1km, 2km, and 5km.

When you know these numbers, you’ll be able to approach any workout that involves rowing in a much more calculated and effective way, which will ultimately only serve to boost your performance, rowing and otherwise, to new heights.

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