Runners Using the Rowing Machine? How cross-training can be used to give your running a BOOST by ‘sneaking’ in high intensity work

When I was a senior in high school, this young runner met the bane of her existence. She even put up her own money and paid to be tortured by this beastly contraption. The rowing machine.

track sign

Paradise found perhaps?? ;)


Little did she know what exactly she was getting herself involved with, but when her coach told her that, “Back when I was in college something that REALLY made a marked improvement in my running was the rowing machine. I know it sounds crazy, but the other guys and I would go into the gym, get on the rowers, competitiveness would take over and we’d kill each other on those things. But I’ll tell you what, I never ran faster.”

Never ran faster? I was sold. And the rowing machine was bought.

If you’ve never tried the rowing machine, let me tell you that you are 1) surely making some wrong assumptions and 2) surely missing out on a good time. *sarcastic font* The assumptions you are mistakingly making are…

* Rowing is an upper-body only workout. False. Actually, the rowing machine ranks as one of the top cardio machines at engaging nearly ALL of your muscle groups: the quads for push-off, the core the entire time, and the arms on the stroke. Fun fact, as for caloric burn per minute, out of the gym machines it comes in third, only behind the treadmills and ellipticals…it’s sort of tied with the stair-climber.

* Runners have no business rowing. I’m going to say this is a fallacy in my forthcoming explanation.

I implemented my rowing in addition to my regular running training. It was viewed as additional cross-training to be done as a second workout of the day on one of my easy days. The routine was pretty simple…5000 meters of rowing HARD. When I say hard, I probably took it a bit overboard because every time I did it, I’d try and go for a PR at the distance. From the first stroke I’d go full on mad runnerchick on that rower’s butt, out of curiosity I took my pulse after one of my sessions and it was at least 200. But that was the old-school method of just counting your pulse from your neck off the clock, before everyone used an App, heart rate monitor and all those gadgets, so who knows…hehe.

tired runner

Note, you don't have to be KILLING yourself on these hard sessions...advance with sanity people.


Not going to lie though, I had extra incentive to get faster times, see my mom would also row and never fail she’d whoop on my times. Blast those weaker arms of mine. ;) The point I’m trying to make is that for three extra workouts of the week I was getting high intensity cardiovascular training that was non-impact and in addition to my regular running workouts.

I did go on and run PR’s in my running events as well; so maybe there is something to be said for runners doing the whole rowing thing. My coach told me it was helping, do I continued my love/hate relationship with that rower. No joke I’d sometimes get about as ‘nervous’ anticipating my row session later in the day as I would my hard running workouts. ;)

When I graduated high school, I had the privilege to talk about this whole rowing business with some of the top minds in our sport. I hold Alberto Salazar as one of the genius coaches in all things running so pretty much his word was/is the bottom line in my mind. He explained that, yes, the rowing probably did attribute to my drop in running times. But was it the actual rowing machine that worked as the ‘magic machine’? Probably not.

The magic wasn’t so much in the rower, but rather, the three extra high intensity cardio sessions per week in addition to my regular running training. They were non-impact so there wasn’t the added risk for injury, they were sort of like ‘sneaking’ in more hard workouts without interfering or tiring me out as much as another hard running workout would do.

Alberto Salazar acknowledged that could be done on other machines, and with of course more resources than my high school self had access to, cross-training on the underwater treadmills or anti-gravity treadmills would be preferable. They don’t have nearly as much impact as regular running and they are obviously more attuned for running training purposes.

For us current day mere mortal runners who don’t have these machines, high intensity ‘extra’ work can be done on the bike, the elliptical, and yes, the rower. Though, once I heard that the rower wasn’t the end-all machine but a good option I sold that baby and never looked back. Sorry, I’ll take the elliptical over the butt-burn of the rower ANY day! ;)

Quick Tips on ‘Sneaking’ Hard Sessions
* Aim High: High heart rate that is, which can be done in the ‘tempo’ style that I did where you just go hard for time/distance or do intervals, though keep them short like 1 minute on and off.
* Keep it Shorter. 5000 meters on the rower, I’m not sure exactly what my best time worked out to be, but I’d say you could shoot for 20-25 minutes. If this is a second workout you don’t need to be hitting 30 minutes of hard stuff.
* Be Smart. Don’t add in a ton of extra work at once and build up to even doing ‘more’ at all; if you’ve been training for at least a few years consistently then start with one session a week and see how you feel before adding more. The goal is to improve your strength and endurance WITHOUT sacrificing your running. Your running workouts are FIRST priority, if they start to suffer cut out the extra stuff.

1) Have you ever tried the rowing machine? If so, what are your thoughts?

2) Do you do any cross-training in addition to your running routine? Do you use those sessions as easy, recovery type work or do any of those days include high intensity work?

3) Of all the cross-training or non-running related activities, which ranks supreme on your ‘dread list’ or the ones you can’t stand doing the most?

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14 thoughts on “Runners Using the Rowing Machine? How cross-training can be used to give your running a BOOST by ‘sneaking’ in high intensity work

  1. I actually love the rowing machine and it’s one of my staple cross-trainer machines :) I like that it works so many parts of the body and is a good mix of cardio and resistance work. It can be easy to ‘cheat’ on it though so my main focus is doing it properly and maintaining good form for the 10 – 15 minute bursts I tend to do it in!

    • haha….okay how bout u do some extra rowing on my behalf?!?! ;) just kidding, but WAY TO BE in loving that machine because it’s a great workout for you!

  2. I definitely love the rowing machine! I used to use it in the gym, but now I work out at home. I used to try to stay on there for 20-30 minutes and take it easy, but it’s definitely more effective if it’s high intensity for just a few minutes instead!

    • hmm, i guess i’m the only loon on the block who isn’t in love with the rower. ;) jk. but it’s such an awesome total body workout, i’m happy to see others are putting it to use!

  3. never used a rowing machine. not sure why, actually.

    you know, my I went to spinning a lot when I was injured – I think it really did help me maintain fitness and get fitness back more quickly. I’ve stopped doing it as much now because I’m afraid of tiring out my legs for my running workouts, but maybe I should go back. I think it really helped me, esp in keeping my HR up for 45 min or so — and seeing as I don’t get that out of my tempo runs, I think spinning may be in order this week (along with my 4-5 mile tempo, which I’m going to try really hard not to stop on).

    • haha…don’t feel bad, actually until my coach talked about it i don’t think the thought to even try it ever occurred to me! ;)

      that said, i kno spinning can royally kick ur butt and i know that’s a killer workout and can jack the HR up there! let me know if u get ur spin on this week. ;)

  4. I love the rowing machine, but I usually only last 5 minutes on it! After reading this, it makes me want to add it to my work out tomorrow :D

  5. I don’t love the machine, but I love actual rowing!! When you get that boat going it feels like flying. Similar to when you’ve got an amazing run going on!! I usually row as well during track season. It helps a lot.

      • Doo it!! You’ll love it…there’s a lot of good pain that goes into a 2km rowing race and you could be a lightweight and not have to row against the 6 foot girls ;) I was reading the other day about how the current single sculls mens world champ retained his title primarily through running training, as he had a back injury preventing him from rowing…so it works both ways!

    • haha….actually KUDOS to u for checking urself and holding off…i kno sometimes it can be tempting to do more or try something knew, but it takes brains and wisdom to remember wat’s best for ur bod in the big picture. :) hope PT went great!!!

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