Cross-Training 101: Row Your Way To A Better Run

Spend some time on the rowing machine at your gym and reap the benefits. Photo: Scott Draper | Competitor

This exercise works a lot more than just your arms.

Rowers, known for their big arms, and runners, many with debatable upper-body strength, would seem to have little in common. But, there’s actually a lot runners can learn from rowers.

Rowing doesn’t just work your arms — a major misconception — it works all of the major muscle groups, says Josh Crosby, a former member of the U.S. National Rowing team who lives in Los Angeles. It targets the glutes, hamstrings, quads, core, back, shoulders and, of course, arms.

“It’s the ultimate cross-training,” Crosby says. Along with training athletes and creating Indo-Row, a nationwide indoor-rowing fitness program, Crosby has used rowing to train for triathlons and adventure races.

Increasingly, runners are doing indoor-rowing workouts for cross-training and injury rehab. Rowing offers a low-impact aerobic (or anaerobic) alternative to running, with most of the fitness gains transferring easily.

“It gives you the ability to preserve your body a little bit,” says Shane Farmer, the cofounder of Row Studios in Houston and the head coach of CrossFit Rowing.

That can be good for recovery workouts or for hard intervals. Both Crosby and Farmer say they’ll sometimes have their athletes do one day of running intervals and one day of rowing intervals, allowing them to go hard without wrecking their legs.

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“You’re able to really go after it without feeling it the next day,” Crosby says.

In addition to serving as low-impact cross-training, rowing also works all the different major muscle groups.

And, Crosby says the “dynamic range of motion that comes with the rowing action helps develop functional flexibility — something most runners are lacking.”

How To Use A Rowing Machine

At many gyms, the indoor rower remains a mysterious device, devoid of instruction. The key, Crosby says, is to keep it simple.

— Climb onto the seat and sit as far forward as possible.

— Put your feet in the foot plates, which can be adjusted.

— At the front of the stroke, your hips should be slightly behind your shoulders, with a tall, straight posture.

— Before you get started, brace and engage your stomach. “Think about getting punched in stomach,” says Farmer.

— First, push back with your legs. Second, pull back with your core (moving from one o’clock to 11 o’clock). And, very last, pull your arms in.

— The stroke’s ratio should be a 1:2 count. Quick on the push/pull, slow on the recovery.

— To return, simply reverse the order of events.

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Sample Rowing Workout

Rowing Workout (From Indo-Row)

Set your monitor so you can see your stroke rate, split time (the time it takes to row 500 meters, a common interval in rowing) or MPH.

Warm-up: 3:00 at easy intensity, 22–24 strokes/minute; then 3:00 as 1:00 easy (24 strokes/minute), 1:00 medium (26 strokes/minute), 1:00 hard (28 strokes/minute) and keep an eye on the split time or MPH to gauge your intensity; use that as a reference for the rest of the workout.

Workout: 6:00 as 2:00 easy, 2:00 medium, 2:00 hard — try to match or beat your reference numbers from the warm-up.

1:00 break: Do core work on the machine by leaning back until your abs are challenged and then sit up.

Workout: 6:00 as 2 x [1:00 easy, 30 seconds medium, 30 seconds hard].

Cool-down: 2:00 easy, focusing on form.

This article first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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