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Rowing: Cross Training for Triathletes

Can’t get to a pool or your pool or open water venue is closed? Why not try rowing?


Bradley Wiggins competes in the British Indoor Rowing Championships

This time of year, some swimming pools close for refurbishment and your favourite outdoor swimming venue may be too cold even with a wetsuit, but you still need of want to train, what can you do? You don’t want to lose your cardiovascular fitness and swimming muscle strength built up of the summer and autumn months so is there a good alternative?

If we look at the muscles used for freestyle/front crawl they can be split in to upper and lower body. In the upper body, when swimming front crawl, you’ll use the deltoids (upper shoulder), latissimus dorsi (down the side of your back), trapezius (upper back and neck), triceps and biceps muscles in your arms.  The muscles of the shoulders and around shoulder blade (including the deltoids) will help ‘hold’ the ‘paddle’ (your hand and arm) in place as your body moves past it. Your core muscles, including your abdominals, trapezius and latissimus dorsi, help you hold a streamlined torso. 

In the lower body, front crawl works the hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. Your abdominal muscles will also engage from stabilising you in the water.

Swimming is also a great cardiovascular workout and burns about 257 kcals in half an hour. As we know swimming is also a great low impact total body workout.

In the gym the closest we can get with respect to muscles used, calories burned, being low impact and similar cardiovascular stress is the rowing machine.

So what muscles does a rowing machine work? Being that it is an almost perfect piece of workout equipment the rowing machine muscles targeted are very similar to that of the swim, Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Lats, Core, Shoulders, Triceps, Back and Biceps. In rowing we also use very similar terms for the phases of the stroke they are the Catch, Drive, Finish and Recovery, so lots of commonalty.

These photos illustrate the different row positions and phases.



Whilst the muscles in each phase are not identical to the swim there is vast read across between the overall muscles used throughout the four phases of both, as can be seen in the table.

Rowing is very similar from a muscles worked perspective but the good news doesn’t end there. During rowing we have a similar cardiovascular response and the calories burned are almost exactly the same at 255 kcals in 30 minutes.





Now we know we can substitute some rowing for swimming workouts when needed, what sort of workouts can we do? As with swimming we can do Endurance, Sprints, Fartlek, Intervals and Threshold (similar the CSS sets) sessions. Obviously, we cannot develop swim technique per say but for short periods of time we can develop or keep our muscular and cardiovascular fitness ready for when we get back on the water. For an endurance session I tend to go with time. For example, if your 400-swim time is 7 minutes and you want to cover the equivalent of a 3000km swim then this would be around 52 min 30 secs of rowing in HR zone 2-3. Note that you will cover a lot more km on the rower, so you may cover around 10km in an hour.

Below are a few of my favourite rowing workouts:


Five minutes of warm up, then three minutes fast row at 30 strokes per minute, two minutes moderate row at 23/24 strokes per minute for 30 minutes. Always try to bring the 500 pace down (negative splitting) as you go through the set. An example might be 2:25 at the beginning and bring that down to 1:50 by the end of the bout.

Hour of Power

Row hard until you reach maximum heart rate, then slow down until your heart rate reaches 60 beats per minute, then start over again. Count and log how many strokes it takes for your heart rate to come down to the prescribed level. Continue that for one hour.


Before you can do this set you need to row your fastest 5km and note this down.

10 x 500 with 1-minute rest, but the total time must be at least one minute faster than a straight 5K row.

Pyramid (Sprints)

1-2-3-4-3-2-1-minute pyramid with 30 seconds off between pieces. Do each pyramid step as fast as you can!

Karen’s Favourite

Warm up.

5 min @ zone 1 (with resistance setting 1)

Main set

1 min @ zone 3-4 (with resistance setting 5-7)
2 min @ zone 2

Repeat main set 4 times
Warm down: 5 min @ zone 2 going to zone 1 (with resistance setting 1).


3x5k, stroke rate (SPM) 20-24. Rest five to seven minutes between pieces. Work on length, rhythm and consistent splits.

Threshold (CSS)

Warm up for around 20 minutes with some solid rowing.

After around 10 minutes do a 1-minute pipe opener rating 30 – 32 rowing hard.

Next (after a short break) do 3 x 15 strokes at rate 32, 34 and 36 respectively.

Take around 1-minute easy rowing between each 15-stroke push.

Finally do some easy rowing for 2 – 3 minutes and get ready for the actual rowing session.

Phase I

Row hard at 32 strokes per minute for 30 seconds, then drop the rate down to 30 for the next 30 seconds.

Repeat this wave for a total of 5 minutes.

In other words, you will do each rate (30 and 32) 5 times in a row at 30 seconds each continuously for 5 minutes

Take 5 minutes easy rowing and repeat the 30 second rowing wave for 5 minutes.

After that take 5 minutes easy rowing again and repeat the wave a third time.

Row easily for 5 minutes and take a short break.

7 minutes after finishing the 3rd rowing wave begin the next phase.

 Phase II

12 minutes steady rowing rate 28.

Focus on power and rhythm developed in the 5-minute wave phase.

Take a 5-minute rest and repeat the 12-minute workout.

Warm down in the usual way.

Static stretch out well after each workout using static stretches and foam rolling.

Interesting other benefits

I have been experimenting with using rowing instead of some of my swims and have found that my run CV and strength has improved on both the bike and the run. It will be interesting if you see the same benefits.



Karen Parnell

Karen Parnell is the owner and Head Coach of Chili Tri in Andalusia, Southern Spain. I am a keen triathlete and have competed in events in the US, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Spain and the UK. My passion is to motivate, guide and coach people to achieve their own health, fitness and race goals. I help people to meet their goals via personalised training programs, 1 to 1 coaching, nutritional advice, Strength & Conditioning, Stress Management, race day planning and motivation – a truly holistic approach.

Karen is a Level 3 High Performing British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Coach and Tutor, IRONMAN Certified Coach and AIQ Level 3 Personal Trainer. I am also an ASA open water coach and specialise in Bike FTP testing, Stryd running power (Stryd coach) & gait analysis and Swim video analysis.

I coach both traditional and Primal Endurance methodologies using MAF and other holistic training techniques.

Karen has an MBA from Aston Business School and an Engineering degree from the University of Hertfordshire.

Also on Which Training Camp | Chili Tri | Karen Parnell | 



Categories: CrossFit, Rowing

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