5 things I learned from indoor rowing

One night, whilst sat in a bar in Mexico City, learning about the joys of tequila and sangrita, I had an idea.

I decided that for the next six months my main form of physical training would be indoor rowing.

I was intrigued. I was curious. Could one type of exercise be good for me? How fit would I get? Could I improve on my 2km erg time from 10 years ago? Would I get bored? What kind of training would I do? Did I have enough focus? Could I cut it?

The experience taught me a lot.

Why do it?

The idea to give this a go was a culmination of factors, mainly relating to a period when I spent a good chunk of time working away from home, outside of the UK. The chance to experience living in seven different countries came up and I decided to go for it.

The travel was great. The constant flights and hotel check-ins weren’t as much fun and I found it difficult to maintain a consistent training routine. This was partly because of the environments I was living in and partly because of the choices I was making. Some of the places, like the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, were hot, humid and hyper-crowded. Getting outdoors to run was the last thing I wanted to do. Eating nasi goring was much more tempting.

Other places were great for training. Hong Kong, as an example, is the perfect fitness playground. It has hills and beaches for outdoor fitness and an abundance of gyms, CrossFit boxes, and fitness studios for those wanting an indoor training hit.

However, the lure of dim sum and noodles plus the slightly unsociable working hours meant that mid-week gym sessions weren’t happening.

I was making choices and excuses not to train.

I was getting frustrated. To sort it out I knew I had to find a way to train effectively in a time-efficient way. And that’s where indoor rowing came in. No matter where I was, I could usually find an old erg hiding in the corner of, even the most basic of, hotel gyms. I was confident that this was the bit of kit that could answer my training needs whilst away from home.

The Process

A rowing machine is a relatively straightforward piece of kit. Using it as an effective training tool, however, is a little bit more involved. There are lots of considerations; things like technique, stroke rate, split per 500m, intervals, steady state pieces, recovery rows, the catch, the drive. The list goes on and that’s before you start thinking about the monotony and boredom of sitting on a rower.

If I wanted to get somewhere with indoor rowing I would need the help of someone else and I hired a (remote) indoor rowing coach.

I was typically doing five sessions per week. These were a mixture of long steady state pieces, high intensity interval sessions and mixed intervals. Some sessions lasted ten minutes, others closer to 90 minutes. Every four weeks my coach would programme a test piece e.g. 2km, 5km, 10km to track progress against my targets.

Regardless of duration they were all hard. I stuck at it for six months and it was fantastic. I learnt a lot and I enjoyed it (most of the time).

So what did I learn?

1. Routine is not the devil – we all know routines can help us to achieve goals but we often associate routine with tedium and with inhibiting our freedom so we don’t stick to them. I actually found that introducing a weekly rowing routine gave me more time and more freedom. I knew which sessions I had to do and how long they would take, which meant I could plan my days and weeks more effectively. Particularly useful when you have lots of other commitments. Build a routine, stick to it.

2. Focus is powerful – introducing a very clear, singular focus was so important. It enabled me to concentrate fully on achieving a desired outcome and it also enabled me to develop a skill, improve my technique and rowing ability more quickly than I previously had ever been able to. As a by-product I got pretty fit and developed good all round strength and flexibility. I actually ended up running my fastest 10km time shortly afterwards. The lesson I’m taking away with me is, if you want to develop quickly in something, try reducing the number of activities / things you are trying to achieve. Focus is good!

3. Goals with numbers are the best – I was clear from the outset what my core objective was and I put numbers against it to make it measurable (clearly, the numbers have to be realistic to make it work.) Objective: reduce my 2000m personal best to under 6 minutes, 40 seconds from my previous best of 6 minutes, 59 seconds by the end of six months. During the six months I worked with my coach to set milestone times to achieve on the way to my overall target. The result: I achieved a 2000m time of 6 minutes, 38 seconds.

4. When something goes stale mix it up – OK, so I just said focus is powerful, and it most definitely is but when things start to plateau and you’re losing interest introduce some variety. It’s healthy and good all round.

5. There’s usually someone better than you out there – that isn’t meant to be negative or defeatist. It is intended to be realistic. When I set off on my indoor rowing journey it was clear that there were many many people out there who were capable to rowing a lot better than me and lot faster than me. The world record for 2000m is well over a minute quicker than my personal best. That is crazy quick and nowhere near attainable for me. But what is important is working towards an individual goal that helps get you to where you want to be. Don’t worry too much about the best in the world (unless that’s your goal).

Some other things I learnt about indoor rowing

1. It's really great most of the time. It sucks some of the time.

2. Being heavy and tall is hugely beneficial for indoor rowing. I’m neither.

3. Drag factor is really important.

4. Lycra isn’t mandatory but it helps.

5. Maintaining a stroke rate above 36 is hard (for me anyway).

6. Beating a personal best is so satisfying.

7. It’s addictive.

8. The last 400m of a 2000m row takes forever.

9. I’ll always keep indoor rowing as a component of my training routine.

I took so much away from my experiment but would I do another six months of just rowing…maybe. But for now I'm trying some other stuff.

Indoor rowing might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I’d love to know if you’ve tried anything similar. Why did you do it and what was the most interesting thing you learned? Let me know in the comments below. If anyone would like to learn more about indoor rowing please get in touch.


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