If you have access to a rowing machine, you have an awesome resource to test your energy system capacity and see how it relates to your swimming performance. Here are some tips I have discovered while working with different swim programs:

Why Rowing? 

While running might seem like a good testing mechanism, it requires less ankle range of motion compared to a swimming kick. Some coaches also report running resulting in a decreased range of motion in lower body swim actions.

Also, biking has been used to measure mean power and sustained workload in swimmers quite effectively, but it only uses the lower body. Most seasoned cyclists know that the pedal stroke is a push AND a pull. However, a novice focuses heavily on the push phase only.

Rowing uses both the lower and upper body. It also provides some coupling motions similar to the sport of swimming and places a greater premium on the pull. Learning how to row correctly definitely takes a little bit of on-boarding, but I have found it to provide reliable data relatively quickly. Check out this guide on how to use a rowing machine to perfect your rowing technique.  

How To Test 

The best training processes start with figuring out where you are right now. If you do not know where you are it is really hard to figure out where you are supposed to go. When I am testing swimmers with a rower, I will have them complete either a 250-meter row or a 500-meter row.  


A 250-meter row utilizes the same energy systems that a 100 yd Freestyle uses and the 500-meter row utilizes the same energy systems as a 200 yd Freestyle. While swimming and rowing are different sports, human physiology does not change. This is why a land-based activity can provide such valuable data for what you do in the water. 

You can use the rower to test longer distance energy systems too. For example, a 2000 meter row for time provides decent information on your VO2 max.

Analyzing Your Results 

Once you complete the test, compare your row time to your best 100 yd or 200 yd Freestyle time. You will find one of three results: 

1) Your rowing time is significantly (ex. 2+ seconds) FASTER than your swimming time. 

2) Your rowing time is about EVEN (ex. within +/-2 seconds) with your swimming time. 

3) Your rowing time is significantly (ex. 2+ seconds) SLOWER than your swimming time. 

Based on this information, you can figure out where your training time is best spent. 

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Rowing Time Faster:

In this case, it means you have a bigger engine compared to what your swimming performance is showing. I find this as a common result with newer swimmers or swimmers coming back from a layoff. If this is your result, double down on your technique focus in the water. You already have the bigger engine. You just need the technique to back it up! Don’t lose that engine in the process, but focus your efforts on water-based techniques. 

Rowing Time Equal:

If your times are equal or close to equal, this means your engine matches your technique level. To see improvement, you will need to build a bigger engine and make sure your technique matches the engine you build. This is a common result for swimmers with 5+ years of training time in the water and in dryland. 

Rowing Time Slower:

This is a common result for swimmers who spend most of their time in the water and have not participated in regular dryland training. On both ends of the spectrum, your engine or your technique can carry you for a little while. Eventually, you will hit a frustrating plateau if these test results get too far apart. In this case, you have the technique that allows you to go faster but your engine does not provide the firepower needed to maximize your result. 

Make Changes:

Once you have this data, you can adjust your course in a more personalized approach. This will help you push through plateaus more frequently and see a more steady trend of improvement in the water. As a swim coach, this gives you the tools to have a clearer understanding of what your swimmers need and adjust accordingly. 

Implementing Today 

Right now, we are in a unique situation with pools closed and an unsure future for the swim season. If you have access to a rower, you can keep your engine ready to roll for when the pools open and the season starts.

Since the row distances are similar in energy system usage and time to your water distances, your base intervals from swimming can be utilized to craft “sets” on the rower. 

For example, 10×100 yds in the water would be 10×250 m on the rower. Your base interval could apply to both situations. I just recommend using a stopwatch or a wristwatch to keep track since the rowing timer will stop when you stop rowing. 

If you don’t have a rower, but are looking for one — I recommend the Concept 2 Rower which can be found here.

Once the pools reopen and swim practice is back on, save these tips for the next time you or one of your swimmers is experiencing shoulder pain. Rowing takes the pressure off of the shoulders and could provide an excellent way to keep conditioning levels up without adding more swim volume and aggravating the shoulder girdle. Some of the best swim coaches I’ve worked with use this as a key tool for their swimmers.

Bo Hickey, CSCS

3 Responses

  1. Can you use the rowing machine as a supplement to train for longer distance races like the 400m, 800m, 500yd freestyle?? Also could it be used to help train sprint events. Not in the place of swimming but as an added tool. If so how often should a swimmer add it into their dryland routine considering they swim 6 days a week high school.

    1. Yes, you can do that. Just change the relative distance depending to the rowing equivalent. 250m is a 100 yd. 500m is a 200 yd. 2000m is 800 yd. 1250 is 500 yd. etc. I wouldn’t recommend it for a 50 sprint though – skewed based off a swimmer’s techniques on rowing. If it’s for dryland, I would say only 1x a week. Ideally, you don’t need to train more than you’re already doing – so you should be doing weights and other exercises versus rowing. This example is to row if you can’t swim – or need to miss a swim practice or two.

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