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Cross Training for Rowers: 5 Exercises for Improved Rowing Fitness

Cross training for rowers

Cross training is hugely important and has benefits for both your physical health and mental health, offering some light relief from the rowing machine and the repetitive rowing motion.

All good training plans will include some aspect of cross training at some stage of the season, most commonly during the long winter training blocks.

The importance of cross training is highlighted in the fact that almost all international level rowing programmes encourage athletes to cross-train, and that includes the GB rowing team!

Cross training is also a good option for those active recovery sessions that a coach may throw in.

Through this article, I will be discussing some of the key benefits of cross training, some of the best exercises to mix into a rowing specific training programme, and how you can mix cross training into your training routine.

Why Is Cross Training Important for Rowers?

Time spent on the rowing machine is very rarely time wasted. The GB rowing team are well known for doing huge amounts of volume on the indoor rowing machine, so much so that they even have a famous ‘at-altitude erg camp’ before major events.

My my weight training program

My weight training program

These hours spent on the erg has one downside. Rowing is a very repetitive sport, where you can typically spend hour upon hour doing the same strokes and looking at the same little screen. This can easily lead to all sorts of overuse injuries and burnout.

Top 6 Benefits of Cross Training for Rowers

  1. Cross training in training programmes break up the monotony of indoor rowing.
  2. It also helps to rehabilitate athletes after injury or illness.
  3. Cross training is beneficial to your physical health.
  4. Some cross training activities can allow you to train for longer and incorporate more low intensity volume into your training programmes.
  5. There are also huge benefits to your mental health from taking a break from the monotonous nature of rowing training.
  6. Injury prevention is another key benefit to cross training. Training year round on the rowing machine—and mainly working out the lower body—can lead to overuse injuries.

Mixing up your training helps prevent injury by working out the rest of your body—giving you the opportunity to target different muscle groups and build strength in the areas of your body that you may not be covering in your rowing training.

Is Cycling Good Cross Training for Rowing?

Yes! A prime example of a cross training activity for rowers is cycling. A standard rowing session can run for one hour up to an hour-and-a-half if it’s a particularly long session, but on a bike, 90 minutes is considered a relatively short session!

Your heart rate can be in the same training zone—normally zone 2 (60-75% of max heart rate)—as it would be on the erg, but you’re able to work a for a lot longer without the risk of injury!

Instead of spending hour upon hour doing volume workouts on the erg to build up a base endurance level, you can do cross training to mix up your workouts, stay mentally fresh, and still get the volume training in!

Cross Training Ideas for Rowing Athletes

I’ve compiled a list below of some of the best cross training exercises for rowing, and how you can use them for your active recovery or to improve your fitness levels.

1. Running

Running is a fantastic way to train the cardiovascular system. Its also a great way to get out of the house/gym and explore your local environment a bit!

man running a marathon

If this is going to be your first time running in a while, a word of caution! Running, unlike rowing, is a very high-impact sport. Every step you take sends vibrations through your legs and back.

Things to Remember When Running

  1. Have a good pair of running shoes—Find something with a large shock absorber under your heel. A good pair of running shoes will help you avoid injury and get the benefits from running, instead of ending up with something that’s going to hinder your rowing performance.
  2. Don’t jump straight into a massive run—Chances are you’ll have built up a really good level of fitness from all of the rowing you’ve been doing, and running for mile upon mile is no longer a challenge to you—fantastic! But, remember that rowing is a low impact sport, so a rower’s body isn’t used to the constant impact from running. So make sure you build up running volume over weeks and build the run-specific strength as you do so.
  3. Aim for softer running grounds—Running on trails and grass will be of a lower impact than running on tarmac, so aim for these if it’s an option for you.

Aside from these words of caution, running is a fantastic method of cross training. It’ll help to build up your cardiovascular endurance, and also help you to keep up your rowing enthusiasm by taking you away from the erg screen for a session.

List of Running Workout Ideas

Running offers the opportunity to mix in some variety to your training sessions, so check out our list of running workout ideas:

Running Workout Ideas
Long, steady run (just get as many long, slow miles as you can)
5k test run – just like a 5k row test
Hill sprints
Long hill climbs (perfect if you live in a nice hilly area)
8x800m at aerobic threshold pace – 2-3 minutes rest (warning this is a bit of a brutal session!)

On a similar note to running, you could try mixing in some other sports which feature running —perhaps 5-A-side football, or tag rugby? These sorts of games are perfect for the off-season when you’re working to maintain or build overall fitness but also including some variety in your workouts.

2. Cycling

Cycling is my absolute favourite form of cross training—but I am a bit biased because I was a cyclist before I became a rower!

It uses the same major muscle groups to those used in rowing (legs!), so it helps you build up your the endurance in your legs. Not only that, cycling is low impact (much like rowing), so you’re not at as high a risk of picking up niggly injuries as you are from running.

man exercising on a spin bike as part of his cross training program

When the rowing season ends for me (I’m in the UK, so for me this is July), one of my favourite ways to continue training is to head out on my bike with a group of my rowing friends and go and explore the local routes!

As a rowing athlete, who all too often suffers from back injuries or fatigue in my back muscles, I find that cycling works well for me to take a rest from rowing (especially indoor rowing), whilst allowing me to maintain strength in my legs.

3. Swimming

I’ve spoken about running and cycling, so its only logical that I next talk about the wonders of swimming.

Swimming, like cycling, is a low-impact sport, so as rowers, we don’t have to worry about risk of injury.

Where swimming differs from cycling, and consequentially offers huge benefits for rowers, is that it is a full-body workout. So you have the opportunity to build endurance and strength across the upper body as well as the lower body—perfect to help you stay physically balanced—which is very important when we do a repetitive motion sport.

man swimming training in a pool for rowing cross-training

Depending upon where you live, you don’t have to be confined to local swimming pools. Open water swimming is becoming an increasingly popular sport – so why not give that a try?

For confident indoor swimmers, open water swimming offers an opportunity to try and learn a new skill and expand your personal skill set. However, I would advise only moving to the open water once you’re confident in the indoor pool and have spent time working on your swim technique.

In terms of which stroke to choose, I personally always opt for freestyle/front crawl. But I think this just comes from my dabbling in triathlon where I had this stroke drilled into me by our coaches (it’s by far the most efficient for competition)!

If you’re not training for swim racing, I don’t see why you shouldn’t play around with breaststroke, backstroke or even butterfly (this will really help you build up your core strength).

4. Weight Training

I’ve written extensively about bringing strength training into rowing in previous articles, so I won’t dwell too long on it here, but be sure to consider weight training as a form of cross training for rowing.


I use weight training as a form of cross training

Weight training has a huge number of benefits. It does not only allow you to exercise your upper body (which as rowers we sometimes don’t do enough) and build your core strength but also help you build up your strength right across your body. Weight training has the effect of helping you drop splits when you’re back on the rowing machine.

Dead lifts for example, use almost all of the same muscles as those used in the rowing stroke. In short, getting stronger on the deadlift typically means that you’ll be able to perform a stronger rowing stroke, not to mention that dead lifts in themselves are a total body workout!  FYI:  You also might like to check out my full article on the best exercises for rowers to improve mobility

5. Other Sports

Some other notable mentions include cross-country skiing, including sessions on the ski erg if you have access to one, and bouldering or rock climbing.

Cross-country skiing, for those who live in colder climates, is an ideal form of cross training. Many competitive rowing athletes use it through the off season to give them a total body workout away from the rowing machine.

lady skiing in the snow on a hill

Bouldering and climbing are also an interesting form of cross training. You gain less of the cardio benefits from this option, but what you gain instead is increased awareness of your body, your weaknesses, and how you move. This awareness is helpful in preventing an overuse injury.

Whenever I go bouldering, I always seem to find some smaller muscles that I clearly haven’t been training when rowing. So after climbing, I always tend to find I have a small spike in my body awareness.

For those who haven’t tried bouldering/climbing before, it’s a fantastic sport—but first consider going with someone who has some experience to help you stay safe as you learn what you’re doing.

Concluding Thoughts

Cross training is a fantastic option for those looking to incorporate sessions away from the water and rowing machine into their training plans. It benefits rowers to such an extent that large international programmes include cross training regularly.

man rowing at gym on concept 2 rower

Indoor rowing, although addictive and hugely beneficial, does have its downsides, and cross training helps to give you a break from them, have a little fun, and incorporate something a bit different into your training.

Almost everyone in sport always emphasises the importance of recovery, and when it comes to cross training, I find that a change (from the norm and indoor rowing) is very much as good as a rest!

2 thoughts on “Cross Training for Rowers: 5 Exercises for Improved Rowing Fitness”

  1. Pingback: How to Improve Rowing Split Time & Power Up Your Stroke!

  2. Pingback: Strength Training for Rowing: My Personal Tips & Workouts

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