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How to Improve Rowing Split Time & Power Up Your Stroke!

how to improve rowing split time

I’m not surprised that you care about improving your rowing split time–it’s the biggest number on the erg monitor after all! Seriously, though, the split also happens to hold the secret to powering up your stroke.

Hello, I’m Laura Tanley, your rowing coach and physiotherapist here on RowingCrazy. Today, we’ll talk about what you can do to lower your rowing split time and how controlling it can make you a better rower.

Let’s start with the most obvious question.

What Is Split Time in Rowing?

In the rowing world, the most common way to measure the power of your stroke is by monitoring your split time or split, which is the number of minutes it takes to row 500 meters.

concept 2 force curve

Concept 2 Force Curve for split times

So, if you do 500 meters in 2-and-a-half minutes, your split time will be displayed as 2:30/500m on the monitor. The lower your split time is, the more powerful your rowing strokes are.

In running, an equivalent metric for split time is pace, which measures the time it takes you to complete a mile (or kilometer, as the case maybe).

Why Is Split Time Associated with Power?

Let’s just backtrack a bit to the rowing machine.

Another name for the rowing machine is ergometer, which by definition means a device that measures the amount of work you exert on it and matches that work or the energy expended.

In other words, the harder you push, the harder it pushes back, and the power you put into it, you will get out of it.

Your split time reflects this power or the force you exert in each stroke. The power from your legs during the drive is what moves the boat, and how consistently you apply that power is a big factor that affects your split time.

How Can I Improve My Split Time?

man rowing on rowing machine

Power is not the sole determining factor to a good split. Learn how to  have more control over your split time with the following guide.

How to Improve Rowing Machine Time

Start by working on the following:

  1. Improve the fundamentals of your rowing stroke. Connecting with the machine with a strong catch position and a powerful drive with the legs is critical. I’ll discuss these fundamentals in more detail below.
  2. Put more power into your leg drive by beginning with the pressure on the balls of your feet at the catch, but as you push back, push through your heels as well (entire foot) to engage more leg muscles. Think “push” or “jump back”.
  3. Test yourself. Once you have the fundamentals down, go for it! Pick your distance, a quick 500-meter, 1000-meter, 2000-meter or 5000. Once you have a baseline, you can then adjust your workouts based on your split, which will help to further improve your split.
  4. Improve your fitness level and endurance. Reducing your split and maintaining it for more than a few strokes require endurance. Row more and row longer, but not necessarily faster. Rowing is a great way to build up your endurance. You can benefit from steady state rows at a stroke rate of 20-24 at a split or effort level that you are breathing a little heavy yet still able to carry on a conversation and maintain it for a prolonged length of time (15 minutes or more).
  5. Build strength, especially your legs. Rowing when done correctly is 60% legs, 30% core, and 10% arms. Rowing will build strength in time, but a sure way to see a faster improvement in your split time is to strength-train your legs and core. (Learn more about rowing machine strength training in this article or cross training for rowers in this article)

Improving Your Rowing Stroke Fundamentals: Drills, Force Curve

lady working on her rowing splits and force curve

Paying attention to the following details is crucial if you want to make your workout sessions more productive and see improvement in your rowing.

Watch our video on Correct Rowing Machine Form by Olympic Rower Rachael Taylor:

  1. Take time to focus on the fundamentals:
    • A strong catch position – At the catch, you should be up the slide with your hips and knees flexed, allowing your calves to be vertical. Your feet should be in contact with the foot plates, heels can come up slightly, and body should be pivoted forward at your hips. You should feel the pivot over your sits bones/ischial tuberosity to a 1 o’clock position. You should be sitting up tall through your low back, maintaining your lumbar lordosis/curve with the core engaged. Shoulders should be relaxed, head in neutral and looking straight ahead, and arms straight out in front of you at the level of your lower ribs (just below bra line). Your hands should lightly grip toward the outer ends of the handle.
    • Movements should be fluid – From the catch position, powerfully drive with the legs while maintaining your catch body and arm position, once your legs are almost fully extended, move your body by pivoting at your hips from the 1 o’clock to an 11 o’clock position. Make sure you maintain your posture throughout. Once you are at the 11:00, your arms will follow, elbows will pull back and slightly out, handle will pull in to your lower ribs (just below bra line), and to the finish position.
    • Slow the recovery – From the finish position, you will extend your arms, then once fully extended, pivot your hips/body back to the 1:00 position, once there begin bending your hips and knees to glide up the slide to the catch position.
  2. Row slow. Begin at a stroke rate of 16-18 and from the catch, repeat “legs-body-arms-arms- body-legs”. Make it 3 distinct movements until you build muscle memory, and it becomes your normal movement pattern.
  3. Slow down the recovery. Your ratio between drive and recovery should be 1:2 or 1:3. In other words, it should take you at least twice (or even thrice) as long to do the recovery as you did your powerful drive.
  4. Drills
    • Legs only. Begin at the catch, maintain your posture with arms out and body over, core engaged while you drive with your legs. The angle between your back/body and the floor should be constant, and the handle and your seat should move together at the same pace, maintaining the same distance between them.
    • Reverse PICK drill. Begin at the catch, with leg-only rowing as above. After 10-15 strokes, at the end of the leg drive, add in the pivot at the hips/body from 1-11 o’clock (legs and body only). After 10-15 strokes, add in the arms. ( learn more on the rowing pick drill here)
    • PICK drill. Begin at the finish, with arm only rowing. After 10-15 strokes, at arms away, add in the pivot at the hips/body from 11-1 o’clock for 10-15 strokes, then half slide (adding in legs but only partially bending and going half way up the slide) for 10-15 strokes, followed by full slide.
  5. Study your force curve. Look at the quality of your stroke and the force you apply. Some rowing machine monitors have an option that allows you to see your force curve. The curve should be smooth but goes quickly up with your drive then gradually down with your recovery.

    Force curve on Concept 2 Monitor

    Force curve on Concept 2 Monitor

  6. Video yourself and self analyze. The best way to assess your performance is to video yourself while rowing so you’ll see your mistakes or weaknesses, improve on those, and see how you improve in succeeding videos.

Learn more with our full video by Rowing YouTube Influencer Max Secunda:

Common Mistakes When Trying to Improve Your Split

lady in orange t-shirt rowing

It’s all too common to see beginners doing the exact things they shouldn’t be doing in their training. Make sure you don’t commit these mistakes in your haste to improve your split time and rowing technique.

  • Rowing faster– Increasing your stroke rate (strokes per minute- measures how fast your body is moving up and down the slide) does not necessarily improve your split. In fact, rowing faster often affects your form, resulting in less power. Or you may “fly and die,” causing your split/performance to suffer due to fatigue. More experienced rowers determine a stroke rate that is ideal for them in maintaining their split for an extended period of time.
  • Setting the drag factor or damper setting as high as it will go- This is the equivalent of rowing upstream against the current on a windy day. You get nowhere fast and fatigue quickly. Begin at a mid range, then as you gain experience, play around with the adjustment to find the setting that allows you to maintain your best split the longest. Even elite rowers utilize the mid settings for their optimal performance.
  • Match your neighbor’s split- Height and weight also play a factor in split times. Someone very light or short is going to have a hard time achieving the same split as someone heavier or taller. Focus on improving your own split time rather than worrying about your neighbors’. Even for the more experienced indoor rowers, sprint races take this into consideration by offering a lightweight category.
  • Expecting your split to be consistent no matter how long of a row you are doing. You should expect your split to increase 4-6 seconds more in a 1000-meter compared to a 500-meter row, and as much as 8-12 seconds for a 2000-meter row.
  • Forgetting about intervals– Intervals are an excellent way to build up your muscle endurance/power as well as overall endurance to be able to maintain your powerful strokes longer.

Learn about the Hydrow Rowing Machine

Bottom Line: Controlling Your Split Time

It’s all about being able to control your split time, but like all the good things in life, it doesn’t come easy or quick.

What you can do is “Row, row, and row…” because, as you very well know, practice makes perfect. It takes time to get the feel for generating consistent power.

3 people rowing at gym

You will need to go back to the fundamentals of a rowing stroke, as I have described above. With that as your guide, you can figure out your optimal stroke rate that allows you the best split without fatiguing too quickly.

Don’t forget intervals, and take them in small bites, so to speak. Begin with 100-meter intervals, maintain a consistent stroke rate, row with little pressure for the first 100, and then apply pressure for the next 100.

Continue repeating this pattern, each time keeping the variance within 2-3 seconds. Your goal is to lower your split time and make it consistent with each interval that you do.

Be patient. I’m sure that if you keep at it long enough, you’ll be rowing at your optimal split in no time at all!

3 thoughts on “How to Improve Rowing Split Time & Power Up Your Stroke!”

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