If you have ever gone out too hard on the ergometer—aka the rowing machine—you probably know what I mean by the term “fly and die.” It usually looks like this: One minute you’re cruising along and the next, you hit a wall; panic then kicks-in, and to stop yourself from blowing up, you either slow to a snail’s pace, or you stop completely.
#1 rowing rule: Figure out your pace!
The great thing about the ergometer is there’s a monitor with a screen that tells you exactly how fast you’re going, so you don’t even need to guess what pace you’re rowing at, as is the case with something like running.
Understand your Split
Your split is the most important number to become familiar with. In rowing, we measure the split based over a 500-meter distance. (When you’re on the meters setting, it’s the big number in the middle that says something like 2:05/500m).
If your monitor says you’re rowing at a 2:00/500m, that means it’ll take you 2 minutes to row 500 meters. If you maintained that pace for 1,000 meters, it would take you 4 minutes. 2,000 meters at that pace would take you 8 minutes etc…
Learn to row at a consistent split
The same way you’d never sprint the first 400 meters of a 5K run — instead, you’d run at a similar pace for the entire 5K — you need to learn to row at a consistent pace the whole row. Whether the distance is 500 meters or 5,000 meters long, each stroke should be done at an almost identical pace to the one that came before it, and at the same pace as the one that will follow.
The only way to do this is to practice. A good drill is to select a split that won’t crush you physically. Then see how consistent you can be by holding that split stroke after stroke after stroke. They key here is to eliminate speed fluctuations from stroke to stroke, and eventually from interval to interval.
What is too big of a fluctuation?
If you’re more than 2 splits plus or minus off your target split, you’re not very consistent. This means if your target speed is 1:55 for 500 meters, any time you drop below 1:53 or above 1:57, you’re getting off track.
High-level rowers can literally flip the monitor up (essentially rowing blindly) and row for 30 minutes and know what speed they rowed the entire piece at within 1 split. While that kind of consistency takes a ton of practice, your goal should be to become as consistent as possible with your speed.
Learn your pace over various distances
What is a good rowing pace? Once you know how to apply consistent power over many strokes, get to know what a fast, medium and slow speed is for you. A good way to do this is to row 500 meters, five times with ample rest between, so you’re fully recovered for the next piece. Start conservatively. Let’s say 2:15 is your first round… If 2:15 is easy to maintain, rest 3 to 5 minutes and row the next round at 2:10, and the next one at 2:05. You might discover 2:05 is an easy pace for 500 meters, whereas 1:55 gets you a bit tired, and 1:45 almost crushes you.
In doing this, you will probably discover that going just 5 seconds faster over the course of just 500 meters is insanely more difficult. This is because the rowing machine is designed in a way that mimics a boat going through the water. In other words, it takes water resistance into consideration. Basically, this means you have to work really hard on the rowing machine just to go a tiny bit faster.
This also means if rowing shows up in a workout with various other movements, it’s often better to hold back a bit on the row because you don’t get a whole lot of bang for your buck, so to speak. I know for myself, if I rowed 500 meters at 1:40, I would tumble off the rower unable to do much for the next 30 minutes. At a 1:50 pace, I would be tired but could recover quite quickly, and at 2:00 I would barely be phased by the effort. 20 seconds for me is the difference between my warm-up speed and a full-blown effort.
Going back to figuring out your ideal paces, the best thing to do is get to know what an easy, medium and race pace is for you for 500 meters, 1,000 meters, 2,000 meters, and maybe even 5,000 meters. Once you know that, you’ll know how fast to hit the row during a multi-modal rowing workout.