Cross-Training for Rowers

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Many other sports look to indoor rowing as a way of providing extra endurance sessions for their training, but what can rowers take from other sports? What is a good idea for cross-training for rowers? We have looked into this question and present an updated version of what  wrote for our partner website Rowperfect nearly a decade ago.

Many other sports look to indoor rowing as a way of providing extra endurance sessions for their training, but what can rowers take from other sports? We have looked into this question and present an updated version of what Ben Rodford wrote for our partner website Rowperfect nearly a decade ago.

Cross-Training: What and Why?

What is Cross-Training?

Cross-training is training in a sport or activity other than your primary sport. If rowing is your primary sport, you can cross-train by running, cycling, swimming, or performing any other sporting activity.

Why Cross-Train?

There are several physiological and psychological reasons why athletes should consider cross-training.
Cross-training takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method while at the same time attempting to negate the shortcomings of that method by combining it with other strategies that address its weaknesses.

In physiological terms, cross-training improves an athlete’s performance in one sport by borrowing methods and movements from other sports. Sports involving repetition, such as rowing, put participants at risk of developing overuse injuries as muscles, tendons, and ligaments are stressed over time. Cross-training acts as additional training to reduce the risk of overuse injury of particular muscles or joints. Cross-training can allow rowers to improve their fitness levels without the risk of developing lower back injuries, rib stress fractures, or wrist problems.

Rowing is a repetitive-motion sport

Rowing is a repetitive-motion sport where the production of high levels of force is required. This kind of movement leads rowers to overdevelop specific muscles and to work joints in limited directions. The risk is that rowers become too specific. They may lose the ‘balance’ of their muscle groups and the strength and flexibility of joints, leading to injury when performing other activities. Cross-training works the body outside the usual rowing motion to help maintain strength and flexibility in non-rowing movements. The aim is to build a more robust athlete and lower the risk of future injury, keeping a rower off the water.

Not only can cross-training be used to help prevent injury, but also to rehabilitate athletes during recovery. Rowers with upper body injuries can maintain their fitness levels through sports such as cycling or running, isolating the injury while working the lower body and the cardiovascular system.

A change is as good as a rest.
In psychological terms, cross-training provides something different. Even the most enthusiastic rowers will tire of long ergo sessions over the winter. Cross-training can alleviate the boredom of the winter training program. While sessions on the rowing machine also help to improve technique, much of the time spent in these sessions is on developing a rower’s fitness. Similar fitness gains can be found by substituting some of these sessions for other sports. This gives rowers a new activity to challenge themselves and helps to keep the ergo sessions from becoming routine and repetitive.

Rowing in winter

Similar fitness gains can be achieved by replacing some of these workouts with other sports. This gives rowers a new activity to challenge themselves, which also helps prevent the ergo sessions from becoming routine.

The alternative: Cross-train

We’re not all professional rowers, and sometimes real life can get in the way of our ideal training program. When work or lifestyle constraints mean you can’t get to the boathouse or find a rowing machine, cross-training comes into its own. Activities such as running require virtually no equipment and can be done almost anywhere. Can you save time by commuting by bike and squeezing in a cycling session when you’d typically be driving? Using imagination and whatever you find around you makes it possible to follow a demanding training program despite a busy schedule.

Planning of Cross-Training

Each potential cross-training activity will have benefits for rowing as well as potential problems. Some activities will be relevant throughout the season, while others may be best used during pre-season, winter, or competition periods.

When choosing to cross-train, make use of easily available activities. Build cross-training into your training program to ensure you get the right benefits at the right time. Keep the focus on rowing. Remember that cross-training should supplement your rowing and help to improve strength, fitness, flexibility, and robustness; even a little will help.



Cross-Training for Rowers
Swimming for rowers – Maybe not like this


It often only becomes part of training during a particularly bad sculling session, but swimming can provide many physiological benefits for rowers. It is a no-impact sport and develops excellent endurance, and generally improves upper body and trunk strength.


  • Cardiovascular Endurance through increased lung capacity
  • Shoulder and Trunk Strength Conditioning
  • No Impact on joints– Good for developing versatility and managing joint injuries


  • Softens Hands – if you’re prone to blisters, don’t swim more than once a week

Most Useful:

  • During winter, to build a good base fitness when it may be too dark outside for other activities (swimming pools are usually warm too!)


Cycling can be great for developing fitness and endurance. Many rowers use cycling to complement their training because the two sports share use of the muscle groups in the legs. Indoor cycling on a stationary bike or turbo trainer is beneficial when training through upper body injuries or during icy winter weather.

The GB Rowing Team goes on at least one cycling camp per season, usually at moderate altitude. Read about their typical day on cycling camp in Annie Vernon’s blog.


  • Endurance
  • Leg Strength Conditioning
  • Core Stability
  • Suitable for managing upper body injuries

(Tip: Use mobile apps like Strava to log monitor sessions)


  • Tight Hamstrings – stretch them after a cycling session
  • Stay Safe – Wear a Helmet, Use Good Lights in the Dark, and Be Aware of Traffic
  • Equipment Needed (but for cross-training, any bike will do)

(Tip: Stationary Bike, Turbo Trainer, or Spin es for when the weather is terrible)

Most Useful:

All year round. Substitute some of your commutes for cycle commutes to maximize training time.


Running is an excellent way of quickly improving fitness and monitoring your progress. Running is probably the most accessible cross-training for rowers. It requires no facilities or extra equipment other than a pair of running shoes.

Be careful if you have knee or ankle problems; running can develop or aggravate joint injuries due to its high-impact nature. Off-road running, treadmills, or elliptical trainers are more gentle.


  • Endurance
  • Leg Strength
  • Weight Management
  • A good measure of fitness (repeatable tests)
  • It needs no extra equipment (cheap!)

(Tip: Use mobile apps like Strava to log monitor sessions)


  • High Impact – take it gently at first and switch to lower impact alternatives if problems develop.
  • Best to avoid during pre-competition competition phases due to the risk of injury.

Most Useful:

Pre-Season for quick fitness gains.
Winter for no-nonsense training on dark evenings.

Swim/Bike/Run…All Three? – Triathlon

Cross-Training for Rowers

Triathlon probably demands too much time to work for current rowers, but it is a popular cross-over sport and could provide a new challenge after the major spring and summer races.


  • Huge Endurance gains
  • Lots of challenges
  • Full body workout with a competitive aspect is not possible


  • Time Demands

Most Useful:

  • Post-Season/Pre-Season

‘Alternative Triathlons’ are a great way to kick-start your rowing season and build club spirit.


The GB heavyweight men used to head up to the mountains for a cross-country skiing training camp each winter. The sport is considered the best form of exercise for developing fitness as it is a full-body workout with low impact and is usually performed at altitude.

“Our competitive instincts and enthusiasm made us ideal pupils for the first few days. Then a little knowledge became dangerous. As soon as we could move, racing was the only option. But being fairly fit and strong, we soon built up speed that far outweighed our ability. Sharp bends and descents became littered with bodies, leaving the Olympic cross-country skiers wondering why their ski route was covered in craters.”

James Cracknell – The Telegraph, 2002 (Rowing: Taking slippery slope to the top)


  • Superb Endurance
    Low Impact


  • Requires coordination! (and snow)

Most Useful:

  • Winter (obviously), but try Roller Skiing for a snow-free alternative.

Circuits and CrossFit

Circuits, CrossFit, and similar high-intensity bodyweight exercise sessions improve athlete robustness and build fitness quickly in a team setting. Many clubs run circuit sessions in the autumn and winter to build swiftly fitness and teamwork.

Cross-Training for Rowers
Circuit training


GRC Strength Conditioning Coach, Giles Houghton, explains the theory and benefits of the land training program:

“Rowing is a highly repetitive motion, and too often I have seen land training programs revolve solely around long ergs and building the muscle groups used in the stroke – so plenty of deadlifts, squats, bench pulls. Given what we know in modern sports science and sports psychology, we can do better because these programs can be boring, don’t motivate people, and lead to injury by continually developing one side of the joint. Also, rowing at the club level presents a challenge because one month you can be doing a 6.8km head race, the next a 500m regatta – so we need to condition our athletes to be able to very rapidly adapt to different events.”


  • Builds strength in joints in all directions
  • Psychological ‘toughness’
  • Teamwork
  • Full-body workout


  • Easy to ‘over-do’ it; start gently

Most Useful:

  • Autumn Winter to kick-start fitness and build your squad’s team attitude.


Plyometrics involves short, fast, and powerful movements to develop the speed of movement and power in sports. It is useful for improving robustness and versatility and a multi-directional strengthening of joints. Many gyms now run es in Plyometrics.


  • Develops power
  • Reduces Risk of Injury
  • Fitness


  • Needs to be taught to be most beneficial

Most Useful:

  • Pre-Competition to gain extra power and speed


While not necessarily working towards your strength or endurance, yoga and yoga-related exercises improve flexibility, core strength, and balance. This training will allow rowers to achieve longer and more powerful positions in the boat with greater ease and comfort. This means power can be better applied. Again, improved joint strength and flexibility help to develop more robust rowers and decrease the risk of injury.

The GB Rowing Team are big believers in the benefits of yoga.


  • Flexibility – improve the length of stroke
  • Stability – improve balance (and applied power) throughout the stroke
  • Application – improves awareness of movement


  • None – yoga is for everyone.

Most Useful:

  • All year round.

Cross-Training for Rowers – More than just activities for the winter

As you can see, most ideas for cross-training for rowers do not only make sense in winter but are often suitable for the whole year. It is essential to provide distraction and to activate as many muscle groups as possible. This helps significantly to prevent injuries. Even if we prefer to sit in the boat, go on a bike ride, do a lap in the park, or do a little yoga in the morning – all of these can help to make us better rowers! So, besides rowing, why not try something new?

What kind of cross-training do you do? Let us know in the comments!


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