I wrote the following article about my personal journey into the world of indoor rowing in March 2020. (Yes, at the very start of COVID!) My intent was to pitch it to cycling publications, as I wanted to promote rowing as a great alternative/addition to a cycling training regimen. Well, the response was "crickets..." Nothing. Part of it was probably timing. It was early COVID and no one knew how long the "Two Weeks" was going to last. The other part was that no cycling publication was ever going to publish something that proposed an alternative to what their advertisers were promoting! (Zwift, smart trainers, Peloton, etc...) So be it. I gave up, and the article sat in my files...Until now!
A lot has changed since I wrote this, and I will probably write another blog entry to make some updates! In any case, it certainly gives you some good background on me, and how rowing has changed my life in many ways! Enjoy!
“Hey Brian! Did you ride on Wednesday?’
“No, I rowed instead. The weather was too nasty.”
“Huh? You rode in that stormy weather?
“No. I rowed… R-O-W-E-D!” <makes rowing motion>
If I had a nickel for every time I’ve had this conversation in the last two years, I’d need a belt and suspenders to hold up my pants. As any elementary school student can tell you, “Rowed” and “Rode” are homonyms; two words that sound the same, but have completely different meanings. To the majority of cyclists, “rowed” is simply not a word that computes. Admittedly, I used to think that way too.
I started rowing a couple of years ago. Or more accurately stated, I started working out on an ergometer. (If you want to nitpick, you could also call it an “indoor rowing machine”, but ergometer sounds much cooler!) I was watching “House of Cards” and saw Frank Underwood working out on this elegant and sophisticated erg that his Secret Service detail kept having to move around his DC townhome. I Googled “Frank Underwood’s Rowing Machine” and took delivery of my WaterRower a few days later.
My wife and kids watched me unpack and assemble this big, beautiful wood contraption in my home office. “What is it?” was the question of the day.
“It’s my new erg! Pretty awesome, eh?”
“What’s an erg?”
I calmly explained to my bemused wife that this hand-crafted work-of-art is my new solution to getting a high-quality, short yet intense workout in between coaching my boys’ little league teams seven days a week. “If I can’t get a ride in, with this erg I can at least get in a good sweat in under 20 minutes! And look! It stands up against the wall, so it’s completely out of the way when I’m done using it. Plus, it has water resistance, so it’s not loud like a fan and won’t disturb anyone! You must admit honey, it’s pretty cool! And of course, you’re welcome to use it too!”
Up to this point, I didn’t know that much about rowing. I had watched bits of the Olympic regatta every four years, admiring the disciplined beasts that absolutely turned themselves inside out to cross the finish line, and then collapsed from exhaustion while trying not to fall out of the boat. I had always figured that rowing would be a great full-body workout, yet I was oblivious to the world of the high-end erg. As I anxiously waited for my WaterRower to arrive, I watched countless YouTube videos about technique, workout plans, and user testimonials. Rowing was going to change my life!
When I selected my WaterRower, I jumped into the deep end. I didn’t settle for the standard version; I went for the “Xeno Muller Signature Model”. Made in America with Ash wood harvested from a sustainable forest in Vermont, the Xeno model was made to accommodate a larger beast of a man, like the two-time Olympic Medalist himself. The icing on the cake was that this model came with access to Xeno’s instructional videos that would teach me the proper form and technique to transform me into a beast in my own right.
At first, my plan was to do short and intense 20-minute workouts, and then rush off to throw batting practice or coach a game. The reality was that I quickly started rowing 45 minutes to an hour at a time, mainly because that’s how long Xeno’s workouts were. Before starting a session, I would turn down the lights and crank up the ceiling fan. With water and towel handy, I would row away to Xeno’s instruction and encouragement in his unmistakable Swiss accent. When my wife and kids heard Xeno, they knew Daddy was busy and to leave him alone.
Ever since I started rowing, I have been my harshest critic. Do I have the proper form? Am I driving with my legs? Am I ‘filling the box’ before the catch? I would mimic Xeno’s every move, keeping up with his cadence and seeing how my 500m split times would compare to his. I kept a list of his workouts, led from inside his rowing studio or sometimes in his backyard, and scribbled notes about the intervals or how brutal the workout was. I felt like I was part of his class. Admittedly, I was obsessed with rowing, and extremely satisfied with my new toy.
All the while I continued to ride as much as my schedule allows. I raced collegiately back in the mid-90s at Miami of Ohio. I’ve never stopped riding and put in about 5,000 miles a year. More recently, I’ve done some “bucket list” trips, like spending a week climbing the Alps during Le Tour, and doing a pre-season training camp in the Canary Islands. But as a forty-something Dad, I mainly just race the local Cyclocross Masters circuit, and do several long gravel rides and races each year. I have a great group of guys that I ride with, and we never stop pushing ourselves, whether on one of our standard Saturday routes or occasional epic adventures.
Rowing quickly became a larger part of my workout routine. My rollers started to collect dust. The first Fall with my erg, I heard about a challenge to row 200,000 meters between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That sounded like a lot. Could I do that? Yes, and I did. For the New Year, I set a goal of rowing a million meters, and I succeeded at that too. All the while, I got a lot stronger. Cyclists need to cross train, or else we might end up looking like Chris Froome. You know what I mean: overdeveloped legs with spindly arms. I call it a “Reverse Popeye.” I wasn’t getting massive guns from rowing, but my back and shoulders were certainly enjoying some development. This is something that all cyclists will certainly benefit from! My cycling buddies also started to notice my new-found power as well. I was riding out front for most of the time, doing far more work than everyone else. I felt very strong and was enjoying every minute.
Has rowing helped my cycling? Yes. Or to be more emphatic: Hell yes! In my standard 60-minute workout, I row 15,000 meters and take approximately 1500 strokes. Obviously, if you do anything 1500 times over the course of an hour, you are going to build muscle and get stronger! That’s 1500 leg presses, or squats, or whatever you want to call it. And that’s just for the legs! For each stroke, the workload is 60% legs, 20% torso/core and 20% arms/shoulders. Better yet, when using proper rowing mechanics, it is a low-impact workout, granted you don’t fall off the erg after a massive effort! Speaking of falling off, when was the last time you did an all-out interval on your bike for over six minutes? Never? In the world of rowing, the de facto race distance is 2000 meters. If you can row 2000m in under 6:30, think about how these monster intervals might help you in your next cycling challenge!
In the summer of 2019, I was asked to be an “Alpha tester” for a company called Ergatta. This startup developed an add-on for WaterRowers that connects the existing performance monitor to an app that runs on a 17” Android tablet. The software offers three different types of workout: guided interval training that encourages the user to achieve specific goals in a game-like format, races that allow users to compete against one another in a virtual sense, and simple unstructured rowing that can be based on time, distance or completely freestyle. The software calibrates “intensity zones” for each user based on a 2000m trial, and these zones are used to make the interval intensity appropriate for a wide range of skill levels. The workouts become individualized, goal-oriented games. This type of workout is perfect for the person who wants to challenge themselves, track and analyze their improvement, and is motivated by competing against real people!
After using Ergatta for six months, I rowed 1,000,000 meters, which is a considerable amount for someone who is primarily a cyclist! It wasn’t an epiphany, but I realized that rowing is the ideal cross training exercise for cyclists! I need to reveal what had been my little secret to the world! Now don’t get me wrong, in college I spent countless hours on the rollers, wearing out my VHS copy of Breaking Away! Fast forward to present day, and there are some incredible technologies that make indoor cycling extremely interactive and entertaining. It’s always sunny in Watopia, and with rocker plates, grade control and integrated fans, you can always get in a good ride! The reality is, regardless of how many thousands of dollars you spend on the ideal indoor setup, you still can’t replicate the joy of riding in the real world. The wind in your hair, the sweet sound of the hub spinning while you coast, and even absorbing some Vitamin D. The bottom line is, instead of trying to create an environment to simulate outdoor cycling, why not use inside time to enhance your overall fitness in a completely different way?
Rowing has drastically changed my exercise regimen. I can get a phenomenal workout in 60 minutes, with a couple of minutes on each end to set up and break down. I don’t need to kit up, move my car out of the garage to make space, set up the bike, crank up the fans, get the video or computer fired up, and so on. My erg lives standing up against a wall, so I just set it down, turn on the tablet, pick a workout and row. While some workouts require more concentration than others, in most cases I can easily multitask while I row and watch TV or listen to a podcast. Call it serendipity, but my favorite thing to watch while rowing is cyclocross races, as they are 60 minutes long!
There are currently a lot of options flooding the market for the prospective or established rower. You can go to trendy classes where they integrate weights and other exercises into a workout. From your home, you can watch instructor-led videos that do the same, or even find some classes that are truly held “on the water”. Let’s face it; there is stiff competition for who will become the Peloton of the rowing world. Personally, I feel that my rowing journey has been very solid. I learned form and technique from a master, and based on my split times, I seem to have been a good student! My involvement with the development of Ergatta has also been a rewarding experience and I think their product is by far the best thing out there for cross-training athletes who aspire to improve their overall fitness.
For me, cycling will always be my passion. It’s simply hard to beat a long ride on a Saturday morning or a spirited race workout at the “Wednesday Night Worlds”. However, now that I have discovered the many benefits of rowing, I can enhance my conditioning in new ways that will allow to me be a well-rounded athlete, and even stronger cyclist! I’ll still be bummed out that I can’t ride on a rainy Saturday morning, but at least I know that I will get in a killer workout on my beautiful erg!