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Understanding Your Rowing Machine Monitor: What You Need to Know

It feels like it was only yesterday that nobody gave the lowly indoor rower a second glance. These days, people at gyms and fitness studios scramble to get to the rowing machine first. But even the hottest new trends in Fitness Town can be so misunderstood. I’m talking about the rowing machine’s performance monitor.

Many people tend to just hop onto the seat and start pushing and pulling without having a single idea of what the numbers flashing on the monitor’s display are for. They say, “I don’t like looking at those figures because it messes up my workout if I look at them.”

Sorry, but that’s one of the biggest mistakes beginners constantly make. No, those aren’t just random numbers you shouldn’t give a damn about. And no, looking at those numbers and knowing what they mean aren’t just for professional athletes and Olympic rowers.

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If you’re really serious about getting a good workout from your indoor rower, then you need to make peace with that performance monitor and start knowing what those numbers mean.

You’ll thank yourself in the future when you realize that the only thing that was getting between you and getting a good workout on the ergometer (that’s rowing machine for you) is knowing which aspects of your rowing you should improve based on what the numbers are telling you.

If you’re still not convinced and you’re still blaming your hatred of math for refusing to look at the performance monitor, here’s something for you. You only need to truly understand three numbers on the display. That’s right. Three.

On the Concept2 PM5, you’ll find a dozen of those figures flashing around. You’ll see fewer numbers on the WaterRower S4 monitor. Now, unless you’re planning on winning in an elite rowing competition soon, there’s no reason for you to start digging into everything.

For now, we take small, baby steps by just looking at the three most important numbers. And it’s very likely these are the only numbers you’ll need to look at in the far future, unless you're going to Amazon to buy yourself a wireless heart rate monitor. But that’s for another discussion.

Today, we look at the split time, stroke rate and watts.

Split Time

Split time refers to how long you can row a certain distance on the indoor rower. On the Concept2 PM5, split time is displayed as the biggest, most obnoxious number.

That’s because it’s the most commonly used performance metric by expert rowers. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated to come by on the WaterRower S4 monitor, which we’ll talk about more later.

Split time is shown as time/distance, such as in minutes/500 meters or minutes/2 kilometers. Many rowers use min/500m, a turnover from the Olympic rowing race, which spans 2000m.

Athletes divided the distance into four segments of 500 meters inside their head, a mental trick that helps them overcome the distance easier, thus they measure their pace for every quarter of the race.

What should the ideal split time be? In reality, there are no optimum split times to strive for. They vary from one person to the next based on your level of physical fitness and mastery of the rowing technique.

For example, if you see an old lady with a split time of 2:10/500m, it means she can row 500 meters in 2 minutes and 10 seconds. You should be very impressed. But if you see an advanced athlete who’s been training for years going on the rower at 2:10/500m, exactly the same pace as the old lady, you should know the athlete’s doing something wrong.

Generally, the lower the split time, the better. As your split time goes down, your boat speeds up. And if the number stays up, you tend to lag behind.

Split time is an indicator of how much power is being exerted throughout every stroke, and so it changes for every time you make a stroke. On the surface, what split times tells you is how fast you’re going to cover a certain distance, but this is highly dependent on the amount of power you can expend per stroke.

Once you understand this, it becomes easier to understand that the key to decreasing your split time is to recruit as much power from your legs as possible.The more force you exert through the drive, the faster your legs push and the less time you take to finish the drive.

There’s no need for you to increase power during the recovery. That’s why it’s called “recovery” and not something else. Power comes in through the legs during the drive.

Stroke Rate

Stroke rate is the number of strokes you can complete in a minute. In simpler terms, it is how many times you can go back and forth on the erg. Now, say hello to a number that many beginners tend to be very confused about.

A higher stroke rate does not necessarily mean more power, more intensity or a higher fitness level. It just means you’re completing more strokes in one.

You might see some folks darting back and forth on the indoor rower at a startling 50 strokes per minute (spm), but when you look at their split times, you see their boat is actually going slower than a turtle and they’re not driving with much power.

Here’s what you need to remember. Unless you’re speeding up at the drive—meaning you’re generating more power through the legs—a high stroke rate doesn’t mean much. If anything, it is more an indicator of poor technique and not a lot of rhythm to your strokes.

When your focus is on getting more strokes, you neglect the more important aspects of rowing. Rushing back and forth on the rail often means you forget about your form and technique.

A common example I see is people bending their arms too early in the drive, then hunching their shoulders forward as they hurtle back toward the front of the erg during the recovery. That’s not the proper way to gauge your performance. Split time is a far better way to measure how good a workout you’re getting.

On average, most intermediate and advanced rowers have a stroke rate somewhere between 18 and 30 spm. Nope, let’s not get carried away and opt for 50 spm with the damper lever set to 10.

Instead of trying to bump up your stroke rate, keep your ratio of drive-to-recovery at a consistent 1:2. Essentially, this means spending twice as much time on the recovery as on the drive.

The trick? Speed up at the drive by pushing with your legs as much as possible. At least 60% of all the power you expend should come from the legs, since they comprise the biggest muscle groups in your entire body. The remaining 40% are evenly divided between your core and your arms.

Once you get to the recovery, think about actually recovering. The idea is to take control of this phase of the stroke instead of barreling forward without minding your form or technique. 

Check out this video from WaterRower below to see how you can improve ​ratio and rhythm while rowing. 

If you have the damper setting right, you’ll most likely be able to maintain a stroke rate around 22 to 28 spm. If you have the ratio down pat, but you’re rowing at, let’s say, 35 spm, then perhaps the damper setting is too low and you’re not letting in enough air through the flywheel. Experiment by turning the lever up a notch and see if it feels better for you.

Watts

Watts refers to the amount of power you expend in a single stroke. The higher your watts go, the more powerful your strokes are. Generally, higher wattage comes with lower split times. If you’re exerting more power through the drive, you’re pushing your boat forward faster.

Watts is not the end-all and be-all of rowing fitness and technique, but, along with split time, it can be a good way to gauge these two things.

For instance, trained bodybuilders who have bulked up muscle mass will be able to generate more power than the average Joe, since they have more muscular power to deliver a good stroke.

But what if you see a bodybuilder generating low watts on the erg? It’s more likely a result of poor technique than lack of physical fitness. As previously mentioned, the biggest amount of power comes through the legs, and if you don’t work on that, it’s going to show up on your monitor in the form of low watts (and often high split times).

The simplest way to increase your watts is, of course, to keep your technique impeccable. This takes a lot of time and practice, so don’t worry if you’re not getting it right the first few tries.

Work to bring power at the drive with your legs. Keep your arms straight and your spine upright until your legs are fully extended. Don’t hinge at the hips too early, don’t shoot your butt, and don’t bend your arms too soon. The moment you do these things, your power decreases.

Most people using a Concept2 don’t often give watts a second glance. That’s because split time is often all they need to see how good they’re rowing. If you’re interested, you can check out the Model D on Amazon right here.

If you’re on a different rower, however, and there’s no simple way to track your split time, you can track your wattage.

If you’re mathematically inclined, unlike me, you can use the formula below to calculate your split time based on your wattage:

Split Time = ³√(2.8/watts)

Please don’t ask where 2.8 comes from. It’s a constant and I have no way of explaining its existence. Just know that if you use this formula, you’ll get a good estimate of your split time on the WaterRower.

On the other hand, if you have no care for all of that, you can use Concept2’s Online Watts Calculator instead. Simply plug in your watts and the rest will be done for you.

The Takeaway

Don’t shy away from the performance monitor. Don’t let your eyes glaze over the moment they rest on the display. Don’t turn your back from it. Don’t be daunted by the numbers. And don’t even try to forget that it ever exists at all.

Because it does and it’s there for a reason. The monitor helps you evaluate your workout and gives you a clear idea of what aspects of your exercise you need to improve to get the most out of it.

Rowing on the indoor rower is very much like rowing outdoors, and it’s very much unlike it also. Outdoors, you get a pretty good idea if you’re moving fast across the water or if you’re even actually moving at all. Indoors, you don’t know. There’s really no way for you to know if you’re getting ahead or going nowhere unless you start looking at the performance monitor. Use it to your advantage. 

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