Rowing and Running

I was a teenage rower, and now am a middle aged rower, so most of my exercise comes on the river, or on an erg (disregarding the 11 miles a day cycle to work, which is definitely good for me too, but that counts as base load). So today I did 10 km, which took me a fraction less than 40 mins, and the end of it I was sufficiently tired to do nothing but pant for 5 mins, and then my arms shook while eating lunch. But a few hours later I am fully recovered, I think.

The contrast I’m trying to draw is with running, which I’m getting into a little bit. When I run 5 km, I end up not truely tired, but more feeling damaged: my thighs ache, my calves ache, but I’m still quite capable of moving. Perhaps I just haven’t learnt how to try hard enough while running. My time for 5km, incidentally, is a little under 25 mins, so 5 mins/km, which is worse than my 10 km rowing speed. But I’m not sure how the two compare.

I do wonder if I should hive off all the non-science junk onto a non-science blog. But no-one is complaining so far.


  1. #1 george.w

    Keep writing personal exercise stuff; at least I find it interesting.

    Recently I took up riding a unicycle. Have been doing it for only six weeks and it has added a half mile per hour to my treadmill comfortable cruising speed, and I’m noticeably faster off the line on my mountain bike.

    [By bizarre co-incidence I followed someone on a unicycle back from work down the Milton road yesterday. At least I did for a bit; despite having a fairly big wheel it was still slow -W]

  2. #2 James Annan

    This is a fairly well-known phenomenon to do with eccentric contraction (contradiction in terms?) under load. Rowers and cyclists don’t do it during our preferred pastime so our muscles don’t get used to it. However we have enough cardiovascular fitness to really hurt ourselves if we run once in a while! Descending Japanese mountains has a similar effect. The solution is to do the exercise more regularly, or never.

    Have a look here for more…

  3. #3 Hank Roberts

    Having reached the age where my contemporaries are having hips and knees replaced, I would love to see more science about these questions. Wish I’d had better advice, and Adidas had started making better running shoes, 35 years ago. I really miss those 10-12 mile predawn runs up the fire trail to the top of the hills and back down, but they wore parts of me out. (The decades hang gliding took a toll of the shoulders.)

    Desperate for anything I can do outdoors that could feel halfway as good as either of those, I came across the ‘rowbike’ — anyone know about these things?

    [Hmm. Looks weird. Why not just use a normal bike? -W]

    (Their ‘forum’ isn’t working — I wonder what happens when you drop that huge lever thing into a pothole or hit a rock with it. I guess these are smooth-pavement-only devices.)

    My mom did her ‘jogging’ in the swimming pool, her last 30 years, to get the workout without the wear and tear).

  4. #4 Hank Roberts
  5. #5 Robert Grumbine

    There are some real science aspects to running vs. rowing, and, more generally, different exercises. So no problem.

    It’s something of clinical experience that if you put an athlete on a different sport than they’re accustomed to, they can’t work as hard at it. More precisely, if you take a runner and put him on a stationary bike (so as to not have confusion with the technique of not falling over being less familiar), he won’t be able to get his heart rate nearly as high as if you told him to go run. I’m a possibly extreme example of this, or maybe not, in that my maximum observed heart rate is 195, while biking it is hard to get it over 150, but while running it is hard to get it under 150. See Noakes Lore of Running, 4th edition. A probably related point is his ‘Central Governor’ model.

    In terms specifically of running and rowing, times for the two are fairly comparable, particularly if you’re looking at non-elite performances over moderate (3-10 km) distance. A running club near me has an annual race (4 miles?) between runners and rowers. Results are reasonably intermixed between the two. In that vein, a bit under 40 minutes for running a 10k is a good time for a guy of your age — ahead of ~90% of runners at a large area race in the US. Not great, you wouldn’t be contending for the win by any stretch, even at a modest (couple of hundred) size race, or even the age group win. Dunno how it is for the rowing time. A 25 minute 5k running, on the other hand, is fairly middle of the pack to somewhat back of middle.

    The current contrast between your running and rowing is very likely as James suggested. You’ve got the strong cardiovascular system already, so your main limit is the fact that your muscles aren’t used to the running-specific stresses. Those stresses do go beyond merely concentric vs. eccentric contraction. It includes that you haven’t trained your nervous system to fire the muscles in efficient order and timing for doing running. You’re taking much more beating than necessary just from unfamiliarity with the sport. Beware his comment about being able to really injure yourself. He’s right.

    Hank: At least with respect to arthritis, running is not an irritant. (See the reports cited by Noakes, or run a PubMed search.). The clinical result is that running slowed the progression, delayed onset, and reduced severity of arthritis. (There’s more to knees and hips than arthritis, of course.)

    The apparent correlation between running and knee/hip problems seems to be more a matter that if you’re using your body, you’ll notice issues that you’d ignore if you mostly just sat. (That’s my anecdote, not Noakes’, but it seems pretty strong from a few different directions.) Irrespective of that, water jogging is a good exercise. Throwing on some swimming as well is probably even better.

  6. #6 Andrew T

    Another runner’s perspective. A 5k race will leave me barely able to talk or stand for several minutes – but after 5-10 minutes a cool-down jog, often another 5k, is not hard. And ofter I’d play social soccer or tennis later in the day.

    The all-out effort in race usually produces some stiffness & aches for the next few days. I suspect this might be inherently worse then rowing because of the impacts in running. But if I’m training seriously (obsessively) I can usually manage to get out early Sunday for a 30k run after a Saturday race.

  7. #7 Hank Roberts

    Thanks Robert, I was about to point to your site!

    My aches are all “commonest complaints of people your age” — below the kneecaps, shoulder rotator cuff, hip) — not much arthritis, just wear over time. Naproxen, brief breaks, and back to exercise.

    My happiest running — in those first green leather Adidas, in the 1970s — was 5 miles uphill and 5 downhill; shin splints came on after some years; then I went to hang gliding (only have to run five or six steps to do that …)

    I’ve started using your protocol. Not as easy at 59 as it was at 25. I’d been walking sometimes for hours (and digging ditches, hauling rocks, weeding, doing firebreak work, in the summer) but want the running back, or rowing/bike or both.

    (Can’t use an ordinary bike comfortably — carpal tunnel surgery, too late for recovery; can’t grip reliably for long. I’m hoping/guessing that rowing changes hand position and doesn’t support body weight on the wrists. Anyone know?)

    (Carpal tunnel wasn’t a problem with manual typewriters, my physical therapist told me; carriage return and replacing paper interrupted the repetitions, enough to release the pressure on the nerves each time hand position changed)

    What I miss: starting before the birds wake up, sometimes coming out of the fog at the top of the hill; the moon and stars and San Francisco and Mt. Tam poking up through the fog; running back down through the fog as the sun rose. (I could have avoided the shin splits from that long downhill, likely, if I’d caught the bus home from the top. Who knew?)

    > if you’re using your body, you’ll notice issues that
    > you’d ignore if you mostly just sat.

    Chuckle. Quite the opposite for me; as long as I’m moving I’m fine. Sitting for long, or sleeping, gets achey. Naproxen, for now, at night, seems enough.

    Much appreciate the pointers, I’ll follow them.

  8. #8 John Finn

    Re: #3

    Please don’t tell me you used to be a runner, Hank. I’m finding it really hard to take that I appear to share (or did share) a passion with an avowed AGWer. I had to stop a few years ago because of a problem with the right knee.

    As a regular cyclist, William might avoid similar problems. Cycling does help build the quadriceps which protects the knee and helps maintain ‘tracking’ during the running motion.

  9. #9 Nosmo

    There is an old saying (at least here in California):
    “Cyclists talk about their equipment, runners about their injuries”
    As a moderately successful former competitive runner (15:40 5K) and cyclist (six state championship medals) I can attest to the accuracy of the statement. (we could add rowers about their technique and indoor rowers about their scores). For me running was significantly faster rowing, but in my old age it is no longer. ( can still get close to 18 minutes for a 5K erg–48, 68 Kg, 5’7″–but doubt I could get close running and wouldn’t attempt it).

    My advice is don’t run it will just hurt you in the long run. It is much too hard on your joints. I now only run up hill. Fortunately I live near a steep long up hill but it takes 1hr 20min for a half hour run because of all the walking on the flats and down hill.

  10. #10 Andrew T

    Injuries are definitely a conversation staple among the people I run with (most of whom train fairly intensively) so you do wonder about long-term costs but there seems to be decent evidence running doesn’t damage you in the long term, e.g:

  11. #11 Andy Wickert

    Hi William – I’m Awickert at Wiki and read your blog once in a while, so thought I’d throw in my 2 cents.

    My best 2K erg is around 6:40, and my best 2K run is just a little bit faster, so very comparable to me.

    I agree with the above: it takes a while for the muscles to catch up with the heart. But in general, I feel much more worn-out after rowing or Nordic skiing than I do after running, probably because I have cardiovascular combined with a whole-body-muscle-ache.

    [Hello and welcome. I have a little while to go before I get sub-7, so I’ll reserve comment on that. I think the principle of get-used-to-it makes sense, so I shall just have to practice more -W]

  12. #12 Andy Wickert

    Thanks for the welcome. I made a typo: I meant “comparable for me”, as in my running and rowing speeds are similar. I’m a young pup – I just hope to hold onto my speed for as long as I can :-) The good news for you is that I’ve always had an easier time going from full-body exercise to running than vice versa, so you should be up to speed in a couple weeks.

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