Rowing: Workout vs. way out

My friend Michael Bowers must have sensed I’d just done my first workout on a rowing machine. Hence the timely notice he sent of not one, but two openings on crews planning to row the Atlantic this winter. That’s row, as in row a boat, and Atlantic, as in ocean.

Rowing the Atlantic seems a ridiculously over-the-top, Survivoresque thing to do, a true product of our obsessive society. Yet the first crossing occurred more than 110 years ago. On June 6, 1896, Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo left Manhattan and rowed (and rowed and rowed) for 55 days and 3,250 miles before landing on the Isles of Scilly (about 45 miles off the coast of England; they kept rowing, to France). The first solo row was in 1969 by Britain’s John Fairfax. Since then there have been multiple crossings, although the number of people to have rowed across the Atlantic is still said to be fewer than the number of people shot into space, fewer than then number who have stepped foot atop Mount Everest.

Nutty as the idea seemed before today, the thought of rowing for 55 days — 55 days and 13 hours, or nearly 80,000 minutes, to be exact — seemed nutty with sprinkles after today’s inaugural row, which lasted 16 minutes and 50 seconds. (’s The Goat suggests the litmus test for whether you’ve got the right stuff to row the Atlantic is to spend 16 hours on a rowing machine. If you’re just getting warmed up, send in your resume.) But I’m assuming that would be 16 hours without Kelby at your side.

Kelby is my recently signed-on personal trainer. He is why I can barely lift my arms right now to type, why getting up from the desk for coffee seems an ambitious task. He’s also the reason I won’t be sending in my application to row the Atlantic.

As I discovered with my running coach, you hire a personal trainer to make you do things you wouldn’t do on your own. Like balance atop an upside down Bosu ball and play catch with a medicine ball. Or do pushups with your arms constantly changing and unstable positions. Or do lunges the length of the gym carrying weights. And after doing all that, put in 5,000 meters on the rowing machine. And not 5,000 leisurely Victorian paddle in your Sunday finest. 5,000 meters of peppy intervals.

“OK,” Kelby began, “you want to get this number around 25.” He was pointing to a small digital readout at the front of the machine, and the number he wanted at 25 now vacillated between 30 and 34. It was my strokes per minute, and it indicated that while I may have been enjoying myself on the pond, I was not getting much of a workout. I pushed and pulled it up a notch.

After a thousand meters our attention turned to another number. This number currently fluctuated between 2:35 and 2:45. It represented my speed, though the rising pounding in my ears prevented me from hearing exactly how. “We’re going to do intervals,” Kelby said, “and I want you to get this number down to 2:00.”

The first interval was 30 seconds; after 27 seconds of cranking it up, I finally got it down to 2:00. “A little faster next time,” Kelby said. After a 500 meter recovery, I got it down to 2:00 after 15 seconds. I’ll get it within five seconds the next time, I swore to my sweaty self.

“Now, we’ll go for a minute,” Kelby said. And after two, minute-long intervals he upped it to a minute and a half, although he forgot to check his watch and “we” ended up going a minute forty-five. After topping out — or was it bottoming out? — at 1:55 I was ready to coast into a slip. “Warm down,” Kelby instructed, and with that he talked for another five minutes about the workout while I continued warming — and wearing — down.

I hadn’t doubted that the rowing machine would be a good workout, a good full-body workout (see below). I was surprised, though, that I was spent after just 16 minutes and 50 seconds. I love a good, efficient, compact workout; I’ll be back on the rowing machine.

I’ll leave the Atlantic to the Katie Spotzes of the world.

* * *

Benefits of rowing

  • Low-impact
  • Works a variety of muscle groups, if done properly: thighs, stomach, hips and torso, chest, shoulders, back of the upper arms, forearms and shoulders. chest, forearms and calf muscles
  • Good cardio
  • Burns calories. In my 16 minute, 50 second workout, I burned 189 calories. A 170-pound person rowing “vigorously” for 30 minutes would burn 345 calories.
  • Common equipment in most gyms
  • Which is good, because you should expect to spend a minimum of $300 for an OK machine, upwards of $1,000 for a sturdy model.

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