Fitness Tips

A 2,000-Meter Row Is the Ultimate Fitness Test—Here’s How To Crush It

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images / July Alcantara

Rowing is perhaps the very best full-body workout, and that's not hyperbole—rowing engages 86 percent of your muscles. And the 2,000-meter row is the gold standard test for rowing athletes as the official distance used in rowing championships. It's an excellent fitness barometer for novice rowers, too.

"If you're not familiar with rowing, or meters, it can seem like an arbitrary distance," says CITYROW founding instructor Annie Mulgrew. "But 2,000 meters is just long enough to test someone's cardiovascular, or aerobic, fitness levels, and also their anaerobic fitness levels. It's actually an anaerobic threshold workout, adds Laura Simon, assistant coach for the women’s rowing team at Yale, which means it's going to take you to your max heart rate and your max physical output.

"It's a true test of one's lung capacity as well," says Mulgrew. "It requires that someone be not only in cardiovascular shape, so they can breathe and sustain high-intensity heartbeats, but also that they be able to push through lactic acid that's going to start building up all over the body." Lactic acid buildup, Simon explains, is what causes muscular pain and its accompanying emotional discomfort.

Plus, Mulgrew adds, because 86 percent of the muscles in your body have to activate and coordinate together with each stroke, it's demanding on the muscular system, too. "All of your core strength muscles are activated in the sport of rowing," says Simon. "There's often a misconception that it's just arms, but arms are sort of the least-used part, they're used as a lever, but they're not actually used to generate power. It's the rest of the core muscles in the body that are used to generate power—the core, hips, legs, quads, all of those large muscles are what actually generate speed in the boat." 

In fact, rowing is as much a power sport as it is a speed sport, says Mulgrew. "You have to focus on exerting powerful leg drive," she says. "You can think of it like deadlifting—if you've ever deadlifted, you know how taxing that an be on the body, and rowing is essentially like a seated deadlift. Rather than having weight added to a barbell, you're having to produce that effort, that push into the platform to perform the work of the stroke, which is called the drive."

What makes the 2,000-meter row particularly challenging is that there isn't much pacing involved. "It's considered a sprint distance, so you've got to come out of the gate at 70 percent intensity and then be able to hold yourself at 80 percent until the final sprint or final 500, at which point you want to ramp up to like 90 or 100 percent," says Mulgrew. "That's just physically and mentally challenging for people."

All of that is to say that a 2,000-meter row is pretty much one of the most difficult and effective workouts you can engage in; however, it's also non weight-bearing and low-impact, which means it's a good option for those looking to put less pressure on their skeleton and joints. "We rehab so many people with bad knees," says Mulgrew. "It's also great for pregnant women through all three trimesters because they're sitting down. They're strengthening their legs and their hips and their abdominals, but they're not straining their bodies by having to stand up on their ankles."

Interested in challenging yourself to a 2,000-meter row? Get training advice from the pros below.

How to absolutely crush a 2,000-meter row

Speed, pacing, and endurance

Just how fast you should be able to complete a 2,000-meter rowing workout depends on your size (height and weight), but Mulgrew does provide rowers with benchmarks to work against. As a general rule of thumb, she says you want to complete each split—or 500 meters—in about two minutes.

"If you were going to hold a two-minute split time consistently for 2,000 meters, it would take you about eight minutes to row it," says Mulgrew. "That's pretty challenging because while eight minutes might not seem like a lot of time when you're thinking about holding yourself accountable to an endurance effort, it's so much more taxing on the body because 85 percent of your muscles are activated. So I would say anywhere between eight to 10 minutes would be pretty solid, and for men it might be closer to seven to nine minutes."

One of the biggest mistakes Simon sees novice athletes making is going out really fast and then getting slower and slower throughout the row when—as Mulgrew also pointed out—it should actually progress in the opposite direction.

If you're trying to get faster in your splits or in your 2,000-meter as a whole, Simon recommends doing 80 percent of your work in your steady state zone, where your heart rate is between 145 and 160. "The more fit you become at your base, the better you're able to maintain your fitness in the third and fourth 500," she says.

And Mulgrew recommends knowing what your split times are before you set out to complete a 2,000-meter rowing workout. "The worst thing you can do is sit down and just row arbitrarily for those eight to 10 minutes," she says. "It's not only going to take you longer, but it's also going to feel horrible mentally and physically."

If you go in with a game plan, on the other hand—knowing what your split times are/should be—then you'll be better engaged mentally. "In order to be efficient physically you have to have focus and the ability to get your brain and body working together so that when the body gets tired, the brain can override it and be like, 'No, we've got to keep going,'" Mulgrew says.

Simon notes that everyone hits this wall in a 2,000-meter row, but at different points. "As you become a more experienced athlete, you know exactly when you're going to hit the wall and you know how to manage yourself through it," she says. "And once you get to the other side of it, you're home free, so to speak."

Proper technique

The most egregious error Mulgrew sees novice rowers make is not working on technique prior to attempting a 2,000-meter row. "Good technique means your stroke is efficient," she says. "If your stroke isn't efficient, then your split times will reflect that—you'll have consistently slower split times because the body is not moving in an efficient manner."

Practice makes perfect, but watch this video to get a better idea of proper form:

Hard work and perseverance

As you may have surmised, a 2,000-meter row isn't really a "straight-off-the-couch" workout, says Simon, but rather feats you need to work toward over time. "You wouldn't have someone who's never run before go out and run a half marathon without any information—they would need to have trained," Mulgrew agrees. "You really do have to know what your split times need to be at the 500-, 1,000-, 1,500-, and then 2,000-meter mark, and a lot of that comes from having ridden before."

The appeal of rowing, she says, is that it looks easy when it's anything but. "It's this beautiful, flowing movement, but if you're never done it before, you'll realize very quickly that in order to make it look effortless, you're actually working really hard at it," Mulgrew says.

She advises people to train, practice, and use their first time attempting a 2,000-meter row as inspiration toward future work. "It's not a one and done challenge," she says. "Maybe do it every quarter or something like that just to check in and see how you're doing. Remind yourself that anytime you're doing a challenge like this, it's really just to see what the body can do—and there should be mad respect for the body even attempting this."

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