Fitness Tips

Rowing vs. Running: Which One Gives You the Best Workout?

Photo: Getty Images / Cavan Images
For me, working out on the weekends looks a lot different than it does during the week. On the weekends, my days are a lot less hectic. If I feel like walking the last mile—or running an extra one—there's time. But during the week, that laid-back attitude disappears, and I tend to gravitate towards workouts that pack in the widest variety of benefits in the shortest amount of time.

That's where the debate of rowing vs. running comes in. Running has long been a go-to cardio workout of choice; you can do it pretty much anywhere and all you really need is a good pair of sneakers. But with indoor rowing studios (and at-home rowing machines)becoming increasingly popular over the past few years, more people are starting to wonder if it can provide a more effective workout in a shorter amount of time.

How you define "effective," however, depends on what you're looking for when you exercise. Some people prioritize burning calories (aka energy). But there are lots of other reasons people exercise, such as improving mental health or increasing strength or mobility—all of which might make one person's go-to workout not as "effective" for the needs of someone else.

With all of this in mind, both rowing and running can provide an extremely beneficial workout in many different ways. Hollis Tuttle is a major rower and runner. She is a trainer at CityRow, one of the fastest indoor rowing franchises in the country, with studios in 10 different states. She was also a fitness instructor at Mile High Run Club, an indoor running studio in New York City. If anyone is equipped to explain the benefits of rowing vs running, it's her. We also chatted with Caley Crawford, a NASM-certified personal trainer and director of education for Row House. In other words, you’re in good hands. Keep reading to see the benefits of rowing vs. running and to decide for yourself which one best meets your fitness goals.

The Benefits of Rowing

1. It's low-impact

Tuttle says that one big benefit to rowing vs. running is that it's lower impact than running. This means it may be beneficial for people experiencing joint pain (particularly in the hips and knees), making it painful to run.

"It's a good workout for people who may have arthritis because it's easier on their joints," she says. For this reason, Hollis says rowing is also a great workout option for someone recovering from an injury (depending on the injury of course). Crawford adds that because rowing is lower impact, it allows the body to recover faster between workouts, which means you can row more throughout the week.

2. Rowing is a non-weight bearing exercise

Rowing is also a non-weight bearing exercise, Crawford says, which means that it’s great for people with ankle, knee, or hip injuries. This also makes it a very efficient workout. “Name another workout (besides swimming) where you can get full body strength, low impact, cardio that’s non weight bearing,” she says. “You get all of that in one workout.”

3. It's safer than running for people who have compromised vision

For those who have impaired vision, Tuttle says rowing can be a safer workout than running. "With rowing, you can settle into the machine, find your rhythm, and let your body take over. But it would be difficult to do that while running on a treadmill," she says.

4. Rowing strengthens the upper body more than running

While both rowing and running work the lower body, Tuttle says rowing provides a better workout for the upper body. She explains that the arms, shoulders, and back must all be engaged to pull the handle on the rower back toward the ribcage.

5. It also strengthens the core more than running

Tuttle says that rowing and running both utilize the core, helping to tone the abdominals, but she says rowing requires a bit more core strength than running. The end of each rowing stroke works similarly to a sit-up; it's the same forward and back motion, with the core driving the whole move.

6. Rowing is good for your back

Rowing can especially feel good for people who sit hunched over a computer all day. Tuttle explains that this is because instead of scrunching the shoulders forward, the rowing motion pushes them back, undoing some of the damage of hunching them forward all day. Because of this, rowing can help improve posture when you're off the machine, too.

7. Rowing strengthens the lower body

"Rowing is primarily leg driven," Tuttle says. "Yes, you're using your upper body and core with every move, but you also have to push away with your legs, which is the major part of the stroke." This is one benefit that rowing and running have in common.

8. It's good for your heart

Tuttle says this is yet another benefit that both rowing and running have in common because both are cardio-based workouts. The heart is a muscle and increasing your heart rate helps strengthen it. For this reason, cardiologists recommend engaging in a cardio-based exercise at least 30 minutes a day.

Crawford adds that rowing is as good of a cardio workout as rowing, if not better, and can certainly replace running as a form of cardio in your routine. The reason? “When more of your muscles are engaged, your heart has to work harder, which ultimately results in quicker results of heart health and improved heart rate recovery,” she says. However, she notes that the “best cardio” is the one you’re more likely to do consistently.

9. Rowing helps build muscle and bone density

Another benefit rowing and running have in common is that they help build bone density. Here’s why: “Bone density is typically built from ground reaction force—like a foot strike in running or a jump,” Crawford says. “It also can build from muscle pull as you push away at the catch. You just need a ‘quick catch’ that is generating power (i.e. We need to create load and force to the body.)” And, she adds, given that one of the benefits of rowing machines is that they work 86 perfect of muscles—primarily the hamstrings, glutes, quads, core, lats, erector spinea, upper back, and biceps—it’s no wonder it also helps build muscle.

10. Rowing serves as cardio and strength training

Crawford says rowing can serve as cardio and strength training, meaning you get a lot of bang for your time and effort. But, you must know how to use the machine.“You will build strength on the machine if you’re able to generate power/wattage. This comes with good form,” Crawford explains. “At Row House, we do low stroke rate power work (building strength) and higher stroke rate cardio work. You can build muscular endurance and strength as well as blast out your cardio if you know how to use the machine properly.”

Because there are different ways to use a rowing machine, Crawford adds that rowing can also be considered a HIIT workout (or high-intensity interval training). But again, it depends on how you use the rowing machine. “You can use it for a warm up/cool down at a low intensity, similar to a jog,” she says. “Or you can do high intensity intervals and power pieces, similar to a running or sprinting effort.”

The Benefits of Running

1. It doesn't require any equipment

While rowing requires a rowing machine, running doesn't require any equipment. This makes it less expensive and a workout that can be done virtually anywhere. "Even though this is likely the case for many, it's still important to acknowledge that not everyone lives somewhere that is safe to run outside," Tuttle says. This is where gyms and studios (only with proper COVID-19 precautions, of course) can help provide a safe space, whatever type of workout someone chooses.

2. Running strengthens your bones

This is a benefit to running that Tuttle says people don't often think of. "Because you're on your feet and working against gravity, [running] actually helps you to develop more bone density," she says.

3. It's good for your heart

Running benefits the heart in the same way as rowing, Tuttle says. "Running is an excellent means of conditioning the cardiovascular system. It is a highly aerobic activity that utilizes both fatty acids and carbohydrates for energy," reads an article in the journal Clinical Sports Medicine. "The typical runner tends to have a slow resting pulse rate and high maximal oxygen consumption."

4. Running strengthens the core

While rowing may give your abdominal muscles more of a workout, Tuttle says that since running requires engaging the core the entire time, it also works to strengthen these muscles. "When you engage the core, you actually maintain a better posture, so because of this, running can help with posture, too," she adds.

5. It's a great lower body workout

Similarly to rowing, Tuttle says that running is primarily a lower body workout, specifically targeting the quads, hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and calves. Because of this, it's common for runners to have tight hips and hamstrings, making stretching and recovery important.

Can rowing actually help me improve my run times?

Circling back to the rowing vs. running debate, Crawford notes that rowing and running can benefit each other and can be used in conjunction for training. “Rowing is a great cross trainer for runners, mainly because of its full body/low impact nature,” she explains. “It will allow runners to get more workouts and conditioning in without tearing apart their joints. Additionally, rowing is bilateral and running is unilateral so they’re a great complement to each other to build strength and conquer imbalances.”

And yes, incorporating rowing into your fitness routine can help improve your run times.

“You’re strengthening your legs and core (90 percent of the power is legs/core) which are crucial for running speed,” Crawford says. “Additionally, rowing is a lot about timing—slow recovery, quick/explosive drive. The better you get at that, the more explosive your running will be. It’s very transferrable.”

Rowing vs. running: What's the more effective workout?

It's clear that both rowing and running benefit the body in many ways, so choosing between them can still be tricky. The truth is, they're both effective workouts. "My advice for someone who is trying to decide which workout to do is to focus on which one they enjoy more," Tuttle says. "Otherwise they are less likely to stick with it. Workouts should be fun!" She also says that there's room for both, too; she certainly didn't choose between them.

If calorie burn is your biggest priority—especially on those busy days when you're pressed for time—Tuttle says there's one that burns more than the other. Can you guess what it is? "Running typically burns more calories than rowing because it's a more demanding form of cardio since you're working against gravity," Tuttle says, although that depends on someone's fitness level and how hard they're working.

"Truly both are good for calorie burn and overall health," Tuttle says. "Either way, you'll be getting a stellar workout and will feel great afterward."

Rowing vs. Running FAQs

How much rowing time is equal to running?

Crawford says it’s difficult to compare times. However, she notes that most people can row a mile in meters (about 1,600 meters in rowing metrics) in about six to nine minutes. And, she adds that you can definitely get a really good rowing workout done in 20 minutes that will get your heart pumping and your body drenched in sweat. So in case you were wondering, yes 20 minutes of rowing is enough. She adds that an hour or rowing (although doable) is a long time for most people. Typical rowing workouts range from 30-45 minutes with varying degrees of intervals, she says.

Is it harder to run or row 5k?

This comes down to the person and what workout they’re most comfortable with and enjoy the most, Crawford says. For example, for her, running a 5k is more difficult because it doesn't feel good to her knees. Plus, she loves rowing.

How long does it take to see results from rowing vs. running?

The short answer: It depends on what results you’re looking for. “Most rowing metrics will start to improve pretty quickly (split time/avg. split etc.),” Crawford says. “But this is typically due to the learning curve of the movement and learning to generate more and more power. If you’re looking at heart health, rowing will absolutely get you there quickly due to the amount of muscles that are firing up that the heart and lungs have to function for.”

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