Even the most basic rower displays at least 5 or 6 different sets of data about your workout. It's valuable information that you can use to maximize your workout, yet many users don't appreciate what it's telling them. They either ignore it, or just keep a track of the calories or distance rowed.
But why let all this 'data' get in the way of a good session? Well of course you can ignore it altogether and just enjoy the activity. If you have goals for your training, the information about your performance is a great way to see improvement, and this is a great motivator. If your machine is not PC compatible, I suggest you keep a spreadsheet or wall chart of your times and distances alongside your weight and other measurements of fitness such as recovery rates - more on this to come.
So let's start and take a look at what all those figures mean, and how you can use that information. Let's start with the obvious:-
Time / Elapsed Time
As soon as you start rowing the timer starts ticking. But it's more than just a nice to know piece of information. You can use the time for Time Trial workouts to measure your progress. Some rowers will have a stopwatch function to count down to zero and beep when complete. Set you timer or determine a time limit and see how far you can row in that time. Or use a set distance and measure the time it takes to reach that target. Any other measure can be used for time trials, such as how many calories you burn or watts you generate - see below for definitions.
Again, pretty self-explanatory and measured in meters. Competitive rowers race over 2,000 meters so you can compare your performance against theirs - although using a machine is not the same as rowing in open water conditions. Distance can be used for time trails - see above. Or interval training, for example, rowing at a 28 strokes per minute for 250 meters, then a more challenging 34 for the next 250, then dropping back to 28 to recover for the next 250. Every once in a while you might try rowing for distance and see just how far you can go before you have to stop.
One interesting approach is to use a map of a great river - the Amazon is a good choice measuring almost a whopping 4,000 miles or for rowing purposes a muscle-sapping 6,400,000 meters!
You can track your progress from source to sea with every session.
We all use the term to burn calories. Technically this isn't correct because a calorie is a unit of heat energy (to be exact, the amount of energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree) - so it's not possible to burn an amount of energy. But let's not get too pedantic - we all know what we mean. So when you've rowed for 10 minutes and the display tells you've used 36 calories, that's the equivalent of one bite of a Snickers bar! However, before you get too depressed, using a rowing machine does 'burn more calories' (see, we're not immune!) than any other type of exercise equipment without it feeling as hard work as training on a treadmill or exercise bike.
Some like to use this information to test the efficiency of their workout, for example, whether rowing for 15 minutes at 28 strokes per minute or 10 minutes at 32. However, on most rowers, the calories readout is just an approximation based on the average-sized person. This will only be an accurate readout if you can enter your personal details such as height, age and weight.
See Part 2 where we look at Watts, Stroke Rate and Heart/ Pulse Rate.
Roy Palmer is an athletics coach, teacher of The Alexander Technique and a rowing fanatic.