The One Thing you Need to know about Rowing in a WOD

May 31, 2016

Photocredit: Crossfiit Silver Spring

We’ve all had those moments of absolute greatness on the rower. We start a WOD and not only is our pace astoundingly fast, but it feels exceptionally easy. We are a rowing god. Somehow between the disaster that was the last workout and this one, we have arrived at rowing greatness.

And then you hit the 300m mark.

And then you realize you have completely and utterly F-ed yourself.

Many of us have not spent years and thousands of strokes on the rowing machine. It’s all good. You were most likely gifted with hand-eye coordination and an inherent coolness that correlates with ball sports. Kudos. But the problem is while you were probably a way cooler adolescent than I, I know that that magical feeling that whispers of rowing greatness is a cruel trick played by the rowing machine. Strokes upon stokes on that machine has taught me to never, ever trust that feeling. The most important thing to know about rowing in the context of a WOD is: slow down.

In rowing terms, this moment of decision and pacing is know as the settle. It is when you shift from a starting sprint pace to a sustainable rhythm. It is what prevents you from crashing and burning 90 seconds into your row. It is what enables you to get off that rower and do things like thrusters and pull-ups without staring at the bar for 45 seconds seriously questioning your choices while trying to remember your first name. It is what saves you.

We know this fact while running. We know that we can’t go out at our 200m sprint pace and expect to keep it for 800m and then be an effective person afterwards. We know this pace discrepancy in that context because we know we know that context, because we know what running way too fast feels like. Most of us don’t know intimately what our rowing pace should feel like at 250m versus 500m versus 50 calories versus followed by toes-to-bar versus followed by deadlifts. There are a whole lot of variables to consider when we have a row in the midst of a WOD, made even trickier by the fact that the row tends to be a huge unknown for people.

Most athletes see the row as a black hole of exhaustion. The rower wrecks people. Holistically. Rather, the row should be the one element of the WOD you can absolutely control. It should be not the source of destruction, but rather where you mitigate it. And you do this by pacing. You do this by actively slowing down five to ten strokes into a piece.

But how exactly do you settle and where exactly do you settle to…?

This is a layered question that takes knowledge of your own rowing paces, an overall understanding of the WOD at hand, general guesswork, and some good, old fashioned hope. Let’s start with pacing.

  1. Know your benchmark paces.
    Test your 250m, 500m, 1k or 2k, and even a longer piece such as a 5k. Knowing how fast you can go all out on an isolated 250m piece is extremely helpful when you see yourself going at the pace in the context of a WOD. Chances are you have no business going that fast. Slow down to a pace that is more fitting to the overall timeframe of the workout. Is it a 12 minute workout - think closer to your 3k pace.

  2. What movements do you have after your row?
    Are you hopping of the rower and instantaneously going to be breathing harder or will you be able to slow your heart rate back down a little bit? If you know you’ll have a hot second to breathe after getting off the rower then press your pace a little bit. However, if you’re cardiovascular system is about to get kicked in the face, pump the breaks.

  3. Seconds on the rower don’t translate directly to seconds in a WOD.
    Gaining 10 seconds on your 500m row when it is towards the top of your capacity does not mean that you will finish your WOD 10 seconds faster. In fact, those 10 seconds on the rower will most likely translate to a minute plus of you regretting your decision. In contrast, taking 10 extra seconds on the rower can mean that you’ll be able to blow through the rest of the WOD without breaking pace. Being first off the rower rarely means that you will be the first to finish the WOD. In fact, being first off the rower tends to not bode well…

  4. Be consistent.
    It is so much easier to have a better mental game when you see the pace on the rower be consistent or even get faster as the row progresses. It is a complete soul-punch, however, to watch your pace get slower and slower and slower as you desperately try and keep yourself together. You can always speed up as the WOD or the piece goes on, and it is so much easier to get off a rower and attack the rest of a WOD if you haven’t had your soul crushed eight seconds earlier…

How do you settle? It’s simple.

Take five to ten strokes to go really, really hard. Use that adrenaline and that momentum while it doesn’t cost anything. Then, take a micro pause at the finish of your stroke, crawl up the recovery at a super slow pace, and then drive your legs down like you freaking mean it. Rinse and repeat for about three more strokes until you’ve effectively slowed your pace down while maintaining solid pressure with your legs (why it is so important to drive your legs down like you mean it on those first settle strokes as otherwise you’ll lose the power behind your pace.) If you aren’t able to slow down and it’s starting to get dicey: take an air stroke or two (aka: a no pressure stroke.) You will in fact not be taking an air stroke because you will be too hopped up on adrenaline and WODing, but it will slow you down before things get real interesting....

Trust me: SETTLE. It will change your Rowing and WODing world.

This is a guest post from Maddie Berky. Maddie was a NCAA Champion rower and now coaches rowing and CrossFit at CrossFit Verve in Denver, CO. She is also a writer and holistic nutritionist, specializing in all things food, sex, and worthiness. For more Maddie, check out or You can also follow her onInstagram or Facebook -Mad Wellness or Elevation Rowing.

The 1 Thing to Master Rowing #crossfit