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The Best Swim Cross-Training You Haven’t Discovered Yet

By Karen Parnell, 03/03/21, 1:00PM EST


Still can’t get to a pool? Rowing is your next best bet.

MARCH 7, 2021

Whether it’s COVID, pool closures, or a scheduling conflict, swimming can be the toughest discipline to fit into our busy lives. As many pools around the world remain closed, with others opening on a strict reservation basis only, we may find ourselves looking longingly at the local lake, wishing it weren’t frozen.

As triathletes, how do we maintain our swimming fitness and sport-specific muscle strength when lane time is scarce or unavailable? Enter: the rowing machine.

First, let’s take a look at the discipline of swimming. The muscles used for freestyle can be split into upper and lower body. In terms of the upper body, front crawl relies on the deltoids (upper shoulder), latissimus dorsi (down the side of your back), trapezius (upper back and neck), triceps and biceps. The muscles of the shoulders and around the shoulder blade (including the deltoids) help ‘hold’ the ‘paddle’ (your hand and arm) in place as your body moves past it. Your core muscles, including your abdominals, trapezius and latissimus dorsi, help you hold a streamlined torso.

In terms of the lower body, front crawl works the hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. Your abdominal muscles also engage to stabilize you in the water.

Swimming is also a great cardiovascular workout and burns about 257 kcals in half an hour. As we know swimming is also a great low impact total body workout.

If you have access to gym but no pool, the closest you can get to the muscles used, calories burned, impact on our joints and similar cardiovascular stress is the rowing machine. This almost perfect piece of equipment targets very similar muscles to the swim: the quads, hamstrings, glutes, lats, core, shoulders, triceps, back and biceps. Rowing also uses very similar terms for the phases of the stroke: the catch, drive, finish and recovery.

These photos illustrate the different row positions and phases:

While the muscles in each phase are not identical, there is a lot of crossover between the muscles used throughout the four phases of both swimming and rowing. And the similarities don’t end there. During rowing we have a similar cardiovascular response and the calories burned are very close in number.

Now that you know you can substitute some rowing for swimming workouts when needed, what sort of workouts should you do? As with swimming we can do endurance, sprints, fartlek, intervals and threshold sessions. Obviously, we cannot develop swim technique perse, but for short periods of time we can develop or maintain our muscular and cardiovascular fitness using these workouts.

For an endurance session I tend to go with time. For example, if your 400-swim time is 7 minutes and you want to cover the equivalent of a 3000km swim then this would be around 52 min 30 secs of rowing in HR zone 2-3. Note that you will cover a lot more km on the rower, so you may cover around 10km in an hour.

Below are a few of my favourite rowing workouts. Enjoy!

Rowing Workouts



Five minutes warm up, then three minutes fast row at 30 strokes per minute, two minutes moderate row at 23/24 strokes per minute for 30 minutes. Always try to bring the 500 pace down (negative splitting) as you go through the set. An example might be 2:25 at the beginning and bring that down to 1:50 by the end of the bout.

Hour of Power

Row hard until you reach maximum heart rate, then slow down until your heart rate reaches 60 beats per minute, then start over again. Count and log how many strokes it takes for your heart rate to come down to the prescribed level. Continue that for one hour.


Before you can do this set you need to row your fastest 5km and write it down.

10 x 500 with 1-minute rest, but the total time must be at least one minute faster than a straight 5K row.

Pyramid (Sprints)

1-2-3-4-3-2-1-minute pyramid with 30 seconds off between pieces. Do each pyramid step as fast as you can!

Karen’s Favourite

Warm up

-5 min @ zone 1 (with resistance setting 1)

Main set

-1 min @ zone 3-4 (with resistance setting 5-7)
-2 min @ zone 2

Repeat main set 4 times

Warm down

-5 min @ zone 2 going to zone 1 (with resistance setting 1).


3x5k, stroke rate (SPM) 20-24. Rest five to seven minutes between pieces. Work on length, rhythm and consistent splits.

Karen Parnell is the owner and head coach of Chili Tri in Andalucia, Southern Spain. She is an IRONMAN Certified Coach who is trained in various modalities within the swim, bike, and run, as well as nutrition and other holistic training approaches.