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Rowing versus Running: Determining the Optimal Cardio Exercise

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Between the numerous pieces of equipment in the cardiovascular section of your gym and the perspiration-inducing studio fitness classes now available, there are plenty of choices for you to achieve the 150 minutes of medium-intensity physical activity that the CDC suggests adults acquire on a weekly basis. And while any heart-pounding cardiovascular workout can enhance your emotional state and fortify your heart, some possess distinct advantages over others. Want to exercise at home but lack space? Grab a skipping rope. Do you enjoy the outdoors and occasional exercise sessions with your dog? Enter the #hotgirlwalk — with a slight boost.

Among the countless cardiovascular exercise options, however, rowing and running remain two of the original classics. While both can help you reach your weekly cardiovascular goal, running and rowing differ in terms of impact, muscle groups targeted, and considerations for injuries. Experts provide insights into the benefits of running versus rowing, as well as tips on how to determine the optimal cardiovascular option for you.

Advantages of Running

Running is a popular choice for many individuals as a cardiovascular exercise, and for good reason. “Running is an excellent cardiovascular workout that burns plenty of calories,” explains April Gatlin, a certified personal trainer and coach at STRIDE Fitness. “Consistently engaging in this type of exercise can decrease the resting heart rate, lower cholesterol levels, and improve lung capacity.” Even better, you don’t need to run for hours on end to experience some of the workout’s advantages. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology discovered that running for just five to 10 minutes per day, at speeds below six miles per hour (equivalent to a 12-minute mile or slower), was associated with significantly reduced risks of mortality from all causes and cardiovascular disease.

If that isn’t convincing enough, here are even more reasons why running may be your preferred choice for cardiovascular exercise.

Engages Lower-Body Muscles and Core

Whether you’re conquering hill repeats or engaging in a low-intensity, continuous jog, running activates your lower body, which houses your largest muscle groups including your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Additionally, your core muscles are also stimulated during a run, as noted by Gatlin.

That’s because your central part aids in stabilizing your body while engaging in the act of running, as Shape previously documented. Bear in mind that during running, you’re proceeding by moving your feet alternatively, necessitating a considerable amount of equilibrium. Interpretation: Your core encounters a more intensive exercise session than you may anticipate.

Provides Convenience

A significant advantage of running? It’s a convenient cardiovascular option that doesn’t require access to bulky, costly equipment. Tie your shoelaces, step outside, and you’re well on your way to elevating your heart rate. Since running doesn’t necessitate equipment, it can also be a more cost-effective cardiovascular option (although you’ll still need to replace your running shoes a few times a year as the miles accumulate; experts suggest a fresh pair every 300 to 600 miles). The convenience of this cardiovascular option can also make it easier to maintain your running routine, regardless of work travel, vacations, or other obstacles that might otherwise hinder your workout.

Even if you don’t reside in a location where you can safely run outdoors, nearly all big-box gyms provide treadmills, as do even the most budget-friendly hotel gyms. With such widespread availability and accessibility, running can effortlessly integrate into your cardiovascular regimen.

Strengthens Bones

Running is a high-impact workout, meaning your feet leave and return to contact with the ground. While this motion does exert stress on your joints, the high-impact nature of running also results in stronger bones due to the repetitive impact. Every step you take while running stresses your bones and cartilage, causing them to rebound with increased strength, as Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta, previously stated to Shape. Over time, this enhances your bone density, reducing your susceptibility to fractures. Research also supports this: a study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal found that runners were half as likely to suffer from knee osteoarthritis (also known as “wear and tear” arthritis) compared to walkers.

Benefits of Rowing

While rowing was once primarily associated with athletes as a cardio training tool, it has now become a staple in many gyms, fitness studios, and households thanks to rowing machines. In fact, the number of individuals rowing indoors has grown by nearly 20 percent since 2014. Here’s why rowing is recognized as an effective form of cardio.

Protects Joints and Is Low-Impact

“The foremost advantage of rowing is the capacity to train your cardiovascular system without subjecting our joints to excessive stress,” says Josh Honore, NASM certified personal trainer and coach at Row House.

Rowing is a seated endeavor and non-weight carrying, so it does not exert as much strain on the joints, he emphasizes. “Its gentle impact characteristic makes [rowing] marvelous for individuals grappling with joint considerations or recuperating from a wound.” Naturally, always obtain approval from your physician before commencing a fresh kind of physical activity, particularly if you are undergoing rehabilitation for an injury.

Provides a Comprehensive Exercise for the Entire Body

Rowing might have a low impact, but don’t be deceived – you’re still receiving an efficient workout. “Rowing targets nearly every muscle in the body,” states Honore. As evidence, a study conducted by the English Institute of Sport reveals that rowing engages 86 percent of your muscles.

“Beyond the cardiovascular conditioning, the resistance offered by the damper and the power output required by the rower contribute to conditioning almost every muscle in the body,” Honore further explains. Just a friendly reminder: the damper refers to the lever on the side of the rower wheel that regulates airflow and allows you to adjust resistance. Therefore, if your objective is to involve as many muscle groups as possible during your cardio session, rowing (especially with added resistance from the damper) is superior to running.

Enhances Posture

Let’s analyze rowing for a moment: approximately 60 percent relies on your legs, 30 percent on your core, and 10 percent on your arms, according to Joseph Ilustrisimo, a certified personal trainer recognized by ACSM, as previously mentioned in Shape magazine. “Furthermore, significant activation of the core is involved – your core muscles should remain engaged throughout the entire rowing session, resulting in a sensation of burning throughout your core,” he adds. Additionally, Honore mentions that rowing can assist in strengthening the muscles of the posterior chain, which can counteract the negative consequences of prolonged sitting.

As a reminder, the posterior chain is composed of any muscle group located on the backside of your body (such as hamstrings, glutes, lower back, shoulders, and core). With a weak posterior chain, you are more prone to slouching since your back muscles lack the strength to retract your shoulder blades and maintain an upright posture. On the other hand, a strong posterior chain can counteract the drawbacks of “tech neck,” making rowing one of the most effective exercises for improving posture.

How to Decide Between Running and Rowing

First, the positive news: since both running and rowing are approved by trainers as efficient ways to increase your heart rate, there is no inherently wrong choice. Instead, consider which option will best suit your specific needs and lifestyle.

“Initially, think about which modality you can use with the utmost safety and comfort,” advises Honore. “Your choice can exacerbate any existing aches and pains.” For instance, individuals with chronic foot or knee pain should avoid running, while those with lower back pain should steer clear of rowing. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine to ensure you are cleared for cardiovascular activities.

You may also want to take accessibility into account. If you belong to a large-scale gym with a designated cardio area, you likely have access to both treadmills and rowing machines (although quality rowing machines are still less common in gyms compared to treadmills, as Honore mentions).

On the contrary, if you favor exercising in your own residence and lack space for a cardiovascular apparatus, engaging in outdoor running might be your favored cardiovascular activity.

Finally, choose whichever cardiovascular option you prefer. If you enjoy the sensation of pounding the pavement at dawn, it’s completely acceptable to devote yourself to running for cardiovascular exercise. If you anticipate a comprehensive workout on the rowing machine, go ahead and incorporate that into your routine. “Consistency is crucial, and you are more likely to stick with an exercise that you enjoy,” Honore suggests.

Still undecided? Here are a few key distinctions between running and rowing to assist you in selecting your cardiovascular activity.

Rowing vs. Running: Injury Recovery

No surprises here, but rowing’s emphasis on low-impact makes it a joint-friendly cardiovascular option for individuals recuperating from injuries. “A valuable guideline to determine whether running or rowing is the best fit is to consider any past injuries that may cause orthopedic difficulties resulting in pain or restriction,” Gatlin notes. “For instance, rowing would be an excellent choice for individuals who have had a hip replacement.” Rowing may also be appealing to those with knee pain, as it enables the development of strength and endurance without aggravating the sore joint (subject to approval from a medical professional).

Rowing vs. Running: Calorie Burn

There is still debate as to whether rowing or running burns more calories. On the one hand, rowing is a full-body workout that engages more muscle groups than running. Additionally, “the resistance and intensity of the rowing machine place greater strain on the cardiovascular system, which can lead to a more significant metabolic response in a shorter period of time,” says Honore. “Furthermore, the low-impact nature of rowing allows for longer training sessions with less potential discomfort.” However, running is a weight-bearing exercise, which may result in a higher calorie burn compared to rowing, according to Gatlin.

The American Council on Exercise’s Physical Activity Calorie Counter calculates that moderate-intensity rowing and running yield a similar calorie burn per hour. With this in mind, feel free to disregard calorie count when choosing between running and rowing — ultimately, it is more important to find a form of movement that brings you joy rather than fixating on calorie burn.

Rowing vs. Running: Balance and Stability

Balance is often underestimated when planning workouts, yet cultivating strong balance and core stability is vital for preventing injuries, particularly as you age. Since rowing is performed while seated, it does not require as much balance. Additionally, it involves bilateral movements, meaning both sides of your body work in unison. On the contrary, running involves moving your limbs in opposite directions and essentially hopping from one foot to the other. The outcome? You need a solid sense of balance to remain upright and avoid falling while running. Therefore, if improving your sense of balance and stability is one of your workout goals, prioritize running over rowing.

Rowing vs. Running: For Beginners

Embarking on your fitness journey? Rowing may have a slight advantage over running. “For many beginners, I would recommend rowing” as a form of cardiovascular exercise, suggests Honore. “The lower impact and adjustable resistance of rowing make it slightly more accessible and enjoyable from the outset compared to running.

Benefits of Rowing for Beginners

For individuals who are new to fitness and may have orthopedic concerns, or those who are susceptible to injury, rowing provides a safer and painless form of exercise. As stated by Gatlin, if a beginner has orthopedic problems or cannot walk, rowing is highly recommended as the optimal choice. This is because it places less stress on the joints and is a non-weight bearing activity, while also engaging a greater variety of muscle groups compared to running. In summary, rowing can be a preferable option for fitness beginners.

An Analysis: Rowing vs. Running

When considering the comparison between rowing and running, it is important to take into account factors such as injury recovery and joint discomfort. In these cases, rowing serves as a safer alternative for cardiovascular exercise, while simultaneously providing a comprehensive whole-body workout that targets many major muscles. However, for those who prioritize convenience and the ability to exercise outdoors, running remains a viable choice. Ultimately, the key is to engage in physical activity that brings enjoyment, as suggested by Gatlin. Assuming that there are no orthopedic limitations, the decision between rowing and running can be influenced by personal preference. It is natural to engage in activities that bring pleasure and satisfaction.