Build Serious Cardio Fitness With This 30-Minute Rowing Workout From A Cambridge University Boat Club Coach

Woman using rowing machine in gym
(Image credit: Cavan Images / Getty Images)

The agony on the faces of rowers at the end of The Boat Race let you know just how hard it is to maintain the effort they put in through the event. That performance is built on months of demanding training.

If you want a little taste of that training, then try this progressive rowing workout from Patrick Ryan, chief coach of Cambridge University Boat Club’s Women’s Programme, which builds in intensity over three 10-minute blocks.

“The 3 x 10-minute session is a key part of our athletes’ development and one that we revisit throughout the season,” says Ryan. “It targets aerobic training, the base of any great Boat Race performance, and focuses athletes on building an aerobic base and making sure that their speed increases with each increase in [stroke] rate.”


“We warm up for half an hour, starting with some stretching and mobility exercises for 10 minutes, getting the blood flowing before athletes get on the ergo [rowing machine],” says Ryan. “Once you get on the ergo, work through the stroke, addressing both technique and intensity as you move through the warm-up.  

“Start by using arms only. Weight on the back of the seat, reaching out to straight arms and drawing back to your xiphoid process [the bottom of your sternum]. You’re looking to increase the handle’s speed through the stroke without snatching. Do this for about a minute.

“Next it’s arms and body. Once your arms are straight, rock your hips forward and transfer your weight onto the front of the seat and feel a little stretch in your hamstrings, but not too much. This sets your body position for when you move out to the full rowing stroke. Start the drive by swinging back with straight arms, using your arms to keep accelerating the handle into your body. Do a minute or two of this, at a 3-4/10 intensity, then we start to bring in the legs.”

From there, Ryan suggests working through a quarter slide, half slide, three-quarter slide and then into a full slide, as detailed below. The catch is the position you adopt before you drive back with your legs.

“Quarter slide: From the arms and body movement above, let your knees come up a few inches and roll into the catch,” says Ryan. “Drive with your legs and arms straight, then swing into the finish.

“Half slide: The next few positions are building on the quarter slide position and compressing the legs more and more into the catch so that the stroke can get longer and stronger.

“Three-quarter slide: keeping your body at the same angle, and very nearly coming forward until your shins are upright.

“Full slide: this is at the length you’re going to do the workout.”

Finish off your warm-up with some higher-intensity intervals based on your stroke rate (strokes per minute, which Ryan refers to as simply rate), and rate of perceived exertion (RPE) to get yourself ready for the workout proper.

“Once you’ve been rowing at full slide at low intensity for a few minutes, open up a bit by rowing at a higher intensity and rate for a minute,” says Ryan. “Row at rate 24 for a minute at about 8/10 intensity, then row at your easier aerobic pace for a minute. Then it’s time to open up again, rating 28 at about 8/10 intensity for 30 seconds and recovering at your easier aerobic pace for 90 seconds. Finish your warm-up by rowing for 15 seconds at rate 32 at a high intensity.”

30-Minute Rowing Workout

The workout is broken up into three 10-minute blocks (or “pieces” as they are called in rowing circles) with 90 seconds of rest in between them. For each piece, Ryan has given a stroke rate to hit, along with a target intensity based on RPE, plus guidelines for the power (in watts) you’ll put out if you’re used to using those.

Ryan suggests that for each 10-minute piece try and record your average watts and heart rate. Then when you next do the session you’ll be able to track your improved fitness.

“When you revisit the session later, remember your watts from the last time you did this session, and keep the stroke rate the same as previously,” says Ryan. “If your training is working, you’ll see your heart rate drop and perceived exertion drop if you keep the watts the same, or if you go by perceived exertion and heart rate, you’ll see your watts increase significantly!”

Piece 1

Time 10min Rest 90sec

“If you know the watts you would normally pull rating 18, you’re looking to pull about 20 watts more and rate 22 for this 10-minute piece,” says Ryan. “If you don’t know what your pace should be, I’d want you to do this first piece at an RPE of 5/10. Use this piece to establish consistency— no great peaks or troughs in output.

“Take 90 seconds rest. You should finish this piece ready to go for the next piece—bank it when you can, this workout will bite later.”

Piece 2

Time 10min Rest 90sec

“Take it up two rating points for the second 10 minutes, so you’ll be rating 24 for this section of the workout and increasing your wattage from the first piece by about 10 watts,” says Ryan. “This should take you to 7/10 RPE and your heart rate will probably be 10bpm higher. As the intensity increases, focus on the stroke: start the drive with your legs, opening the back when the legs are nearly down, and finishing with your arms.”

After another 90 seconds of rest, go into the third 10-minute block.

Piece 3

Time 10min Rest 90sec

“We do this final 10-minute piece at rating 26, at a 9/10 intensity. Consistency is key in this piece as it is when racing the Boat Races—you cannot afford to drop intensity at any point, but you also can’t afford to blow up! If you’ve got anything left in the last 30 seconds, maintain the rate and squeeze on a bit.”

The Gemini Boat Race 2024 takes place in Putney on Saturday 30th March, with the Women’s Race starting at 2:46pm GMT and the Men’s Race at 3:46pm GMT. The event will be broadcast live on BBC One from 2pm GMT.

Read our Concept2 RowErg review to find out why it tops our list of the best rowing machines.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.