Rowing Vs. Running: Which Gives The Better Workout?

Just a few years ago, it was very rare to hear of someone weighing the pros and cons of rowing vs. running. If you were walking around the cardio section at your gym or trying to decide what home exercise equipment to buy, chances were you were mostly browsing treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. 

However, between CrossFit, Orange Theory, and the explosion of home workouts over the past few years, more and more people are enjoying rowing for fitness, contemplating buying a rowing machine vs. treadmill, and looking for information about which gives a better workout: rowing or running?

We’ve decided to explore that very question and put together a guide that examines rowing vs. running and compares various attributes of each workout to help you determine whether running or rowing is a better workout for you.

In this guide, we will look at:

  • Rowing vs. Running: Workout Intensity
  • Rowing vs. Running: Muscles Worked
  • Rowing vs. Running: Calories Burned
  • Rowing vs. Running: Weight Loss
  • Rowing vs. Running: Physical Stress
  • Rowing vs. Running: Enjoyment

Let’s see how these forms of exercise stack up!

Two people on rowing machines in a gym.

Rowing vs. Running: Workout Intensity

Many people want to know, is rowing better than running? However, it’s difficult to compare even a rowing machine vs. treadmill or rowing or running outside because it really depends on how hard you’re pushing yourself, the type of workout you’re using, the resistance, and even your form to some degree. 

For example, when considering running, a recovery run or easy base run is going to be much less challenging than a hard interval workout on the track like 8 x 800m at VO2 max pace.

Similarly, you can do an easy workout on a rowing machine by keeping the resistance low and rowing at a low rhythm. On the other hand, bumping up the resistance, working at faster rhythms (strokes per minute), really using your legs for power, and engaging your core can make for a vigorous workout.

In general, when most people compare the difficulty of a workout on a rowing machine vs. a treadmill, your familiarity and comfort on the machine or with the activity impacts how hard you can push yourself and thus the quality of your workout.

A woman on a rowing machine.

Rowing, in particular, is a technique-driven exercise. Proper form is crucial to achieving low splits (fast speeds) and high power output. Many beginners fail to feel like rowing is “as hard” as running because they have yet to master the stroke and proper drive. However, with practice, rowing can be a very intense workout as well.

Similarly, if you love the Concept2 rower at your gym or own a Hydrow and certainly don’t call yourself a runner, you might be able to bang out a hard workout on the rowing machine at a consistent 250 watts but struggle through a slow jog simply because running uses different muscles and your body isn’t accustomed to the activity. 

In this case, it’s more likely that you can get a hard workout on the rowing machine. In other words, your familiarity and mastery of running vs. rowing can impact your ability to work out at vigorous intensities. 

Running vs. rowing: a blurred photo of people on rowing machines indicating a vigorous exercise.

Rowing vs. Running: Muscles Worked

In general, both rowing and running provide a total-body workout. A small study of nine male athletes found that maximal V̇O2 values were similar between treadmill, rowing machine, and elliptical exercise bouts, which is an indication that all three modalities of exercise elicited similar levels of muscle activation.  

Although many people imagine rowing to be an upper-body exercise, most of the power for the rowing stroke actually comes from the legs. In fact, when looking at the rowing stroke, 60% of the work should be done by the legs, 30% from the core, and just 10% from the upper body. 

Moreover, the English Institute of Sport investigated the muscular recruitment patterns with rowing and found that rowing uses roughly 86% of the muscles in your body, making it a fantastic total-body workout. Rowing strengthens your quads, glutes, core, lats, shoulders, hamstrings, biceps, and calves.

Running works similar muscles, though the degree of activation for the muscles involved in a running vs. rowing workout differs and depends somewhat on your rowing technique and the incline of the treadmill or road.

A rower in a boat on the water.

Rowing vs. Running: Calories Burned

The number of calories you burn in any workout you do depends not only on the type of exercise you’re doing—rowing vs. running (or otherwise)—but also on your body weight, composition, and the duration and intensity of your workout. Therefore, it’s difficult to compare the calories burned on a rowing machine vs. treadmill or between outdoor rowing vs. running in any sort of blanket statement.

However, Harvard Health Publishing reports that 30 minutes of stationary rowing at a “moderate” intensity burns 210 calories for a 125-pound person, 252 calories for a 155-pound person, and 294 calories for a 185-pound person.

30 minutes of stationary rowing at a “vigorous” intensity burns 255 calories for a 125-pound person, 369 calories for a 155-pound person, and 440 calories for a 185-pound person.

A close-up of a person's hands on a rowing machine.

Running level is a little easier to quantify with specific speeds.

Data shows that running for 30 minutes at 5mph (12 min/mile pace) burns 240 calories for a 125-pound person, 288 calories for a 155-pound person, and 336 calories for a 185-pound person.

Running for 30 minutes at 6mph (10 min/mile pace) burns 295 calories for a 125-pound person, 360 calories for a 155-pound person, and 420 calories for a 185-pound person. 

Finally, running at a vigorous 10mph (6 min/mile pace) burns 453 calories for a 125-pound person, 562 calories for a 155-pound person, and 671 calories for a 185-pound person.

Therefore, running probably burns more calories than rowing, depending on the pace you run versus the intensity of your rowing workout.

The best way to estimate your actual energy expenditure on either exercise machine is to use a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker and then use the formula for Metabolic Equivalents (METs).

A woman on a rowing machine.

Rowing vs. Running: Weight Loss and Fat Burning

Any form of exercise has the potential to help you reduce body fat and lose weight, as physical activity contributes to your caloric expenditure. The more calories you burn, the greater the caloric deficit you’ll generate, which then translates to more weight loss.

In this way, burning calories on a rowing machine, treadmill, or running outdoors can get you closer to your body composition goals. Ultimately, determining whether you can lose more weight by rowing or running mostly depends on which workout you will do longer or more vigorously to burn more calories. 

For example, if you can push your body through hard or long runs on a treadmill or outside but only do moderate-intensity exercise or short stints on a rower, or have yet to learn how to generate a lot of power on the rowing machine, running will probably result in more weight loss over time.

The type of workout you do also affects your weight loss. HIIT workouts are typically considered the most effective way to lose body fat because they increase your metabolic rate even after your workout is over.

Therefore, a HIIT workout on a rowing machine, treadmill, or outdoor run will be better for fat burning than a steady-state effort workout.

A man in a gym on a rowing machine.

That said, there is some evidence to suggest that fat oxidation is higher during treadmill running than rowing.

Finally, increasing your lean body mass is also an effective way to lose body fat because muscle tissue is more metabolically-active than fat tissue. Therefore, crank up the resistance and really engage your legs when you are rowing to help build muscle for sustained weight loss.

Rowing vs. Running: Physical Stress

If you suffer from joint pain, arthritis, or chronic musculoskeletal injuries, rowing may be exactly what you are looking for when it comes to a joint-friendly form of exercise. 

Rowing is considered a low-impact exercise, like cycling, elliptical trainers, and swimming, so it puts less stress on your joints, bones, and connective tissues than running, jumping, and other high-impact sports. As long as you’re using proper form, the risk of injury on a rowing machine is also very low.

There is actually evidence to suggest that rowing can increase bone density despite being a low-impact activity.

A man in a gym on a rowing machine, looking back.

Rowing vs. Running: Enjoyment

Any form of exercise is going to be most successful if it’s something you enjoy. While enjoyment is a matter of personal preference, it’s still an important factor to consider for your own circumstances.

If you like to exercise outside, running is likely more feasible than rowing, unless you have easy access to a boathouse and waterway.

However, both rowing and running have large communities and competitions for adults, so either sport can offer a channel for racing, camaraderie, and performance tracking.

What have you decided for yourself? Is rowing better than running? Running better than rowing?

If you are coming back from an injury or looking to include other low-impact cardio options into your training program, check out this article on our very own 5 Low-Impact Cardio Workouts To Try.

A team of rowers getting in their boat.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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