A Faster Rowing Split Time: 4 Tips You Can’t Forget!

Written By: Elliott Smith of Total Row Fitness

In rowing, there is seemingly nothing as important as a faster split time. Generically shown as your pace per 500m, your split time is the best accountability metric you have – the lower it goes, the harder you are working.

Like most important things in life, getting your split time low (and keeping it there) can be challenging. Especially for those that are new to rowing, controlling your split time can be both frustrating and confusing. While you may feel like you are rowing harder, in reality you may actually be going slower.

Today, we will look at 4 tips to help you drive that split time lower than you’ve ever seen.


It’s easy to think that simply pushing and pulling harder are the keys to a lower split time. While this is partially true (keep reading), it neglects a critical element – the setup (i.e. our posture). If we don’t get our body into the correct alignment before starting the motion, we are only making the power phase harder and less efficient (the opposite of what we are trying to do).

So, here are a few things you want to get right before even starting:

First, make sure you are all the way into the catch. The “catch” is the point where if you were out on the water, your paddle would break the surface as you begin the power phase. By getting a “full pull,” we want to make sure that we are generating the longest possible proper stroke. Don’t short change yourself by only getting a half pull – we want our shins as close to vertical and our arms fully extended in front of us.

Second, keep your pelvis neutral, a small bend in the upper back, and your shoulders relaxed. The following picture is a good example of upper body positioning. Notice how in the lower back, the pelvis and lower spine are aligned. This is called a neutral pelvic position. Regarding the upper part of your back, a slight forward curvature is good. Don’t sit straight up with your shoulders pulled back, and don’t lean forward with a massive curve in the back. As your arms reach out in front of you, your back should have a natural forward lean.

Third, allow the ankles to flex. The all-important leg drive will start through the balls of our feet, before shifting to our heels. When you begin your leg explosion, your heels should be off the board.

And fourth, don’t let the knees flair! If your legs want to fly open, you are possibly not getting enough flex through your ankles. Try moving your feet straps a few notches larger. Imagine doing a squat with your knees pointed directly in front of you.

How this lowers your split time:
Simply put, the longer and cleaner your stroke, the faster you will go. We accomplish this first by making sure we start in the right position. Everything else we do will follow this step!

Now we get to the magic! Your total stroke power has a 60% lower body component, and consists of some of our largest muscle groups (hello huge calorie burn). When we drive back (notice I didn’t say “pull” back), let’s make the most of these big and powerful muscles.

First, remember your sequence of motion: LEGS, core, then arms. When your recovery ends and your body briefly stop moving before initiating the next stroke, your immediate action should be a hard drive through the balls of your feet.

Second, transition your drive from your toes to your heels. As you reach full acceleration, you should have your full foot pressed against the board. You may even begin to feel your toes starting to now curl back at you.

Third, MAKE SURE AND FULLY EXTEND THOSE LEGS! Remember, more than half of our stroke power derives from our lower body – don’t short change yourself by not extending your legs completely straight. The less you do with your legs, the more you will have to do with your upper body (and the slower you will go.

How this lowers your split time:
Your legs are going to ultimately determine how fast you can go. Only by delivering a forceful and clean leg drive, will you be able to take advantage of all your power. While all 4 points we are discussing are important, your leg drive will make the largest impact on decreasing your split time.

Your core to floor angle should remain nearly the same through the entire leg drive. What this means in reality is that we do not want to initiate our weaker core and arm motions until we have gained the full momentum from our leg drive. Once those knees are almost locked, it’s safe to begin flexing back through your core.

Only once your shoulders have passed the imaginary vertical line straight up from your hips, do you want to start bending the elbows and finishing your stroke with the upper part of your body. The more momentum you can generate from your legs, the easier your arms and back will have to work. This saves energy, and allows you to keep that split time lower for longer.

How this lowers your split time:
Pulling too early through your arms is one of the most common mistakes we see. Many new rowers try to “muscle through the stroke” by bending the elbows and engaging the biceps almost immediately. All this will accomplish is early fatigue, sore back and biceps, a likely early finish to your session, and a split time that doesn’t reflect the effort you are applying.

Aside from pulling through your arms, the most common “mistake” we see from new rowers is that they become overly focused on their stroke rate (the number of strokes you are pulling each minute). While pulling more times each minute will no doubt increase your split time, this will only be the case if your power remains equal and your form intact. In many cases, as rowers push their stroke rate into the 30s, they will actually see an increase in split time (they are slowing down).

Why is this a problem?
First, your form will begin to falter the faster you move back and forth. As our form and posture fail, the wrong muscles begin to fire in the wrong order. While this is also a great way to get hurt, in the immediate term you will feel fatigued much sooner and your goal split time will remain elusive. Further, as you rush back to the catch to keep your stroke rate high, your posture will break and your stroke will shorten.

Second, your focus shifts from leg drive to maintaining a fast motion. As we have already discussed in our second point above, a full, strong leg drive is critically important to dropping that split time. Anything that takes our focus away from a full leg drive is a problem.

How this lowers your split time:
Increasing your stroke rate to improve your split time does work, but only to a certain degree. In the long-run, it is much more important to keep our stroke rate down, our power up, and our form strong.

As you become more confident in your stroke, steadily begin increasing your stroke rate. This is what ultimately delivers the lower split time possible!

There is a lot that goes into a beautiful, strong rowing stroke. At Total Row, we watch every component of your stroke, from catch posture, to leg drive, through the recovery. Don’t feel frustrated when you hit those seemingly never-ending split-time plateaus. With a little extra focus and practice, you will bust through!

If you are ready for your own evaluation (while enjoying a Free week of classes), sign up for a class at Total Row today!