How to Get a Faster 500m Row Time

The row ergometer, or erg and found in most gyms as a Concept2 rower, has become extremely popular in functional gyms and training facilities around the world, and for very good reason. I personally consider it one of the best pieces of equipment inside the gym, along with the death machine that is the Assault AirBike.

You’ll routinely find 500m rows in CrossFit WODs and mixed modal-style training practices. And for some, the 500m row test – how fast you can row 500m – is a real badge of honor. The men’s world record currently stands at 1:10.5 minutes and women’s at 1:24.5,  if you feel like giving it a go.

As the popularity of the 500m row has increased over the years, so has the desire to learn how to improve these times. In the past three years, the most popular post on our blog has been “How To Improve Your 500m Row Time.” Thousands of people every month have flocked to this post to learn the secrets of improving their 500m row time and reported back significant success, some even knocking 20 seconds off their personal record.

Today I’m going to re-visit the methods we used to improve the 500m row time, explain how our thought process has completely changed, and tell you how to achieve better and more repeatable 500m row times.

(If you’d like to read the original 500m row training plan, you can do so here)

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Can You Do It Again?

The one significant shift to my training philosophy over the past few years, has been this: How quickly can I recover from something and do it again? For so long, I focused on absolutes. What is my max deadlift? Max bench press? How fast can I row 2000m? What about 500m?

I was so fixated on one individual score that I was missing out on the bigger picture of heath and fitness. It’s not just about how well someone can complete a task once but how well their body can recover from that task and do it again.

You can argue that this isn’t really applicable to Olympians or elite athletes who dedicate their lives to one particular goal or movement, and you would be correct. It is different. Those folks train to give their all on the competition floor. For us mere everyday athletes, overall health and wellness should be our primary focus.

That doesn’t mean we train at the expense of athletic performance. No sireee, we’re all about that too. For an everyday athlete, health, wellness, and performance go together until that pivotal tipping point into elite fitness is reached though, to be honest, most of us will never reach those levels.

So, with respect to your 500m row time, I want you to start thinking in terms of “battery performance.” This means if I was to ask you to perform a 500m row test, rest a short period of time, then do it again, what would your second time look like? I can tell you now, for the vast majority of people, it would be terrifyingly awful, and they’d feel awful too.

It’s not just about how well someone can complete a task once but how well their body can recover from that task and do it again.Click To Tweet

Most people think that improving their 500m row time test will significantly impact their overall cardiovascular fitness, lowering their 2000m row times and their WOD times, but that is often not the case. The issue here is a great misunderstanding of the energy systems used by the body during the 500m all-out effort.

Because it is such a short event (normally lasting less than two minutes), people assume that it is an anaerobic event meaning they’re only using the anaerobic energy system without the presence of oxygen to create energy. However, that is simply not the case. A 500m row test uses both anaerobic and aerobic energy.

Modern research shows that in a 2000m row race, about 83% of the energy used is aerobic in nature and 17% anaerobic. The best comparison I could find was to 400m and 800m track runners.

A runner who races 400m in 49 seconds is using 57% anaerobic energy and 43% aerobic energy, compared to a runner who races 800m in 1:53  using 66% aerobic energy and 34% anaerobic energy.

A 500m rower will sit somewhere between the 400m and 800m figures, and at least 50% of their energy will come from aerobic energy production.

To truly pass the 500m row test, both aerobic and anaerobic systems need to be working together. This is one of the main reasons why I see so many people struggle with this test – they simply do not have the aerobic capacity to perform it, perform it well, or the ability to repeatedly perform it.

They don’t have an aerobic battery, which is a huge gap in their training.

How To Approach Your 500m Row Training

Before we discuss how to approach your training for the 500m row test, I would encourage you to consider shifting your mind from thinking about it as a single all out test to thinking about it as two tests back to back. Why? Because the results of the test allow us to gain a far deeper understanding of your anaerobic lactic endurance ability, your aerobic ability, and the body’s overall ability to recover (your aerobic battery).

This is extremely important in terms of athletic performance for sports and for the health of the everyday athlete. Just think of the impact it would have in your day-to day-life if you’re able to recover faster – you’d have more energy and could get more stuff done throughout the day. And how much easier would those rowing WODs be??

The 500m row test, as we know from above, is roughly 50% anaerobic and 50% aerobic in nature. If you’ve read my book “Maximum Aerobic Power,” you’ll understand that in order to train anaerobically you need to earn the right first. What does that mean? At Strength Matters we have two requirements:

  1. You need to be physically strong enough.
  2. And have a robust aerobic training base.

I won’t go into too much depth here but as a rough strength guideline, men should be able to deadlift 1.5 x bodyweight for 5 reps and complete 5 strict pull-ups and women should be able to deadlist 1.25 x bodyweight for 5 reps and perform 2 strict pull-ups. In terms of aerobic base, being able to run 10000m or row 13000m in under 60 minutes for both men and women is considered a good starting point.

For the purposes of the following training plan, I am going to assume that you are strong enough and that you have some experience in aerobic training. If you do not, I would argue that strength training should be prioritized alongside a solid amount of aerobic work prior to starting this training plan.

The Program Overview

  1. 500m Row x 2 Test
  2. Aerobic Base Building
  3. Anaerobic Work
  4. Aerobic Base Recovery
  5. 500m Row x 2 Test

Step 1: The 500m Row x 2 Test

You will probably hate me for eternity for this test and I apologise right now. It’s a test that’s used in elite CrossFit circles, but can be safely completed by most novices. I promise it will make you stronger in the long run.

The test is performed as follows:

  • Row 500m
  • Rest 90 Seconds, feet still in the straps
  • Row 500m

The goal is to achieve the quickest total 1000m when both 500m times are added together. It’s not about going 110% in the first run and simply trying to survive in the second test. It is about getting the best combined time from both rows. The second time should be as close as possible to the first and no more than 10% longer.

Examples of exceptional times for  this test would be:

  • Men: 1:25 and 1:35, for a total of 3 minutes
  • Women: 1:40 and 1:50 for a total of 3 minutes 30 seconds

Examples of achievable everyday athlete times:

  • Men: 1:40 and 1:50 for total of 3 minutes 30 seconds
  • Women: 1:55 and 2:05 for a total of 4 minutes

When I assign this test to clients, I consistently see the second row time is not only over 10% longer but is more often than not over the 20%. This indicates an extremely weak aerobic system, alluding to what I was talking about earlier. The missing link here is developing the aerobic system. We need to build the aerobic battery.

Step 2: Aerobic Base Building

There is no two ways about it, aerobic base building takes time. The aerobic system is developed by training below the aerobic threshold, which means easy, sustainable, and repeatable work for volume. You can’t cheat this process. It takes time and patience.

The workouts outlined below can be completed as a stand-alone session or at the end of a strength training day, but the idea is to complete it four to five times per week.

Determining Your Aerobic Pace

 From your 500m Row x 2 Test, your second time is the aerobic pace you’ll use for these workouts, e.g. if your times were 1:40 and 1:57, 1:57 would be your starting 500m split pace. You will complete every round at 1:57 for 500m for the following workouts.

The Workouts

Complete four to five workouts each week of the following:

Week Distance Split Time
1 5 x 500m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m
2 6 x 500m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m
3 7 x 500m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m
4 8 x 500m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m
5 5 x 750m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m
6 6 x 750m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m
7 7 x 750m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m
8 8 x 750m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m

The most important thing about this workout is that all 500m and 750m row times must be identical for each set. For example, based on the 1:57/500m split time above:

 Week 1:

  • Set 1 = 1:57
  • Set 2 = 1:57
  • Set 3 = 1:57
  • Set 4 = 1:57
  • Set 5 = 1:57

Week 8:

  • Set 1 = 2:56
  • Set 2 = 2:56
  • Set 3 = 2:56
  • Set 4 = 2:56
  • Set 5 = 2:56
  • Set 6 = 2:56
  • Set 7 = 2:56
  • Set 8 = 2:56

It’s important to remember that if you cannot sustain that pace for all the prescribed sets at any point you will need to adjust your pace accordingly. All pacing and all sets must be identical in nature if you start to see something like this:

Week 1:

  • Set 1 = 1:57
  • Set 2 = 1:57
  • Set 3 = 1:59
  • Set 4 = 2:03
  • Set 5 = 2:06

This pace is not sustainable for you and you need to adjust accordingly. My recommendation would be adding 2 to 5 seconds until it feels comfortable. Conversely, if the pace feels too easy, subtract 2 to 5 seconds.

Step 3: Anaerobic Development

Anaerobic development is hard work. You need time to recover and you also need to be strong enough to do it. The last eight weeks of training have helped you develop a more robust aerobic system allowing you to recover faster between sets and handle the volume required.

I recommend you do this as either a stand-alone workout or after a light strength training session. You’ll need to conserve all your energy for it.

Determining Your Max Calories

Prior to each week of the workouts, you will test for the maximum number of calories you can record on the rower in a given time frame. Your goal will be to try and hit that number of calories on each subsequent set.

For example, your max calorie results could look like this:

  • Week 1: 20 Seconds = 13 Calories
  • Week 2: 25 Seconds = 15 Calories
  • Week 3: 30 Seconds = 17 Calories
  • Week 4: 35 Seconds = 19 Calories

The Workouts

Complete three workouts each per week of the following, allowing 48 hours rest in between:

Week Time Calories
1 20 Sec x 10 (2 Min Rest) 13
2 25 Sec x 8 (2 Min Rest) 15
3 30 Sec x 6 (2 Min Rest) 17
4 35 x 4 (2 Min Rest) 19

The most important thing about this workout is that you go all out on each set. If you drop below two calories of your target, stop for the day.

Step 4: Aerobic Base Recovery

After the last four weeks of hard work, we need to reduce the intensity and return to base building work. This will mirror the first step however, it will only last one week.

Aerobic base building takes time. The aerobic system needs to be developed below the aerobic threshold, which means easy, sustainable, and repeatable work for volume. You can’t cheat this system. It’s going to take time and patience.

The workout outlined below can be completed as a stand-alone workout or at the end of a strength training day, but the idea is to complete it four to five per week.

The Workouts

Complete four to five workouts for one week of the following workout. Your split time should be the same as your second recorded 500m test time (e.g. 1:57) from the start from testing.

Week Distance Split Time
1 6 x 500m (2 Min Rest Between) 1:57/500m

The most important thing about this workout is that all 500m row times are identical for each set. Just like it was at the start.

Step 5: 500m Row x 2 Re-Testing

You will probably hate me even more for making you re-take this test, but I don’t care. It’s making you a better everyday athlete.

Remember the test is performed as follows:

  • Row 500m
  • Rest 90 Seconds, feet still in the straps
  • Row 500m

Compare your times from the original test. How did you perform? It’s not uncommon to see combined improvements of over 30 seconds.  And the benefits go beyond your 500m row, as you’re likely to discover in other aspects of your training and daily life.

Final Thoughts

The row erg is one of my favorite tools in the box. It is a significant piece of equipment and I can’t recommend it enough as part of your weekly training. The five step approach above is an example of our life-long approach to health and fitness. I outlined a 14 week training program to give you an idea of how you might peak by using it.

One thing I ask you to take away from this approach is that your ability to recover faster and repeat the work is far more important to overall health than the actual times. And this carries over to other aspects of training when you apply the Strength Matters system.

Enjoy the challenge, and please send all hate mail to Josh Kennedy.

(If you’d like to read the original 500m row training plan, you can do so here)

P.S New to Strength Matters? Start here:

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How to Improve Your 500m Row Time (V2)
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How to Improve Your 500m Row Time (V2)
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Step by step training plan to show you how to improve your 500m row time.
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Strength Matters
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