The Calories Versus Meters Debate
The debate about how rowing changes or doesn’t change based on calories and meters is one I have heard from dozens of different people. And it matters.
In Open Workout 18.1, which included a 14/12 calorie row for men/women, the difference in a single calorie could be the difference in anywhere from 25-50 places on the worldwide leaderboard. The margins are so narrow, a single pull of the chain can make or break an athlete’s entire season.
That being said, should you row differently if you are rowing for calories versus meters?
The answer: it depends.
If you are doing a workout with only rowing, no.
If you are doing a workout that includes anything in addition to rowing, yes.
Understanding The Difference Between Calories & Meters
First of all, let’s get an understanding for the erg that is using these two types of units. Concept 2 is currently the only rower brand that is accepted by all CrossFit® sanctioned events, including the Open. It is the rower I will be referencing in this article, and the one I recommend purchasing if you are looking into that option.
The ergs from Concept 2, including the Rower, use a formula to generate calories using a 175 pound individual. Therefore, unless you perfectly fit that avatar, the amount of calories displayed on the monitor isn’t actually how many calories you have burned. Rather, it is another way to measure power output relative to another person.
Online qualifiers in the Sport of Fitness often use calories in their workouts calories because it is easy to count each calorie as a rep. For example, a 30 Calorie row often looks better on paper than 450 meters or so. Also, it is much easier to see what calorie an athlete finished on at the end of the workout than what meters they had because the meters are constantly updating and it is tough for even an honest judge to tell where the athlete stopped.
The most important difference to know between rowing for calories versus meters is that the pace for calories is linear while the pace for meters is negative exponentially.
In order words, doubling your power output over a two minute effort (1000 Cals/Hr to 2000 Cals/Hr) will result in a linear increase of calories from 33 to 67. However, that same double in power will only prove to be a quarter decrease in row pace (2:00 per 500m to 1:30 per 500m).
This fundamental difference is the reason for the calories versus meters debate, and it has direct practical applications: how you attack your workouts.
Single Modality: Why Calories & Meters Are Irrelevant
Sometimes workouts are a single modality, in this case rowing only. If so, the entire calorie versus meter debate doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the time domain so you can determine the appropriate pace. For example, you need to know approximately how long it will take you to row 50 calories for time, 100 calories for time, 500 meters, 2000m, etc. You must be “literate” in both unit. Just like a weightlifter needs to be able to think in both pounds and kilograms.
The time domain will affect your technique and stroke rate slightly. However, the time domain should be the only reason for these changes, not units (calories & meters). When rowing the same time domain for meters or calories, the technique of how you row should not change. Do not attempt to change the stroke rate or power per pull. If both 50 Calories for time and 500m for time take you 1:30 then you should approach the two workouts exactly the same.
One small difference is that meters tend to “roll over” more consistently than calories. In other words, if you are rowing at a 1:45/500m pace, you can consistently expect about 30 “ghost meters” from the end of your final pull. Calories roll over in a similar way, but since calories are only shown in whole numbers, it makes “ghost calories” difficult to predict on the Concept 2.
Athletes are often best served by pulling hard until the final calorie displays on the screen, rather than hoping for ghost cals and being forced into a few small pulls with the arms just to get the machine to tick up to the next calorie.
Mixed Modality: Why Calories & Meters Matter
In Met-Cons where modalities like cyclical, weightlifting and gymnastics get combined in unique ways, it matters very much if the workout is written for calories versus meters.
The pace, transitions and overall strategy of a workout should completely change if the workout is calories or meters. Here why…
The faster you row for calories, the less meters you must row.
15 calories at 2:30/500m pace is 1:22 and 274 meters
15 calories at 2:00/500m pace is 0:45 and 204 meters
15 calories at 1:30/500m pace is 0:28 and 154 meters
Therefore, it pays dividends to row at a faster pace if the units are calories and it often doesn’t pay to row faster if the units are meters.
Of course, this is assuming that the athlete can hold a similar pace on other elements of the workout. It’s often true that rowing faster (whether for calories or meters) will result in a worse performance because you are forced to rest during the other elements of the workout.
This is where sample workout scenarios can be helpful.
Read: The Ultimate Rowing Guide [+Technique Videos]
A 12-Week Row, AirBike, Run Program
If you want to reach your potential in the Sport of Fitness, you must have elite fitness. In other words… conditioning.
That’s why this program focuses on the “3 Kings” of Cyclical Movement: Rowing, AirBike & Running.
Cyclical Supremacy is all about building your engine so you can express higher levels of performance in all types of workouts.
Are you ready to build a massive engine and reign as Cyclical Supremacy?
To not be vague, I will be a coach and give my client (Joe) some pointers on how to attack each. Joe is 36-year-old Masters Athlete who move fairly well and has no real movement restrictions. He has never qualified for a Sanctioned event, and his Fran time is 3:12.
Sample Workout #1
-250m Row (vs.) 15 Calorie Row
-15 Air Squats
For Meters: “Joe, I want you to hammer the gymnastics part of this workout, the pull-ups, push-ups and squats. Cycle reps quickly and waste no time on transition. It is okay if you get more out of breath during that section because I want you to treat the 250m row as recovery. I know you will be tired when you finish those air squats, but get back on the rower right away and begin pulling, even if its slow. Once you get the flywheel spinning, you can relax into an easy recovery pace so by the time you get off the rower you can attack the bodyweight movements again with speed.”
For Calories: “Joe, I want you to hold a consistent pace across all the movements. Don’t let your heart rate redline on any of the movements. If you start to get too tired, split the push-ups into a sets of 5 and 5. This will allow you to get a few recovery breaths because once you start doing air squats again, I want you really working again until you get off the rower and get through the pull-ups. Find that comfortable pace for the first fourteen minutes, then increase your row pace over the last six minutes.”
Sample Workout #2
-250m Row (vs.) 15 Calorie Row
-10 Bar Muscle-Ups
-10 Front Squats 155/105lbs
For Meters & Calories: “Joe, I want you to treat the row as a buy-in. In other words, don’t go too hard so you are forced to rest before the muscle-ups. I would rather see you row significantly slower and limit your transition time. Let’s break the muscle-ups 6 + 4 and then quickly calm yourself down for a big set of front squats. As soon as you drop the bar, get back on the rower and recover while you are there. In the last sixty seconds, go for broke.”
For Meters & Calories: “Jessica (a CrossFit Games Athlete), I want you to hold the fastest pace you can that still allows you to get off the rower each round and go straight into the muscle-ups and do an unbroken set. Then with minimal transition time, you will go straight to the bar for your front squats. In the last sixty seconds, wherever you are at in the workout, go for broke.”