Rowing is a popular sport worldwide. As one of the few non-weight bearing modes of exercise that exercises all major muscle groups, rowing is an attractive form of exercise for recreational exercisers using stationary indoor rowing machines (ergometers). At an elite level, most rowing events are held in the summer months between May and September, and range from local town regattas to international events held worldwide. However, the blue riband event at elite level is over 2000 m, which is usually completed in 5 to 8 minutes depending on the class. Elite level rowing is physically and mentally demanding, and requires technique, endurance, power and well-conditioned aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. As competitive performance requires all-out effort on several occasions during a regatta, and because, as a rule, rowers undertake prodigious volumes of training throughout the season, excellent nutrition strategies are required to meet these training and competition demands.

Sport-specific physiological demands

Rowing is a sport that requires a great deal of discipline and commitment to be successful at an elite level due to the highly competitive nature of the sport and the level of training required. For instance, club level rowers may train as often as twice per day and elite level rowers 2-4 times per day. The season can be as long as 11 months - hence, rowers must strategically plan long-term training and performance goals to be in the best physical shape at the most important times of the year. Training is designed to develop a high level of fitness, aerobic and anaerobic endurance and muscular power and technique. It consists of water sessions, land-based rowing, resistance training and some cross training such as running and cycling.

Rowers are generally categorised by being tall, with long limbs (levers), low percentage body fat and substantial muscularity, and are distinguishable from other athletes due to their greater upper body girth and narrow hips. Rowers are frequently cited as having among the highest aerobic fitness values (measured by VO2max) across all sports. Despite this high aerobic fitness, during actual race performance, anaerobic energy production and an excellent rowing technique are also major contributors to performance. For example, a rower may repeat the same stroke 30-40 times per minute for the duration of the race. The initial acceleration phase (500 m) and the last 300 m of a race are characterised by a high contribution from anaerobic energy systems, resulting in large increments in lactic acid production and a drop in muscle pH that can contribute to fatigue. The overall contribution of the different energy systems is estimated at around 70% aerobic, 30% anaerobic. Energy expenditure during all-out rowing effort can be up to 30 kcal per minute, with heart rates reported at close to maximal for the latter stages of races.

Club level regattas may only last one day but at elite level multi-day regattas range from 3 days for the World Cup series to a week for the World Championships and Olympics. A crew may race 3-4 times over the period of the regatta. Additionally, lightweight rowers and crews must “make the weight” prior to each race, thereby adding another level of complexity to nutrition recommendations, which will play a major role in achieving optimum weight and body composition. Clearly, appropriate nutrition strategies for training and performance are critical to rowers of all abilities.

Nutritional considerations

Athletes completing high volume training or preparing for competition must pay close attention to their food and fluid intake. Rowers should consume sufficient energy to fuel their training sessions and recover appropriately using a suitable meal plan to facilitate optimum adaptation from their training. Due to the long duration and high intensity of training, there is a significant requirement for high daily carbohydrate (CHO) intakes. CHO-rich foods are critical for replacing glycogen (the stored form of CHO in muscle) stores that are depleted during training and competition. However, for general health and in order to optimise body composition (i.e. low %body fat), rowers should try to consume the majority of their energy from complex, low glycemic index (GI) CHO sources. Previous research has shown rowers to be at risk for sub-optimal (low) energy intakes and deficiencies in iron and B vitamin intakes. Therefore, it is vital that the rower consumes appropriate amounts of energy, and the correct proportion of macronutrients to manage their body mass and composition while allowing for maximum performance in training and competition.

Protein intake should be come from quality sources like lean unprocessed meats, low fat dairy, quality protein supplements from ROS Nutrition, nuts, seeds, pulses and unprocessed fish. Protein intake should be ~2 g per kg body mass or ~30% of energy intake (see below). Athletes should also aim to consume a balanced-diet rich in micronutrients and essential oils to maintain a healthy immune system and avoid illness. The intake of healthy fats is critical for optimum hormone production and energy metabolism. Fat should mainly come from healthy sources like fish, fish oils, quality vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocados and other healthy sources. Foods that are high in processed fats like hydrogenated vegetable oils should be minimised as they may impede performance and increase the risk of diseases like cardiovascular disease. Fat intake should be in the region of 20-30%, again depending on your goal.

Relative importance of CHO

High daily CHO intakes (8-12 g CHO per kg of body mass per day) are important during periods of high training volumes - not alone to fuel training performance but such intakes have also been shown to improve mood and reduce illness. However, despite the high intensity nature and relatively high anaerobic contribution to energy supply during races, CHO supply is not thought to be a limiting factor in rowing race performance. Therefore, the practice of ‘CHO loading’ (a science-based nutrition strategy used to maximise pre-exercise muscle and liver glycogen stores) often undertaken by endurance and team sport athletes is not as strongly encouraged in rowers. However, as a rule a moderately high intake of daily CHO, e.g. 6 g CHO per kg body mass, is recommended in the days leading up to a race combined with tapering of the training load. If an athlete has difficulty achieving high CHO intakes through natural foods, a liquid CHO source such as FUEL LOAD® may be appropriate. FUEL LOAD® provides easy-to-digest low GI CHO in the form of isomaltulose, and can be used daily as a means of easily increasing daily CHO intake.

Protein needs of rowers

Protein is essential for recovery and adaptation from intense exercise, and the protein requirements of athletes undertaking intense training increases proportionately with training volume. After each training session, a suitable source of high-quality protein should be consumed. For instance, rowers can add a healthy, high-quality source of protein to their diet by consuming PRO GSH Whey. PRO GSH Whey contains added branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine, which are essential to speeding recovery between training sessions and races. There is emerging evidence that protein supplementation, particularly essential amino acids (EAAs) and BCAAs, consumed during and after high intensity exercise can reduce the feelings of fatigue, and promote muscle growth and adaptation after exercise. Using isolated amino acids, such as ISO BCAA® or ISO EAA®, is appropriate in this regard. The type, timing and amount of protein can be manipulated to enhance the adaptive response to training. ROS Nutrition have developed two separate recovery products: Recover Ace Strength® for recovery from gym-based training, and Recover Ace Endurance® for recovery from endurance-based training. Each product is designed to provide the type and amounts of specific nutrients required for optimal recovery, with the essential difference being in the ratio and types of CHO and protein. For more information, please visit the individual product pages Recover Ace Endurance or Recover Ace Strength.

Making weight for competition – lightweight rowers

Making weight and achieving optimum body composition are two of the main considerations leading up to a race. A disciplined approach to training and food intake combined with sound nutrition and training principles can be used to achieve this goal. Some athletes adopt extreme weight loss strategies including induced dehydration, vomiting or severe energy restriction, but extreme practices to achieve weight may have detrimental implications on performance and health. Some research suggests that an energy intake equivalent to resting metabolic rate, and consisting of 40% carbohydrate, 38% protein and 22% fat is suitable for reducing body fat and achieving competition weight. These percentages may vary of course and are not a rigid guideline. Before adopting any weight loss strategy, you should contact a qualified professional to ensure you are adopting a safe, effective and practical method of weight loss.

Race-day nutrition

For competition, an optimum amount of fluid and fuel before a race is critical for performance, and afterwards to promote recovery between races. Recovery nutrition should begin immediately with a source of fast-absorbing CHO, and easily digested protein, to replace depleted glycogen levels and facilitate the repair of fatigued muscles (see below). Prior to a race, the main goal is to be well-hydrated and have optimised fuel stores before getting onto the water. A pre-race meal can be consumed in the 2-4 hours before the start time. This meal should be low in fibre, contain a substantial amount of CHO (2-4 g CHO per kg body mass) and a moderate amount of protein.

Dehydration by as little as 2% of body mass can reduce exercise performance by anywhere up to 30%. Rowers who become dehydrated during training or begin races in the dehydrated state are more susceptible to injury and likely to fatigue sooner if appropriate hydration strategies are not implemented. Adequate fluid in the form of water, or an isotonic CHO-electrolyte solution, such as CHO CHARGE®, should be consumed during training sessions and in the 2-4 hours before a race. CHO CHARGE® also contains electrolytes for improved drink palatability and fluid retention.


After training and competition, it is essential to replenish glycogen stores with suitable CHO intake, and adequately rehydrate with an electrolyte drink. A protein source that provides amino acids to fatigued muscles should also be consumed. This will help the body recover and help the athlete to be ready as soon as possible for the next training session or bout. Co-ingestion of protein and CHO in supplement form such as RecoverAce® Endurance or RecoverAce® Strength is an ideal solution to kick-start recovery. These formulations contain a high quality source of protein for muscle repair combined with an optimal ratio of CHO to maximise recovery processes. In addition, micronutrient intake is another important consideration for recovery. Accovit® Performance and Omniflex® are two products designed to aid recovery. Accovit® contains micronutrients that aid energy metabolism and support the immune system, whereas Omniflex contains a unique formulation of ingredients which reduces the inflammatory response to intense exercise.

Other supplements for performance

Due to the high intensity, all-out nature of rowing performance, specific supplements may prove useful for race performance. For instance, supplements that could potentially buffer lactic acid production and limit the drop in muscle pH would be of great value. To this end, recent evidence has shown a positive effect of beta-alanine supplementation on rowing performance*. Beta-alanine, available as BA-1000, is a non-essential amino acid that acts to increase muscle buffering capacity through increasing carnosine levels in muscle. Similarly, citrulline malate, available as CM-1000, is reported to increase performance during high intensity exercise **. Finally, caffeine is known to improve rowing performance when ingested prior to a race***. CHO CHARGE® is available in caffeinated form allowing athletes to top-up fuel and fluid stores prior to races, but also providing a competitive edge with the added benefit of caffeine ingestion.

* Baguet A, Bourgois J, Vanhee L, Achten E, Derave W (2010) Important role of muscle carnosine in rowing performance. J Appl Physiol. 109(4):1096-101

** Pérez-Guisado J, Jakeman PM (2010). Citrulline malate enhances athletic anaerobic performance and relieves muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res. 24(5):1215-22

*** Skinner TL, Jenkins DG, Coombes JS, Taaffe DR, Leveritt MD (2010) Dose response of caffeine on 2000-m rowing performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 42(3):571-6

ROS Recommends

Goal Why? ROS product
CHO and fluid supply during exercise Offset dehydration and muscle glycogen depletion, key factors contributing to fatigue CHO CHARGE Caffeinated
CHO CHARGE Decaffeinated
Lactate buffers Helps the muscle tissue to clear lactate and other metabolites during high intensity exercise Beta Alanine 1000 mg
Citrulline Malate 1000 mg
Quality protein intake Essential for maintenance of optimum body composition Blue Label Whey
Target Whey Protein
Calcium Caseinate
Recovery product Restore fuel stores Facilitate training adaptations RecoverAce Endurance
RecoverAce Strength
Amino acid supplementation Facilitate training adaptations ISO BCAA Max 1500 mg
ISO BCAA Formula
Multivitamins and minerals Ensure adequate intake of essential micro nutrients Accovit Performance
Essential oils Meet the daily requirement for EPA & DHA Acti Omega
Acti Krill 500 mg
Joint care Helps to maintain optimum joint and bone health OmniJoint Original
OmniJoint Omega 3