Rowers vs Cyclists – Who has more power? by Dean Phillips

Rowers vs Cyclists – Who has more power? by Dean Phillips


Any former rowers out there? Having trained and raced with a cycling power meter for 10 years now I often find myself looking back at my collegiate rowing days and comparing power outputs across both sports. Concept II, the company that for as long as I remember has been the leading manufacturer of rowing ergometers, has a watts conversion calculator on their website where you can plug in your old rowing erg times and it tells you what your average power was for different timeframes. If you can remember your dreaded erg times, you can convert those erg times to watts:


I went ahead and charted personal best power outputs across different times in both sports for comparison. I went out to 20 minutes since that was fortunately the longest erg test I ever had to do as a rower.



While cycling power is clearly higher in longer durations, it’s interesting that after years of dedicated training in each sport my 5-minute power outputs are very close:


5-minute cycling power – 502 watts (February 2012)

5-minute rowing power – 490 watts (Spring 1996)


Ask any rower about erg test experiences and the responses are always the same. Their facial expression will twist in pain while they describe the torturous testing session that singlehandedly could drive athletes away from the sport of rowing. It’s not uncommon to hear about vomiting after tests and a genuine fear and hatred for the dreaded machines that made up much of the indoor winter training. As a former rower I sometimes wonder if it was actually as bad as I remember it, or perhaps I was just a wimpier 21-year-old version of the person I am today. The truth was probably some combination of both. My rowing power clearly gets lower than my cycling power as timeframes get longer. This is quite common to hear according to other athletes who have done both sports. I heard a good argument that you spend 20-30 watts going up the slide during the recovery phase of rowing that isn’t counted, so perhaps that’s a part of the discrepancy. Cycling may also simply be a more effective use of your body in producing power during longer timeframes.


I’ve also had the opportunity to get VO2max testing done in each sport over the years. True VO2max is measured with gas exchange equipment measuring the maximum amount of oxygen your body can process in a minute. This level is typically reached during all-out efforts in the 5-8 minute range depending on the person, which makes it correlate closely with 5 minute power in both sports. I bring this topic up because it also measures nearly the same in both supports despite the 15 years between testing.


Cycling VO2max – 5.6 Liters/minute (February 2012)

Rowing VO2max – 5.7 Liters/minute (June 1997)


You’ll often see VO2max displayed as mL/(min*kg) which would be about 61 for me. This is the same value divided by body weight where higher values in the 70s and 80s are representative of elite runners and cyclists – particularly hill climbing specialists. As if I needed more evidence of why my running was never on par with my cycling as a triathlete and also why I don’t expect to win the Mt. Washington hill climb anytime soon.  Fortunately as a cyclist on flat to rolling courses, absolute VO2 max and more specifically watts/CdA have a large contribution toward success. (CdA is your aerodynamic drag coefficient)


Many of the rowers on the national team in ’97 had VO2max values over 6.0 L/min and a handful were 7.0 Liters! Out of the 25 guys at the camp, I recall only 3 of us having VO2max test scores under 6.0 Liters. I specifically remember the guy who tested us – Fritz Hagerman – telling us that anybody on the German national team with a VO2max under 6.0 Liters was cut. Head national team coach Mike Teti would sometimes say “If you don’t want to get screwed in selection, don’t be on the bubble”. Well, my 5.7 Liter score placed me smack in the middle of the thinnest section of the bubble and I had to fight and claw through seat races to get into boats from that point on. In hindsight, I had one of the highest max lactate values (blood test using a finger prick after the erg test) of everybody tested at 17mmol/L lactate which in modern years I’ve learned meant I had a higher anaerobic contribution to my 5-minute effort which helped make up for the VO2 deficiency. I recently had my max lactate tested at 14mmol/L during a VO2 test on a cycling trainer, so this high anaerobic contribution still exists today. While this was overlooked to some degree in rowing selection back then, guys “on the bubble” shouldn’t complain…


Fortunately in cycling, the guys I’m competing with in bike races are typically much smaller than the typical 6’6” 220lb+ guys I found myself rowing against in those days. The days of being over-powered by bigger guys on rowing ergs have been replaced by days where I need to work as hard as I can to keep up with lighter guys on hills. I still feel some of the strongest cyclists on the planet are sitting in rowing shells, but then again absolute power is only one component of the many needed for cycling success.  


This is just one former rower’s look back at the power levels across both sports. Of course there are many things that are different such as my age, years spent in each sport, and race durations, but it’s still quite interesting to compare.


Fit Werx is the region’s leading power meter dealer, so if you have any questions about this topic or power meters in general please contact me at [email protected]

About Marty

An Ironman competitor, Marty’s passion for motivating and inspiring people is evident in everything he does. His charity work for the American Diabetes Associations signature cycling event, the Tour De Cure, has been recognized nationally. Marty brings this same drive and enthusiasm to Fit Werx. His goal is to make sure EVERY client has an outstanding experience.


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