Indoor Rowing Marathon vs. Running Marathon: Which is More Challenging?

Written by Concept2 NZ on June 19th, 2018.

The 42.195km racing distance has historical ties to running stretching all the way back to Classical Greece, where the Greek soldier Pheidippides ran the fabled distance from the battleground at Marathon to Athens to report the Greek victory over their Persian invaders.

These days, marathon running events are prevalent the world over, with the distance held in high esteem both in the running world and on the Olympic Games program. The marathon is running's most prestigious endurance challenge, with such broad reverence that other sports have crafted their own marathon events- including our very own Indoor Rowing! So, how does the Indoor Rowing Marathon stack up against it’s Running counterpart? We take a look at just some of the factors by which we can compare these two challenging events!

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One of the main reasons the marathon (be it rowing or running) is so challenging is the sheer duration of the event. Depending on how fast you are, a running marathon can take anywhere from 2 hours to 6 hours- a long time to be active by any sporting standard! For the purpose of this article, lets equalize the duration of the event to assume both rowers and runners take 2min to complete 500m- this would be a 2min average split on your screen on the Indoor Rower, and the equivalent of running 4min per km over the entire marathon distance. At this pace, our indoor rower and runner would both complete the Marathon distance in 2hrs 48min 48 sec.

At face value both of these efforts are realistic, well within the world records for each discipline. Looking at this, it is difficult to gauge from duration alone which of the two is more challenging, but it does suggest that it is realistic to assume the duration of the event in to be similar for both disciplines- a good starting point for comparison!

Energy Consumption

As endurance sports, both running and indoor rowing require considerable physical effort. On the Indoor Rower’s PM5 monitor an athlete is able to measure their effort in several different units including, speed (pace per 500m), power (watts) and energy consumed (calories). This type of data is possible to measure for running as well, but for the purpose of this comparison we are going to focus on energy (calories). Calorie count for comparing workouts is used effectively in CrossFit competition, and is a good option for comparing the energy required to run vs. the energy required to row. At 2min per 500m, the PM5 projects a calorie count of 993 calories per hour, the equivalent of approximately 2,793 calories for the marathon distance. It is a bit more difficult to get a running value on calories, given that this type of data isn’t collected in a running race quite like the PM5 collects data. However, with a bit of looking around we found this article from, which estimates the calories burned for most runners over the marathon at 2,600. While this running figure is not pace-specific, if we take these values generally (given that both could fluctuate depending on specific individuals) it appears that the calorie consumption for both disciplines is very similar.

However, on an individual level calorie consumption can also be affected by bodyweight- another important factor to take into account when comparing indoor rowing to running…

The Effects of Impact and Weight Bearing
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As a static machine, the Indoor Rower provides a non-weight bearing form of exercise, which not only means that you do not suffer the impact of weight-bearing sports, but also that you do not have to support your own weight while you row. Running on the other hand is an impact sport, adding an additional level of stress to the body, and requiring the athlete to support their own weight.

For runners, these factors can have a significant effect on speed and efficiency, depending on the physiology of the individual. Typically, the Indoor Rower does not limit those with larger body mass in the way that running does, with strong, powerful physiologies excelling on the machine, while running tends to favor lightweight efficiency. As a result, the reality of this key difference between the sports is that runners carrying unnecessary weight (fat or muscle) will have to work harder to negate the effect on their speed, while indoor rowers are not quite so affected. That’s not to say that all weight is created equal on the Indoor Rower, athletes that have a higher density of functional muscle mass will still be more effective than those who carry unproductive weight.

Considering these factors, it may well be that a 6ft tall 90kg individual may find rowing a 2min split marathon achievable, but struggle to run the same speed. On the flip side, a 5ft 8 inch tall 59kg individual may struggle to maintain 2min splits on the Indoor Rower but be able to run the same splits effectively. All in all, this comparison tells us that, at least when it comes to a 2.48 pace marathon, whether it is more challenging to row or run the distance will depend on an individual’s physiology.

The Weight Adjustment Calculator for Indoor Rowers

Because of the role weight has to play on the Indoor Rower, rowing coaches have always been interested in calibrating efforts on the Indoor Rower to the on-water environment, where power to weight ratio does become a factor affecting a rower’s speed. This interest has led to the production of a very helpful tool, the weight adjustment calculator, which can adjust the rowers score relative to body weight. When we put our 100kg athlete into the calculator with a time of 2.48.48 for the marathon, we get an adjusted weight factor of 0.965, and an adjusted time of 2.41.22. Now, when put our 59kg athlete into the calculator, we get an adjusted weight score of 0.850, and an adjusted time of 2.23.28. This indicates that the 2min split effort over 42.195km is a tougher challenge (as far as overall speed goes) for the 59kg athlete, than it is for the 100kg athlete when power to weight is taken into account. The great thing about this tool, is that it allows relativity between people of all different heights and weights, levelling the playing field so that each individual has a score that is relevant to their own physiology.


Unfortunately, we could not find the running equivalent for comparison, but in using the weight-adjustment calculator rowers can at least calibrate their goals, efforts or expectations relative to their own personal physiologies, and come to appreciate the value of their personal efforts.


Looking at these factors what can we conclude? It is safe to say there are many variables which may make a rowing marathon or running marathon more or less challenging to any given individual athlete. In any case, rowing or running 42.195km is no small feat, and the persistence in training that it takes to get over the finish line is possibly a greater measure of the challenge in undertaking either discipline. It is often said that the tougher the challenge the greater the reward, which is perhaps the best approach to take when choosing a goal to dedicate your time and training to. For that reason, we’ll call this one a tie!


What do you think? Have you ever completed a running or rowing marathon, or even both?!
Let us know in the comments below!