Rowing is a sporting activity in which one or more individuals propel a boat across water by means of one or two oars. The term usually does not include purely recreational activities, such as canoeing and kayaking, but is limited to boats of relatively similar structure used primarily for racing competitions.


In a rowing competition, the purpose of a rower or rowing team is to complete a prescribed course in the lowest time of all competitors.


A number of surveys have been conducted to determine who it is that participates in rowing. Those surveys tend to show that rowers are generally well educated, with more than 90% having earned college degrees, more than half of whom also have graduate degrees. They also tend to be financially well to do, with just under half (about 45% in one survey) having annual incomes of more than US$100,000 and about a quarter (25%) with incomes of less than US$50,000 annually. Participants are approximately equally divided between males (55%) and females (45%), with the largest category of participants belonging to the Masters category (age 21 and over) and the next largest, to the high school (30%) and college (20%) categories. Many rowing organizations and facilities have developed special programs that reach out to individuals of all ages, both genders, and all skill levels, offering instruction and events for children, senior citizens, and individuals with disabilities.


Teams of rowers race on Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 2016. Rowing is primarily a competitive sport in which participants need great strength and endurance.

Teams of rowers race on Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 2016. Rowing is primarily a competitive sport in which participants need great strength and endurance.

Rowing was scheduled to be a part of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Greece in 1896, but the event was cancelled when bad weather at the port of Piraeus made competition impossible. The sport was included in the second Olympic Games four years later, and has been included in every Olympiad since then. The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing included 14 separate rowing events, with the singles sculls being won by Olaf Tufte for men, of Norway, and Rumyana Neykova for women, of Bulgaria. The winning eights were the teams from Canada, for men, and the United States, for women.

The Federation Internationale des Societes d'Aviron (International Federation of Rowing Associations, or FISA) was organized in 1892 in response to the rapidly growing popularity of the sport. At the time, betting was an integral part of the sport, and it became obvious to afficionados that some type of governing body was essential to avoid the most corrupt aspects of the sport. FISA continues to be the international governing body for the sport. It sponsors a number of championships, including the World Rowing Cup, determined by a series of three races each summer since 1997; the World Rowing Junior Championship and the World Rowing Under 23 Championship, both held annually since 1967; and the World Rowing Masters Regatta, held annually since 1973. FISA continues to be the international sponsoring body for the participation of rowing in the quadrennial Olympic Games.


A non-rowing member of a rowing team who sets the pace for rowers and keeps them informed of their status in a race.
In the United States, a rower who has been a member of a US Rowing National Team.
In the United States, a rower who has not yet advanced to the role of Senior or Elite rower.
A rower who has not attained the age of 19.
A rower who is 21 years of age or older.
A term that refers to a rowing situation in which each rower uses two oars.
In the United States, a rower who has won a certified race over 2000 meters in the United States or Canada.
The boat used in a rowing competition.
A term that refers to a rowing situation in which each rower uses a single oar.

The length of all world championship and Olympic races is 2,000 meters, divided by markers at each 500 meter point. The course typically consists of six lanes, out of which boats may stray provided that they do not impede the passage of another boat. Each boat is permitted one false start at the beginning of the race, but is disqualified in the case of two false starts. The coxswain does not participate in the actual rowing, but is an essential member of the team in steering the shell and directing the rest of the crew as to the speed of strokes they are to use and their position in the race.


An observer might get the impression that rowing is a sport that emphasizes upper body muscle strength in particular. While that observation is partly true, it is also incomplete in the regard that rowers use their whole body in their sport. Indeed, many rowing trainers argue that matches are won or lost on the basis of participants' lower body strength, especially leg strength, and endurance.


Rowers require minimum clothing for participation in the sport: usually a sleeveless shirt, shorts, and suitable socks and shoes. Sunglasses may also be necessary, depending on weather conditions.

Essential equipment for rowing includes, of course, the shells themselves and the oars used to propel them. Shells range in length from about 27–58 ft (8.2–17.6 m), with a width of (0.28–0.590 m). Historically, shells were made out of wood, but today they are usually made of some lightweight composite material, such as honeycombed carbon fiber. Oars range in length from about 2.5 meters to about 3.6 meters with a blade at one end about 50 centimeters long and 25 centimeters wide. The blade is traditionally painted in some distinctive color associated with the individual rower(s) or team.

Training and conditioning That program outlines a year-round agenda that includes frequent stretching and warm-up exercises, interval training, Fartlek training, speed exercises, body weight circuit training, endurance strength training, and maximal strength training.

A device of special value for indoor training is the ergometer rowing machine, which mimics (but not perfectly) in many respects the behavior of a shell on water. Athletes row for periods of 20–40 minutes at a time on the machine, with times required to complete certain interludes (like the five minutes required for the best times in an actual race) recorded by the device. The ergometer has become so popular among rowers that there now exists a world indoor racing championship similar to water rowing using the machine. The winner of that event, the 2016 C.R.A.S.H.-B men's championship, was James Letten of the University of Wisconsin, and the women's champion was Michelle Lazorchak, of Indianapolis Rowing Center.


One of the most comprehensive studies of rowing injuries is now more than 10 years old. It studied a cohort of elite rowers over a 10-year period, and was reported in 1997. According to that study, chronic overuse injuries were by far the most common source of injury among participants in the study. Among males, the most common sites of injury were the lumbar spine, the forearm and wrist, and the knee. Among females, the most common locations were the chest, lumbar spine, and forearm and wrist. Researchers observed that these injuries were very often the consequence of repetitive motions unrelieved by breaks between practices and between practice and participation in an event.

A more recent study, reported in 2005, noted that demographic studies since 1997 had been rare or absent, and most of what sports physicians know about rowing injuries comes from anecdotal evidence. The 2005 researchers concluded that the primary injuries observed for rowers appear to be nonspecific low back pain, specific low back injuries (spondylolysis, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, and disc herniation), rib stress fractures, costochondritis, costovertebral joint subluxation, intercostal muscle strain, and nonspecific shoulder pain. Blisters and abrasions were also seen commonly among rowers, a category of less severe conditions than strains, sprains, muscle tears, and other, more serious problems.



Virtually all studies on the risks and injuries associated with rowing emphasize the importance of adequate training and conditioning exercises in preparation for a competition. Rowers who have developed strength, endurance, balance, flexibility, and other characteristics are less likely to be injured than are those who have not worked on those fitness components. Perhaps the single most important way of avoiding injuries is to know and remember the role of repetitive motion in the sport and to train in such a way as to avoid overuse injuries by following appropriate periodization training programs and occasionally taking breaks from training.



Churbuck, D.C. The Book of Rowing. New York: Overlook, 2008.

McArthur, John. High Performance Rowing. Ramsbury, UK: Crowood Press, 2005.

Nolte, Volker. Rowing Faster, 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011.

Roberts, M. B. Crew: The Rower's Handbook. New York: Sterling, 2007.

Sayer, Bill. Rowing and Sculling: The Complete Manual, 3rd ed. London: Robert Hale, 2013.


Dudhia, Anu. “Physics of Rowing.” (accessed January 22, 2017).

“Rowing 101.” . (accessed January 22, 2017).


U.S. Rowing Association, 2 Wall St., Princeton, NJ, 08540, (800) 314-4769,, .

World Rowing, Ave. de Cour 135; Case Postale 18, 1000 Lausanne 3, Switzerland, 41 21 617 8373, Fax: 41 21 617 8375,, .

David E. Newton, A.B., M.A., Ed.D

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.