Stroke Rating & Ratio In Rowing: Why Is It Important?

By: Margie Ellison 

As a rowing coach, one of the biggest misunderstandings that I have come across is the stroke rating and ratio. The stroke rating is the number of strokes that you take per minute. This number is displayed in the top right corner of your ERG’s (the indoor rowing machine) monitor. The ratio is the amount of time that you spend taking your stroke versus the amount of time you spend on the recovery. The “recovery” is where you come up the slide to take another stroke. I often hear people say that they row a certain stroke rating based on their height and weight. This is false as these two factors do not play a role in terms of your stroke rating and ratio.

So why is the stroke rating and ratio important? Well, like any movement, one of the goals is to move as efficiently as possible. This includes factors such as proper form, working to align with your goals, skill level, and in rowing: stroke rating and ratio. Movement efficiency will allow higher performance and lower the possibility of injuries.

The best way to ensure an efficient stroke rating is to have a proper ratio. I like to explain it like riding an 18 speed bike. Let’s pretend we are riding on a road with a slight incline. When you are riding the bike on a lower gear, you find yourself pedaling very fast. You end up exerting energy by pedaling, but you’re not making much progress with your distance. Let’s shift the gears a little higher. Now you are not pedaling nearly as much, but you are using more strength and power, and getting some distance. You have a good ratio between pedaling and energy exerted. This is a pace you could probably hold for a longer period. We find ourselves in similar situations with our ratio in rowing. You want to ensure that your ratio will help your perform your best, whether you are rowing a steady state piece, doing short sprints, or racing.

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With that being said, you want to use power and strength to pull, then use the time coming up to the catch to recover. Hence, why it’s called the recovery part of the stroke. “So, what should my stroke rating be then?” Let’s say we are rowing a steady state piece. Your coach wants you to row for 20 minutes after your lift. A steady state piece will be ideally rowed around 18-20spm(strokes per minute). Your pull will be strong and powerful, which should leave you about 3 seconds to recover as you come back to the catch. With a proper ratio to match, this will ensure you stay in the “conversational pace” range and your heart rate doesn’t skyrocket.

For my rowers, I will sometimes plan pyramid pieces with the stroke rating. “Pieces” are similar to what a “set” would be if you were lifting weights. For example, four 15 minutes pieces would be the equivalent of 4 sets of 15 reps. This may include something like 25’, where every 5’ you shift the stroke rating from something like 20, 22, 24, 22, 20. A piece like this can be very beneficial in terms of familiarizing yourself with different stroke ratings, ratio, and power.

For sprint pieces, typically anything less than 1,000m, short intervals, etc., we want to crank up the stroke rating to something like <28. Holding a stroke rating higher than 28 is very difficult and I would only recommend doing so during sprint pieces, or 2k, 5k, or 6k time trials/races. A great sprint piece would be something like 1’ on, 1’ off. During your 1’ on, keeping a 9-10/10 RPE.

Now, don’t worry, I didn’t forget about the in between of sprint pieces and steady state pieces. With rowing, 6-10’ is typically that “in between” range. These pieces can be rowed at both the steady state pace, the higher sprint pace, and the in between around 22-26. It will ultimately depend on the other details of the piece: is it just one piece, is it intervals, how many intervals are there, what is the intensity of power, and so forth.

The benefits of proper stroke rating and ratio go a long way. Learning to gain control of your stroke rating and ratio will improve your rowing immensely. Taking a few minutes during each rowing session will bring forth great progress in the long run.