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How I Used the Rower to Train for an Ultraman

Ultraman Florida finisher Jack Nunn shares how and why he did 80 percent of his preparation for the endurance event on his rower.

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On February 15, I took on the biggest race of my life: my first Ultraman in Orlando, Florida. So, what exactly is an Ultraman? It’s a three-day athletic event (more than a double Ironman) consisting of a 6.2-mile swim and a 92-mile bike ride the first day; a 171-mile bike ride the second day; and a 52-mile run on the final day. Spoiler alert: I was the largest (6’3” and 220 pounds) to finish—crossing the line after a grueling weekend in 33:24:36. Am I crazy? Maybe. But, for me, it’s all the culmination of the past 10 years of hard work. I’ve completed 14 full Ironman distance events on four continents. Next, it’s all about the challenge of completing the ultimate dream: competing in the 2019 Ironman World Championship as part of the legacy program. For me, the challenge of completing the Ultraman was to honor the 50th anniversary of my father’s Olympic bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

My Rowing Background

Rowing has always been a part of my fitness regime. I rowed for the UC Berkeley Division I varsity team and won three national titles and four Pacific 10 Titles. Ten years ago, I created a fitness studio, Roworx Fitness, that specializes in endurance training on indoor rowing machines. These workouts are all delivered with my “no regrets” philosophy. Nearly 80 percent of all my fitness training for the Ultraman was done using the rowing machine. My dream is to spread the word of rowing and promote the incredible benefits it can bring to every type of endurance sport (including swim, bike, and run).

Why Use the Rower?

How you use your legs, core, and arms are all key components to becoming a powerful rower. The amount of maximal oxygen uptake that a rower can consume per minute of exercise is among the highest ever tested in any endurance event. Rowers need to contract nearly every muscle in each stroke—76 percent of all the muscles in the body are contracted and that means the heart needs to pump against a high resistance. When the muscles work hard in the body then the heart and the internal wall of the heart gets bigger. As a result of this workload, the volume of blood that the heart must pump throughout the body also gets bigger. The heart and body adapt to the specific workload of a rowing stroke and more blood gets pumped throughout the body more efficiently in a rower than anyone else.

Rowing for Triathletes

I attribute my swimming stamina and strength to my hours spent on the rowing machine. The latissimus muscles engaged from rowing allowed me to swim without feeling exhausted. (The lung capacities of rowers are near or at the very top of the spectrum of all endurance athletes.)

The rowing machine allows runners to do a non-impact form of endurance training. I did only a few brick (bike/run) workouts and only a handful swimming sessions. Nearly 70 percent of all power from the rowing stroke is derived from the legs, making it the perfect cross-training workout for cyclists and triathletes. I turn in top bike splits at every race I enter and I credit this to my row training. For the past few years I have been doing shorter-distance high-intensity interval training workouts on the rowing machine to improve cardiovascular, strength, and muscle endurance. The rower is also a great way to stay mentally fresh! The entire rowing process is completely different from anything you’ll experience in your swim, bike, and run training.

Try My Favorite Rowing Workout

500 meters on 1 min rest x 5-10 intervals 

This workout is used to build strength, increase cardiovascular efficiency, and train you to be mentally strong. Start with five repetitions and as you become stronger throughout the month add on a few more intervals until you get to 10 throughout the month.


Foot Placement
The key here is to tie in so that the foot straps come across the widest front part of the shoe near the bend of your foot.

Goal Wattage
The rowing machine does not create the resistance when you are rowing, you do. The harder and faster the knees come down as you jump off the footboards from the front of the stroke, the faster you will go. Try to hit your body weight in watts on the machines computer screen and maintain that number throughout the 500-meter workout.

Proper Hand Placement
The hands are usually placed on a wide stance setting with the pinkie finger almost near the edge of the handle. The thumbs are supposed to hang underneath the handle to promote a relaxed pull through the latissimus muscles.

Nailing the Form

1. The rowing stroke is commonly compared to a weight lifting clean and or squat. The rowing stroke starts from the finish as the body, shoulders, and hands swing forward and come up past the feet near the front the flywheel.
2. At the front of the stroke the hands are well past the front of the feet with the shins vertical and the shoulders relaxed extending forward with the chin level looking right into the monitor.
3. The heels at this point can come up if the shins are vertical. The heels are designed to come up as the rowing machine manufacturer notes that not everyone is perfectly flexible.
4. Remember that the shoulders need to be in front of the hips as you lean forward to the front of the stroke at the catch position so that you have a nice solid platform to push from.
5. Being long and strong during the stroke is an essential part of the rowing stroke.