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Is Swimming or Rowing Harder?

author image William Machin
William Machin began work in construction at the age of 15, while still in high school. In 35 years, he's gained expertise in all phases of residential construction, retrofit and remodeling. His hobbies include horses, motorcycles, road racing and sport fishing. He studied architecture at Taft Junior College.
Is Swimming or Rowing Harder?
A woman swimming through a wave near the shore in Oahu. Photo Credit Glennel/iStock/Getty Images

Wondering whether swimming or rowing is harder is similar to wondering whether it’s more difficult to run or ride your bike. Both activities can be challenging in their own way. A person with physical limitations might find swimming easier because of buoyancy, or rowing easier because it includes a platform. Barring any physical limitations, a set of factors determine which activity is harder.

Similar Calorie Burns

Swimming and rowing burn approximately the same amount of calories per hour. This means, if a swimmer and a rower exert a similar level of energy, the degree of physical difficulty is similar. In this regard, the individual's goal becomes a factor. Rowing covers a greater distance in a given time than swimming, and a swimmer’s body produces more drag in the water. Where time is a factor, you might opt for rowing. If your immediate goal is conditioning, you might opt for swimming. Unlike running or cycling, the possibility of encountering inclines when swimming or rowing in calm water is nonexistent. But this is not the case when surface swells are involved.

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Surf and Waves

Body surfing might be described as treading water that is occasionally interrupted by several seconds of riding a wave. Although many body surfers use fins, taking off on a cresting wave calls for powerful swimming strokes. In big surf, body surfing can be challenging when swimming through churning foam. A body surfer might elect to duck under a wave, but surf boat rowers don’t have this option.

The Australian Surf Rowers League holds annual competitions where 7- to 10-foot waves are common. Crews of four rowers and a helmsman charge incoming swells in a 14-foot lifeguard boat, often capsizing or being toppled backward. Considering it’s impossible for a lifeguard boat to hug the bottom and avoid churning foam, rowing surf boats would seem harder than swimming in swells. But swimming in choppy seas presents the greater challenge because the swimmer continuously confronts small swells.

Testing the Question

A scientific determination regarding the difficulty of swimming and rowing would have to take place in a generic environment, such as two contestants of similar physical capability and a body of calm water. Because the swimmer's body produces more drag than a scull or a kayak, the playing field must be leveled in some way. In this scenario, each contestant might swim the length of a course and row back. Given the level of conditioning is similar in each, the physical rate of recovery of each contestant could be the determining factor as to which is harder.

Training Goals

Typically, recreational swimming or rowing is not considered hard. Any determination regarding which is activity is harder must include a purpose other than relaxation. If you wanted to build your arms and upper body, you might train to compete in open water swimming events. If you were determined to develop your shoulders, upper back and legs, you might train for river rapid events or scull racing. Each activity has the capability of challenging certain muscle groups, and each presents aerobic challenge. But all things being equal, drag produced when swimming is greater than that when rowing and in this regard, swimming is harder.

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