Hydrow: my cure for winter training

Long before COVID-19, I was a wintertime hermit. Something happens to me after the last race of the season, which is typically the Head of the Charles. I relish the comfort of sleeping in. I do workouts when I feel like it—some time during the day, after I’ve properly woken up with my obligatory fruit-laden oatmeal and two cups of strong coffee. I stay up late and watch stupid TV shows, often falling asleep to Seinfeld re-runs (I know pretty much every line to every episode). The change in the astronomical clock has an astronomical effect on my super-sensitive mind and body. I kind of shut down, and I kind of enjoy the hell out of it. I’m a Cancer and I’m an empath. (I’m pretty sure that all Cancers are empaths, but I’m not sure if all empaths are Cancers.)

“What’s the over/under
on John getting injured
by mid-April?”

Sean Wolf

But there’s a problem. I’m still an athlete and an obsessive-compulsive rower and competitor. I still have a 25-year-old mind trapped in a 60-year-old body. So I keep thinking, all winter long, “I need to do more…hell, I need to do SOMETHING.” And yet, just as frequently, I also think, “This is it… I’m done. I’m washed up. I will never row like I used to. My motivation is dead. I have no idea what will become of me.” New England winters can mess your head like that. Come spring, the astronomical clock changes again, and I come out of hiding. The warm weather gives me a new lease on life. I hit the water and row at my own pace, hoping to get in some sort of shape by mid-July-ish. But as soon as I’m back on the water, engaging in battle-paddles with boats of all shapes and sizes, my ego again takes over. I forget that I’m out of shape, and I push too hard. My spring injuries are so regular you can set your watch to them. As Sean Wolf queried to our group of friends in March of last year, “What’s the over/under on John getting injured by mid-April?”

Enter modern technology—specifically, the Hydrow rowing machine. I knew all about the Hydrow, because I used to work for the company’s founder and CEO, Bruce Smith, when he was Executive Director at Community Rowing, Inc. in Boston. He generously hired me as a grant writer in their development office after I had been laid off from my job as a writer/editor in the mutual fund industry. I knew he had gone on to start Hydrow, essentially taking the Peloton concept and applying it to rowing. I thought it was kind of cool, but I really wasn’t much interested at the time. I may have even been skeptical. However, I knew Bruce was not only very intelligent and had an extensive rowing background as athlete, coach and CRI director, but that he was also an astute businessman. So if anyone could make it work, he could.

As the company grew more successful, and as I battle-paddled the Hydrow crews plying the Charles over the past several rowing seasons, I became more intrigued. They’ve also done a hell of a job with social media advertising.

I bit the bullet and ordered a Hydrow on November 2, 2020, using their $100 discount from social media (which I suspect is pretty standard), and they told me it would take 4-6 weeks for delivery. With an assumed rush on machines due to the pandemic, not to mention the holiday shopping season, I wasn’t surprised about the time it would take. They emailed me several updates, which was helpful, and sent me an instruction video on how to open and unpackage the machine. Typically they send people to set it up for you in your home, but due to COVID-19, they could no longer do this.

My machine arrived on December 11th—within the six-week window—and the guy put it in my front hall. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to watch the video that they had emailed me, with step-by-step instructions on how to unpackage and assemble the machine. TIP: watch this video! Their packaging is excellent (i.e., easy to unpack) and they strongly suggest you have a partner help you. I could have benefited from this advice, but I managed to unpack, move and assemble the machine without too much difficulty. Also, for environmentalists, they use mostly layered cardboard with minimal Styrofoam. Earth-friendly points for Hydrow.

At long last, my Hydrow arrives

Once assembled, I marveled at the design of the machine, and relished the experience of peeling off the iPhone-like seal from the video monitor. Setting up my account (you need an electrical outlet and an Internet connection) was a snap—the instructions were well-thought-out and simple.

Some assembly required, but Hydrow provides tools and a video

Now, to the experience of actually using the machine. I’ll just come out and say it: I LOVE MY HYDROW. The videos are exactly what I need to a) motivate me to get on the machine; b) keep me motivated during the workout; and c) motivate my inner competitor to do more workouts. These are new things for me. For data geeks (which I am not), there is plenty of data to analyze to death. If you have a Bluetooth heart-rate monitor, it will connect to the Hydrow so you can see it on the screen. That data will also be stored for each workout (I’m assuming… I’m not a data geek and don’t use an HR monitor, although I may get one). They also keep track of all your workouts, and you can join cyber teams and have some friendly competition. In terms of feel, the seat is comfortable (no seat pad needed) and the slide is very smooth. They use a strap instead of a chain, and this also seems to smooth things out a bit.

Videos are organized in several useful categories

The videos are organized by athlete, duration, workout type and location. The locations I’ve seen so far include Miami, Chattanooga TN, Burlington VT and Boston, but they have many others—and it’s fun to see the different rowing venues. I’m mostly interested in the workout type, which includes 5-minute warmups, 10-minute warmups, learn-to-row videos, timed pieces of varying difficulty, and cool-downs. It’s clear that these workouts were designed by and for rowers, but if you’re a beginner, you won’t feel out of place. My cousin and her husband—who are non-rowers—love their Hydrow, and I’ve heard the same from other non-rowers as well. If you ARE a rower, the workout variations are well designed. And the athletes in the videos are awesome—they keep you on track and motivated. It’s like having your own personal trainer in your home with you, except they’re on the water. For me, it’s especially helpful (particularly when I’m getting tired) to match strokes with the rower in the video. It’s a good mental simulation of rowing on the water in a double or a quad. What amazes me is that they can keep talking while doing the pieces… but the company has done a great job of assembling athletes who have engaging personalities and are in incredible shape.

All of the athletes are engaging, knowledgeable and upbeat

For those with a competitive mindset, the workouts always feature a “leaderboard,” so you can see how you’re doing, in real time, against all others who are doing the workout at the same time. Sometimes it’s in the hundreds, and sometimes in the thousands. This is huge for me because I’m pretty competitive. I don’t know where it came from, but it’s deeply ingrained in my DNA. Whatever results I’ve achieved in my rowing career are not from my skinny, injury-prone body, but from my desire to beat whomever was piecing or racing against me. Only recently did I get a stroke coach that shows splits. I don’t really care about my splits—I only care how I’m doing against other rowers. The only two things I think about during a race or a piece are: 1) how am I going to physically and mentally endure the pain until the finish line; and 2) how can I beat the other boats. But that’s me. So having a leaderboard is yet another awesome feature of the Hydrow.

To access the videos, you need to pay a $38/month subscription, which can be cancelled at any time–they don’t try to lock you in, like gyms often do. If you don’t want to do this, then it’s basically just a fancy rowing machine…you should probably stick with the Concept2 ergometer (and, for the record, I have no issue with the C2 – it’s THE standard of indoor rowing and has trained everyone from beginners to masters to Olympians). But the videos/workouts/etc. are what makes the Hydrow stand out. They are the reason to own a Hydrow.

Compete with yourself and others – each workout has a leaderboard
Hydrow tracks your progress

There’s a lot more to the Hydrow, including non-rowing yoga and pilates workouts, and I’m looking forward to trying these. I think I’ve just scratched the surface on what it offers. I can’t speak for others, but for me personally, buying a Hydrow has been an amazing and transformative change to my winter training. The rowing world is a better place because of it. Well done, Bruce!

All Hydrow athletes, such as James Dietz, will keep you focused and positive –
it’s like having a personal coach on every piece