The dense resistance of water creates substantial drag, but on the WaterRower models, this is perfectly tempered by a whippy cord. It coils and recoils with such steady speed that one tester noted how the Classic “eats the rope back up on recovery.” This smooth agility helps balance out the impact of encountering slow water at the start of every stroke.

Rowing is unusual in the demands it places on competitors. The standard world championship race distance of 2,000 metres is long enough to have a large endurance element, but short enough (typically 5.5 to 7.5 minutes) to feel like a sprint. This means that rowers have some of the highest power outputs of athletes in any sport.[35] At the same time the motion involved in the sport compresses the rowers' lungs, limiting the amount of oxygen available to them. This requires rowers to tailor their breathing to the stroke, typically inhaling and exhaling twice per stroke, unlike most other sports such as cycling where competitors can breathe freely.

In sweep or sweep-oar rowing, each rower has one oar, held with both hands. This is generally done in pairs, fours, and eights. In some regions of the world, each rower in a sweep boat is referred to either as port or starboard, depending on which side of the boat the rower's oar extends to. In other regions, the port side is referred to as stroke side, and the starboard side as bow side; this applies even if the stroke oarsman is rowing on bow side and/or the bow oarsman on stroke side.