Elite oarsmen and oarswomen possess large body dimensions and show outstanding aerobic and anaerobic qualities. Oarsmen have VO2max values of 6.1 +/- 0.6 L/min and have incurred O2 debts of between 10 and 20 litres. The caloric expenditure of rowing estimated from the O2 cost of a 6-minute rowing ergometer exercise was calculated at 36 kcal/min, one of the highest energy costs so far reported for any predominantly aerobic-type sport. Aerobic and anaerobic calculations show that 70 to 75% of the energy necessary to row the standard 2000m distance for men is derived from aerobiosis while the remaining 25 to 30% is anaerobic. Women achieve VO2max values of 4.1 +/- 0.4 L/min and slightly lower anaerobic values than men. The relative 60 to 65% energy contribution of aerobic metabolism and 35 to 40% for anaerobiosis is not surprising since women compete at 1000m. Rowers also exhibit excellent isokinetic leg strength and power when compared with other elite athletes and oarswomen produced higher relative leg strength values than men when lean body mass is considered. Muscle fibre type distributions in oarsmen resemble those of distance runners while women tend to have a slightly higher proportion of fast-twitch fibres. An average power output of 390 +/- 13.6W was produced by oarsmen for 6 minutes of simulated rowing while women were able to develop 300 +/- 18.4 for 3 minutes of the same activity. Mechanical efficiency for rowing was calculated at 20 +/- 0.9%. Oarsmen also achieve very high ventilation volumes being able to average above 200 L/min BTPS for 6 minutes of simulated rowing; women ventilate 170 L/min BTPS for 3 minutes of this exercise. Excellent VO2/VE and O2 pulse values demonstrate outstanding cardiorespiratory efficiency. Both oarsmen and oarswomen utilise a unique physiological pattern of race pacing; they begin exertion with a vigorous sprint which places excessive demands on anaerobic metabolism followed by a severely high aerobic steady-state and then an exhaustive sprint at the finish. Tolerance to excessive anaerobiosis is evident by very high lactates and O2 deficits measured during the first 2 minutes of exercise. Physiological profiles of successful international calibre rowing athletes have been established as a result of studies described in this review and the data have been used in a variety of ways to improve rowing performance.