If you run as part of a weight-loss programme, you might be wondering if swimming is also good for weight loss, how you can integrate swim sessions into your weekly training programme, plus whether swimming is good cross-training for runners.
After all, dare we say it, sometimes you might feel like a change of scene from running. This is even more of an issue when you’re training towards a marathon and are regularly trying to cram in five or six runs a week.
This is where a little cross-training can come in handy. Doing a cardio-based session that isn’t running has been shown to have positive effects on your running – a 1995 study by the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology found that runners who added swimming sessions into their running training over 10 weeks improved their 3.2K time by a not-too-shabby 13.2 seconds.
Is swimming good for weight loss?
Olympic silver medallist for the 10K swim Keri-anne Payne (straightlineswimming.com) says that swimming is ideal for weight loss as it’s a non-weight-bearing sport. ‘If you’re slightly overweight, you might find walking and running challenging, whereas swimming can be really helpful because of the non-weight-bearing aspect of it.’
The other great thing in terms of weight loss is that swimming is a full-body exercise. ‘It helps you develop a strong core, and you use your arms, legs, and raise your heart rate as well, which is all great from a weight-loss perspective,’ says Payne.
‘As you become more efficient with your swimming you’ll be able to swim further distances or swim quicker, and both of those will burn more calories.’
As a starting point, Payne recommends finding a coach who will help you become a more efficient swimmer. ‘The more efficient you are, the better you'll be able to swim. Ultimately, you’ll then be able to swim greater distances, which will help you to become fitter, which will help you lose weight.’
In terms of nutrition, if you’re eating more calories than you’re burning, you won’t lose weight, but you need calories to exercise meaningfully to be able to burn fat. ‘The last thing you should be doing is ending up with zero energy in the water due to not having the proper fuel in your system, especially if you’re open-water swimming,’ says Payne. It's important not to lose too much weight too quickly and to maintain a healthy balanced diet – as a result, we would recommend consulting a nutritionist or dietician to help guide you through your nutritional requirements.
How many calories does swimming burn?
While swimming is generally an impressive calorie-burner, just how many you torch depends on several factors, including your weight, intensity of your workout and your stroke.
Harvard Medical School estimates that in 30 minutes of recreational swimming:
- a 57kg woman will burn about 180 calories
- a 70kg woman will burn about 223 calories
- a 84kg woman will burn about 266 calories
However, if you turn up the heat and vigorously swim laps for 30mins, your calorie-burn increases. In this case:
- a 57kg woman will burn about 300 calories
- a 70kg woman will burn about 372 calories
- an 84kg woman will burn about 444 calories
What are the best swim strokes for weight loss?
The stroke you select also has a major impact on how many cals swimming burns. While a 70kg woman burns about 372 calories in 30 minutes of swimming breaststroke, for example, she’ll burn closer to 409 calories doing 30 minutes of butterfly.
While it may be tempting to go for a gentle breaststroke, Andrew McAllister, managing director at Turner Swim and a former elite water sports athlete, recommends sticking to the speedier strokes if your goal is to trim down.
‘Swimming front crawl and backstroke well are much more like running at a medium-to- fast pace, enabling a greater amount of weight loss and the ability to build muscle,’ he explains.
Moving your body through the water requires that you work all your major muscle groups – from your arms to your legs to your core. By incorporating the different swimming strokes – breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, sidestroke and freestyle – you can work all of your muscles in different ways within a single workout.
Why swimming is great for runners
‘Runners can gain a huge amount of fitness through swimming,’ says Neil Gilson, an INCUS-enabled marathon swimmer who recently became the first person to swim the Bristol Channel from Swansea to Ilfracombe. ‘Not only does it train your shoulders, back and core – which often get forgotten about by runners – but also significant fitness gains can be made in the water without much injury risk to the precious running muscles and joints.’
The great news for runners is those precious joints will thank you for taking the weight off while swimming. Swimming is renowned for its low impact on your bones, joints and muscles and, as a result, is perfect if you are recovering from an injury. ‘Swimming can help aid recovery after an injury or hard run, due to its low-impact nature,’ says Gilson. ‘This allows you to still work the muscles around the injury.’
‘Swimming helps build the muscles that you wouldn’t normally work’
In addition, swimming works pretty much every muscle in the body. ‘Not only are you building the muscles you use to run, you're also helping build the muscles that you wouldn’t normally work,’ adds Gilson. ‘These long-forgotten muscles can often cause injuries through muscle imbalances.’
It’s also good to add swimming into your training sessions in terms of mixing things up with your workouts. ‘Training can become repetitive, so having the mix of running and swimming in your routine can help to keep you motivated and enjoying your training.’
How can you integrate swim sessions into your weekly training programme?
For runners, it will also depend on what part of your running journey you’re at. ‘If you're at the beginning of your running journey and you're finding it a bit of a challenge, I would add in more swimming than running,’ says Payne. ‘And don't forget that you can always go jogging in the pool as well. It’s a great way to take the weight off if you’re struggling, particularly if you have an injury.’
Payne recommends starting with two swims to one run. ‘Then, as you start to feel stronger and you continue to improve your swimming, fitness and efficiency, you might aim for half and half and focus one swim session on skill development and another on distance, etc.’
The importance of rest
‘When I was swimming, we would have rest weeks,’ says Payne. ‘ We would train in a four-week cycle. Week one was the baseline starting point, week two was progression, week three was the next step up and week four was a rest week. That didn’t mean we did fewer sessions, it just meant we backed off on the harder cardiovascular training and speed sessions but still did the distance sessions.’ The aim was that when you started week one again you were starting from a better place than you began the previous cycle.
The reason that rest is important is because our bodies need time to adapt as you increase the load on it as well as helping to avoid injuries. ‘Rest also aids motivation,’ adds Payne. ‘If I have to keep going week after week after week I tend to lose motivation.’