Why Swimming Is a Great Cardio Workout and So Much More

It’s time to hit the gym for a nice, long cardio workout. Should you hop on the treadmill, slip into the saddle of a bike, or give the elliptical trainer a spin? What about taking a dip in the pool? Swimming is an often-overlooked exercise modality, but it offers an excellent cardio workout. Swimming for cardio fitness helps you sizzle through calories while challenging your muscles, all without putting pressure on your joints. This makes swimming a great option for any exerciser with joint or mobility challenges. Let’s look at how swimming can improve your cardiovascular health and then explore how to swim for cardio fitness.

How Swimming Improves Your Cardio Health

Any time you move your body, your heart has to work harder to send enough oxygen to your muscles. Over time, this increased stress forces your heart to adapt, making it stronger. According to the Cleveland Clinic, cardio exercise improves “good” cholesterol, helps control blood sugar, reduces your risk of developing diabetes, decreases the chance of a stroke, improves your memory, and even boosts your mood. Cardio also burns calories, which can help you lose weight and look even better in your swimsuit.

There are all sorts of ways to add cardio to your fitness routine, but swimming is a great option. Pushing yourself through the water will quickly increase your heart rate. A Harvard Health article states that a brisk walk burns the same amount of calories as a recreational swim, but swimming has the added benefit of protecting your joints! 

Additionally, swimming engages muscles throughout your body as you work to keep yourself afloat. This can help you burn even more calories. According to the CaloriesBurnedhq.com, a half hour of swimming with a front crawl stroke will burn just over 200 calories for a 150-lb adult. A 190-pound adult will burn 262 calories for the same amount of work.

Finally, swimming also forces you to regulate your breathing. You can’t get very far in the water if you try to gasp in big breaths. By regulating your breathing, you’ll increase your lung capacity and make your lungs and heart more efficient. All of these adaptations will help you burn serious calories while improving your overall cardio fitness.

Swimming Also Increases Your Strength

Swimming for cardio fitness is a laudable goal, but when you jump into the pool, lake, or ocean, you’ll also be giving yourself a bit of a strength-training workout, too! An article on LiveStrong.com claims “water provides up to 14 percent more resistance for your muscles than movements out of the water.” In other words, it takes work to pull your body through the water. Depending on what stroke you use, you’ll be working your shoulders, chest, back, arms, abs, and even your glutes and leg muscles. 

While you’ll be getting a solid strength-training workout nearly your entire body, the beauty of swimming is that it won’t bulk you up. Instead, you’ll develop long, lean muscles. (Take a look at Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky.) However, swimming shouldn’t be your only form of resistance training. You still need to use resistance machines or free weights on dry land to keep your bones strong. This is especially important for older adults.

So don’t think of swimming as your main strength-training workout, but instead consider its resistance training as a nice bonus on top of the great cardio you’re getting with every stroke.

How to Swim for Cardio Fitness

Designing a swim workout may seem simple. All you have to do is jump in the pool and start swimming, right?

Not so fast. As with any exercise modality, you have lots of different options when it comes to choosing a swim workout. The way you program your swim should depend on your current fitness level, your comfort in the water, and your fitness goal.

Word of Warning

Swimming is a wonderful exercise option, but it does come with unique risks. If you aren’t sure about your swimming ability, always start out in a pool and choose a lane next to the edge so you can grab onto it if needed. Be sure to stick to the shallow and medium-depth parts of the pool so you can put your feet down if necessary.

Swimming in open water is significantly more difficult than in a pool, and you’ll tire more quickly. You may face colder water temps, currents, waves, and other creatures sharing the water with you. Never swim in open water alone and stay close to shore for the first couple of swims until you get more comfortable in the water.

Swim Workout for Beginners

If you are just starting out on your path to fitness, congratulations! Swimming is a great option for new exercisers. It is a gentle and forgiving exercise that can be modified for any fitness level.

A great starter workout is to swim ten half laps (from one end of the pool lane to the other) at an easy pace with the swim stroke of your choice. Breaststroke is a popular choice for beginners. Take a 10- to 20-second break when you reach the end of the lane. Focus on keeping a steady pace and regulating your breath.

If swimming ten laps is too difficult, find a lane in the shallow end of the pool and walk the rest of the laps.

Endurance Swim

If you really want to improve your cardiovascular endurance, then it’s all about putting in time in the water. After a short warmup, set a clock for 30 minutes and start swimming. The goal is to maintain a steady, moderate pace while keeping your breathing under control. If you need to rest, try switching to an easier swim stroke and slowing your stroke rather than stopping altogether.

Adjust the time of your swim based on your fitness level. Beginners may want to start out with three 10-minute swims with a five-minute rest in-between. More advanced swimmers can set the timer for an hour, or try to swim in open water if they feel comfortable with that option.

Interval Swimming

For a great cardio workout that won’t mean spending all day in the pool, try interval swims. The beauty of interval training is that you have lots of different options when it comes to designing your workout. This will make it easier for you to stay engaged and less likely that you’ll eventually grow bored.

The key with intervals is to program a high-intensity bout of swimming followed by a short segment of rest. The more intensity you add, the more quickly you’ll see results (but the more painful the workout will be). From there, it’s all about designing the swim based on your fitness level.

One swim interval option could be five sets of two sprint laps (down and back in the lane), followed by one slow recovery lap. To give yourself a more interesting workout, switch up your strokes between laps or between sets. You can also pick something to work on during each set, like your breathing, stroke technique, or kicking.

Swimming Is the Perfect Combo

Swimming really is the perfect combo of cardio and resistance training. It can also be a relaxing form of exercise. (Yoga is another great option for a workout that will challenge and uplift you.) At the end of your swim workout, take a few cooldown laps and enjoy the peacefulness of the water. If you have a little extra time, swing into the sauna. In addition to being completely relaxing, Harvard Health explains that time spent in the sauna may help lower your blood pressure!  

Now that you know how to swim for cardio, it’s important to make sure you incorporate swimming into a holistic health routine for yourself. That includes strength training on land to keep your bones healthy and eating a nutritious diet that can give you the energy you need to swim like a mermaid. Keep reading our informative fitness blog to get lots of great advice on how to live a fit and healthy life. 

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