Whether you’re bored of the treadmill, have lost your love of spin or fancy a new challenge to help you push yourself further, swimming can be the ultimate workout choice. Pool and open-water swimming are growing in popularity – according to Swim England, 47 percent of the population go swimming, with 7 million doing so on a weekly basis – and it’s easy to see why.
Adding a splash of chlorine into your usual workout schedule can help to rebalance your body and mind whilst providing an amazing all over physical workout. Still not sure whether to take the plunge? We've taken a dive into the health and fitness benefits that come with making a splash…
1. Low impact form of exercise
Even if you’ve never swum before, it’s never too late to start. The aerobic nature of swimming means that you can vary your pace to make workouts as strenuous or restorative as you want too. “Swimming has long been cited as a fantastic all-round sport to either focus solely on or to supplement your regular training,” explains Nike Swim’s Jane McCormick, who was part of the world record team for a two-way and three-way English Channel crossing and runs Open Swim UK. “Performing a range of strokes enables you to develop cardiovascular fitness and you can keep your heart rate up while the support of the water reduces the impact stress on your body. This makes it less taxing on your joints than sports such as running and cycling.”
2. Great for recovery
Unlike high impact sports such as running and cycling, the low impact nature of swimming means it’s a great activity to help recover from injury as it cushions and supports without putting any pressure on your joints. Swimming also strengthens connective tissue in your body because your muscles have to work harder to overcome the natural resistance of water.
When you acquire an injury in a joint, it is often recommended to slowly build up the muscles around that joint as you recover. This is easier to do when those muscles are supported by the water. “Researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland found that water-based resistance training has long-term benefits when it comes to joint recovery,” adds Jane. “Some participants that had knee operations were given 12 weeks of swimming training as part of their recovery and, one year later, the swimmers had a 32 percent increase in knee extensor power and a 50 percent increase in knee flexor power compared to those who restricted recovery to dry land."
3. Boosts VO2 max
If you want to gain speed and stamina so that you can swim with less effort, improving your VO2 max capacity is key – and swimming allows you to do this. The physiological measurement is the maximum oxygen level that you consume whilst exercising and the higher your VO2 max the more efficient your swim will be.
“VO2 max is improved when you swim whilst restricting oxygen intake – the very nature of having your face in the water while swimming does exactly that and consequently, lung capacity is improved,” explains Jane.
She adds that there are various drills you can do to improve your VO2 potential, such as underwater kicking on either butterfly or front crawl: “Put on a pair of swim fins and try an underwater dolphin kick, swimming as far as you can go. Perform this exercise eight times, each time aiming slightly further. If you do this over the course of six months, VO2 will be significantly improved and overall performance will be better.” And as your VO2 improves, so does your anaerobic threshold. “This indicates a higher level of lactic acid tolerance which will result in a greater ability to perform for a longer period of time or to go faster,’ says Jane.
4. Improves your mental health
According to mental health charity Mind, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. It’s proven that physical exercise can help to manage these symptoms – in fact it is thought that going from sedentary to being active at least three times a week can reduce the risk of depression by up to 30 percent. And a 2018 YouGov poll commissioned by Swim England reinforced these results. The findings showed that hitting the pool really does improve mental health, with 1.4 million adults saying that swimming significantly helped in reducing anxiety and symptoms of depression. Furthermore, the poll, which surveyed the exercise habits of 3.3 million Brits found that 43 percent of swimmers said that regular swimming made them feel happier whilst 26 percent were more motivated to complete daily tasks which may have otherwise felt too overwhelming.
5. Burns more calories than normal exercise
Add a pretty decent calorie burn to the strength and conditioning effects of swimming and you’ve got a truly winning workout. Just half an hour of steady swimming can burn up to 350 calories, and the more strenuous your stroke (think freestyle or butterfly) and you could burn up to twice that amount. You get more bang for your buck when you hit the pool too – just 30 minutes of exercise in the water is the equivalent to approximately an hour of non-water-based exercise, so it’s a great workout when you’re short on time.
6. Toning benefits
Water is nearly 800 times denser than air, so in terms of toning, the natural resistance of the water helps to hone muscle strength and endurance, which can help to boost your body confidence. As a general rule, swimming fast helps to develop fast-twitch muscle fibres, boosting explosive power; while longer periods in the pool develop the slow-twitch fibres that improve overall cardiovascular stamina and endurance.
There are specific things you can do to improve toning up specific areas, too. If you want to focus on your upper body, use a buoy float between your legs and use your core and arms to propel you along. And to improve leg strength, zone in on the intensity of kicks in backstroke and butterfly.
7. Complements other training
Findings from a OnePoll survey found that 87 percent of people maintain that swimming helps to improve their stamina when running and for other fitness activities, whilst 89 percent said they feel fitter and stronger when adding swimming to other fitness activities. Hitting the pool works well for active recovery as it both relaxes muscles whilst simultaneously working them, and the fact that it increases your heart rate means it’s great for cardiovascular health too.