Our Tips On Losing Weight By Swimming

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If you're looking to shed a few kgs of body fat as you train then you're not alone - we've all been there! A little excess weight doesn't impact swimming performance too much (unlike other sports such as cycling or running) but we all want to look lean and be healthy - so how should we go about shedding a little excess flab?

First Up The Bad News - Losing Weight And Gaining Fitness Is Difficult To Combine

Losing weight is all about creating calorie deficit - using more calories than you're eating. Your body can cope with a small deficit but there comes a point where you don't have enough calories coming in to fuel you through training and recover properly afterwards.

If you're looking to gain fitness and lose weight at the same time, don't aim to lose more than 0.5-1kg (1 to 2lb) of weight per week, otherwise your system will be depleted, you'll feel very flat when training and your fitness won't develop.

Generally speaking it's easier to lose weight the fitter you are because with greater fitness your fat burning ability will increase and your reliance on carbohydrate will reduce. You will know when this starts to happen because you won't feel quite so hungry after a training session.

For that reason it's better to gain fitness first in a training program and then aim to gradually lose weight later on when you have first gained fitness. This happens naturally and it's no coincidence that most athletes become leaner as they become fitter even if they are not consciously trying to lose weight.

Developing A Good Fat Burning Engine

You can do any exercise at any intensity level and you will burn calories, which of course is useful to create that calorie deficit you are looking for. However, at higher intensities (e.g. CSS training) we mostly burn carbohydrate and this will make us feel depleted and hungry. That's OK - and it certainly can work for weight loss - but it's less challenging to lose weight if we burn quite a lot of calories as fat during the training session. And that means swimming continuously at more "steady" effort levels.

In sports like running and (especially) cycling, targeting this "steady pace" intensity for long periods of time is quite easy to do. However the culture of swimming encourages us to swim short distances with recovery between each swim. This does two things:

- It encourages you to push the pace and raise your intensity level because you are only covering a short distance and know you are going to get recovery time afterwards. Swimming at this higher intensity can easily lift you out of the fat burning zone and shift to carbohydrate.

- The lack of continuous swimming places little demand on your aerobic endurance and therefore your fat burning engine never develops properly.

We're not saying that you shouldn't do any swimming at higher intensities - far from it - but make sure you include some longer continuous swims of 800m or more in your weekly training to build that fat burning engine, even if you have to swim more slowly than you are used to doing.

In fact if you are training for an event this summer using a bespoke training plan in the Swim Smooth Guru or one of our waterproof training plans, you can safely follow the plans as normal as they include those longer aerobic swims you need. Just make sure you're controlling your pace well during the sessions - don't start too fast and blow up!

Eating Right

Of course not only do you want to get your training right but there's plenty you can do in terms of diet to help you become leaner. We don't recommend doing anything too radical, just eating normal healthy balanced meals but make your key action to reduce the amount of sugar you consume - e.g. desserts, soft drinks / soda, cakes, fruit juice, chocolate, biscuits etc.

Doing so will regulate your appetite and keep your energy levels more consistent, meaning you are far less likely to have a blood sugar dip and reach for the cookie jar...

Unless you are swimming longer than 90 minutes you shouldn't really need energy drink or gels during your sessions either. Take water but avoid additional energy products unless you are training a very large overall volume of training - e.g. marathon swimming training.

We also recommend you avoid taking too much caffeine which can create peaks and troughs of energy too - it's easy to become reliant on caffeine but it can often end up making you feel more tired overall.

In a nutshell, just eat normal regular food, just aim for low sugar (note, not low carb).

Above All Else, Be Consistent

Just like when you are training purely for best performance, make consistency your goal: consistent training, consistent diet, consistent rest and gradual consistent weight loss. Avoid "superman weeks" where you do huge amounts of training but then hit a massive energy low.

Keep things rolling over many weeks and months, train and eat at a level that you can sustain without undue struggle, enjoy your time in the water, stay healthy and that number on the scales will move slowly and consistently downwards...

Swim Smooth!

[All this may make somewhat amusing reading to marathon swimmers who face the opposite problem - how to keep weight on (or gain it) whilst training hard. If you're swimming long distances in cold water (no wetsuit allowed) then a healthy layer of body fat is definitely required to avoid hypothermia...!]

From the Guru (PRO subscription required):



Anonymous said...

this article is somewhat misleading... ANY weight loss method that makes one lose more than 0.5kg/week is not good. regardless how, if you lose weight too fast your body will go into crisis mode and start storing like crazy, simply said.

Realistically, one should plan about 1kg/month maximum. That's 12kg/year. Yeah, it's slow, but it's sustainable and it CAN be achieved by counting calories while increasing your fitness via swimming or any other sport, including weights training in the gym. I know because I did it.

Jakub said...

I completely agree with the previous post.

I started to swim a year ago, my goals are not any competitions etc. I had problems with migraines and I suspected insufficient body musculature and related problems with posture and especially with spine (working as a software developer, no sport, too many hours working a day).

So I started to swim and I have improved my fitness (or at least I can feel some improvements). I have never swim short and fast tracks. My "training" was just enjoying the time in the water. I enter the water and swim one hour without any breaks. Of course, I change a technique and I do some small plans as well.

I started with approx. 1,5 km per hour and now, after one year I am about 3+ km per hour (not much but I like my progress).

And during this year I`ve lost about 11 - 12 kg. So I dropped from my previous 82 to 71 (alt. 183 cm) and can`t imagine I could burn even more :)

Anyway, my migraines disappeared after several weeks...

Regards and thanks for this forum.

Adam Young said...

Hi Anonymous, great work on hitting your goal! We would have to disagree with you - we've seen plenty of athletes happily losing 1kg/week whilst training well but of course it does depend on your size and how fit you are (hence the 0.5-1kg range). The beauty of burning many of the calories through exercise (particularly fat burning) is that you are less likely to hit that "crisis mode" you referred to. Of course it's all about the individual though so if you feel 1/4 kg/week is right for you then definitely stick with that!

Very best,


Anonymous said...

it's not just what I feel... I am a medical doctor... it is not sound to lose weight at a high rate for a longer period (months), regardless of method or how fit you are or what your starting weight is. athletes that you have seen losing a lot are not relevant, sorry... a few cases here and there can't be taken as refference. there is plenty of reliable medical literature on the matter, you should get a more solid scientific background if you make such recommendations.

Adam Young said...

Hi anonymous (a name would be nice!), I'm not sure where you are in the world but in the UK 0.5-1kg per week is very much the normal medical recommendation suggested by our mainstream medical authorities: http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/weight-loss-guide/Pages/losing-weight-getting-started.aspx

We coach 100s of athletes a year and 0.5-1kg is very do-able in the vast majority of cases in healthy individuals eating a healthy diet. Plenty of practical experience here!


Anonymous said...

Whilst I normally agree with the SwimSmooth posts (and learn a great deal from them) I am not sure that I quite agree with this article.

My understanding is that long haul endurance workouts reduce overall body weight by burning a large number of calories but that includes a high proportion of fat AND muscle burning. In contrast, shorter period high intensity interval workouts burn a higher percentage of body fat even if the total calorie burn is shorter.

I'm not a sports scientist but my observations at the pool are that those who do long haul steady-state workouts tend to be skinny runner type body shapes with little muscle definition. Those who I see doing sprint based interval workouts tend to be far more "ripped" with more muscle showing and clearly less body fat as an overall percentage.

I am 70kg and 175cm (so quite thin) and do a lot of sprint stuff in an out of the pool. Only through doing that have i got a six-pack effect, and I am in my mid 40s. My mate who is of similar dimensions does long-haul steady state swimming and is skinny without having much definition to his body (although don't tell him that !).

Everything i read on the internet seems to advise HIIT workouts over steady state training for increased fat loss. This is also my own experience.

I know you guys are sports scientists as well as coaches, so I would be interested in your feedback.

Anonymous said...

Name on above post is Colin by the way !

Unknown said...

Thanks for this interesting post. Not particularly worried about loosing weight but I´d be interested in a few tips for distance swimmers. (I train on average 5km distance 3 times a week + 10km a week).

Anonymous said...

This is a response to the comment by anonymous at 3:13 PM.

I am a strength and conditioning coach and can explain a bit better. Your understanding of fat burning is not quite right. Your said: "Long haul endurance workouts burn a large number of calories but that include a high percentage of fat AND muscle burning." Lets start with that...The body has no ability to burn muscle and use it for immediate fuel. (In very rare cases, you body finds a way to burn muscles, but it leads to a disease called Rhabdomyolysis or Rabdo for short.)

When it comes to weight loss, it is really all about calories. To burn those calories, you can either workout easier for longer or harder for a shorter period of time. Both work.

As far as long distance swimmers looking thinner and more muscular, there is a anaerobic component to sprinting. Done right, you build muscle in addition to burning calories.

And one last thought -- As far as HIIT training vs. steady state training. Like the article says, it comes down to consistency. You have to find a style of training you enjoy and will do on a regular basis.

Cyndy said...

Hey Guillaume I know you are a Guru user which gives you lots of training advice. Do you have some specific questions? Regards Cyndy

Unknown said...

Hi Cyndy
Actually I wonder what kind of diet is best before and after long distance sessions. Thanks.

Cyndy said...

Traditional quality food is always your best choice. Staying away from over processed foods. Eating good natural carbs (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) to fuel your workout and consuming at least 200 calories of a mix of protein and carbs within 20 minutes of finishing your session. There has been a lot of support for chocolate milk after your workout along with the many recovery drinks. So have something with you for after your swim that you can eat and/or drink until you are ready to tuck-in to your next healthy meal.

Unknown said...

Thanks again. That being said, a couple of videos on diet on Guru would be most welcome. Even better if they were adapted to different training plans.

Anonymous said...

I would tend to agree with the person above who says that high intensity training is the most efficient way to lose body fat whilst retaining muscularity. Personally, I like to swim for an hour in the pool but instead of plodding up and down, incorporate sprint sets of varying lengths and throw in some different strokes. I try to maintain a high heart rate.

Some of the best looking physiques out there are from people who do cross-fit (not just swimming) which involves pushing the body in different ways. Usually for shorter periods of time. You cant say those people are not aerobically fit either.

One problem with these long endurance sets is that people tend to over-eat afterwards. In order to lose weight the most important factor is diet and NOT exercise. So take in some complex carbohydrates, protein and even some sugary food immediately after a workout but keep the total calories low. Some beans on toast and a banana for instance.

There are plenty of chubby people around who are good endurance swimmers.


Adam Young said...

Hi Guillaume, I think that's a great idea - we'll work on that! :)

Hi Mike,

Yes for sure, for bulky impressive looking muscles you certainly want to do sprint/power training. For weight loss we would have to debate that.

>> Some of the best looking physiques out there are from people who do cross-fit (not just swimming) which involves pushing the body in different ways. Usually for shorter periods of time. You cant say those people are not aerobically fit either.**

** We would also debate that - people from a gym / cross-fit background often have very poor aerobic fitness in the water. It's hugely frustrating for them - they tend to be very powerful on land but find getting overtaken by some of those "chubby" endurance swimmer you describe very disheartening. The truth is those chubby swimmers (good diet or not) are actually a lot fitter...


Unknown said...


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