How to swim yourself fit, according to an Olympic swimmer

Rosie Fitzmaurice
Photo by aquachara on Unsplash

Swimming is known to be a great form of physical exercise that improves fitness, tones muscles and burns some serious calories. It's also a low impact workout that's gentle on the joints and the added breath control can have a meditative effect on the mind. Win, win.

"Being in water itself can be therapeutic," Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at Mind, is quoted as saying in a Swim England blog post. "Outdoor exercise, such as swimming at your local lido, can be particularly beneficial and research suggests it can actually be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression.

"The colours, sounds and smells we find outdoors stimulate our senses in a way that the gym or urban environments don’t," she said.

(Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash)

Whether or not you celebrated this summer's heatwave with a spot of outdoor swimming, as the summer draws to a close there are plenty of heated lidos and indoor pools where you can safely continue – or start – your swimming journey well into the winter months.

We spoke to James Goddard, three-time Olympian and Commonwealth champion, for his top tips on swimming for fitness and burning calories.

Mix up your stroke

Most people have a go-to stroke – usually breast or front crawl – but if you want to see real results from swimming then you need to be mixing up your technique, sets and speeds, according to Goddard.

"If you're just doing head up breastroke at every session, your body will get used to that quickly. You need to mix it up with different strokes to start using the different muscle groups if you really want to get stronger and fitter," Goddard told the Standard.

"Swimming is such a technical sport, in the Olympics it's not about the biggest or strongest, it’s the guy who holds the technique the longest," he added. "It's like with any kind of sport, if you get stuck in the same routine you need to get out of your comfort zone with your training, and do things that you don't want to do."

(Photo by chuttersnapon Unsplash)

So, how does each stroke compare calorie-wise?

As with any exercise, how many calories you burn in a workout is relative to a number of factors, including your weight, for example, but for a reference point we consulted Swim England's calorie cruncher for the following four strokes:


Breaststroke is often considered one of the easiest swimming techniques. It's a leg dominated stroke, explains Goddard, that works the glutes, quads, groin and lats. You can burn more than 360 calories in 30 minutes of breaststroke, according to Swim England.


Backstroke, which was Goddard's main stroke, works the shoulders, lats and chest muscles, he says. You could burn around 250 calories in half an hour practising this stroke, according to Swim England.

(Photo by Erin DeFuria on Unsplash)

Front crawl

Front crawl is an arm-dominated stroke that works your triceps and lat muscles. A fast front crawl can burn more than 400 calories, according to Swim England.

(Photo by Gentrit Sylejmani on Unsplash)


Butterfly is, for many, the hardest stroke to master. It works the core, lats, triceps, pecks and back muscles. The movement in and out of the water requires some real power, says Goddard. Swim England estimates you can burn over 400 calories in half an hour of 'fly.

Create a session plan

Goddard says it's crucial to plan your workout before you even get to the pool.

"It's a big mistake to just turn up and do your swim. Go online, do some research, set some targets and goals - it'll make the session go quicker," he said adding that it can help to have it written down on a piece of paper at the end of the pool if you need," he told the Standard.

Break it up

For beginners, Goddard recommends aiming for a session of between half an hour to an hour covering between 1km and 2km.

"Break your workout down into a warm up, main set and cool down," he says, adding that this can then be broken into subsets. For example, a 500m warm up, could be broken down into 5 x 100m or a 200m, 150m and 150m, or a 1,000m main set could be broken into 10 x 100m.

Practise your kick

Finally, Goddard recommends incorporating some equipment like kickboards, pool buoys, rubber bands and fins into your workout to help you master your technique.

And if you really want to burn calories then you should add a "kick" set into your routine, just using your legs. Goddard suggests adding a subset of either 4 x 50m or 8 x 25m into your routine.

With your upper body on a kickboard, you can focus solely on strengthening your kick, which he says many people neglect. Similarly, using a pool buoy between your legs allows you to work on your upper body movements.