How to swim yourself fit this summer, according to an ex-Olympic swimmer

Rosie Fitzmaurice
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How to swim yourself fit this summer, according to an ex-Olympic swimmer

Summer is just around the corner, and if the weather's anything like last year (finger's crossed!) then it's the perfect excuse to take your workout al fresco.

Whether that's joining a running club or partaking in some wild swimming, there's something magical about being at one with nature.

Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at Mind, says 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 adds.

(Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash)

Swimming is known for being great at toning muscles, it's low impact, too, and gentle on the joints, and, done properly, can burn some serious cals. Win, win.

We spoke to James Goddard, three-time Olympian and Commonwealth champion, who shared his top tips on how to actually get fit while doing it.

"Swimming is such a technical sport. In the Olympics it's not about being the biggest or strongest," he says. "It’s the guy who holds the technique the longest.

"Like with any 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."

Create a session plan

Before you've even arrived at the pool, Goddard says it's crucial you've planned your workout beforehand – just like you might at the gym – and have it on a piece of paper poolside.

"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 says.

Different strokes for different folks

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

"If you're just doing breaststroke at every session, your body will get used to that quickly. If you really want to get stronger and fitter, you need to be mixing it up with different strokes to start using different muscle groups."

Here's how they 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.


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.

(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.

(Photo by chuttersnapon 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.

(Photo by Gentrit Sylejmani on Unsplash)

For beginners, Goddard recommends aiming for a session of between half an hour to an hour covering between 1km and 2km. He also suggests breaking your session into a warm up, main set and cool down, which can then be divided 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.

Invest in some kit

Finally, to really up your training stakes, Goddard recommends investing in some pool equipment, like kickboards, pool buoys, rubber bands and fins, to really help you master your technique.

For example, to burn some serious calories, you should incorporate a "kick" set into your routine, holding a kickboard with your upper body and just kicking your legs – this could be a subset of either 4 x 50m or 8 x 25m, Goddard suggests.

Similarly, holding a pool buoy between your legs wihle you swim will allow you to solely work on your upper body movements.