Try This 30-Minute Swimming Workout That Burns Big Calories

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Try This 30-Minute Swimming Workout That Burns Big Calories

Looking for a way to burn calories, but hot yoga in the summertime just doesn’t sound appealing? One word: swimming.

Swimming looks relaxing, but looks can be deceiving. Many athletes in great shape from other sports are shocked to find out how exhausting only a few lengths of the pool can be.

Swimming uses your whole body, and your brain coordinates the alternating movements of your arms and legs and reminds you that you need to breathe. This adds a layer of complexity not found in sports in which oxygen is a given.

Don’t be intimidated: Getting a good workout in the pool is simple and completely doable, even for beginners. With short-rest sprinting, you can build endurance, lose weight and give your body the best all-over workout it’s ever had in as little as 30 or 45 minutes, three times per week. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Anatomy of a Basic Workout

Warmup (5–10 minutes)

Slow, relaxed swimming for 5–10 minutes, broken into smaller chunks. Stretch out, and pay attention to your technique and your breathing. Do some 50s or 100s, or just swim a few lengths, rest and repeat. Build your speed slightly toward the end of your warmup.

Pro Tip: Breathe in through your mouth, then exhale steadily through your nose whenever your face is in the water; never hold your breath. The most common mistake swimmers make is forgetting to exhale when their faces are in the water.

Kicking (5–10 minutes)

A vigorous kick set will increase your heart rate and keep the warmup progressing toward some fast swimming. Many pools have kickboards, or you can just extend your arms and kick on your back. You can also kick face-down, using a single arm stroke when you need to breathe. Keep your kick light and with a small amplitude, as though your feet were inside a bucket. The kick starts at the hips and ends with a flick of the toes. If you don’t have good ankle flexibility, training with medium- or long-bladed fins can help.

Short-Rest Sprint Set (10–15 minutes)

Here’s your cardio and calorie-burning meat and potatoes. Swim fast, rest for a short period, then swim fast again. To build a high-intensity interval set that works for you:

  • Swim 1 or 2 lengths of the pool, fast and hard
  • Rest for 10 seconds
  • Repeat

Once you know how much time it takes you to swim hard and then rest for 10 seconds, you’ll know how to configure your set. For example: If it takes you about 1 minute and 20 seconds to swim two lengths, and then you rest for 10 seconds, your repeat interval will be 1:30. Do this 10 times, and it will take you 15 minutes to complete the set. On paper, that looks like: 10 x 50s / 1:30.

Want More? Bonus Set (up to 15 minutes)

To continue the high-intensity swimming, just alter and/or repeat the sprint set here. If you want to try something different, do a set of 200s or some technique drills, or maybe practice the other three strokes (butterfly, backstroke or breaststroke) to exercise different muscles and improve your feel for the water.

Cooldown (10–15 minutes)

Do a few lengths at about 60% effort, then wind it down gradually, with the last length in elementary backstroke. Float, relax and enjoy the feeling of being in the water. As with the warmup, break your cooldown into manageable chunks: 4 x 50s or 8 x 25s, repeat. Don’t skip this step! The more sprinting you do, the more of a cooldown you need for your muscles to recover and be ready for your next workout.

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  • David

    Nice article. Just this week, I hit the pool for the first time in years and relearned how good it can feel and how challenging laps can be. Your comments were spot on and I learned a few things to add to my mix.

  • Rayne

    Bookmarking by commenting.

  • Ed J Moylan

    Good article. I swim 3 times a week, a mile each time. I am a member of US Masters for many years, loved competing with my age group. Right now I’m swimming solo, used to be on a swim team with a coach.

  • Rebecca Rhodes Skinner

    Wish the calories burned would be included in this article. I know it depends on weight, but a chart would be super nice!

    • jimL

      I think you’ll find that swimming expends more calories then can be accurately tracked because the water temperature will come into play and water absorbs a lot more heat then air (specific heat). Different pools are different temperatures.

      • Nenita Franck

        What is the best temp for the water for swimming laps? Ours is kept at 89*. Walking people seem to prefer it warmer but it seems too warm for me to swim laps.

        • jimL

          89 degrees F is very warm. Most competition pools are kept between 78-81. Figure surface temp of human skin is 84-86, you want the water to be cool when you jump in (to your chest). If you are doing a swimming workout correctly you will heat up and even sweat. Bottom line: I personally recommend you keep a lap pool under 84 degrees.

          • Nenita Franck

            Do you mean that you would heat up and sweat and expend more calories but will tire more easily and not swim as long?

          • jimL

            Swimming in a warm pool (86+ degrees) will just promote lethargy. You won’t get that “spark” when you work hard enough to get your pulse to the aerobic threshold. In pools above 86 degrees your (and everyone else’s) muscles relax…ALL their muscles in their body, ewwww.

            Doing a swimming workout in 89 degree water would be similar to running or biking in 95+ degree air (not a scientific calculation). It’s just not healthy. The only recognized disability that is benefited by warm water (86+) is fibromyalgia. Even arthritis benefits from cooler water as it helps reduce the swelling. Swimming in 80-84 degree water will “motivate” you to move, but be warm enough for you to “fight” hypo-thermia and cool enough to prevent hyper-thermia.

            Many recreational swimmer laugh when they see fitness and competitive swimming drinking while in the pool. You are sweating, the pool water is washing the sweat away (hence the need to chlorination standards)…and if you have the option, you don’t want to drink pool water.

      • Cathy Raiser

        Do you expend more calories in a cool, or warm pool? I read an article once that indicated that exercising in cold water causes one to “shut down ” the metabolism, and slow weight loss. Sounds backwards, but that was the message. Wonder what others have heard.

  • Mary Clifford

    I’ll soon to be 88 yrs old and I swim half mile almost everday (Weather permitting). Over 70 miles in large pool since Feb this yr. Lifetime activity since 5 yrs old. Love it – keeping me young.

    • sld

      Fantastic Mary! And inspirational!!!

  • Dreva Rutherford

    I’m not a good swimmer at all, but this summer I found out my local indoor pool has a “slow lane” for walkers. I finally found an exercise I love! Since I have arthritis in my knees and hips walking on a hard surface always results in pain while in the water- no pain!

  • JDVinWV

    This is great, thanks, we just got our lap pool this week (currentless, but with a harness) so this is great timing. I’m re-learning to swim though, it’s been roughly 20 years since I last swam for exercise so I’m going to have to ease back into it.

  • Laura peck

    I lost 165lbs and have kept it off for
    three years and my go to exercise has been swimming. Now I do strength training in addition to swimming but when I first started swimming was all I could do. It also keeps me going when I hurt to much to do anything else. I am 55 years old and this is the first time in my life I have kept off that much weight.

    • Cathy Raiser

      If it’s not too personal, may I ask how you’re dealing with loose skin? Does the swimming seem to help? I am losing weight and am getting loose all over! Look ok in clothes, but you could not pay me to go out in public in a sleeveless top. I am a pretty young appearing 60 y/o, but my arms are hideous. Congratulations on your fantastic weight loss!

  • jimL

    The tip provided in the warm-up description is perfect. So many people hold their breath when swimming. Holding your breath takes more energy then exhaling (relaxing).

  • sld

    I struggle with the breathing when I swim (not the breath holding)….but rather just the ability to slow my crawl down enough that I don’t end up winded at the end of each length. So the part where you begin doing sprints is out of my league.

    Still haven’t found the correct form despite watching about every Youtube video about efficient technique and catch. I am guessing that is the source of the issue since when I am not yet winded (read as the first length) the crawl is an easy one for me.

    • Brian Madine

      If you are actually “holding” your breath, you shouldn’t be. You need to breathe out under the water, so you’re ready to inhale quickly when your head turns (not lifts) out of the water on the start of a new stroke. There’s not enough time to exhale and inhale when taking a stroke.

  • Janet Brown

    How can this workout be modified for time rather than distance? I really need a variation of this for my new Endless Pool. I’m getting ready for knee replacement surgery and have a physical therapy routine, but I also need to loose weight. I can keep pace with the top current, but not for long.

    • Darcey

      By now you will have had the knee replacement. Was it one knee or both? Are you happy with it?
      I have arthritis in knees/hip/back, so I considered an Endless Pool, but my therapy place is letting me continue there on an elective basis indefinitely [I pay monthly], and I have access to equipment in the water, so I decided not to spend the big bucks on an EP. As of now I am just having the gel injections, which work pretty well. I was told knee replacement would bring me back to 85% use, but I think the shots do that much. Still, some days when out of the water I move the wrong way and am out of commission for days.If knee replacements would end all that I’d go for it. But I’m afraid it would be knees but still need back surgery. So at this point, what do you recommend?