As well as being asked about this from time to time, I’ve learned that this is a common online search phrase so I should get some extra hits on this post.
Previously, I’ve written some thoughts on body fat in relation to swimming:
The topic came up again recently, and though I still stand by what I’ve written in those previous posts, I wanted to share my latest thoughts on it.
First of all, a warning for the reader: my first words on this may not sound so encouraging for those looking for an easy aquatic fix for excess fat. But please read on and consider these thoughts on how to respond to the full, metabolic reality of fat reduction.
Does Swimming Burn Fat?
From my anecdotal viewpoint, in how people typically exercise in the lap pool, no, this kind of swimming does not burn much fat.
I suspect that typical lap swimmers are…
1 – Not getting enough training volume.
I observe that people are swimming less than an hour at a time, and they are swimming three or fewer days per week. In my understanding of exercise physiology, to get the body into a long-term, fat-burning mode it’s going to take much more volume of swimming than people are typically scheduling. They need to swim for longer periods of time in a single practice, and swimming more frequently per week.
Youthfulness aside, notice how lean high school, college and professional swimmers are. They are swimming 5 or 6 days a week, likely 10,000 meters or more per day. Those bodies can barely get enough calories. As a college-age triathlete, I was 128 lbs and hungry all the time! I felt like I could eat anything and get away with it (but now I know one cannot ‘get away with it’. The bill on that is delivered some day down the road).
2 – Not maintaining enough metabolic intensity in each practice.
Fat burning from exercise requires a sustained effort – this means working continuously with a raised heart rate, with more respiration and more muscular effort. I wonder how many lap swimmers are willing to impose this upon themselves. I notice a consensus among fitness specialists to recommend at least 30 minutes of sustained heart rate in exercise, and working out three or more times per week.
Land-based High Intensity Training (HIT) is quite uncomfortable, but it seems to be quite popular because it is regarded as being effective at getting exercisers into fat-burning mode. Many people are motivated to endure that discomfort for the very purpose of losing weight, even though such activities are difficult to sustain as a lifestyle. Likely, not many stick with it long-term. And, you’ll notice how those programs have a high-energy coach to ensure high effort in the class, and a group to help maintain external accountability to show up regularly.
Not that I am in need of losing any fat (I am already cold enough in the winter!), but if I want to make my body more lean from swimming alone I will do three things in my swim training:
- Swim more than 3 days a week (I swim 3 days and run 3 days currently)
- Add more Long, Slow Distance (LSD) work, where I swim 90 minutes or more continuously
- Add more power-building work that increases my muscular effort for short, frequent intervals
3 -Swimming in cool water.
I don’t know of scientific studies on this, but among swim-folk it is debated whether the cool water of lap pools, and longer exposure to it, may urge formation of brown adipose (healthy) fat. Cold water exposure certainly stimulates insulation production for open water swimmers. It is suggested that bodies submerged in cool water frequently, or for longer periods of time may retain fat to help keep warm, rather than burn it off. Looking at the bodies on a youth competitive swim team might challenge this idea, while looking at the bodies on a masters swim squad might support it. You’ve likely seen those older, regular swimmers who can go longer or faster than others, but seem to do so despite their less-than-ideal body composition.
There are two main kinds of fat and we should consider how those respond to strenuous training. You can read more about white fat versus brown fat in this Swimming World article and some thoughts from The Lone Swimmer.
But there is a lot more that goes into body composition and body fat than exercise habits.
Swimming Does Not Change My Weight
Coach Mat at Lake Minneola, Clermont, Florida, Feb 2016. Photo credit: Tracey Baumann
I have been swimming regularly for nearly 30 years, with seasons of more and seasons of less volume and intensity. Granted, I have consistently stayed on the lean side my whole life. In the first few years after college I went from 128 lbs (58 kg) to 144 lbs (66 kg) and in the last 10 years I have settled into a steady 138 lb (63 kg). I have not really change weight and leanness from swimming alone. I become more lean only when my running volume goes up, which it has this last three years. I do some upper body conditioning (pushups and pullups mostly) and that builds my torso mass in ways swimming does not.
I do have a habit of training in early mornings (like 5 to 7 am) in a fasted state, meaning I get up and go train without eating anything. I can go a couple hours and feel relatively fine in a long-distance or intense workout if I do this first thing in the morning. But I can’t do this later in the day, with a big gap after my last meal and still feel so strong. Though I do not lose more weight, I do not put on more weight with my exercise habits. I’ve found a steady equilibrium it seems.
Swimming As A Supplement
But swimming, only a few days per week, could be used as a supplement for metabolic stimulation, so that you can do more intense land-based exercise on other days. I alternate swimming and running, each 3 days per week, so that I can maintain strong cardiovascular fitness, enjoy more intense workouts in each, while giving my joints more recovery time between the sport-specific stresses my training imposes on them. I know I could swim faster or run faster if I emphasized just one and gave it more time per week, but my over-arching goal is longevity, not setting PR’s, so I am content to have this balance between land and water activity.
Perhaps people who may not swim with enough volume or intensity for swimming alone to burn fat, may be enabled by swimming to do other activities that do burn fat… if those are done with enough volume and intensity.
Don’t Blame Genetics Too Much
My body may being staying lean, but it is not necessarily in my genetics to be this way. I am very deliberate about my lifestyle.
I remember distinctly when my dad turned 40 and (now I know) his body chemistry was changing. At that time, coincidentally, his work lifestyle caused him to a) lower frequency of strong physical activity, and 2) increase crappy food consumption. He put on weight which made him more vulnerable to joint injury when he did try to do some energetic sport. He was increasingly stressed and not looking healthy. Within 13 years he was dead from cancer. I look back and realize how much that observation of his decline bothered me as a boy and it subconsciously motivated me to do what I could to prevent a similar decline, beginning when I was a teenager.
Since then, I have built a steady exercise habit. It is a deeply ingrained value and pattern of behavior. If something prevents me from swimming, I run. If something prevents me from running, I do body-weight exercises at home. I rake leaves. I chop wood. I go for a walk. I DO ANYTHING to keep my muscles working and my body limber and moving. It keeps the metabolic fire stoked. Though it may have initially been a motivator to get me started, I don’t get out the door out of fear of disease. I eagerly do it, day in day out, good weather and foul, because I am immediately rewarded by the activity. My whole mental, emotional and physical self does so much better each day when I stay moving. And, I am further satisfied, despite any sacrifice I might have to make to stay active because I understand that I am investing in my future well-being. I can’t guarantee my future health, but I am doing a lot to ‘stack the deck’ in favor of my longevity.
Nutrition Matters More Than We Think
I will set the female hormone and aging situation aside – those are familiar because of the what the females in my family are dealing with, but far too complex for me to comment on. But age and sex-related body chemistry is something to consider, and there seems to be a lot of women struggling with this, at least on the North American side of the world.
But the state of the body, even hormones, is affected by what materials it has to work with. The body will do its best to establish homeostasis with what nutrition we give it and what regular activity we impose, but the quality of the product is dependent on the quality of the ingredients.
Over the last 20 years, if you were to ask any of my friends or family they would readily testify that I was regarded as a conscientious eater. They would be comparing me to themselves and to the Standard American Diet (SAD) where even a small effort to be selective about food is seen as extraordinary. But, in the last three years I have put my head into the overwhelming realm of nutrition information in the attempt to develop a more organized, nuanced understanding of what’s going on and improve the health of my family.
In the coming months I have plans to write articles on this blog to share insights and description of my current nutrition approach, but let me say this in conclusion: even exceptional exercise habits are going to have limited fat-burning benefit as long as you are putting sugar, processed foods, junk food, and excess animal products into your system. No, you cannot eat whatever and get away with it just because you exercise a lot – as I explained in Train Hard And Eat Junk.
And, the idea of ‘moderation’ is a total myth in the context of our modern food environment. This so-called ‘moderation’ approach with sugar, processed foods, junk food, and excess animal products is leading this generation on a sickly path to an early grave. Do not use that word or concept. If you are serious about transforming your body composition then you need to get serious about clearing the crap completely out your diet and see what it will do for you to have pure, clean, healthy nutrition. It will amaze you.
Clean, plant-based, whole foods can provide the kind of fuel that urges your body to stay lean and burn fat, and make your body respond much better to exercise of adequate volume and intensity. More on these things in posts to come…