Here is a follow up to Your Body Composition And Strength Matter For Speed

Case Study of My Body Composition

My body composition is quite lean, and I am on the more ‘compact’ side of males – 176 cm tall and only about 65 kg (143 lbs). I enjoy the advantages of a relatively small body mass which means I don’t have to pull as much mass through the water swimming or on land running. Compared to larger bodies of similar (swim or run-specific) strength and skill, this means I can move the same speed with less effort or move faster at the same effort. 

I used to rock climb avidly, and my body type was well suited to it. I had a good strength-to-mass ratio – it is a serious advantage in the sport to have sinewy strength – very lean and strong muscles on a slender frame – and the entire body needs to be strong, upper and lower. On the rock, one is perpetually holding the body up against gravity so the less mass he has to hold, the less energy he has to expend per minute. I still do push-ups and pull-ups so I stay in touch with that ability to move my body up against gravity.

I am running a lot – perhaps emphasizing this a bit more than swimming these recent years. Like climbing, the runner is constantly working against gravity so a lean body with a higher strength-to-mass ratio is a great advantage… when that strength is concentrated in the lower body, and sacrificed in the upper body.

We all notice how the elite levels of climbing and running accumulate a certain body shapes, sizes and compositions. Swimming likewise. Elite swimmers tend to be much taller than me, and obviously have a lot more muscle mass… but not too tall and not too much more mass because there is a point of diminishing returns. They need to pack on as much power as they possibly can onto their frame, but not cross over the line to where excess mass starts to reduce the effectiveness of that strength. They don’t want to have to move around more mass than absolutely necessary – so all that mass has to be justified. 

In my case, I have chosen to mold my body composition around a trade-off between the kind of strength and location of muscle mass I need for swimming and what I need for running. I have a bit more muscle mass in the lower body than what I should have for distance swimming and I have a bit more mass in the upper body than what I need for running (more of a triathlete’s dilemma). I could improve my performance in one of these sports if I made a reduction in sport-specific mass in the other. However, my highest priority is about having general strength throughout my body to support my daily activities outside of sports, and for longevity in general. It is not to the advantage of my longevity to have a body that is extremely and narrowly specialized for just one activity, though it is tempting for performance in the short-run to do so. It is important that I have strength for all the basic human movements and activities, including emergencies, that I may engage in in daily life.

I often feel the pull of wanting to get into very focused training and back into (locally) competitive age-group shape for one of these two favorite sports (and I hear the siren call of climbing often too!) I have the skills and mindset in place to do it but I would have to work on that chosen sport with a lot more time and effort. I would have to rearrange my muscle mass to suit that sport. I would need to build up a great deal more power specific to that achievement goal. I would have to spend more time on that sport and less on the other things that are important to me.  But at this point in life those other things are more important to me.


Lessons For You

What is your priority for getting stronger, faster, more fit? A short-term gain or a long-term one? Do you want your swimming and/or running to serve your longer life and health-span, or do you want your life to serve your swimming and/or running? This should influence what kind of work you do in your sport.

How can you use your short-term goals in service of your long-term goal? How will you know when you’ve crossed the line and the short-term goal is now at odds with your long-term goal?

What you are doing now in training – can you see yourself being excited to still do this same approach 10 years from now? Based on how your body is feeling right now under this work load, will it likely be holding up well 10 years from now if you continue on the same track?

If you are working to change your body composition, what are you doing regularly to reshape that, building strength in the way that it counts, and dropping excess mass? What evidence do you have to assure you that the activities and interventions you are doing will accomplish that objective?

Spoiler alert: I want to point out that I do not observe swimming – as it is most commonly practiced – to be a very effective way for mature adults to lose excess body mass. They get stronger and more fit yes, but trim no, unless they are already that way. There are various hypotheses for why this is so, but the observation remains. (And don’t let the young elite bodies you see fool you – the volume they swim in one day what most people swim in one or two weeks. Extreme exercise is their lifestyle.)

Swimming is enormously beneficial to one’s physical and psychological health in so many ways that one should still engage in it avidly. But to get the kind of body composition transformation that some people seek from it, in addition to an appropriate increase in volume and intensity of swimming, it likely has to be combined with a few other serious interventions, like deliberate nutrition strategy (controlling content, quantity, timing), and keeping the metabolism primed in lifestyle habits. Swimming one hour a day does not make up for sitting around for eight.

Though I get stronger, I have not and do not tend to lose mass/weight from swimming when doing it a lot. I do tend to lose mass/weight when I run a lot. This has always been combined with habitually controlled nutrition (content, quantity, timing). Lot’s of movement is critical but it still does not make up for poor nutrition, especially in mature adults. And, I get stronger in a way from doing a lot of swimming or running but I tend to gain muscle mass most readily when I do targeted weight training (more on my routine in a later post).

The main lesson is this: If you want to move faster in the water, gaining sport-specific strength is necessary, and dropping excess mass is really going to help. To do that, you may need to do a lot more than just swimming, and do it often.  Our bodies reflect our lifestyle – change the lifestyle and the body will adapt to it. That’s what it does – it responds to the regular stimulus we give it.


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