Swimming away the fat

Interesting one this. Swimmers aren’t as slim as other athletes, and I’ve been wondering why. I remember Aussie Olympian Leisel Jones being labelled “too fat”. And I’m struggling to lose weight through swimming. Can you lose fat through swimming alone?

At the start of the year, I employed the help of a friend and personal training and nutrition expert, to help me improve my swimming performance and body tone and composition through dry-land training and diet.

On our first meeting, she tested me pretty rigorously. My BMI is a little over 25 (19-24.9 being ideal in a woman), my strength and flexibility is decent, as is my blood pressure and heart function. But my body fat surprised us both because, for someone who trains regularly, is was quite high at 36%.

Part of the reason that I’d wanted personal training in the first place was vanity, I will be honest. I’ve struggled with body image forever, and feel tremendous pressure to be slim. I also felt a slimmer me might swim faster. At the same time, I had an inkling that being a little larger helped me endure open water distance swims; on my first open water swim, I swam easier and faster than people who beat me in the pool. I told my friend that I wanted to lose fat, but retain some for buoyancy and insulation!

It appears that I’m not the first person to research swimming and body fat. Opinions vary, but the conclusion seems to be that while swimming burns calories well, it doesn’t help with weight loss. The swimmer’s body clings on to subcutaneous fat, even when it loses visceral and intramuscular fat.

Some research tells us that swimmers burn less fat than runners. Others say the total opposite. One piece of research said that swimming burns more calories per minute than running. Another showed that while swimming uses more muscles, the total mass engaged in the activity was less than in running. A third bit of research published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that a running group lost an average of 17lbs, while the swimmers doing an equivalent work out over a 3 month period gained an average of 5lbs.

The reason seems to be largely down to the fact that swimming makes you hungry. Unlike running or cycling, where a workout can suppress your appetite (never experienced this, just read about it!), swimming makes you eat until you’ve replaced the calories you burned. Why is this?

It’s probably a matter of heat. When performing any kind of dry workout, your body temperature increases, which suppresses your appetite. When you swim, the water cools your body temperature, telling it to hold on the subcutaneous fat layers that insulate you, and replenish those lost calories. It’s like your body’s asking for an extra layer for next time. Think about aquatic mammals: seals, dolphins, whales and how well they are insulated.


Swimming just makes me hungry, ok?

There’s also the argument that swimming makes you tired, so swimmers are more inclined to rest than be active after a work out. I certainly know that rather lovely wiped-out, heavy feeling you get post-swim and the good night’s sleep that follows.

Some argue that more body fat is actually an advantage in the water, for those reasons that I gave my PT friend – insulation and buoyancy. Fat is less dense than bone and muscle, and therefore more buoyant. If, like me, you have a concentration of fat on your thighs, it means you’ll have a lovely body position on the surface of the water, so your muscles can concentrate on propelling you forwards rather than lifting you, and there’s less drag.

There’s also a suggestion, which I love, that the more corpulent swimmer is better streamlined than their angular, bony counterparts. On the other hand, you have more body to push through the water, so more resistance. There’s a great article here about whether or not fat is an advantage in swimming, from which I conclude that if a had a flatter tummy, no breasts and a fat back and bum, I’d be a shit-hot freestyler!

And who gives a toss what you look like if you get results? Turns out quite a lot of people, especially if you’re a woman. Female athletes suffer a special kind of scrutiny from the world’s media when it comes to body type. The media in Australia actually had the audacity to suggest that Liesel Jones wasn’t a good role model to young athletes. I’d have liked her to take on whichever chauvinistic douche came up with that gem in the pool!


Olympics, London 2012 Swimming training at the Aquatic Centre. Tuesday July 24th 2012. Photos: Steve Christo

I’m just as bad when it comes to scrutinising my own wobbly bits. The fact is, when I stand in the shower with my tri-club mates after a session, I feel like a fraud because I’m the biggest woman there. Women who do sport, professionally or not, certainly feel pressure to look a certain way.

But my club mates also run and cycle too, and perhaps this helps explain why I don’t seem to be losing weight, why my body fat has increased rather than decreased since I started training, and why swimming makes me equally ravenous and knackered.

My conclusion is that while I love swimming, especially open water, I must do more dry-land exercise. While I do want to retain some of my lovely buoyant, insulating, streamlining subcutaneous fat, unless I want to look like a seal, I do need to shift a bit of weight.


Ready to take on some very cold water in the Brecon Beacons. Need the insulation, see?


Dog beach

This is proper cheating. One of my favourite winter beaches is on the other side of the world, where technically speaking, it’s summer. As in sizzling, 35 degree heat, summer. I’d actually like to just nip there just now, but Perth, Australia is a bloody long haul. Worth it, though; there’s a lot to love about Dog Beach.

My cousin put it best when she said “dog beach is a happy place”. It really is. Of all the beaches in Perth: long, soft golden-sanded expanses, pretty much deserted, Dog Beach is the busiest. That’s not busy by UK standards: it’s empty compared to Fistral in Newquay on a hot day, but on a balmy evening, there are plenty of people scattered on the sand. And dogs.

That’s another thing we loved: the way Dog Beach typifies an Aussie say-what-you-see approach to naming things. Dog beach is called dog beach because it’s a beach and you can take your dog there. Just as galahs are called ‘pink and greys’ because they’re pink and grey, and Shark Bay is a bay where sharks can be found.

Sharks were the only sharp-toothed, potentially deadly downside to Perth beaches. Probably because I’m a pom, I was terrified that there’d be several great whites lurking just beyond the breakers ready to snack on one of my children. I’d eat them if I were a shark. My cousin and sister’s Perth-born husbands were both very philosophical about the shark threat, and logically I knew that an attack was very unlikely, but still, we stayed in the shallows.


Looking out for Jaws.

Our trip to Perth was incredible. We were there for Christmas following the birth of my nephew, my sister’s first baby. She’d been living there for a couple of years with her husband, and our cousin was living a few streets away with the man who’s now her husband and their three dogs. In fact, this beach is the place where he later proposed.

They took us to Dog Beach one evening. The Aussies tend to visit the beach early in the morning or in the evening, otherwise it’s too hot. There’s something wonderful about being able to bathe in the sea and golden, evening sun. The atmosphere is one of peace, contentment and relaxation that you don’t really get in the UK. I guess it’s the knowledge that these endless summer evenings are yours. It’s a lovely way to live.

Dog Beach is just north of Hillary’s, a harbour development with shops and restaurants that I’ll write about another time, and south of Horse Beach (guess what happens there!). It’s about a kilometre of white sand, lapped by clear water. It’s quite exposed to the wind, so the waves can get to a decent size, though when we went it was pretty tranquil.

We played with the children and dogs in the surf, the dogs swimming quite far out to fetch sticks the way dogs do. I watched for sharks, mostly, while my cousin watched their dear old, deaf (and now sadly departed) dog from wandering off with the wrong people.

The air and water temperature is quite warm enough in December to sit in the breakers, which is also an unusual experience for a British person. This was lucky, really, because as much as I’d have loved to have swum properly, the Jaws theme-tune was playing on repeat in my head.

Still, it was undoubtedly one of the happiest, most golden places I’ve ever been. A place where for the time you’re there, everything is right with the world. A place where human and canine joy abounds.

In memory of Rover and Kaiser

Water to water

How young were you when you first went swimming? I was about 5 months old when my mum dipped me under water. I have no doubt that those were the foundations of my love of water. My own water babies were younger still: 9 weeks, 11 weeks and 10 weeks respectively. The youngest baby I know of was just 31 hours and 46 minutes old!

It helped that his dad was a Water Babies teacher, and that the hospital where he was born by c-section had it’s own hydrotherapy pool, but still a day old seems very young for your first swimming lesson! But Phoenix Elwell was relaxed and happy in the water. Well, naturally! Just 32 hours before that, a watery world was all he’d known.


Phoenix Elwell, aged 1 day, with his dad

The idea is that little babies who have spent 9 months protected by the amniotic fluid surrounding them in their mother’s womb, have a natural affinity with water. If you swim with your baby from a very young age, that affinity won’t be replaced by fear of water, which can happen otherwise. This concept has been explored in for almost a century, but there have also been counter-arguments.

In the UK from the 1960s, the polio vaccine was a live vaccine given orally – on a sugar cube, as I remember. Because that vaccine was live, it wasn’t safe for babies to swim before their vaccinations. In 2004, that changed when the polio stopped being a live vaccine. The swimming advice changed too, though some healthcare workers still cite the old advice. Just to be clear, you do not have to wait until after vaccinations to take your baby swimming. If you don’t believe me, here’s word from the Department of Health.

Another concern is that swimming pools contain bacteria. Of course, this is true. While chlorine kills most pathogens, it doesn’t kill them all. But then nor does your sterilising solution, and the finger you put in your baby’s mouth to soothe his crying is full of bacteria, as is the air. Going swimming is no more likely to make your baby ill than anything else you do.

And the benefits of swimming from a very young age far outweigh any risks. By gently introducing your baby to water, you will make sure that he stays happy and relaxed in water. That doesn’t just bode well for a life enjoying the water, but could potentially save his life, as the shock and panic for the uninitiated of being plunged underwater is the causes of drowning.

Water births have grown in popularity over recent years. Not just labouring in water, but giving birth in water too. Most hospitals have birthing pools, and you can also hire a pool at home. The benefits for mother and baby are supposed to be huge, and the risks minimal. You can find out more from this balanced article by the NCT.

I didn’t quite make the pool for any of my births, but I did take my babies to a gorgeous, hydrotherapy pool from a very young age. To me, it follows that the support of the water, which allows your baby to move, stretch, kick in a way they can’t on dry land, is wonderful for physical and cognitive development.

I also found it extremely bonding. I found the transition to motherhood a bit of shocker. My ideas of being a parent weren’t quite the same as the reality. R wasn’t a tricky baby, he was just a baby, and I felt for those first three or four months, that all I did was service him to stop him from crying.

My second baby came quite soon after R, and that was even harder. B was always in the pram or in a sling so I could deal with R’s needs too. She had reflux and got her first teeth at 14 weeks. She also suffer from dramatic nosebleeds and respiratory problems. I felt like I was under water for the first 6 months of her life, barely breaking the surface for air. In retrospect, I think I may have been verging on post-natal depression.

But our swimming sessions were heaven. With R, it was time when I could communicate with him, focus on him and play with him. With B, it was special time with her, where we could be together just us two. With C, my bonus third, it was special time with him while his siblings were at school. There was nothing that matched it in terms of mother-baby groups, or time to bond.

I love seeing tiny babies in the water. Water Babies start babies under a year old, but I would go further and say that under 6 months old is ideal, as babies can start to develop separation or stranger anxiety as young as 8 months, and it’s good for your teacher to be able to swim with your baby too.

If your baby is really teeny tiny, you should find a private hydrotherapy pool. The temperature is bath-like, and chlorine levels can be lower because fewer people use the pool, and strict shower first rules are in place. If your baby is under 12 weeks or 12lbs, they should swim in water that’s warmer that 32 degrees.

Read more about the benefits of baby swimming here. To find Water Babies classes near you look here. If you’re looking at other swim schools, make sure they follow the code of practice for safety here.


My most recent training session was all about the kick. Our coach said that she wanted us to leave feeling like we couldn’t walk! With so much focus on arms, why is the kick important? What does it do, and how can we improve it?

I’ve got an awesome kick. I often say I’m a rear-wheel drive, or power from behind when on kicking drills I overtake people who are normally faster than me. The problem is, in freestyle, 90% of the propulsion comes from the arms, so that’s what I’ve been focussing on lately.

Until I trained to teach swimming, I assumed that my powerful kick came from having big quad muscles. But actually, when you kick from the hip anyway, it’s the fact that my ankles hyper-extend and my feet naturally in-toe that gives me the advantage: as one of my co swimmers says, my feet are actually flippers.

Swimming in fins helps you extend your ankles so they’re in line with your shins. Try it now. Point your toes so that the line of your shins continues across the front of your feet. If you have poor ankle flexibility, your toes will hang down when you swim and create drag. Mine are as flexible as Olympic medallist Cassandra Patten’s!


Cassandra Patten has hyper mobility in her ankles.

The other important benefit of a good kick is body position. Athletic people, especially men, often suffer from sinking legs. Why? Because while fat and less dense bones help you float, muscle and dense bones are not buoyant. A strong kick can help you keep a nice, high position in the water.

Varying the speed of your kick in session is good practice for mastering the 6-kick per stroke flutter kick, or the slower 2-kick per stroke. Your kick should always come from the hip, not the knees so that you don’t add drag and do use your stronger glute muscles.

Your kick also needs to stay relaxed. Ideally, your feet should almost flick up and down at the end of your legs, as your legs stay relaxed and your bottom does the hard work. This is exactly the action your legs will have when your wear fins.

A session on legs, wearing fins, will also give you a cardio-vascular boost because you have much more resistance. I also found that speeding up my kick while simultaneously slowing down my arms was a great hypoxic work out because you go longer between each breath. You could try breathing more frequently if you needed to.

Ultimately, if you’re racing, you’re going to want to make every part of your stroke count, and that includes your kick. Whether you race or you’re an endurance swimmer, you’re also going to want to make your body streamline and as drag-free as possible. So mastering a decent, effective kick is a must.

You can add simple kicking drills and fins to your normal set. In fact, it’s best not to become over-reliant on fins. You can also practice stretches to increase your ankle flexibility.

Legs set (You will need swim fins* and a kick board)

5 x 15om swim, 150m kick without fins

4 x 50m kick with fins on 1 minute (swim 50m, rest for however much of the minute you have left) +30 secs rest then repeat x 4

6 x 25m hard kick with fins – push your legs down so you don’t splash and feel the burn!

4 x 100m hard kick with slow arms

200m swim, no fins.

(*swim fins are shorter and stiffer than the ones you use for snorkelling/scuba-diving etc. I use Zoggs fins. There are loads available and good user reviews on the Simply Swim website.)

Safe swimming #guestblog

My first guest blog is by my favourite girl in the whole wide world. I started Water Babies with her when she was just 9 weeks old, now 8 years old, she’s pretty good in the water! See what Betty has to say about swimming…


Betty aged 3 just as comfortable under water as above

“I love swimming! I like front crawl, back crawl and breast stroke the most. My mum taught me how to stay safe in the water and now I’ll tell you…


(1)If someone is drowning talk them into the side.

(2) If someone is drowning throw something for them to hold and then talk them into the side.

(3) If someone is drowning get something long and hold one end then throw it out so they can hold the other and you can pull them in.


Keep swimming!”


Loving our massive paddling pool!

Like a true water baby, Betty loves any kind of swimming, water slides, the sea, body boarding, even spending hours in our unheated paddling pool.

I once read a fatuous argument against teaching swimming that said that most people who drowned were trying to swim or play in water; that if you didn’t go in water, you wouldn’t drown.

Clearly if you existed somewhere without water, the Sahara, for example, it would be quite hard to drown. But seeing as water is a life force, and the earth’s surface is 80% H2O, it’s better to learn to swim and stay safe around water.

I’m glad Betty enjoyed the water safety part of her swimming lesson, learning pool rules, how to tread water and call for help, how to find a branch or buoyancy aid to help someone in trouble.

I’d never be complacent, but it’s good to know that your child is safe and sensible in the water!

Clifton Lido

It’s still too cold for proper open water swimming, but not to go outdoors. Clifton Lido is a bit of a gem: sympathetically restored, heated, but still cold enough to whip your breath away. And you can wear a bikini.

It’s January. Clear, crisp, sun shining brightly, but doing a bit of a feeble job of warming this part of the world. Still, I’m in my two-piece and enjoying a few breathless lengths under the actual sky without a lifeguard or ceiling in sight. What joy.

This is Clifton’s rather special Lido. It’s been in Bristol since 1849, but closed in 1990. After a local campaign which gave it grade II listed status, it was restored, and re-opened in December 2008. You can see photos of the restoration project all around the venue.

The pool is beautiful. A tank design, 24m long, it is kept at a temperature of around 24/25 degrees and at a low chlorine level. There’s also a sauna, steam room and hot tub. When you use the facilities in conjunction with one another, you swim with an odd, heavy feeling that has to be good for you!

We swim, then sauna, then swim, then hot tub, steam, swim, hot tub again. This level of relaxation is quite exhausting! And builds an appetite.

This brings me neatly to a quality that none of my other favourite swimming places possess: an excellent restaurant. Downstairs, a tapas bar; upstairs, an a la carte dining room where you can also choose from a set menu or tasting menu.

We go upstairs, and choose a meal from the set menu: starter to share, main (something fishy) and then pudding to share. By this point, we are almost too exhausted to speak, and certainly too spaced out to sample from the wine list, so we just sit mesmerised by the swimmers ploughing up and down in the pool below, enjoying our food.

The restaurant is in the old pool’s viewing gallery, which apart from the modern floor to ceiling windows that overlook the pool, has plenty of industrial Victorian charm.

In the pool, in my bikini, I felt the eyes from the restaurant. But now I’m here among a curious mix of business lunches, friends meeting and people in white robes, I understand that those eyes were pretty passive: it’s hard to intently observe anything when you’re in a stupor of intense relaxation and food appreciation.

This is a gold plated outdoor swim, infused with expensive essential oils. It’s cleaned up, without being sanitised, so you still get to experience the sky above your head, and fresh, clear water – with just enough chlorine to know you’re not going to get your fingers caught in pond weed or swallow a pond skater.

No, it’s not the genuine wild swimming article, but you get to sauna, steam, hot tub and a nice massage if you want. And did I mention an amazing meal afterwards? In my eyes, it’s a good trade-off.

One day I might just do winter open water swims, but until then, I’ll take the luxury option because it is really, really rather nice.



On a level

From time to time I meet a baby who has a big impact on me. Harry has mild cerebral palsy, which isn’t the first thing you notice about him, but it’s there. When he swims with me, I’m really struck by the fact that swimming is a great leveller, and what joy he gets from swimming.

Harry’s a very cute, cheeky 3 1/2 year old. He’s got curly brown hair, dark eyes with a twinkle that makes him look like he’s in on a very funny joke. He loves swimming, and has mild cerebral palsy. And that’s how you see Harry, with cerebral palsy low down on the list.

In the water, the physical manifestation of cerebral palsy, or any physical or motor delay or disability, is much harder to spot than on land. The water fully supports the body, allowing a full range of movement. This means that a child who can’t stand unaided, for example, can kick just a freely as a child who’s able to walk and run.

This makes the water a wonderful leveller. I can’t think of any other physical activity where a child with cerebral palsy could participate alongside more able-bodied children. And this is so good for their confidence and self-esteem, and for their parents too.

I once taught a boy with Downs Syndrome whose dad said that swimming “helped his social interaction with other children. Physically he is behind, but I have found myself surprised with how well he is progressing as the course goes on, and more importantly how much he enjoys it.”

Harry’s mum does have to give him a bit more support with certain activities such as standing on the side and jumping in, but there’s nothing he can’t do. And that’s the important bit. Watching his confidence grow with his ability is an absolute joy.

The other, rather incredible side is physical ability. The warm water has a few magical qualities that help people with conditions like cerebral palsy get stronger, more coordinated, more flexible and have a great cardio-vascular workout.

While it manifests differently from person to person, cerebral palsy often causes motor malfunction characterised by muscle stiffness. The warmth of the pool helps relax the muscles, while the weightless from the water’s buoyancy alleviates the stress caused by gravity. In this rather lovely state, you add the resistance of the water, and you can move freely, without risk of falling over, to exercise, strengthen muscles and increase flexibility.

An old school friend of mine is highly specialised Paediatric Physiotherapist. When I asked her what she thought about swimming for children with cerebral palsy, I was quite taken aback by how emphatically she encourages swimming. “It gives them the opportunity to strengthen muscles, increase range of movement, move the two sides of the body work symmetrically and exercise the heart and lungs to a degree that may not be possible on land,” she said.

That symmetry of movement is also significant. Swimming helps developing brains make important connections and integrate primitive and postural reflexes – a process that can be inhibited by physical conditions like cerebral palsy. This movement helps overcome learning and developmental delays and challenges including ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Autistic Spectrum Disorders and cerebral palsy.

In the last 2 1/2 years, I’ve seen Harry become more and more physically able. He now wears leg braces, and has recently had Botox treatment in his leg to help him plant his feet properly. On Tuesday, he walked into the pool room for his lesson, which made my heart soar.

While I become attached to all the children I teach, watching a child grow and develop beyond a limitation is inspirational, be it nervousness, prematurity, or physical or learning challenges. It makes me want to learn more about aqua therapy, and to spread the word: if your baby has a condition, if they were premature, or they’re just a bit delayed in reaching their milestones, look up Water Babies, call them, talk it over and go swimming!

Harry starts school in September. I’m going to miss him! I hope that by being his swimming teacher, I have helped him through his early years. He has helped inspire my understanding of how swimming helps babies with extra needs.

To find out more about aqua therapy for children and adults with cerebral palsy, click here.

Water Babies is a UK-wide swim school (and beyond the UK) with years of experience teaching babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers with extra needs. To find your nearest classes, click here.