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.
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!
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.