Home Energy system Is swimming an aerobic or anaerobic exercise?

Is swimming an aerobic or anaerobic exercise?

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If going to the pool is your favorite way to train daily, you may have already asked yourself the question “is swimming an aerobic or anaerobic exercise?”

While swimming is generally considered a gentle form of aerobic exercise (opens in a new tab), it is possible to challenge yourself to make the time spent in the pool more anaerobic. A great low-impact activity, with the right adjustments, swimming can increase heart rate and engage the fast-twitch muscles associated with harder workouts.

And whether you work out aerobically or anaerobically, swimming is an effective form of exercise to promote physical health and help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Below we explain everything you need to know about aerobic or anaerobic exercise. (opens in a new tab) and share our top tips on how you can make swim training even harder.

What is aerobic and anaerobic exercise?

The American College of Sports Medicine (opens in a new tab) defines aerobic exercise as any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be sustained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature.

“The term aerobic means with oxygen and refers to the use of oxygen to adequately meet energy needs during exercise. The body uses this oxygen to break down energy sources such as glycogen and fat to provide energy. energy,” says sports scientist Emily Codd.

Emily Codd is a sports scientist and product analyst at INCUS Performance (opens in a new tab). She holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology and a bachelor’s degree in sport and exercise science. In her role at INCUS, she works with a variety of elite and recreational athletes to help them learn more about their performance, how to improve their technique and how to reduce injury.

Aerobic exercise can mean many different things. It can be swimming, rowing, walking or cycling on one of the best exercise bikes (opens in a new tab).

Anaerobic exercise (opens in a new tab) is defined by the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association (opens in a new tab) as intense physical activity of very short duration, fueled by the energy sources of contracting muscles, without the use of oxygen.

Anaerobic exercise involves the use of fast-twitch muscles with examples of this exercise including sprinting, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and weightlifting.

Heavyweight powerlifting person

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Aerobic and anaerobic exercise are two categories of metabolism and take place in different parts of the muscle cell. Aerobic exercise relies primarily on fat for fuel and anaerobic exercise relies primarily on carbohydrates for fuel

When swimming fast we rely more on anaerobic metabolism and when swimming slower we rely on aerobic metabolism.

“The speed at which we swim will determine the sources of fuel we use and therefore whether we rely primarily on aerobic metabolism or primarily on anaerobic metabolism. This will change as we slow down and speed up. The word ‘primarily’ is important here Metabolism relies on a mix of these different energy pathways being used – we don’t just turn different metabolic pathways on and off,” says sports and exercise scientist Mitch Lomax.

Mitch Lomax

Dr. Mitch Lomax (opens in a new tab) is Reader in Pulmonary Exercise Physiology in the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences (opens in a new tab) at the University of Portsmouth (opens in a new tab). She is a BASIC Accredited Sport and Exercise Scientist and a Chartered Scientist. As well as providing scientific support to a number of individual athletes, she has also provided scientific support to the England Pistol Team, Swim England and British Swimming.

Is swimming aerobic or anaerobic?

Swimming can be both aerobic and anaerobic depending on intensity and duration.

“Usually, the longer the duration of the exercise, the greater the aerobic predominance. More explosive and shorter swim training, such as sprinting, is mostly anaerobic,” says Codd.

The dominance of the energy system depends on the speed at which you swim. Slow swimming primarily uses aerobic metabolism, while fast swimming primarily uses anaerobic metabolism.

Person doing a butterfly stroke in the pool

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“Fast is a relative term and not related to an absolute or fixed swimming speed. What will be considered slow speed for a fit and skilled swimmer will be considered fast speed for someone less fit and less skilled. It means that the contributions made by the different metabolic pathways will differ even if the swimming speed is the same,” adds Lomax.

Thus, the more you accelerate, the greater the contribution of the anaerobic pathways and the more you slow down, the greater the contribution of the aerobic metabolism. But the best way to judge this is on perceived exertion rather than a set speed.

How can you make swimming a tougher workout?

Codd recommends adding resistance to your workouts to make them harder. “Using equipment such as fins or paddles will increase muscle engagement when swimming,” she says.

You can also add intervals to your training just like you would for running. It’s a hard pace but sustainable for a while.

“You will feel more comfortable at the beginning of the session, but you will start to become uncomfortable as the session progresses. Train in this way with greater effort while incorporating more rest periods between reps, rather than an easy-intensity swim with a long rest, will create a more challenging workout, build your aerobic capacity, and train you to maintain moderately high speeds for longer,” says Codd.

Mixing up your swimming and being creative is only limited by your imagination, says Lomax.

Person using a floating aid to swim with their legs

(Image credit: Getty)

“You can try swimming different strokes. Not all strokes are equal in terms of swimming efficiency, you might spend more time on a stroke that you find more difficult to swim. You can also try doing more laps into your usual swim time. For example, have a part of the swim where you swim faster than usual or reduce your rest periods between laps,” she adds.

Alternatively, rearrange your usual steady-state swim into a number of sets that are swum at progressive speeds. Divide 12 rounds into an easy length, a moderate length, a fast length, then rest and repeat this four times.

You can also play with progressive distances such as 50 yards, short rest, 100 yards, short rest, 200 yards, long rest, repeat three times.

“Rather than always swimming fully, you can also introduce swimming drills, or swimming legs only, or swimming arms only – there are swimming aids such as kickboards and pull up buoys that can help You can also wear a special swimsuit over your regular suit to make it harder to move around in the water,” adds Lomax.


This article is not intended to offer medical advice and readers should consult their doctor or health care professional before adopting any diet or exercise regimen.