How to Structure a Swimming Workout?

Chante writes: You talk about swimming being the best exercise for overweight people, but you don’t tell us how exactly to use swimming. What should overweight people do in the pool? What’s a good workout to start with? What are good beginner workouts, medium level workouts, and expert workouts?

Swim Sessions vs Swim Workouts

My answer: Well, to be honest, I’m not really that much into swimming workouts. I don’t do competitive swimming, except for the occasional triathlon swim in the summer and for which I train in a lake. So at the pool, I rather do swim sessions or swim practices rather than workouts. I often decide on the spot what I will do in the pool. That often revolves around which aspect of my technique needs to be improved.

However, most of my swim sessions have a common basic structure. Currently, it looks more or less like this:

  • Warmup: 12 lengths of either breaststroke or a swim medley that includes breaststroke, front crawl, and backstroke.
  • Tune-in: a few swimming drills to get the feel of the water. Feeling connected to the water is an important aspect to be able to enjoy swimming. I currently use the following freestyle drills: Under Switch, Zipper Switch and Over Switch. I do about four lengths of each drill.
  • Main practice: Here I work on the technical aspects of the stroke I want to improve. Typically I alternate lengths of drills with lengths of swimming or I focus on one point of my stroke and try to execute it correctly for a few lengths.
  • Endurance: Depending on the time left, I do a set of between 20 and 30 lengths non-stop.
  • Speed: Once in a while I add a few lengths of quick high-intensity swimming to train for speed.
  • Cooldown: a few relaxed lengths of breaststroke and backstroke.

Now to answer your question, Chante, I think the most important thing you need to do is to get started and find pleasure in your swim sessions. The problem with swim workouts is that they can be kind of tedious and boring. That’s why I prefer to mix up drill lengths with swim lengths on the spot a lot.

If you want to lose weight, I think in the beginning you should go to the pool three times a week and swim/practice for at least half an hour. Then I would mix up drill lengths with swim lengths to learn a new stroke or to improve an existing stroke. Practicing all of our drills for each individual stroke should keep you busy for at least a few months.

I suggest three times a week as a guideline because this is what is needed to develop the feel for the water, make progress and allows to stay motivated. This will also provide enough cardio to start burning fat. More than this and it can become a drag to spend so much time in the pool. You need to see what works best for you.


Lastly, there’s a lot of truth in the saying that “a great body is made in the kitchen”. I have been following the Paleo Diet as specified by Loren Cordain for three years now. The Paleo Diet is more of a set of nutrition guidelines that you should follow long-term rather than a short-term diet that you follow for a few weeks.

The biggies are to avoid industrial foods, sugar, dairy, grains/cereals and legumes, and to add fruits, nuts, vegetables, healthy fats, meat from pasture-raised animals, wild game, wild fish, and seafood. In my opinion, sugar and cereals/grains are the main causes of obesity in the western civilization.

I am in a very good shape now thanks to the Paleo Diet. A neighbor complimented me last year that I have the shape of a (lean) teenager. I never saw myself this way before but I think he is right. I’m in my forties by the way.

I now think that about 90% of getting and staying in shape is based on eating habits and only about 10% is based on physical activity. I came to this realization three years ago when I was injured and could not train for a few months. Nevertheless, shortly after being injured I started to eat following the Paleo Diet’s guidelines and was not only able to keep my weight but I even lost some fat, even though my weight was already in the normal range. This showed me how what we eat has more influence on how much we weigh than how much we work out, at least up to a certain degree.

So my number one advice to lose weight is to get educated about nutrition and to change one’s eating habits and to get a moderate amount of exercise, such as swimming three times a week.

If you want to get started with the Paleo Diet, just make sure to go to the source and follow Loren Cordain’s guidelines. There are other authors who call their diet “Paleo” but they include food categories such as agave syrup etc. that you better avoid if you want to lose weight or stay in shape.

Good luck!

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