Forget swimming laps for days- a short, sharp pool workout can trump spinning and running for results. Here’s how to nail a water workout…

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Park your racing bike and ditch the hockey stick: swimming is officially the UK’s most popular sport. According to Swim England , 11 million of us use our local pool at least once a month, while research conducted by Mintel  reveals that 31 per cent of us swim regularly, compared to 17 per cent in 2014. Perhaps it’s the Rio Olympics effect, maybe it’s the low-impact nature of swimming or it could be calming sensation of gliding through water - whatever the cause, splashing around has never been more popular.

The thing is, said splashing around, or bumbling along doing breaststroke, can get a bit, well, boring, especially if you’re ploughing the lanes for hours. If want to reinvigorate your swimming style and maximise results, you need to HIIT  the pool in a whole new way. And if you’re more likely to choose boxing over backstroke? We’ve got some watery facts and hacks that will convince you to mix it up and slip into your swimsuit. On your blocks.

HIIT swimming can halve your workout time

According to researchers at Speedo , swimming for 30 minutes is as effective in terms of cardiovascular output, muscular development and calorie burn as an hour’s land-based workout. Being a swimwear brand, you may think that of course they would say that, but water resistance combined with an increased demand on heart and lungs gives effective swimming the edge, particularly from a cardio point of view. Swimming Nature  swimming instructor Eri Coles explains why speed swimming can be a good option if you’re tight for time:

“You'll benefit from a reduction in training time due utilising all muscle groups throughout the workout, so 20-30 minutes is more than enough.”

Obviously, there’s the hair-drying faff to fit in around that, but holding a hairdryer contributes to the full-body workout right?

It’s more than just paddling

Get ready to up the ante - it’s not called HIIT for nothing. Eri underlines how HIIT swimming differs to more leisurely laps (nothing wrong with these of course):

“When most people think of swimming they think continuous cardio, but swimming can be effective in different ways. HIIT swimming allows you to have a different kind of workout in the pool- it allows you to work at a higher intensity, in shorter blasts for maximum cardio effect.”

“HIIT swimming will get you out of breath. A lot of people swim and it’s almost seen as the easy option or the recovery workout, when in fact it can be as tough as any other form of exercise. And of course, it’s a full body workout, whereas if you go to a spinning class, for example, you’re focusing on just your lower body.”

You can HIIT the pool by yourself. Eri recommends “measuring your own rate of perceived exertion, or you could performing intervals whereby you time your drills. If you have a heart rate monitor or fitness wearable you could use this to track how quickly you’re able to recover after each interval over time.” Want a structured programme for ideas? Try the below HIIT swimming workouts, devised by Virgin Active 's swimming experts:


• Warm up for 5-10mins, starting slowly and picking up the pace every 2 lengths.


Sprint 1 length, active recovery 1 length


Sprint 2 lengths, active recovery 1 length


Sprint 4 lengths, active recovery 2 lengths

• Recovery 3 minutes very slow pace

• Repeat all intervals an additional 1 to 2 times

• Cool down – 5 minutes slow, reducing the pace every 2 lengths


• Warm up 5-10mins starting slowly and  increasing pace every length


Sprint 2 lengths, active recovery 1 lengths


Sprint 1 length kick only, recover 1 length

Sprint 1 length arms only, recover 1 length


Sprint 2 lengths, active recovery 1 length

• Recovery 3 mins very slow pace

• Repeat all intervals an additional 1 to 2 times

• Cool down – 5 mins slow, reducing pace every 2 lengths

Feeling like a fish out of water? Virgin Active’s Hydro class  will take you through high-intensity sprints, distance challenges and resistance training to build stamina, strength and muscle tone, while Swimsanity  classes are as energetic as they sound - think aqua-drills to a pumping soundtrack. At boutique London gym Third Space  the aqua offering is aimed at long-term hardcore swimmers and HIIT fans alike- Tri Swim is ideal for prepping for a Triathlon, while Aqua Fit takes the bootcamp concept to the water, with a focus on using resistance to strengthen muscles.

It’s low impact

In fact, the weightlessness of water means that it’s essentially zero impact, and Eri highlights that this means you’ll reap all the rewards of a high-intensity workout, without the risk of strain to joints or other common HIIT related injuries. In theory, this means that you can slot in more HIIT swimming sessions per week than more high impact styles of training:

“Doing a HIIT swimming session just once a week to give your body a break from high impact workouts can be really kind to your joints. Having said that, due to its low impact nature you can do this type of exercise three to four times a week or more for optimum results.”

“People often don’t think of going for a swim if they’re seeking a rigorous workout, but it can be just as effective as any other form of cardio. On top of that, it can allow you to train more often or for longer. It’s a great way to complement other training too. If you’re injured, rather than missing a workout you can get in the pool. Adding swimming to your weekly workouts will ensure you have a well-rounded and holistic workout programme.”

It’s ‘full body’ training

As mentioned above, swimming is quite the all-rounder:

“When you swim you’re working your entire body from top to toe. There are drills which can be built into a swimming session that will focus specifically on your upper or lower body, but you don’t really need to target different areas, because in the pool you’re working your full body.”

While it is primarily cardio focused, the fitness benefits are also wide-ranging, especially if you add training tools and equipment such as aqua dumbbells (really, they’re a thing), resistance paddles or other water weights, but even without them you’ll be building muscle:

“HIIT swimming can certainly improve your strength. The added resistance of the water means that you will see a noticeable increase in your muscle strength over time, particularly if you’ve got a good technique. It can also be great for shoulder flexibility in particular.”

Speaking of technique…

Different strokes for different folks

The strokes you use in a HIIT swimming session can depend on your level of skill- although some do tend to be speedier than others:

“Technical proficiency plays a big part in terms of the strokes you choose. You need to be able to perform the stroke quickly, and so traditionally the stroke of choice would be front crawl. However, if you’re technically proficient in other strokes there’s no reason you couldn’t use these too. Getting a one to one session can really help to hone your technique and thus improve your efficiency and performance in the water.”

Tempted to dive in at the deep end and thrash it out? Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite count as accomplished HIIT:

“If you’re starting from scratch or have little swimming experience, a private lesson will ensure that you swim more efficiently and that you’re using the energy in the right way, not wasting it. Swimming with poor technique is ineffective and can lead to injuries, particularly in the neck area.”

“A one-to-one will also boost confidence, so that you can give HIIT classes your all both mentally and physically.”

Just as you’d make adjustments modifications in any other HIIT class, you can use floats when and where you need to support you (although a full on armband/ rubber ring combo is probably cheating).

Baby steps/ strokes

If you are training for the likes of a triathlon , or want to take HIIT swimming to the extreme, outdoor swimming sessions will speed your progress along no end, but Eri cautions against leaping into a lake before you’re good and ready:

“The benefit of the pool is that you can train all year round in a controlled environment, where you can focus on your technique without worrying about currents and tides. When you do then swim outdoors, your fitness levels and technique will help you enormously.”

As long as your workouts and goals increase in scope as your improve, with increased speed, distance and interval challenges, your fitness gains will soar too. Sure, you won’t get a badge, but you will streamline and strengthen arms, glutes, calves and pecs, not to mention burn fat and feel mentally refreshed once you emerge from the pool (swimming has been shown to be one of the most beneficial sports for mental health ). See you in the fast lane.

Book a swimming lesson or bespoke programme with Swimming Nature  here

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