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Real Life Nutrition Questions Answered

Real Life Fitness Questions Answered

Emma Brown

Janet Aylott

Kelly Marshall
Fitness Consultant


Is swimming classed as cardio or resistance exercise?

Hi, I have been introducing more swimming into my exercise as I've been lucky enough to spend the last few months in a warm place by the sea. :-). I am a strong swimmer; I do 'proper' (i.e. head under water) breaststroke and cover 1km in about 17-18 minutes. However I notice when I stop and take my pulse straight away, my heart rate is only around 90-100bpm even though I am breathing quite hard. When running, cycling or elliptical trainer-ing, my heart rate tends to stay in the 140s but my breathing is pretty steady. My resting heart rate these days is 50. So I'm confused - is my 'heavy breathing' (!) when I come up out of the water just because I'm only taking in a small amount of air with each stroke rather than because I'm getting a decent cardio workout? I have to say that the powerful pull through the water (especially in the sea!) feels much more like resistance repetitions to me, but swimming is always listed as a form of cardio exercise. This also confuses me as I don't think I can swim much harder in order to get my heart rate up! Can you help? Many thanks.


Our expert says...


It sounds to me like you are a strong swimmer and can cover a good distance in a good time.  Due to the fact that swimming is ‘weight-less’ and you have a very low level of impact, it is usually harder to get your heart rate up to the same level that you would during a spin or run session for example.

I think your ‘heavy breathing’ is due to the fact that swimming uses quite a systematic breathing method. I.e. you breathe methodically - either every stroke or every 3 strokes etc, therefore you force your body to utilise the oxygen you have just absorbed in a certain time frame before you breathe out hard in order to take your next breathe when your head pops up again. 

When spinning/running and completing cardio in a dry-land situation, you breathe as you need to, not when you are forced to like swimming.  This can sometimes allow you to feel like you are breathing quite hard. 

Swimming is a good source of aerobic fitness and involves all the muscles in the body in a supported manner so it good for general body endurance and strength. It is not as effective as dry-land strength training for muscle toning and strength training but burns calories and can be effective for improving heart health and cardiovascular fitness as long as you challenge yourself within your swimming sessions, (in terms of intensity and/or duration). 

You need to count swimming as cardiovascular exercise due to the repetitive and continuous endurance nature of the activity. The definition of ‘resistance’ training or ‘strength’ training relates to the use of bodyweight, dumbbells, machines, barbells, cables core stability equipment (i.e. Swiss balls) as well as circuit-type training (land-based) and so is best applied to gym-based workouts that involve strength training, core training and toning exercises. 

I hope this helps,


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