Swimming good for recovery days?

Or do you use your legs too much and add extra fatigue. Also does swimming burn much calories? Haven’t swam in ages but looking to increase variety of activity but still plan it around cycling.


My experience, is swimming doesn’t burn much. I guess it would depend on technique, but at my swimming skill level, most of the out breathness was technique not effort!

I didn’t really believe my Garmin Swim, and then my Garmin 920xt, so got one of their swim HRM, and they weren’t far off in terms of calorie burn. It was only if doing drills (which the Swim and 920 don’t estimate calories for) that the HRM showed any significant difference.

I was poor at using my legs anyway, but I definitely burned more (going more slowly!) when kicking, thanks to stiff ankles. You could always use a pull bouy if you wanted to save the legs?


I like to swim once or twice a week just to use different muscles…I think swimming slow doesnt burn a whole lot of calories…depends on your HR.

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Yeah I’d be going slow alright! Can you spend much time in the water or does your arms get tired quickly?

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Again, definitely not an expert, but I was told that you shouldn’t really feel it in your arms and shoulders anyway. The lats should be the driver…

My rest days are swim days. Any kick sets help my legs feel better or I skip them.

This is correct. Now, if I can just get to that point myself… sigh.

That’s why I said “I was told” as never managed it myself. The beginnings of shoulder niggles on top of sinus issues, was my last swimming straw!

even when doing compound motions where the lats are the major mover, you still involve other muscles. Try to do a pullup without using your biceps…

As far as calories burned… at least what garmin is telling me sounds about right… I get about 100 calories per 500 yards, but with a really inefficient stroke, that number will probably be higher.

Yes, swimming is good for recovery. Kick sets are good “active recovery” (if such a thing exists) for sore legs. Swimming is also a great way to build your aerobic base without adding much training load, particularly on the legs. And yes, you can burn a lot of calories swimming. I burn more calories swimming at threshold, than I do cycling at threshold. Which makes sense since swimming activates/utilizes more muscle groups. If you’re an inexperienced swimmer or not already doing some regular swim volume, definitely start slowly as with any sport/exercise. But one of the big things I recommend to people looking to incorporate swimming into their training is to do most of your swim sets at shorter distances and higher effort, with rest periods in between. i.e. rather than a single continuous 2000 yard swim at a slow speed. Do something like

warm up
200 easy
4 x 100 (50 kick, 50 swim), rest 20 sec between each

200 moderate, rest 30 sec
2 x 100 moderate+, rest 30 sec between each
4 x 50 hard, rest 20 sec between each
200 easy
rest 30 sec

repeat main set 1-2 times

That’s just a very basic set of varying distances and speeds, but keeps it more interesting that just a straight 2000-2400 yard swim.

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Richie Porte of BMC swims as part if his training. See attached video:


Yes, it can be really good for recovery days. As mentioned earlier, it does depend on what you’re doing though. If you have a poor stroke and ‘fight’ the water and/or are doing hard efforts, whether long sets (depending on your fitness, 200s, 400s, 500s, 1000s) or sprints, well, that’s not going to help with recovery.

Because of all the muscles activated, especially if you’re doing it right or ‘nearly’ right, it’ll help increase blood flow, which is good.

Kicking, as stated, can be beneficial. You can do flutter kick (freestyle kick) with/without a board, on your side, on your back, etc. Also, add in breaststroke kick. Fly is probably tiring. I like to throw in egg-beater (from water polo) as it works other muscles, but for recovery, that might just be a half-length effort.

If you’re not confident with your swimming, I’d suggest your recovery swims first focus on technique with lots of technique-specific drills.

If the swim is recovery, then I’d recommend a rest-based intervale rather than a time-based interval. In other words, if doing 100s, it’s 5 x 100 with 15s rest instead of 5 x 100 on 1:30 (where the rest/send off is determined by when you finish). A complement to freestyle is backstroke, so you should insert that into the workout, even if just a part of the warm-up / warm-down. But breast and fly, both more technical, are great muscle and endurance strokes that will complement your overall swim strength and overall cardio, which will complement your run and bike.

Swimming will burn a lot if you’re doing it right. That means the right intensity, the right intervals, the right rest, right strokes, and right drills for the intended outcome. Because of the ‘fixed’ course nature of swimming, training has been a lot more scientific for a lot longer than cycling, which is ahead of the game (with TR as a lead) from running (where companies like Stryd are trying to make a difference).

And, if you don’t know how, please learn to flip turn (aka tumble turn). It will make your swim workout a better experience, and a better experience for your lane mates.


I always cramp swimming after a hard bike or any running, so I’d recommend learning to use a pull buoy and just focus on technique and easy breathing to keep it a recovery session.


My feet or calves sometimes cramp near the end of a long workout (4000-5000m). This would probably not be an issue if I had a bottle at the pool, which I don’t (habit, not a thoughtful act of avoidance).

On the pull buoy, that may help with technique. Try moving it from your thighs to your feet or ankles. That will help focus your posture. And try dropping the buoy while also reducing your kick so it’s barely there, generally helping you rotate rather than providing propulsion and see if your kick is helping with your form (ie keeping your feet from sinking) and if so, work on that.

A kickset on your back is great recovery. It helps with the streamline (unlike a kickboard) and you can breathe as much as you want!

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