If you want to get into shape and burn off some calories, swimming is more than a viable option. Nevertheless, some of you may have lingering concerns over how your body will hold up post-workout. When engaging in other physical bouts of exercise, you’re bound to feel sore afterwards. Does the same hold true for swimming?
Swimming can make your body feel sore after the workout, particularly if you’re just starting a new swimming regimen. During this transition period, your body is still adapting to the physical rigors of swimming. The muscles sustain microscopic damage that ultimately results in muscular soreness.
In that sense, swimming is just like any other workout, especially if you raise your intensity levels beyond your comfort zone. Below, we will delve further into why first time swimmers experience muscular soreness and the various factors that amplify these feelings of tenderness. Read until the end to see how this soreness fares with repeated exposure to swimming workouts.
Why Soreness After Swimming is Normal for First-Timers
There’s no doubt that working out in water eases joint pressure and provides a more natural form of resistance compared to weight training. This is the major reason why seniors favor water aerobic workouts and individuals recovering from injury perform rehabilitation exercises within water.
That said, this doesn’t mean that muscular soreness is non-existent with swimming. It may not be the same type of soreness you feel after going for a jog or lifting heavy weights, but it’s soreness nonetheless.
There are generally two types of soreness that you can experience as a swimmer: acute muscle soreness and delayed onset muscle soreness.
Acute Muscle Soreness
This type of soreness is felt immediately during the swim workout itself. As you push your muscles to its boundaries, you may feel a noticeable “burn” in the muscles you’re working.
This burning sensation is normal when you put extreme demands on your muscles. It results from an accumulation of lactic acid (source).
Without delving too much into the scientific details, your body doesn’t have enough time to efficiently utilize oxygen for energy when it’s burdened with too many physical demands. It must resort to anaerobic metabolic pathways instead, which is efficient in the short-term but not in the long-term.
A major byproduct of this energy process is lactic acid, which causes the highly touted “muscle burn” that athletes always talk about. Fortunately, this type of soreness goes away quickly, shortly after you cut off your swimming strokes and take a well-deserved rest.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Contrary to popular opinion, the worst of your muscle soreness will not set in immediately after the swim workout. If you’re extremely attuned to your body, you may have noticed that your body experiences its peak level of soreness a day or two after working out. This is extremely prevalent with resistance training activities.
The technical term for this phenomenon is delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS for short (source).
To be clear, any soreness you feel during a swimming session—or any form of exercise for that matter—is not classified as DOMS. As aforementioned, acute muscle soreness can be attributed to the buildup of lactic acid. DOMS, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the buildup of lactic acid. DOMS is a direct consequence of your muscles being worked harder than normal or challenged in a new type of way (source).
So if you’ve never swam before and you start swimming on a fairly consistent basis, there’s a strong likelihood that your body will feel sore since your muscles are not used to being activated in this manner. Your body is still adjusting to these new physical demands by tearing itself down to build itself back up bigger and stronger than before.
Of course, the severity of a person’s delayed onset muscle soreness can be made worse if they’re not physically active. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if they’re already physically fit, the DOMS they experience may not be all that bad.
This is not to say DOMS is only reserved for beginning swimmers. Intermediate, experienced, and even swimmers at the professional level can experience soreness as well, so long as they adjust a couple of training variables to make their workouts tougher. This leads us to our next topic.
Factors that Increase Post-Swim Soreness
As we have discussed, post-swim soreness is much more prevalent in first-timers because their muscles are not yet used to the mechanics of swimming. However, there are several factors that can increase post-swim soreness even further for those who already have a ton of swimming experience under their belt.
As a quick reference, training frequency in relation to swimming refers to how often you swim on a weekly basis.
Obviously, the more you swim, the higher the chances of muscular soreness. Regardless of whether it’s swimming or some alternative form of exercise, your muscles still need to rest and recover.
Since delayed onset muscle soreness remains for a day or two after a hard workout, it may be in your best interest to wait a day or two before heading back to the pool. If you go back too early, you may end up compounding this muscular soreness, to the point where it affects your everyday activities.
Performing more of the same workout does afford the body an opportunity to adjust, but only if given adequate rest time. If you fail to listen to your body and neglect taking time off, it’s only fitting that your muscles will feel extremely sore afterwards.
Another variable that affects how sore you’ll feel post-swim is your training intensity, or how hard you physically exert yourself during the workout.
It goes without saying, but the more effort you put forth to test your body, the harder your muscles have to work. When your muscles have to work at a higher level than what they’re used to, it’s only natural for soreness to set in.
Typically, swimmers up their intensity by either reducing their rest intervals or upping the pace of their swim. For example, rather than swimming a few laps at a moderate pace, they may swim several sprints at near maximum speed.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re pushing your muscles past their standard limits, you should expect your body to feel a higher degree of soreness.
The last variable to consider is the duration of your swim workouts. The longer that your workouts are, the longer your muscles have to work.
To reiterate, muscle soreness is a result of deviating from the normal workout regimen or working the muscles harder than what they’re accustomed to. Prolonging the duration of your swim workouts is just another way of accomplishing both of these.
At the start, it may be in your best interest to ease into your swim workouts. If you extend your swim workouts for too long on the first couple of days, you’re likely just going to dig yourself in a hole with the excessive soreness that will ensue afterwards.
Soreness isn’t inherently a bad thing. Though, if it discourages you from maintaining a consistent swimming regimen, you should scale back on the length of your swims. To make real long-term progress, you need to prioritize consistency above all else. Unfortunately, following a swimming regimen half-heartedly isn’t likely to yield optimal results.
Does Post-Swim Soreness Diminish Over Time?
Now that we’ve established that soreness is a natural occurrence with swimming, you’re probably wondering whether this is a perpetual development.
Luckily, the severity of muscle soreness does dwindle with repeated exposure to the same workouts. As your body becomes more adept and efficient at these same swimming exercises, the body doesn’t need to work nearly as hard to achieve the similar results. Paradoxically, workout consistency is the best way to combat muscle soreness.
After a considerable amount of swimming, you may even reach a point where your body feels little to no soreness at all. It may take weeks or months to reach this point, but it is possible if you stick to the exact same swimming regimen.
There’s a popular notion that to get a solid workout in, you need to feel sore afterwards. This is completely false. If that were true, there wouldn’t be nearly as many people working out today. Dealing with unbearable soreness on a regular basis wouldn’t be feasible.
So whether you do or do not feel sore, don’t worry too much about it! If you’re heading to the pool consistently, pushing yourself in the water, and keeping a healthy mindset, you shouldn’t be overly concerned with how sore your body feels.
Put simply, soreness isn’t a reliable measure of how much progress you’re making on your fitness journey. Instead, you should use other measures like:
- how many days you’ve gone to the pool this week
- how many laps you swam in a single workout
- how quickly you were able to swim a specific distance
- the average time you spend swimming during a workout
These are real goals that you can measure objectively. It’s much easier to track your swimming progress this way. So just get past those initial days of soreness and start swimming!