Ask Stew: Options for Those Without Access to a Swimming Pool

Elliptical machines are a good alternative to swimming.
Elliptical machines are a good alternative to swimming if you don’t have access to a body of water. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian Morales/U.S. Navy photo)

When your training facilities change, it can be a challenge to find a replacement for exercises in your routine. People often lose access to swimming pools, weight rooms and cardio machines because of travel, deployment or a change of living status. 

Here is a common question about leaving a college campus and finding activities to replace swimming.

Mr. Smith, 

I was wondering if there are exercises that I could supplement for swimming. I left college for the summer and do not have a place to swim. Do you have any recommendations? 

Thanks, Martin

I typically place swimming into workouts for two reasons:

  1. You must practice swimming for future fitness tests and selection programs.
  2. Swimming is an alternative to running or rucking.

Regardless of why swimming is in your workout, replacing it with another non-impact cardio option is my initial recommendation. If you prefer to run more that day, though, go for it -- especially if you need to add more miles for your personal weekly totals and are not feeling the pains of previous days of running and/or rucking. 

Ideal Replacements for Swimming

Workouts on the bike, elliptical or rowing machine are great replacements for swimming. Do the following in place of 100- to 200-meter sprint intervals in the pool:

Bike/Elliptical/Rower Tabata Intervals

This workout is done in five-minute sets in which you rotate between fast and slow periods for the entire time. You will do 20 seconds at full speed, followed by 10 seconds easy. Repeat 10 times for a total of five minutes. 

This is a great, quick, cardio "rest" exercise placed between circuit exercises in many of our workouts. A five-minute set of Tabata intervals is a good replacement for swimming five sets of 50- to 100-meter intervals. 

Extended Tabata

If you have more than 2,000 meters of swimming to replace, this version is to go for extended periods of time doing the 20-second/10-second protocol. If you are doing this for 30 minutes, you typically will go for five minutes. Take two minutes easy and then repeat the five-minute, fast/slow cycle. Get as many cycles as you can in 30 minutes.

Bike/Elliptical Pyramid

This is in place of 30-40 minutes of swimming workouts (2,000-3,000 meters). Start at Level 1 on manual mode for one minute and keep the RPMs at 80-100. Each minute, increase the resistance by 1-2 levels. Continue this process until you are having difficulty breathing and/or pedaling. This should take about 10 minutes.

When you get really good at this, you can take the bike to level 20. Then repeat the cycle in reverse order. Like any pyramid workout, you have a warmup, max out and cooldown, all rolled into one nice package. 

This workout will take 39-40 minutes if you are advanced. But if you can get up only to level 10 and back to level 1, your time investment is only 19 minutes. I do the same on an elliptical machine but find that increasing by two or three levels each minute makes it more challenging.

Rule of Thumb

A good rule of thumb is to run, bike, elliptical or row for 10 minutes for every 500 meters of swimming to be done. So a swim workout that requires 1,500-2,000 meters of swimming would be replaced by 30-40 minutes of other activity.

For sprint days, a 100-meter sprint in the pool is equal to a 400-meter sprint on land if running or 60-90 seconds on a bike, elliptical or rower.

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Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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