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Swimming vs Running – Which is a Better Workout?

Chances are that you’ve seen statistics showing that swimming and running have similar cardiovascular benefits such as increasing your VO2. In fact, many experts encourage runners to swim on off-days, or if they are recovering from an injury, because it’s similar to running in many respects.

But which one is the better workout? We’ll explain the similarities between swimming and running with a side-by-side comparison to provide some answers to this question.

Swimming vs Running


Swimming and running have similar positive impacts on developing your cardiovascular system, specifically increasing your VO2 max (the rate at which your body can absorb oxygen) and making you a more fit individual. However, swimming has a slight edge on running.

First, swimming, unlike running, puts minimal stress on the body. While swimming virtually eliminates the impacts of running, it also adds quite a bit of resistance, adding to the challenge. Finally, it takes more cardiovascular effort to swim two miles versus running the same distance.


In terms of strength training, swimming is the clear winner. Water can be up to 800 times more resistant than air, which means that you’ll get more of a total body workout in the pool. Resistance training provides the same benefits as weight lifting.

Unlike running, swimming works muscles in your arms and shoulders, parts of the body that running tends to ignore.

You’ll experience some resistance with running, especially if you’re running into the wind, as it requires you to move your arms, but not to the same degree as swimming. Water is denser than air, and requires more work to move through. Ever tried running to the other end of the pool?

In a couple words, swimming is solid resistance training. Non-professional athletes could run several miles with a little bit of training, but it would be much more challenging for them to swim for the same amount of time – not to mention distance.

swiming in a swimming pool

Joint Health

Running is much more high-impact than swimming, and it can be especially hard on the ankles and knees over time. Because you are almost weightless when swimming, there is much less impact on your joints and muscles.

Swimming is a much more accessible sport for a variety of ages and for those who have joint problems. You can swim at any age or in any physical shape. Running can be much harder.


While swimming is much better for your joints and strength training, you won’t burn as many calories swimming as you would running. As an example, an average one-hour swimming workout will burn a little more than 400 calories, while an hour of light running at 5 mph, or a 12 minute pace, would burn about 600 calories, according to statistics from the Mayo Clinic.

If you’re trying to burn calories and lose weight, you’ll be able to do that much more effectively running. You could run for a shorter time and burn the same amount of calories running that you would swimming for a longer time.


Depending on your needs and goals, it may vary from person to person on whether swimming or running is a better overall workout in a short period of time.

For example, if you’re interested in strength training, a 30-minute swim will help you more than a 30-minute run. However, if you’re looking to lose weight, you’ll be able to burn more calories during a 30-minute run as compared a 30-minute swim.


While swimming has sometimes been called “the perfect sport,” running is the most accessible sport. You can get out of the house and run anywhere, and you can even run when it’s cold, snowy, icy, and rainy outside if you bundle up or hop on the treadmill at the gym.

Obviously, getting to a pool can be much more challenging. Depending on where you live, the nearest pool might be 30 minutes or more away. It also might be in use much of the time, and, as a result, you might not be able to get in a good workout.

Another option is swimming in ponds or the ocean, but you’d have to live near open water, which can be just as rare as a decent pool. Plus, open-water swimming comes with its own dangers, like sudden weather changes and water temperature.


In terms of gear, running is likely the slightly cheaper sport. Although it is definitely a smart idea to purchase a good pair of running shoes if you’re going to be running regularly, theoretically you can run with items that everyone owns. Swimming gear might cost a little bit more: a good swimsuit and a good pair of goggles for sure, but membership or public entry fees at a pool can also add up quickly.

On the other hand, running is a very inexpensive sport. While you can join a gym in order to run on a treadmill, you can find some very good deals on gyms without pools. You may even have treadmills in your apartment or condo complex.

Plus, you don’t even need to join a gym or buy a treadmill. You can run outside, and that doesn’t cost you any money at all. And you have the added benefit of getting to see the beautiful outdoors where you live.

young man enjoying in a healthy lifestyle while jogging along a country road, exercise and fitness concept

Bone Mass

Resistance training—whether it’s swimming or running—helps to fight osteoporosis and build bone mass support. In fact, even just one hour of walking a day can help to prevent bone loss.

Even so, because running and walking are both weight-bearing activities, they build up bone mass more than swimming, although bone mass support is a benefit of swimming.


You’ll work more muscle groups with swimming. It is considered a full-body exercise, and you’ll have to work 24 muscles from the neck to the foot. By contrast, running mostly works the legs—the quadriceps, calves, core, glutes, and hamstrings.


In the end, whether swimming or running is a better workout depends on you and your needs. Swimming is low-impact, gives you some strength training, and has a lower risk for injury.

On the other hand, running is high-impact (but has a greater benefit to building bone mass), it’s cheaper, and likely provides a greater metabolism boost for longer due to body temperature.

You’ll build more muscle if you swim, but you’ll be leaner if you run. Similarly, the statistics suggest that you’ll live longer if you run but live healthier if you swim.

At the end of the day, both swimming and running are great cardiovascular activities that provide a plethora of physical benefits. You can’t go wrong with either of them, and you’d get the greatest benefit if you participate in both of them!

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner