Swimming vs Running – Which is a Better Workout?

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Swimming and running are both great ways to exercise. But they’re obviously quite different.

Swimming might be a good choice for those who live in hot places or have access to an indoor pool. It’s also amazing for rehabilitation or injury recovery because it’s not a weight-bearing exercise.

On the other hand, you can run pretty much anywhere, but there’s a greater chance of injury because it’s high impact.

Keep reading for our detailed comparison to find out which is a better workout for you.

Swimming vs Running: Key Differences

Both swimming and running will give you a great workout, but they’re fairly different in multiple ways. So, let’s dive in and see!

Cardio Workout

Both running and swimming strengthen the cardiovascular system. But does one come out on top? Let’s find out.

Swimming

Swimming is a full-body workout. You need to use your upper and lower body muscles, so your heart will be pumping pretty hard.

You can also alternate between high-intensity and lower-intensity in the pool to work easily within your heart rate zones.

Plus, the fact that you have to hold your breath and control your breathing during a swim may help boost your lung capacity.

Running

Running is mainly a lower-body exercise, so it doesn’t activate as many muscles as swimming. However, you can get your heart pumping hard, depending on the intensity of your run, the terrain, and your mileage.

Being on land, you can tailor your run to suit your heart rate zone by running faster or on a hilly course.

Verdict

While both exercises have an excellent effect on the cardiovascular system, swimming just edges ahead because it’s a full-body workout and controlled breathing.

Building Muscle

Both swimming and running have the potential to build muscle. But swimmers and runners don’t build muscle in the same places or equally.

Swimming

Swimming engages different muscles than running. Typically, you’ll be using both your upper and lower body muscles, no matter what stroke you’re using.

Most strokes engage the chest muscles, shoulder muscles, and upper back muscles, as well as the abs, glutes, and legs.

There’s plenty of potential for muscle growth if you swim often enough and with a decent amount of intensity. The water also acts as constant resistance, performing a similar albeit muted function to weights for muscle engagement.

Running

Running uses mainly lower body muscles. The arms, shoulders, and other upper body muscles do engage, but there’s little to no resistance, unlike swimming.

Your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves will build muscle. You might also gain a stronger core if you’re running properly.

Verdict

Swimming is likely to build more muscle throughout the body than running. Runners might build bigger leg muscles, but swimmers should build more consistent muscle across the upper and lower body.

Safety of Each

Both sports are safe if done right. But one might be better for certain people, especially if you’re prone to injury or arthritis.

Swimming

One of the biggest advantages of swimming is that it’s low-impact. Anyone with joint problems, bone issues, or arthritis would be better off choosing swimming over running. It’s also ideal for those recovering from injury who aren’t ready for weight-bearing exercise.

The constant water resistance also supports the muscles and joints while removing that impact. You can work harder than you might be able to do on land, thanks to the impact-free nature of the sport.

Running

Running is high-impact, which can wreak havoc on the joints. On the other hand, running does have one benefit over swimming—it’s a weight-bearing exercise, which is essential for building strong, healthy bones.

Especially as we age, weight-bearing exercises are essential for retaining bone density and preventing broken bones. This is a notable advantage over swimming.

Verdict

Swimming is better for your joints while running is a weight-bearing exercise that strengthens the bones. It’s hard to pick one ahead of the other here, as this may come down to individual differences.

Sticking to only swimming will spare your joints, but you might lose bone density over time. On the other hand, choosing running might damage your joints over time but strengthen your bones. The best option may be alternating between the two.

Calories Burned

Calorie burn is very subjective and depends on multiple factors, including intensity, speed/pace, and even your own body weight.

Swimming

According to Harvard Health, here’s how many calories you can expect to burn in a 30-minute “general” swimming session:

  • 125-lb person: 180 calories
  • 155-lb person: 216 calories
  • 185-lb person: 252 calories

But it changes a little when you switch over to swimming laps with more intensity. Here’s the difference:

  • 125-lb person: 300 calories
  • 155-lb person: 360 calories
  • 185-lb person: 420 calories

That’s a pretty decent calorie burn and shows how intensity can change how many calories you burn in one session!

Running

The same data shows the following calorie burn totals for 30 minutes of running at a pace of 5 mph—12-minute mile:

  • 125-lb person: 240 calories
  • 155-lb person: 288 calories
  • 185-lb person: 346 calories

However, if you’re a little more experienced and run an 8-mile mile—7.5 mph—it looks a little different:

  • 125-lb person: 375 calories
  • 155-lb person: 450 calories
  • 185-lb person: 525 calories

Verdict

Both exercises have the potential for some serious calorie burn. But it all comes down to your intensity, duration, and how much you weigh. With that in mind, we can’t really put one ahead of the other.

Cost to Do Each

Typically, swimming is the more expensive of the two sports, but here’s a quick overview of the costs associated with each.

Swimming

All you need to swim is a pool, but your backyard pool might be too small for a decent workout. If you want to do laps or work on your strokes, you might prefer an Olympic-sized pool, which often means paying a fee for access.

You should join a gym to use the pool. Many gyms offer reduced fees if you’re only going to be using the pool and not the other facilities, although you may need to invest in a decent bathing suit and swimming cap.

You might need to spend a little more on a swimming-specific smartwatch if you’re serious about your training data, but many regular smartwatches offer decent swim tracking.

Running

The biggest cost associated with running is likely to be your shoes. You can just get out on the road and run with the very shoes you have on your feet, but wearing the wrong shoes is a one-way ticket to injury, so you should definitely invest.

That being said, you don’t need to buy a treadmill, join a gym, or take lessons to run. All you need is those shoes and an open space, so it’s one of the most affordable sports.

Verdict

The cost of accessing a decent-sized pool can add up. But so can investing in good running shoes, although that’s typically an every-few-months cost.

But considering you can hit the road or trail with very little equipment, no fees, and the shoes and watch you already have, swimming looks more expensive than the two sports.

Other Benefits

What other benefits do swimming and running have, and does one come out on top? Here are a few more interesting considerations.

Swimming

Swimming requires a bit of basic skill before you begin. While you can just jump in and splash around, if you really want to use it as a training tool, you need to learn some different strokes and how to breathe properly.

Another advantage that swimming has is that it’s an excellent choice for hot weather. You can get an intense workout without overheating, which is a big bonus for those who live in warm places. On the other hand, it might not be a viable option in cold weather.

Running

Running is super accessible, which is one of the best things about it. It also doesn’t require any special knowledge or training to get started, although you should definitely pay attention to your form from the very beginning.

You can also go running almost anywhere and in any kind of weather, which gives it a big thumbs-up in terms of accessibility.

Verdict

Both sports have their own unique pros, and it depends on the personal needs of the athlete as to which one would work better for them.

Benefits of Swimming for Runners

If you’re already a runner, adding swimming to your weekly routine as a form of cross-training can be exceptionally beneficial. For one thing, it’ll help runners build some upper body muscle, which speeds up your energy metabolism and strengthens the body.

Swimming can also help you to build those leg muscles without the impact of running, plus you might just get a cardiovascular boost. All of the benefits without the dangers!

If you already belong to a gym, you can use the gym facilities without paying extra, which is a bonus.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.