Swimming Vs Running: Which Is The Best Workout For You?

Two of the most common types of cardio exercise that people enjoy are running and swimming.

Both activities provide a fantastic workout, but, which is a better workout, swimming or running? Is swimming or running better for weight loss? Which is better for your health in general?

In this article, we have put together a swimming vs running comparison to look at the similarities and differences between running and swimming, which can hopefully help you decide if swimming or running is a better workout for you.

We will cover: 

  • Which Is a Better Workout, Running or Swimming?
  • Swimming vs Running: Muscles Worked
  • Swimming vs Running: Calories Burned
  • Swimming vs Running: Weight Loss
  • Swimming vs Running: Health and Fitness Benefits

Let’s dive in! 

A person swimming.

Which Is a Better Workout, Running or Swimming?

There isn’t actually a single or straightforward answer to which gives a better workout between running vs swimming.

Both running and swimming are full-body exercises that have the capacity to boost your aerobic fitness and improve your cardiovascular health while simultaneously strengthening your muscles and burning calories.

No matter which type of exercise you are performing, the more intensely or vigorously you are able to exert yourself, the better your workout will be.

Additionally, if your endurance is better in swimming or running, you’ll also be able to get a better workout via that type of activity due to the ability to exercise for a longer duration before fatiguing.

However, all things being equal, running tends to slightly edge out swimming in terms of being a better workout when it comes to the efficiency of the number of calories you burn per minute.

This is primarily due to the fact that running is a high-impact, weight-bearing activity, so it naturally lends itself to increasing your heart rate more precipitously than swimming in a non-impact, buoyant environment.

Whether you are swimming or running, you can gauge the intensity of your workout by wearing a heart rate monitor

The higher your heart rate, the more vigorously you are exercising and the more calories you are burning per minute.

A person tying their running shoe.

Swimming vs Running: Muscles Worked

When comparing the muscles worked in swimming vs running, despite the fact that the two forms of exercise look and feel quite different, there’s actually a lot of overlap in muscle engagement.

This is primarily due to the fact that both running and swimming are full-body workouts that utilize most of the major muscles in the body.

With that said, the relative reliance on muscle groups varies rather significantly, although it depends somewhat on the swimming stroke that you use.

In general, when comparing the muscles worked running vs swimming, running works the lower-body muscles, such as the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves, more than the upper-body muscles, whereas certain swimming strokes, such as butterfly and freestyle, definitely place a strong emphasis on the upper body.

Both running and swimming also work some of the other muscles in the hips and legs, such as the adductor muscle group, the iliopsoas (hip flexors), the gluteus medius, and other smaller muscles in the hips, like the piriformis.

Strokes such as the breaststroke work the hip muscles and inner and outer thigh muscles.

All of the swimming strokes utilize the pectoral muscles in the chest, the deltoids and rotator cuff muscles in the shoulders, and, namely, the lats, traps, and rhomboids in the back.

Swimming and running both work the core muscles, including the abdominal muscles, back extensors, and pelvic floor muscles, to some degree.

A person swimming.

Swimming vs Running: Calories Burned

In general, running burns more calories than swimming, but the number of calories burned during any workout not only depends on the type of exercise but also the intensity and duration of the workout, as well as your body weight, among other less significant factors.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, 30 minutes of swimming and running at different paces burns the following number of calories:

Calories Burned Swimming for 30 Minutes At Different Body Weights

Swimming StrokeCalories Expended for a 125-lb PersonCalories Expended for a 155-lb PersonCalories Expended for a 185-lb Person
General Swimming180216252
“Vigorous Laps”300360420
A person running up a hill.

Calories Burned Running at Different Paces for 30 Minutes At Different Body Weights

Running SpeedCalories Expended for a 125-lb PersonCalories Expended for a 155-lb PersonCalories Expended for a 185-lb Person
5 mph (12 min/mile)240288336
6 mph (10 min/mile)295360420
7.5 mph (8 min/mile)375450525
10 mph (6 min/mile)453562671

Swimming vs Running: Weight Loss

Many people are interested in the potential weight loss benefits of exercise, which leads us to the question, “Is running or swimming better for weight loss?”

This can be a tricky question to answer.

Weight loss is a multifactorial process that, among numerous other factors, is largely determined by your state of energy balance or energy inequality.

In other words, the relationship between the number of calories you are consuming and the number of calories you are burning each day is the primary determinant of whether you lose weight, maintain your weight, or gain weight.

A pool.

Any form of exercise, including running and swimming, can help you lose weight because exercise burns calories and therefore makes it easier to generate the caloric deficit needed to burn fat and lose weight.

When it comes to whether swimming or running is better for weight loss, it really comes down to your ability and interest in each of the two sports.

If you can run faster, longer, and/or more often than you can swim, you will lose more weight running vs swimming.

On the other hand, if you are an avid swimmer and don’t particularly enjoy running or don’t have much talent as a runner, it will probably be easier for you to swim longer, more intensely, and/or more often than you run.

Therefore, you will lose more weight swimming vs running.

Ultimately, when it comes to swimming vs running for weight loss, whichever activity allows you to exercise more vigorously, longer, and more frequently will help you burn more calories, which will lead to faster and easier weight loss.

People jogging.

Swimming vs Running: Health and Fitness Benefits

Swimming and running are both considered forms of aerobic exercise, so there’s a lot of overlap in the health and fitness benefits of each.

Both forms of exercise strengthen the heart and lungs, decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, boost aerobic capacity or VO2 max, strengthen the muscles, decrease blood pressure, reduce stress, elevate mood, improve blood sugar regulation, and support a healthy weight.

The primary difference between running and swimming from a health and fitness standpoint is the fact that running is a high-impact, weight-bearing exercise, and swimming is a non-weight-bearing, no-impact activity.

This leads to significant differences in not only how each of the two types of exercises feels on your body but on your body‘s physiological responses or adaptations to habitually performing either type of exercise.

High-impact activities, such as running, increase bone density but are much harder on the joints due to the impact stresses.

Swimming puts very little stress and strain on the joints aside from whatever pull the muscles have on the bones and joints as they contract.

For this reason, swimming can be an ideal form of exercise for people with osteoarthritis, joint pain, musculoskeletal injuries, and osteoporosis or a high risk of fracture.

People swimming laps.

Swimming can also potentially be more comfortable for people who have a high body weight or body mass index (BMI) because the buoyancy of the water helps support your body weight, and there is little to no impact on your joints.

This is not to say that people who have a BMI that categorizes them as overweight or obese cannot comfortably enjoy running, but if you do carry excessive weight and find running to be uncomfortable, swimming can be a great way to start exercising.

On the other hand, the importance of increasing bone density shouldn’t be overlooked, and that benefit is primarily gleaned by running vs swimming.

Overall, both swimming and running can be fantastic forms of exercise and approachable for most beginners, yet scalable for very fit individuals alike.

Due to the very significant difference between swimming vs running in terms of impact stresses, it’s actually ideal to include both activities in your workout routine to give your body the benefits of high-impact exercise as well as low-impact exercise.

Interested in comparing other forms of exercise to see which are best for you? We have also made detailed comparisons of walking vs biking, and walking vs jogging.

A person jogging.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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