Swimming vs Running: The Pros, the Cons, and the Difference

Swimming vs running: which is best for you?

That’s the question. And the answer, of course, depends on you and your needs. What is that you want to accomplish?

Are you trying to lose weight? Gain muscle mass? Tone your muscles? Improve your cardiovascular health or your stamina? Or are you just trying to adopt the healthiest lifestyle you can?

In order to answer the original question, you’ll have to be able to answer all those questions. Once you know your priorities, your choice is simple.

In this article, we lay out all the benefits of swimming as compared to running, as well as the disadvantages of both. The goal is to help you make the right choice.

So let’s get started.


The Benefits of Swimming vs Running

There’s no doubt that swimming is an excellent workout.

Millions of people worldwide engage in some form of the sport. Indeed, it’s the second-most popular workout activity in the United States – after running.

Like running, it requires very little investment. All you need is protective eyewear and, of course, water. Hell, you don’t even need a swimsuit if you can get away without it.

And also like running, it burns a ton of calories, it can help you lose weight, it strengthens your muscles and makes them more durable, and it’s an activity you can engage safely in no matter how old you are.

But in some respects, it may be even better than running, depending on what your needs and goals are.

In fact, the first benefit of swimming is that, when compared to other exercise activities like running or walking or even cycling, less stress is placed on your joints. And that means a significantly lower risk of injuries.

The second benefit is that it’s so much more refreshing to swim when it’s hot than to run when it’s hot. In fact, running in the heat comes with a lot of dangers and you’ll need to prepare effectively for it in order to do it safely. Swimming, on the other hand, can help lower your core body temperature as well as stave off heatstroke and exhaustion. The only caveat here is that the water you’re swimming in must be cool. In other words, don’t try to cool off in hot water. That’s a big no-no.

The third benefit that swimming offers that running doesn’t is that it’s much more versatile.  That is, you can choose from different kinds of swimming strokes (the freestyle stroke, for example, or the butterfly, or backstroke), and each of these strokes work different muscle groups and require a different level of exertion. In contrast, the basic running form is the same no matter what you’re doing. Sure, there are significant differences (especially in experience) between running on a treadmill and running out on a trail, (with proper running socks for trails and shoes mind you) but the basic form is the same.

The point is that you can tailor your workout to meet your needs in a way that you can’t do with running.

Does Swimming Burn More Calories Than Running?

If you’re asking this question, you’re probably also wondering, “does swimming burn fat?”

The answer to both questions is yes.

That brings us to the fourth advantage of swimming.

Studies consistently show that 30 minutes of the backstroke or the freestyle stroke burns an average of 40 to 50 calories more than 30 minutes of running at a moderate speed of 6 miles per hour.

While that doesn’t seem like that much, remember that every little bit helps. Simply put, the more calories you burn, the more weight you’ll lose.

Now, as for whether or not swimming will help you lose belly fat as efficiently as running does – that’s where things get a little bit complicated. In fact, this is one of the disadvantages of swimming as compared to running, and so we’ll cover it in the next section.

Just one last note about calories before we move on: different swimming strokes, as we said before, require different levels of exertion. The numbers above apply to the butterfly and the freestyle. The backstroke on the other requires significantly less energy and actually burns fewer calories than running at a similar intensity over the same amount of time.

The Disadvantages of Swimming

The first disadvantage is probably the most damning.

If you’re thinking about swimming primarily to burn fat and slim down, make sure you think long and hard.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that swimming can’t slim down your waist and tone your body. It actually can. The problem is that it’s not the best, most efficient way to do so. In fact, if weight loss is your goal, it’s probably better to run laps around the pool than to actually swim in it.

But why is this?

It’s due to something called the “buoyancy effect.”

Simply put, when you swim, the water gives you a little bit of a boost by keeping you afloat (buoyant). The more body fat you have the more buoyant you are. And because the water is helping to keep you afloat, it can serve to minimize the amount of energy your body has to expend running across it.

The less energy you expend, the fewer calories you burn, the fewer inches you’ll shave off your waist.

This is true even if you’re swimming the way you’re supposed to – if you’re focused, determined, driven, and your form is on point.

It’s even truer if you’re lacking in all those areas. That brings us to the second disadvantage of swimming – namely, the reality that you’ll be much more tempted to slack off in a pool than on a treadmill. If you’re running on a treadmill, or even if you’re running outside farther and farther from your home, you have no choice but to keep moving. But when in the pool, you might feel the urge to relax and enjoy the cooling effects. In addition, if your swimming form is inefficient, or lazy, you might not be burning as many calories as you’d like to.

The third and final disadvantage of swimming vs running is limited accessibility. You can run practically at any time, anywhere. You can wake up in the morning and run around your home if you’d like to – it might not be the most efficient way to practice the sport, but you can do it. Swimming, on the other hand, requires a body of water. And though lots of gyms offer pools to their members, lots of them don’t. To make matters worse, those gyms that do offer pools are likely more expensive.

And that’s definitely a point against swimming.


The Benefits of Running vs Swimming

You can probably imagine that we, as an eco-conscious purveyor of running apparel, are partial towards running. We have a soft spot for it.

But objectively speaking, the benefits of running by itself are so varied and plentiful that we’ve dedicated a separate article to it.

For the purposes of this article, we’re going to narrow down the focus. Running does have distinct advantages over swimming, so let’s just deal with those.

For one thing, as was mentioned earlier, running is highly accessible. So accessible, in fact, that you can do it pretty much anywhere and with minimal equipment. You don’t even need shoes.

You also have a wide range of easily-accessible venues to choose from. You can go for a run in the park, on the street, in the woods, in the mountains, on the beach – you can run, basically, wherever you want. Swimming, on the other hand, is restricted to gym members and when the beach or public pool is open.

A 1993 study conducted by Dr. Howard Wainer (and reported by the New York Times) found that runners (of both genders) out-distanced their swimming counterparts by as much as 4 times within the same timeframe. Again, this might not motivate you to run, but if you’re looking for an endurance program, running is your best bet.

The last advantage that running has is that it comes naturally to us as a species. Indeed, we’ve been running since even before we evolved into homo sapiens. The same isn’t true of swimming – in fact, swimming is actually the exact opposite of natural. Our ancestors didn’t need to swim for survival the way they had to run to catch their prey or to run away from predators.

The Disadvantages of Running

Of course, as we said in the first section, swimming does have a lot going for it. And running definitely has some points against it.

For example, running injuries are all too common. Swimming is relatively much safer to engage in since it puts a lot less pressure on the joints. Running, on the other hand, requires pounding hard surfaces with your foot, the stress of which impacts your calves, knees, quads, and hips significantly.

Image result for runner tired 1000x1000

So Which is Better, Swimming or Running?

Honestly? It’s up to you. Both swimming and running have their advantages and disadvantages.

If you’re looking to lose weight, we’d say running is your best bet. If you’re looking for a full-body exercise just for general health purposes, look into swimming if running isn’t your cup of tea.

Hell, you can even do both. Cross-training is an awesome way to get the most out of both sports.

And that’s all there is to it: everything you need to know about swimming vs running.

If you have any questions or concerns, make sure to leave them in the comments below.


  1. ABC
  2. Metabolism Journal
  3. New York Times
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