Which is a better workout: swimming or running?

Tyler Spraul is the director of UX and the head trainer for Exercise.com. He has his Bachelor of Science degree in pre-medicine and is an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist. He is a former All-American soccer player and still coaches soccer today. In his free time, he enjoys reading, learning, and living the dad life. He has been featured in Shape, Healthline, HuffPost, Women's...

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UPDATED: Aug 25, 2020

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  • What most personal trainers and weight loss experts know is that time is a more important measurement than distance.
  • Studies indicate that 20 minutes of swimming and 20 minutes of steady running produce cardio results that are nearly identical.
  • The lesson here is that both exercises are great.

Go to any online fitness forum and ask the simple question, “Which is a better workout – swimming or running?”

Then sit back and watch the sparks fly.

Apart from being somewhat entertaining, it’s interesting to see all of the different responses you get to such a simple question.

Every exercise, swimming and running being no exception, has both its tried-and-true fans and detractors.

Most of the disagreements over running and swimming revolve around how the benefits of these exercises are measured.

Some choose to measure in terms of calorie burn while others measure by the amount of time it takes to reach a specific goal.

When different athletes use different means of measurement, it’s inevitable that they will disagree on the benefits of a given exercise.

Whether or not swimming is better than running, or vice versa, really depends on how you measure results.

To find a running or swimming routine that will help you reach your goals, go PRO today for access to workout plans, certified personal trainers, and more.

Is It True That Swimming Requires More Physical Effort Than Running?

One of the things cited by proponents of swimming is that it takes more physical effort than running in order to cover the same amount of distance. In other words, the average person will work harder to swim two miles than he would to run the same distance.

As the theory goes, the more physical effort exerted, the more productive an exercise is. While that may be true in the most literal sense, it’s not really measurable in real terms.

What most personal trainers and weight loss experts know is that time is a more important measurement than distance. Studies indicate that 20 minutes of swimming and 20 minutes of steady running produce cardio results that are nearly identical.

While it’s true that you cover more distance in 20 minutes of running, you don’t get a better cardio benefit “per mile” than you do from swimming the same amount of time. What matters is the fact that you’re spending 20 minutes in an intense cardio workout, regardless of which exercise you choose.

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I Thought That Swimming Was Better Exercise Because It Provides More Resistance — Is That True?

Swimming does indeed provide more resistance and works almost every muscle in the body.

Yet, at the same time, the average swimmer does not continually knock off his laps, without stopping, for 20 straight minutes. In most cases, people pace themselves in such a way that includes gliding or floating every few minutes before resuming hard swimming. In addition, at the end of every stroke, there is a period of very low resistance, even if it’s minimal.

In contrast, running provides a consistent amount of resistance throughout the exercise. Most runners consistently continue their exercise without stopping, from start to finish. Have you ever seen runners held at a traffic light and running in place? So while the total resistance on the body may be less with running, it’s a wash in the end because the resistance it does provide is more consistent.

If All Things Are Equal, Why Would Someone Choose One Exercise Over the Other?

The greatest attraction to running is that it’s one of the simplest and most convenient exercises you can do. All you need is a good pair of sneakers and a place to run, be it inside on a treadmill or outside on the street. While serious runners tend to buy clothing specifically made for the task, the average person can effectively run with whatever clothing he has.

With a running workout, you are not bound to a pool schedule, your workout is not affected by others competing for the same space, and you can do it whenever it’s most convenient for you. On the flip side, the negatives of running include dogs, bad weather, and the impact of the exercise on the knees and hips.

Those who prefer swimming generally cite its low-impact nature and its overall comfort level as the reasons for preferring it. While water resistance provides great exercise, it is a low-impact exercise that causes very low stress on the joints. Elderly people, and those with joint diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, tend to find swimming to be an optimal exercise.

The comfort of being in warm water also helps those with joint diseases feel better. On the downside, using swimming as an exercise often runs into complications when trying to work your schedule around that of the pool and other swimmers who are exercising at the same time.

So after you’ve posted your question on the fitness forum and tabulated the results, you’ll most likely find that they are split. The lesson here is that both exercises are great and you would probably do well to swim or run…or both!

Include both swimming and running in your routine by going PRO today for access to our workout plans, exercise library, certified personal trainers, and more.

See for yourself – Meet with the Exercise.com Team today.