Swimming vs Running

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on October 16, 2020
Expert Content

Swimming and Running are both popular forms of exercise and sport.

They both have their pros and cons, but what are some of the main things to bear in mind about them?

We asked a selected group of experts to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of both swimming and running.

Here’s what they said.

Editor's note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

Swimming Is A Great Low-Impact Way To Stay In Shape

Tracy Rodriguez, Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist

While both exercises are cardio intensive, they utilize different parts of the body.

Swimming is low impact and a great option for someone with joint or vertebral pain or inflammation. It utilizes the entire body and is an intensive workout.

Swimmers can expect to gain strength and lean muscle mass mainly in their backs, shoulders and legs. If you’re looking to up your cardio, swimming is a great option.

Running, on the other hand, is a high-impact sport. It requires more stabilization and cross training work to be able to do it without joint inflammation. It incorporates and enhances lower body strength. It is a great option for cardiorespiratory enhancement as well.

Pro: Swimming is a fantastic, low-impact and full body workout that tones, strengthens and increases cardiorespiratory endurance.

Con: Swimmers can get overactive upper traps from repetitive overhead reaching and therefore can form a muscular imbalance called Upper Crossed Syndrome. This is characterized by rounded shoulders, a forward pulling neck and tension or pain in the neck and upper shoulders. It is important for those who choose to swim to practice regular neck and shoulder stretching and stabilization exercises.

Pro: Running is a great exercise to increase cardiorespiratory capacity, burn calories and look and feel great. It can also cause toning and strengthening, particularly in the lower body.

Con: Running is high-impact, which means that it is likely to cause inflammation on the joints unless they are stabilized and strengthened properly. Running can also create muscular imbalances due to the repetitive motion and high-impact. The most common muscular imbalances we see from running are Lower Crossed Syndrome or an Anterior Pelvic Tilt. Either of these can cause knee, ankle and foot issues as well as back issues. It’s important to strengthen and activate your glute and inner core muscles and stretch and releas tight hips if you choose to run long term.

I am a Corrective Exercise Specialist, so I almost always recommend swimming above running, due to its low-impact and strengthening effects.

Swimming is a great option for those who have joint or vertebral inflammation and want a low-impact way to exercise and stay in shape.

Running is a good option for someone with healthy hips, knees, ankles and feet who is able to incorporate cross-training and stabilization work into their regimen.

Woman Running

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Swimming Works The Upper Body, Running Works The Lower Body

Robert Herbst, Personal Trainer and Wellness Expert

The major benefits of swimming over running are that it provides resistance to the muscles of the upper body and creates less stress on the joints of the legs and the lower back. The lack of stress on the legs is a drawback for swimming, however.

A benefit of running is that it puts stress on the bones of the legs, which causes them to increase or maintain bone density.

People who only swim may lose bone density and are candidates for stress fractures and osteoporosis if they do not stress the spine and long bones through resistance training.

You Burn More Calories Running Than Swimming

Scott Kolbe, Certified Ironman Coach

In regards to which one is better, honestly they work well together. If you are an adult and have never swum before, it can be daunting task because swimming is all about form and efficiency in the water once you have some endurance base built up.

There is a great DIY program called 0 to One Mile that is a great goal with swimming. If new to swimming, I highly suggest lessons from a real swim coach.

For running, many people can start with a run-walk program and eventually build into a half marathon or marathon if that is their goal. In the end, it depends on goals.

You burn a lot more calories running than you do swimming. For example, I weigh 180 lbs and am 6’2” and if I run for 45 minutes I may burn 650 calories but if I was in the pool I would burn 350 calories. My Garmin watch measures heart-rate and calorie burning during the activities.

If your form is bad, swimming can tear up your shoulders, whereas poor running form can tear up hips and knees.

With my athletes, I find swimming is a great recovery tool – you can’t pound your legs seven days a week. During Ironman training, it is ideal to have a couple of days per week where your legs don’t taking a beating.

As you get fitter, it is much easier to push your heart-rate up in a run than it is swimming and burning off the calories. The challenge with Covid-19, of course, is getting lap time at a pool.

The best way to train is with a plan that you can follow or a coach that push you out of your comfort zone.

To be successful at any of the above, one of the keys is having a strong solid core. It is critical to both swimming and running.

Body composition is less of an issue with swimming, but it can be hard on the body if you’re significantly overweight. Aqua running is a great way to minimize stress and reduce risk when injured.

Running Race

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

They Both Let You Vary Your Intensity And Speed

Marnie Kunz, Runstreet Creator and RRCA-certified Run Coach

Swimming and running are both intense cardio exercises that burn a high amount of calories.

Swimming offers a full body workout and is an excellent low impact activity. I often recommend swimming to runners I coach who have injuries.

Running is a great workout that is easy to do and, unlike swimming, does not require a lot to get started – just a good pair of running shoes.

With both swimming and running, you can vary your intensity and speed.

In my opinion, running is easier to do low intensity and is more beginner-friendly. But if you use a kickboard to start, swimming can be lower intensity and beginner friendly also.

Man Running

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Both Running And Swimming Can Be Great Options

Jordan Duncan, Owner of Olympic Spine and Sports Rehabilitation

Running and swimming differ in terms of where the loads are placed on the body.

In running, the lower body takes the majority of the loading. During the stance phase of running, where one foot is in contact with the ground, you have about 2.5 times your body weight placed on your leg. For a 150 pound runner, this equals 375 pounds of force!

In swimming, the majority of the loading occurs in the upper extremities, primarily the shoulder. Water is 10 times denser than air which means a great deal of stress is placed on the shoulder. Not surprisingly, these forces result in different locations of injury for runners and swimmers

It has also been shown that roughly 50 per cent of runners get injured each year, for example lower extremity stress fractures and soft tissue injuries such as Achilles tendonitis, runner’s knee, and plantar fasciitis.

The majority of elite swimmers report shoulder pain, mostly occurring on the top and front of the shoulder. I just listed the cons of both exercises, however I believe that they are outweighed by the benefits.

Running has been shown to be extremely beneficial to overall health, including lowering the incidence of heart disease, relieving depression, maintaining a healthy weight, and strengthening the immune system.

Despite a high annual prevalence of injuries, recreational running has not been shown to lead to degenerative changes (arthritis) of the hips and knees, which is contrary to popular belief. This systematic review, which looked at a total of 114,829 people, found that the incidence of knee and hip arthritis in recreational runners was 3.5 per cent, while the rate in non-runners was 10.2 per cent.

In competitive runners, the rate was higher than these two groups (13.3 per cent), however they accumulated a very high weekly mileage.

Swimming, which has similar overall health benefits as running, also has the advantage of being a relatively low load exercise on the body (with the exception of the shoulders, as stated above).

I would recommend running vs swimming based on an individual’s area of vulnerability (e.g. history of upper body vs. lower body injury), however with proper form and cadence, as well as adequate mobility and stability, and strength, both running and swimming can be great options for individuals of nearly all ages.

You Can’t Go Wrong With Either!

Cory Camp, Founder of RxTraining

There are some major differences between the two.

Swimming places a great emphasis on the cardiovascular system due to the lack of oxygen being readily available majority of the time, and the horizontal positioning of the body means gravity is not available to help aid the circulation of blood to all extremities.

Due to this, swimming is usually a better bang for your buck when looking at time spent exercising. One mile swimming is equivalent to multiple miles ran.

Swimming also does not have the ground impact forces that running can cause on our joints such as our ankles and knees.

It does, however, place a greater load on to our rotator cuff/shoulder joint and we see overuse lead to injury there.

Pros of Swimming: less joint stress on the lower body, total body exercise with a greater emphasis on the shoulders, core, and lat muscles. Can be time efficient if access is readily available.

Cons of Swimming: often times requires a greater level of skill to get started, pool access might not be readily available to you, requires more planning around when it will happen.

Pros of Running: can be done anywhere at any time, a great social activity when done safely with others, less skill required to get started, great lower body and core focused work

Cons of Running: repeated ground impact forces over distances and time can lead to injury if not managed properly, not as total body of a workout as swimming. I recommend swimming over running if you have means to do so. It gives you a more holistic total body strengthening and conditioning with less stress on the joints themselves.

However, I would recommend running if you are shorter on time and don’t have access to a pool due to less preparation needed.

Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with either! I will say the more beginner you are to both, the less efficient you will be in your technique.

This can actually be viewed as a good thing as you won’t have to swim/run the same distances as elite athletes would to get similar benefits from a caloric expenditure standpoint.

Man Running In Nature

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Both Swimming And Running Work Major Muscle Groups

Anne-Marie Emanuelli, Creative Director and Founder of Mindful Frontiers

Swim or Run? This is a question I ask myself regularly as I love both of these types of physical and cardio exercise.

I have been swimming and running for a long time, however, swimming is my great passion and the exercise I have done for over 50 years, since I was in elementary school.

Running (more like jogging now at almost 60 years old) is what brought my husband and I together thirty years ago.

It’s a romantic story that actually incorporates swimming and running. In 1984, I had been talked into participating in a local triathlon. The health club that sponsored the event told me, “you’re already a strong swimmer and bicyclist, all you need to do is add running”.

I had been an off-and-on-jogger in college and didn’t really enjoy running because I didn’t like to feel sweaty. Being a long-time competitive swimmer meant that I didn’t really know how it felt to sweat while exercising.

Loving a challenge, I decided to sign up for the triathlon. The first year I came in second overall woman and the second year I won the event! I was hooked!

And my eventually-to-be husband was the director so that’s how we met. He saw me swim at the triathlon and called me to go out for lunch the next day. The rest, as they say, is history.

I continued to compete in the sprint-length triathlon even through the 1980s and 90s, competing in local BudLite Triathlon series events in New Mexico and Colorado. Always finishing at the top of the 1500m swim and respectfully strong in the 25k bike, running a 5k remained my weak spot.

When my then-boyfriend and eventual-husband and I finally “hooked up” in the early 90s, I decided to concentrate on running since that was his forte and he was also the high school cross-country and track coach.

Eventually, I started running mountain trails and found that I was pretty strong. Turns out, distance is my strong-suite; short sprint events are harder.

Some athletes have more fast-twitch muscles while others have slow-twitch muscles.

I still swam regularly, biked to cross-train and entered trail runs for the competitive challenge. Trails became the running passion that kept my husband and I engaged in weekend running races.

Running and swimming are both cardio exercises. They both work major muscle groups.

Swimming is an all-body sport while running is primarily a lower-body exercise. Both work the heart and lungs equally.

The advantage of swimming is that we can continue to stay in shape later in life without the weight-bearing aspect of running.

For example, an older athlete will more likely be able to continue to swim into his/her 80s or even 90s whereas a runner who has pounded the miles for decades will at some point experience joint pain, particularly in the knees and hips.

The more miles a person has exercised, the sooner joints will start complaining.

In swimming, it’s mostly the shoulders that will complain at some point. However, as I have learned first-hand, it is possible to lessen the wear and tear on the shoulders by altering the arm stroke.

In running, the only way to lessen the wear and tear on the hips and knees is to go slower and run less far. And to ice those areas when one gets back home.

Nonetheless, the health benefit of running lies in this weight-bearing aspect because this actually helps strengthen bones. Eventually, a runner will probably become a power walker which provides the same benefit to the muscles, cardiovascular system and bones.

When this happens, I highly recommend Nordic Walking with its specialized poles. Nordic Walking adds the upper body into the exercise, turning regular walking into a more full-body workout. As far as caloric expenditure goes, both of these sports burn many calories.

Truly, if given the choice, I will always take swimming over running. The advantage of running is that you don’t need a facility.

I’m lucky to live in the beautiful enchanted countryside of northern New Mexico where I can slide my running shoes on and go out the front door.

When I lived in a city, there was usually a park nearby so it was equally practical to jog or run. To swim requires a pool, ocean, lake or river and unless one lives close to the shore, it requires travelling to the location or facility.

Lucky are those who live where they can run to the beach, jump in the ocean and do a daily biathlon. That would be my dream!