Swimming and running are both excellent forms of cardiovascular exercise. After all, they account for two-thirds of a triathlon. Both are great ways to boost your cardio fitness and burn calories.

Swimming boosts your heart rate, strengthens and tones your upper and lower body muscles, and burns calories, all while remaining a low-impact form of exercise.

Running tones your lower body, torches calories and, because it’s considered a weight-bearing workout, helps prevent bone loss, too.

Still not sure if you should jump in the pool or hit the trail for a run? No problem. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the benefits of swimming and running, and how to decide which one may be better suited to you.

When it comes to the number of calories you can burn while swimming or running, you first have to understand that calorie burn is based on several factors, including your weight and the intensity of the exercise.

According to Harvard Medical School, the calorie burn for swimming versus running is estimated as follows, based on body weight and 30 minutes of activity.

Activity (30 mins)125 pounds155 pounds185 pounds
Swimming, leisurely pace180 223 266
Swimming, vigorous pace300 372 444
Running, 5 mph pace (12 min/mile)240298355
Running, 7.5 mph (8 min/mile)375465555

For more specific calculations, you can use an online activity calorie counter such as this one from the American Council on Exercise.

As far as burning fat, physical therapist Jena Gatses, PT, DPT, LMT, SFMA, CSCS, says there are many variables to consider.

“Interval training is one way a person can ensure they’re burning more calories and, as a result, reducing body and belly fat,” she said.

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) involves short bursts of vigorous exercise followed by low-intensity recovery periods. Although you work out for less time, research has shown that this type of workout offers similar health benefits as twice as much moderate-intensity activity.

According to Gatses, you can do high-intensity interval training workouts with both running and swimming.

“The total calories you burn are based on the intensity of the exercise, which is linked directly to your heart rate. When you perform sprints, for example, you elevate your heart rate to extreme ranges for short periods of time,” she said.

That’s why performing several sprints with shorter rest periods can be extremely beneficial for burning calories and fat.

With that in mind, it’s a toss-up as to whether running or swimming is better for burning fat.

What you need to consider is:

  • the intensity at which you’re exercising
  • how high you elevate your heart rate and keep it elevated
  • the duration of the workout

The bottom line is both running and swimming are effective exercise options for burning calories and fat.

  • It’s easier on your joints. One of the main advantages of swimming is that it’s easier on your joints. This is especially important if you have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or other conditions that cause joint pain. A 2016 study found that swimming, as an exercise intervention, resulted in a reduction in stiffness and joint pain.
  • It’s a safer way to exercise if you’re recovering from an injury. Swimming is also a popular choice for people who are recovering from injuries, especially lower body injuries. The buoyancy of water provides more support for your muscles and joints versus working out on land. This allows you to work out harder and put less impact on your body than you would on land.
  • It offers lots of ways to burn calories. Swimming also offers many different ways to burn calories. You can alternate between swimming laps using different strokes, adding resistance with an aqua belt or wrist and ankle weights, or doing a full-body workout in the pool.
  • It provides a full-body workout. Swimming requires you to use many muscles in your body, which makes it an excellent full-body workout. Running, while great for your lower body, doesn’t work the muscles in your back, chest, arms, or shoulders to the same extent that swimming does.
  • It provides a high calorie burn. Running is an excellent choice if you want to burn a lot of calories. The faster you run, the more you’ll burn. By adding some walking or jogging intervals, you can turn your run into a calorie-torching, fat-busting workout. To get started, try a 2-to-1 interval ratio. For example, run at a quick pace for 2 minutes, then walk or jog for 1 minute. Repeat for 30 minutes.
  • It’s a weight-bearing exercise. Running allows you to increase your bone density through weight-bearing activity. Swimming doesn’t allow for this. Weight-bearing exercises like jogging, walking, and hiking are the best bone-building activities, as they require you to work against gravity.
  • It’s easy to get started. Unlike swimming that requires a pool, running only requires a good pair of shoes and access to the outdoors or a treadmill.
  • You’ll get a dose of vitamin D. Heading outdoors for a run can also boost your vitamin D levels. Just remember to wear sunscreen and to avoid running between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.

Both swimming and running are great cardiovascular activities, says Gatses, so it mostly comes down to your personal preference, health conditions, and lifestyle.

Consider these questions when trying to decide which type of exercise is right for you.

6 questions to ask yourself

  1. Do you have joint pain? If you have arthritis or other types of joint pain, you may want to choose swimming instead of running. Swimming puts less stress on your joints, making it a gentler form of exercise, and less likely to aggravate joint issues.
  2. Do you want to strengthen your upper body? If strengthening and toning your upper body is a priority, swimming is probably a better option. That’s because swimming offers a full-body workout that targets most of your major muscle groups.
  3. Do you want to improve your bone health? If you’re trying to do more workouts that help prevent bone loss, running may be the better choice.
  4. Do you have access to a pool? If access to a pool is an issue, opt for running, which can be done almost anywhere. Just be sure you run in areas that are safe and away from traffic.
  5. Do you have a lower body injury? If you have a knee, ankle, hip, or back injury, swimming may be a safer option because there’s less impact on your joints.
  6. Do you have a shoulder injury? If you have a shoulder injury, swimming with a repetitive stroke can cause irritation, so running might be a better option with this type of injury.
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No matter which type of aerobic exercise you choose, the bottom line is this: Cardiovascular exercise is a critical component of maintaining your overall physical and mental health.

Both swimming and running will help you burn calories, boost your cardiovascular fitness, and tone your muscles.

If you’re not sure which one to choose, why not include both in your fitness routine? Cross-training with different forms of exercise is an excellent way to add variety to your workout routine while also decreasing your chance of injury.

If you’re new to exercise or have an existing health condition or injury, be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine.