Is swimming or running better cardio?

16 Aug 2023 15:20PM by Virgin Active

male swim pool shot

Are you looking for an exercise that burns calories, enhance muscle definition, and gets your heart rate pumping? Then you’ve come to the right place! Cardio is your answer, and the choice of swimming or running is your best bet. But what is better? And which one will be more suited for your needs? 

Both swimming and running are types of cardio that boost your fitness level and have lots of benefits… they must be if they take up two thirds of a triathlon! 

Benefits of swimming

Swimming can be seen as a fun and more enjoyable way of getting your cardio done. It increases your heart rate while focusing on toning and strengthening your lower and upper body muscles. Swimming is a low impact type of exercise, but just because you aren’t dripping with sweat, the benefits on your body are still taking place. 

Swimming is a versatile type of cardio. You can burn your calories in various ways such as swimming lengths and rotating different strokes and directions, adding resistance with an ankle weight or belt, or even performing a full body workout routine in the water. Find out more about our Aqua classes here. 

If you’re recovering from a knee, hip, back, or ankle injury then swimming is a popular choice to still keep yourself active. The water acts as extra support for your joints and muscles putting less pressure on your body but still allowing you to perform a tough workout. Swimming is also an exercise that is easy on your joints, helps reduce stiffness, and makes your muscles more durable. 

When you swim, you’re using your lower and upper muscles to glide your body through the water. It gets your heart pumping without putting extra strain on your body. Swimming is a full body workout as you’re using your arms, shoulders, back and chest to swim laps and perform your stroke. You’ll leave the pool knowing you’ve worked every part of your body. Swimming can also help increase flexibility, physical strength, and endurance and help prevent heart disease.


Benefits of running

Running focuses on your lower body, strengthening your hamstrings, glutes, and quads. It’s the perfect exercise if you want to burn lots of calories. You can mix up your workout by sprinting, walking, jogging and interval sessions. Running fast intervals with sufficient rest between will help improve speed and power, and if you do lots of intervals, you can burn a lot of calories in the workout. Alternatively, running at a slow or steady continuous pace, but for a longer period of time, will improve stamina and muscular endurance, and can also burn a lot of calories. 

One of the main advantages of running is that you can do it anywhere. You don’t require anything to get started, apart from some running shoes. It’s one of the easiest exercises to start as you just need to get outdoors or on a treadmill and can start by walking. It can also be free if you choose to start outdoors. It really is a great way to start introducing more cardio into your routine!

Running is also great for your mind. It can help improve your mental wellbeing by reducing stress, depression, and anxiety. Particularly running outdoors can really boost your mood and improve your thought process. It also gives you a good dose of vitamin D… which is a bonus. Being in nature and away from your usual set up can also be beneficial by improving concentration and sleep. 

As running is a weight bearing exercise, this has a positive effect on bone health. Regularly running forces your body to work against gravity and conditions the muscles in your legs, hips, back and core. The muscles and joints become strong and resilient, helping to prepare your body for daily activities and prevent injuries.



Will swimming or running fit my needs?

Swimming and running are similar types of cardio, but also have their own benefits for particular needs:

1) Strengthening your upper body – if this is your main focus then swimming would be more beneficial as it is classed as a full body workout and targets all your main muscles. 

2) Lower body injury – if you’ve injured your ankle, knee, back or hip, then swimming would be your safer option as there is less impact and pressure on your joints.

3) Shoulder injury – if you’ve injured your shoulder then running would be more beneficial, as swimming strokes could cause your shoulder irritation and potential further damage.

4) Mental health – both swimming and running are good for mental health, but running has the added benefit of you being outdoors and with fresh air (unless you have the luxury of an outdoor pool!). But doing exercise you enjoy or that makes you feel good is the most important factor in keeping you active, which can improve your mental well-being.

5) Burning calories and weight loss – neither exercise is ‘better’, as it is dependent on individual height, weight, metabolism, and speed. It is different for each person, if you’re a stronger swimmer than runner or you enjoy it more, so you’ll be more consistent, the chances are you’ll be able to burn more calories swimming. The same applies to running; if you feel more confident running, or you simply prefer jogging to front crawling, then you’ll most likely be able to burn more calories through running.

6) Improve bone health – running will be your best bet here, as the impact adds an element of resistance, giving the muscles and bones reason to adapt and strengthen.


There is no straight forward answer on whether swimming or running is better for you, it’s all down to personal preference or specific needs. If you’re a more confident swimmer, then swimming is going to be more beneficial for you. If you don’t have access to a pool, then running will be your best friend. Both exercises are performed better with practice, and you will quickly notice how much you improve over a short period of time. So, if it’s a dive into a pool, or a running into the sunset, as long as you’re getting your cardio in and enjoy doing it, the choice is yours!
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