Swimming has a reputation for being easy on your joints and a great form of exercise. But is swimming really better for you than running on dry land?

Well, they’re both ace forms of cardiovascular exercise, and each has its own pros, cons, and benefits.

Both can be used to improve your strength, endurance, body composition, and overall health. But choosing between swimming and running depends on your individual needs.

Back of young woman in swimming hat swimming vs running headerShare on Pinterest
Danil Nevsky/Stocksy United

When evaluating the effectiveness of any form of exercise, it’s important to consider your goals.

If you’re looking to enjoy yourself and feel an endorphin rush, you’ll be happy to hear that running and swimming are both great choices.

But if you’re trying to torch calories or lose weight, the answer to “Which is better?” depends on your capabilities and fitness goals.

All exercise burns calories. The question is whether running or swimming is a more effective way to do so.

The good news is that running and swimming are both great ways to torch calories. But for most people, running has a slight edge over swimming in terms of calorie burn.

Comparing calories

The number of calories you burn during any workout depends mostly on its intensity. Running a 5-minute cobweb-shaker around the block isn’t going to burn as many calories as nailing a half-marathon.

We snuck a look at the calories burned in 30 minutes of swimming and running, as worked out by the sizable brains at Harvard Medical School.

Was this helpful?

Swimming: Calories burned in 30 minutes

Calories burned for a 125-lb personCalories burned for a 155-lb personCalories burned for a 185-lb person
General swimming180223266
Vigorous laps330372444

Running: Calories burned in 30 minutes

Calories burned for a 125-lb personCalories burned for a 155-lb personCalories burned for a 185-lb person
5 mph (12 min/mile)240298355
5.2 mph (11.5 min/mile)270335400
6 mph (10 min/mile)300372444
6.7 mph (9 min/mile)330409488
7.5 mph (8 min/mile)375465555
8.6 mph (7 min/mile)435539644
10 mph (6 min/mile)495614733

For example, a 155-pound person will burn 446 calories while swimming leisurely for an hour and 744 calories when swimming the breaststroke for an hour.

The breaststroke requires more energy than a casual dip with friends or slow-paced laps around the pool, so it naturally burns more calories.

The case is similar for running: The faster you run, the more calories will disappear in your slipstream.

The average runner completes a mile in 9 to 10 minutes (get ’em, Road Runner), which totals between 6.0 and 6.7 miles per hour. At 155 pounds, a person can burn 744 calories in an hour when running at 6.0 miles per hour and 818 calories in an hour at 6.7 miles per hour.

This means the average runner will burn at least the same number of calories running at a 10-minute mile pace for an hour as they would swimming the breaststroke for an hour.

And since the average runner’s mile time could fall anywhere between 9 and 10 minutes, chances are they’ll burn an even larger number of calories per hour.

Your actual calorie burn will depend on your height, weight, metabolism, stroke, and speed. If you tend to be a slower runner but a faster swimmer, you’ll burn more calories when swimming, and vice versa.

Also, if you find swimming more fun (Look, Ma, no sidewalk!), you’re likely to stick with it and gain more from your workout plan than you would from a punishing running schedule.

Weight loss generally depends on burning more calories than you consume. Technically, any activity that burns calories can help you lose weight.

Since running has a small advantage in calorie burn, you might think running would help you lose weight faster than swimming. But neither activity is necessarily better than the other.

Most trainers will tell you that the best exercise for weight loss is the one you actually do. And while that may sound cliché, it’s the truth.

In other words, swimming is better for weight loss if swimming is the activity you’ll do more often. And running is better for weight loss if you prefer to run.

Taking your pace, weight, and ability level into account will give you an idea of how many calories you’ll burn in a specific amount of time. But that doesn’t matter if you run only once a week and find it boring.

If you prefer to swim 4 to 6 times a week, you’ll get a much more significant calorie deficit.

So when comparing swimming versus running for weight loss, it’s worth asking yourself a few questions:

  • Are you a faster swimmer or runner?
  • Does one exercise come naturally to you?
  • Which activity fits into your schedule and lifestyle, including your access to resources like a pool?
  • Above all, which activity do you actually enjoy? That’s the one you’re more likely to stick with, and consistent exercise is a key part of weight loss.

If the answer is both, great! You can alternate between them to give your mind and body some variety. That said, it’s also OK to pick a winner.

Weight loss is about consistency and commitment more than whether you’re a thoroughbred mermaid or a consistent landlubber.

Now, let’s talk about swimming — one of the best all-around exercises.

Yes, swimming can help with your weight loss and calorie burning efforts, but it also deserves praise for its disease-fighting potential and psychological benefits. Fish are friends, not food, and we can take inspiration from their hobbies.

(OK, they’re also food, and many provide pretty stellar health benefits. But the Dory quote used at the top of this article makes that a little harder to admit.)

Health benefits of swimming

Swimming is the absolute (dive) bomb. A bunch of health benefits await those who make swimming a part of their lifestyle.

1. It’s an effective, low impact cardiovascular workout

Unlike running, swimming can bump up your heart rate without putting extra stress on your body. When you swim, the buoyancy of the water counteracts gravity, meaning that taking the plunge puts very little pressure on your joints.

This makes it an excellent choice for people who live with joint pain, osteoarthritis, or any condition that gets in the way of high impact exercise.

Research also suggests that swimming can play a role in preventing heart disease by countering the fatty compounds in your blood that contribute to declining health in your ticker.

2. It works out *eeeeeeeeverything*

Low impact exercises have a reputation for being low intensity, but swimming is no slouch — it works every part of your body.

Studies have found that swimming can increase physical strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance.

Swimming engages nearly every muscle group in your body, especially if you mix up your stroke, speed, and direction. (Get your mind out of the gutter — that’s not what we’re discussing here.)

Plus, the water provides resistance that your muscles have to push through to propel you forward. Maximum benefits with minimal impact? Yes, please.

3. It makes you feel happy, like dolphins

Swimming can take stress off your body and your mind. Countless studies have highlighted the benefits of physical activity for mental health, specifically reducing feelings of depression, stress, and anxiety.

Endurance activities like swimming trigger the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins into your brain. These can lift your mood and give you that exercise “high.” Dive in and party on!

4. It can decrease your risk of chronic illness

A lesser known benefit of swimming is its potential to lessen or even prevent chronic diseases.

The CDC notes that swimming can help improve mobility and decrease pain in people with arthritis And multiple studies suggest that any regular exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

Given that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States (taking about 655,000 lives every year), there’s good reason to embrace your inner otter.

Ready to swim? Here are two swim workouts to get you started.

Workout 1

Set a goal of swimming 28 laps, or 700 yards, at a moderate pace.

This is a good workout for new swimmers, since it helps build endurance. Take breaks or slow down as needed — do whatever it takes to complete the laps.

If 28 laps is too easy (pah, show-off), go for 48.

Workout 2

If you want a bigger challenge, try turning your swim workout into a HIIT-style session:

  1. Start with a 2-lap warmup.
  2. Alternate moderate and hard efforts every 50 meters (1 to 2 laps, depending on the size of your pool).
  3. Rotate through different strokes, like breaststroke, freestyle, and backstroke.
  4. Aim for at least 56 laps.

All things considered, it’s relatively easy to put together a strenuous swimming workout, regardless of your experience level. You can push yourself as much or as little as you want, and you can increase your speed and duration over time.

Running is considered a high impact exercise because it puts significant stress on your body and joints as compared with, say, swimming.

But there’s a reason (many reasons, really) running is a popular form of exercise. (We already know it’s a better calorie burner than swimming.)

Health benefits of running

You might not be surprised to learn that the health benefits of running aren’t so different from those of swimming.

Research shows that running has several short- and long-term advantages, even if you run for only 5 to 10 minutes a day.

1. It can help prevent chronic diseases

Running has links to chronic disease prevention and longer life.

A study by the National Institutes of Health found that runners’ risks of death from all causes and from cardiovascular illness were 25 and 40 percent lower, respectively, than those of people who didn’t pound the sidewalk.

Running added 3 years to the study participants’ life expectancy — and that’s just from running 5 to 10 minutes a day at a slow speed.

2. It can soothe depression, stress, and anxiety

Thanks to the release of endorphins and norepinephrine, running can be a powerful tool for improving your mental health. It turns out that running away from your problems really can help from time to time.

Intense physical activities like running can:

Experts recommend getting a total of at least two and half hours of moderate exercise every week to reap the rewards.

3. It protects your brain as you age

Research suggests that running can enhance your productivity, creativity, and overall mental sharpness (they don’t call it “running errands” for nothing).

In the long term, though, running may also protect your brain from memory loss by stopping your hippocampus (a part of your brain that’s involved in memory and learning) from wearing down.

Along the same lines, running can reduce your risk of neurological diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which impact memory and other brain functions.

Going for a run of any distance, pace, or duration is a workout. But if you’re looking for some structure, here are two running workouts for beginners and intermediate folks.

Workout 1

For beginners, running at a steady pace for 1, 2, or 3 miles will provide a solid endurance workout.

Another option is a run-walk workout, alternating 2 minutes of running with 1 minute of walking for 20 to 30 minutes.

Workout 2: Tempo run

Intermediate runners who fancy a challenge can try doing a tempo run:

  1. Choose the distance you want to run — let’s say 5 miles.
  2. Run the first mile at an easy pace as a warmup, and end your run with a 1-mile cooldown at the same pace.
  3. For the 3 miles in between, choose a faster pace you want to run. For example, you can run 30 or 45 seconds faster than your usual 5K pace or 1 minute faster than your jog pace.

The idea is to pick up the tempo after your warmup, maintain that tempo, and then cool down.

Swimming and running are two excellent workouts for burning calories, losing weight, and maintaining an overall high standard of health.

Running does burn more calories, but working out isn’t all about calories — it’s about enjoyment, adaptability to your lifestyle, and avoiding injuries.

Your best bet is to choose the activity you truly love to do, because either one can help you reach your goals.