Which is Better? Swimming or Running

Judi Ketteler
by Judi Ketteler
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Which is Better? Swimming or Running

Trainer and 25-time Ironman finisher Tom Holland often jokes, “Swimming is not a sport. It’s a means to keep from drowning.” But, at 48, he admits he appreciates swimming far more now than when he was younger. “Now when I swim, I often get this weird, great swimmer’s high,” says Holland, author of “Swim, Bike, Run, Eat: The Complete Guide to Fueling Your Triathlon.”

If running is the highest of the high-impact cardiovascular activities, swimming is the lowest of the low-impact ones. Let’s face it, we runners often have a bit of an attitude about it. We’re road warriors! Trail runners! Mountain trekkers! We pound the pavement. You can’t pound a pool!

But … if you’ve ever been sidelined from running because of an impact-related injury — like tendonitis, ankle sprain or other lower-extremity overuse issues — you’ve had to face the prospect of trying to stay fit without running. Many runners turn to cycling — another low-impact exercise. Then, there’s always walking, if it doesn’t aggravate your injury or the weather isn’t too blustery.

Aside from triathletes, runners will often turn to every other conceivable exercise before they consider swimming, but that would be a mistake.


A recent review article on swimming found that swimming increased VO2 max and reduced body fat just as much as running, cycling or walking. The article reviewed 29 different studies, most of which featured swimming interventions that were 12-week or 15-week programs, and, on average, included three days a week of swimming for 40–60 minutes.

The swimmers in these studies got stronger, increased their ability to breathe and lost body fat, just as much as the control groups of people doing other exercises. Swimming also works areas of your body running tends to ignore, like your arms and shoulders. “Swimming is a different full-body modality that fixes imbalances, and it’s a phenomenal part of any training plan,” Holland says. Being in the pool not only gives your joints a break, it also has a kind of Pilates-esque stretching and strengthening quality to it that may even help you prevent running injuries, he says.

There’s no denying swimming is a great workout — it’s just not a weight-bearing workout, because you’re in water. Doing weight-bearing activities helps your bones form new tissue, which makes them stronger. For children and teens, this is crucial, because your greatest gains in bone mass happen around puberty. Swimming won’t help build bone mass, nor will it help preserve bone density later in life to ward off osteoporosis.


When Holland works with runners or cyclists who are new to swimming, he always explains how swimming is different than either. With running and cycling, if you stick with it and put in enough miles, you’ll most likely make substantial gains in speed. Not so with swimming.

“You may not get any faster, but you’ll eventually be less tired,” he says. Case in point: His Ironman swim times haven’t improved, but he’s now able to finish the swim feeling much more energized. “With swimming, form and efficiency is everything. You want a nice, smooth rotation as you breathe and don’t waste too much energy on the kick — it’s just a small flutter kick,” Holland says. A few sessions with a coach or watching some instruction videos on YouTube can go a long way in helping you improve your stroke.


Grab some goggles and give it a try. You just might find that pool-for-pavement is not such a bad tradeoff.

About the Author

Judi Ketteler
Judi Ketteler

Judi is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. She’s been running for more than 20 years, and has a particular soft spot for doing half-marathons. Her work has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and Good Housekeeping. Find her at judiketteler.com or @judiketteler on Twitter


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