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Calories Burned in Swimming vs. Running

author image Doug Hewitt
Doug Hewitt has been writing for over 20 years and has a Master of Arts from University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He authored the book "The Practical Guide to Weekend Parenting," which includes health and fitness hints for parents. He and his wife, Robin, are coauthors of the "Free College Resource Book."
Calories Burned in Swimming vs. Running
Swimming is easier on the bones and joints. Photo Credit Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Sir Mervs

When you want a challenging workout for your cardiovascular system, you've got lots of choices. Running and swimming are options, and if burning calories is your goal, both modes can do the trick. The total amount of calories burned depends on the intensity and duration of your workout sessions and the efficiency of your movement.

Learning more about how the energy and physiological demands of swimming and running are met will help you spend your workout time most wisely.

Calculating Calories

Calories are units of heat energy that measure how much fuel you burn in a given exercise session, which is dependent on the amount of oxygen your muscles use. Your oxygen consumption is determined by intensity, or how much demand you place on your muscles. The more you exercise, the more efficient you become at swimming or running. As a result it takes less effort to do a workout and you burn fewer calories.

Skill is also a factor in energy expenditure during swimming and running. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you will be able to work harder and longer, and burn more calories at a higher skill level. In both modes, you can go faster, which burns more calories.

Running is Rougher

During running, speed and incline are primary determinants of energy expenditure. Running at 8 mph on a level surface burns around 12.5 to 15 calories per minute, or about 112 calories per mile. Raise the incline, going the same pace, and you'll burn slightly more. Your size is also an important consideration; you tend to burn more calories when you're larger.

Swimming is Slower

Because you're working against the resistance of water, swimming 1/4 mile is roughly the caloric equivalent of running one mile. Swimming the crawl burns about 13 calories per minute, if you're going a moderate pace.

Michael Phelps' top speed is about 4.7 mph. And, he burns serious calories. But unless you're an elite swimmer, your speed will not come anywhere near that pace.

Running Involves More Wear and Tear

Even if you are on a mission to burn as many calories as possible, consider other factors besides total energy expenditure. If you have musculoskeletal issues like knee, hip, ankle or back pain, swimming may be a better choice because the buoyancy of the water helps support your joints. Running puts a great deal of impact stress on your body.

Accessibility and Preferences

Running is easily accessible anywhere, whereas swimming requires access to a pool or body of water.

Your personal preferences are another important consideration; if you dislike your mode of exercise, you're less likely to be consistent and burn any calories at all.

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