Running and swimming are popular choices of cardiovascular exercise; both sports benefit your cardiovascular system. Which activity you choose depends on many different factors. Understanding the differences between the two activities and how they affect your body can help you decide which activity is best for your exercise program.
Land vs. Water
Running is a high-impact, high-intensity form of land-based exercise. It can stimulate bone growth while it raises your heart rate for improved cardiovascular and respiratory function. However, it can also lead to injury due to the repeated strain on joints and soft tissues of the body, according to Dr. Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico. Water-based exercise such as swimming can reduce your body weight by as much as 90 percent, reducing the stress on your joints. The water itself can also provide 800 times the resistance that air does.
Running and swimming will both burn more calories than walking or weight lifting when performed for the same duration, but running burns the most. A 160-lb. person running for one hour at 8.0 mph can burn approximately 986 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic. The same person lap-swimming for one hour will burn about 511 calories. Even if you slow down to a jog at 5.0 mph, this person will burn more calories on land at 584 in one hour than swimming.
Both swimming and running use primarily lower body muscles, but swimming incorporates more from your upper body as well. Your legs are powerful, large muscles that you use to kick yourself through the water; they contribute the most to swimming. Your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and calves all play a role. However, your arms and upper body muscles also work to pull your body through the water. In running, your upper body moves in order to keep the exercise efficient, but does not have to work against resistance as in swimming. In both activities, the core muscles work to stabilize the spine.
Choosing Your Activity
Both running and swimming can be incorporated into your exercise program for variety and continual changes to fitness and health. If you have orthopedic issues such as arthritis, swimming may be a better alternative for exercise. If you are apparently healthy and looking for a form of exercise that will burn the most calories, choose running over swimming.