Swimming versus Running

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Q: I seriously injured my right knee playing high school football and have functioned very well until recently when my knee started getting sore and swelling after long runs and rucksack marches.  X-rays show I have arthritis in this knee and I was advised to run less and to do more low impact fitness activities.  I have started swimming but I wonder if this activity will keep me as fit as my running program?  Captain Coureur

A: Dear Captain Coureur: Glad to hear you are staying active. Swimming and running are both excellent forms of cardiovascular exercise that offer many health benefits but they aren’t suited to everyone.  Here is a brief comparison of some of the advantages that each of these activities have to offer:

  1. Running may be a better choice if you are trying to lose weight. The Mayo Clinic estimates that if you run and swim at the same intensity, you will burn approximately 40% more calories running than you will swimming;
  2. The resistance provided by water makes swimming a better full body workout;
  3. Running is a more convenient activity as it can be done nearly anywhere, at any time and with minimal equipment;
  4. Swimming is a more flexible activity. You can do a number of different strokes such as the breast stroke, front crawl and butterfly. You can also change things up by using equipment such as fins, paddles, pull buoys and kick boards. This variety allows swimmers to work different muscle groups and train at different intensities all in the same workout. Runners can vary the intensity of their training but not their technique;
  5. Running is one of the simplest forms of exercise that most people instinctively learn to do in early childhood. Swimming is a skill people must be taught and practice to be able to do it well;
  6. Swimming is a “no impact” form of exercise that is far more gentle on your joints than running. Given this lack of impact, runners often use swimming to stay fit while they recover from their injuries;
  7. Running is a high impact activity that can help increase the strength of your bones;
  8. Swimmers never have to worry about angry dogs, distracted drivers or bad weather;
  9. Running and swimming can both be a lot of fun.

The bottom line: Swimming and running are both excellent ways to stay fit and you don’t have to choose between doing one or the other. Many people alternate running and swimming workouts in order to enjoy the benefits of both – something we call cross training.  Give this excellent fitness strategy a try – I think your knees will love you for it. Train smart and remember exercise is medicine!

Dr. Darrell Menard OMM MD, Dip Sport Med

Dr. Menard is the Surgeon General’s specialist advisor in sports medicine and has worked extensively with athletes from multiple sports. As part of the Strengthening the Forces team he works on injury prevention and promoting active living.

Strengthening the Forces is CAF/DND’s healthy lifestyles promotion program providing expert information, skills and tools for promoting and improving CAF members’ health and well-being.

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