Which is the BEST Cardio Exercise: Swimming, Running or Cycling?

Posted by tan xiao yan on

Muscle soreness and lethargy seem to have taken up the entire after-work time for commuters. But what can never be overstated is that potential seeds threatening your physical and psychological heath are being sowed every time you sit stiffly in front of your computer. This signals you’d better activate the less commonly used muscles, including the most important organ- heart as a cardiac muscle, or they’ll deteriorate sooner or later as the term “use it or lose it” implicates. Therefore, cardio exercises increasing heart rate and respiration should not be left out of your daily fitness plan. Here follows another question: which is the best cardio exercise- swimming, running or cycling? To answer the question, it needs giving the privilege to define what is BEST.

There are two factors determining your choice of what is the best: your goal and your hobbies. For one, all three can provide a cardio workout. Ask yourself do you exercise just to torch calories, sculpt your muscles, recover from injuries, or for fun as well as relaxation? For another, make sure you will enjoy the most so that you can find momentum and maintain consistency. For example, if you love cycling but are running just because someone told you it burns more calories. Then you’re going to lose the motivation to get out the door to run and your cardiovascular exercise plan comes to an end before it goes into effect. Instead, if you enjoy the exercise you will not only reap the rewards physiologically but you’ll also become a psychologically healthier individual.

Before a specific decision is made, it is vital to have an overall understanding of both the pros and cons of these three sports first. It can protect you from being biased and help you create a customized exercise plan.

  1. Swimming
  • Pros of swimming

Relaxation. In the right environment, swimming can be incredibly relaxing, especially when you’re often focusing on the action with your whole body pressed by waters, which means your brain can switch off a bit from day-to-day concerns.

Joint-friendly and breath-boosting exercise. Swimming is superior as a non-weight bearing exercise so it is terrific for those with joint problems, (other than shoulder) and injured athletes as a recovery. Besides, swimming requires proper breathing technique and coordination. Thus, it is especially effective to help improve stamina and endurance through the adoption of breathing techniques and cure asthmatic problems.

Overall muscle conditioning. The most attracting benefit of swimming lies in that it recruits muscle from all different parts of your body - from head to toe. 90% of the swimmers have a perfect shredded body with less body fat. Thus, it is a wholesome exercise for the whole body.


  • Cons of swimming

Time limit. Unless you live by a lake and own a wetsuit (or very thick skin), you need to get to a pool, abiding by its opening times. It’s also sometimes not that appealing to go and get wet when it’s cold during winter – but give it ten minutes and you’ll soon forget to feel cold.

Pool sharing. Unless you join a swimming club, you’ll be sharing a lane with whoever else decides to swim at that time too. This works well if you’re about the same speed, but can become heated if you can’t get into a lane sharing rhythm.

The more experienced you are, the fewer calories it burns. As your technique improves, you’ll require fewer strokes to reach the other end of the pool. Though you’ll get more work done with less effort, however, this means that you’ll effectively burn fewer calories as you get better.

  1. Running
  • Pros of running

Convenience and accessibility. All you need is a pair of trainers, some comfortable leggings, a good sports bra and some empty streets, or better still, fields.

Calories burning. Because it’s weight bearing, running absolutely torches calories. Calorie burn will vary between individuals, but a woman of around 60 kg will burn 472 calories an hour when running at a moderate 12-minute mile pace, and this increases with intensity:

Running 12-minute miles – 472 calorie/hour

Running 10-minute miles – 590 calorie/hour

Running 8-minute miles – 797 calorie/hour

Running 7-minute miles – 826 calorie/hour

Running 6-minute miles – 944 calorie/hour.

Bone strength and heart rate improving. Being weight bearing, running is also good for building up bone strength, which can help protect against Osteoporosis later in life – a concern both for women and for cyclists who typically spend most of their exercising hours seated. Most people find their heart rate shoots up pretty quickly when running, and it certainly gives the cardiovascular system a good pounding.

  • Cons of running

The risk of joint injury. Every step sends vibrations through your body, and problems with the feet, calf, hamstrings, IT band and glute are far from uncommon.

Most of these injuries are caused by overuse – asking muscles that aren’t used to running to do too much, too soon. This can be avoided by building up slowly – either with one run a week alongside other exercise or switching between running and walking whilst gradually building up the running portion. Sticking to soft surfaces – grass and mud – is also advised as this will put less stress on your limbs.

The risk of developing an injury is also greater if you currently possess less muscle mass and more body fat. Therefore, it’s not recommended for people who are overweight -it’s best to start with swimming or cycling and then add in running once you’ve reached a lighter weight.

  1. Cycling
  • Cons of cycling

Rather indoors or outdoors. Should weather or time restraints get in the way, you can also cycle indoors using a turbo trainer. A spinning class is tough and you can burn a lot of calories per hour if you work your ass off. It’s nice to get out into the quieter parts of town on early Sunday mornings when you can hear the birds chirping and take nice pictures of the lake. Riding in the great outdoors exposes you to the fresh air and on a bike you can go much further than you could run, allowing you to explore a little more.

Muscular strength and endurance in your lower body. Cycling is like a semi-resistance exercise. Especially if your bicycle has the gear system, it allows you to adjust the resistance of the chains so as to increase/decrease the amount of effort required for 1 complete cycle of the gear wheel. Thus, this can help you to train your leg muscles each time you cycle - lose weight and build muscle at the same time!

Various intensity. You can push yourself to the absolute limit, and get a short, hard, 30-minute workout, but you can also ride at a very gentle pace all day if you want to – something most people couldn’t achieve swimming or running. Calorie burn for cycling varies dramatically depending what you do, terrain and speed – but looks something like this for our 60kg rider:

Cycling – MTB or BMX – 502 calories/hour

Cycling, less than 10 miles per hour – 236 calories/hour

Cycling, over 20 miles per hour – 944 calories/hour

Cycling, around 14-16 miles per hour – 590 calories/hour

Cycling, around 16-19 miles per hour – 708 calories/hour

Stationary cycling, moderate – 413 calories/hour

Stationary cycling, vigorous – 620 calories/hour

Stationary cycling, very vigorous – 738 calories/hour.

  • Cons of cycling

Kit and skills requirement. Unless you stick to a stationary bike alone, it can require quite a lot of kit, and some mechanical know-how if you’re going out alone. Preparations can be time-consuming and expensive.

The risk of falling and crashing. There’s also a greater risk of injuring yourself through falling, as you’re going much faster than you would run (and it’s not likely you’ll fall over in the water). Not only do you have to look out for the cars when you’re on the road, you also have to ensure that your bike is safely secured when you park at the roadside for a quick stop-over at the convenience store.

For a time-crunched individual, the best cardio exercise would have to be running, unlike swimming and cycling you can just pull on a pair of trainers, be out the door and squeeze in a good workout in 30 minutes.

For someone who defines the best cardio exercise as the most amount of calories burned in the shortest time possible wants to lose weight, the choice would be swimming or running. Using the calories calculator here, the results are shown:

For a 125-lbs person, exercising at moderate intensity for 30 mins,

Calories Burned for Swimming: 180 Cal

Calories Burned for Running: 240 Cal

Calories Burned for Cycling: 210 Cal

The non-weight bearing element of these two sports will significantly reduce the risk of injury and allow you to participate in them more consistently over a prolonged period of time- the two main factors (along with diet) needed to lose weight.

For those who aspire for relaxation and outdoor scenery, cycling is certainly the best choice. If you are the one who takes forever to wake up and can’t get going in the morning, then you should consider bicycles. You can go to your office if you are working or you can go to your school/college if you are studying.

Finally, if you’re someone just looking for all-around cardiovascular fitness then each sport has its merit and it’s just a case of mixing it up, swimming one day for some upper body strength work, running another day and squeezing in a cycle session another day. A combination of the three will keep things interesting, provide varying stimuli to different cardiovascular systems and train all areas of the body.

If you are a beginner, start off slower than you think you should. Three days per week is realistic, safe and effective. If you are experienced, choose a cardiovascular exercise that fits your goal and appetite, and work out for no more than 200 minutes per week. Any one of the three can be the best one, up to your choice and perseverance.