This blog post is all about a comparison between Running, Swimming and Cycling, these are often described as the ‘big 3’ when it comes to cardio. Each of these forms of cardio comes with their own benefits and their own drawbacks, we will look at the calorie expenditure, the impact on joints and the body, the enjoyment factor, compatibility with injuries and the overall financial cost of each, to help to determine which form may be most suitable for you.
This is the big one! Most people asking the question “which form of cardio is the best” are trying to find which form of exercise will be the most effective at helping them to burn the most calories and shed some of the weight they are looking to lose. So let’s start with calories, very simple answer here…….. it depends!
The answer entirely depends on Intensity.
At this point I would like to address a common mistake people make, intensity and speed AREN’T the same thing! To use an example if you ran 1 mile in 5 minutes this could likely be an absolute all out maximum effort where your heart rate and breathing rate will have been right near the absolute limits of what your body can handle, you will likely take a few days to fully recover from the fatigue of the event. Yet Mo Farah might run 12 of these one after another as part of his “steady run” where his heart rate stays below 140bpm and he is just about able to hold a conversation. This means that although the distance and pace was the same the intensity was totally different. Intensity is always personal and always relates to you.
Within the subcategory of each of these sports there is a lot of variation for example with running you can have road running, track running, cross country running in addition to various different paces and terrains. A difficult run up and down hills across a muddy field will obviously burn more than a gentle jog on a flat treadmill.
Moving onto cycling, you can have a flat ride or hilly ride, you can do high or low gear work you can use a stationary bike where you are indoors and not having to work against elements such as the wind. There is also a massive difference between road cycling and mountain biking or cyclocross cycling.
With swimming there are really only 2 main variables; pace and stroke. The stroke you use makes an enormous difference in terms of energy expenditure. For example an hour of front crawl burns almost double what an hour of breaststroke does, and an hour of butterfly isn’t far off of 3 times as much as the hour of breaststroke.
So it really does vary, not just between the types of cardio but within each form of cardio there are many different variations which will all be at different levels of difficulty and intensity.
This is an area where cycling and swimming easily win over running. While running is a great form of exercise with its own host of benefits, a huge drawback is the impact of running on the joints. Each time your foot hits the floor your entire body has to withstand the impact of that step, so think how many times that movement is repeated over and over again during the course of a run. This is why most distance runners are incredibly lean and light. It’s not even necessarily a case of whether you are overweight or not, often someone carrying a lot of muscle can run into problems when running, because it is still extra impact with each step. Swimming and cycling on the other hand are low impact and so for heavier exercisers they can allow the individual to work their aerobic system without putting unnecessary pressure on their joints.
I grew up doing middle and long distance running, so I know a fair few people who absolutely love running and run literally every day. But I also know an awful lot of people who can’t stand running and can’t think of anything worse. There are people who fall into both of these categories for any activity especially one of these 3 forms of exercise, whether they think “swimming is boring” “cycling hurts their bum sitting on the uncomfortable seats” or “they can just never get into running” the fact is some people just don’t like one of these forms. That is absolutely fine, if anything, it’s actually better that you have just identified it and then looked for an alternative rather than trying to force yourself to enjoy something you can’t stand and then ultimately end up hating the entire process.
Enjoyment should be the biggest determining factor in your choice, you can get into great shape with any of these 3 forms of exercise, the key is always consistency so whichever form will help you stay consistent best, that’s the best option!
Injuries are always a very difficult subject to give generic advice on, because each injury can be so individual in regards to its treatments, triggers and overall characteristics. As a general rule, for most people I have found swimming to be the best when it comes to working around injuries, then cycling and then running as the ‘worst’ of the 3 in this area. However, this isn’t always the case so I would still recommend getting an injury professionally checked before jumping into any of these three.
All can be cheapish and all can be very pricey it just depends how you approach it. In my experience cycling especially road cycling is the most expensive with the cost of the bike, pedals, cycling shoes and all of the kit coming to a pretty hefty sum. Swimming is usually the cheapest option with even a decent pair of swim shorts and goggles being relatively affordable. The cost mainly goes up when it comes to open water swimming and you need special thermal wetsuits. Running can be very cheap, with a pair of trainers, shorts and t-shirt and your good to go! Or it can be extremely expensive especially with new carbon fibre running shoes, fancy satellite watches, heart rate monitors and all the rest of the kit running can quickly become incredibly expensive.
So cost wise, each of these can be made either cheaper or more expensive by how you approach it.
All 3 options; cycling, running and swimming have their own benefits and drawbacks, swimming is more of a full body workout, it is low impact and provides a little resistance so to work the muscles without an elevated injury risk. Running and cycling can both be done outdoors with the fresh air and sunshine providing a whole new scope of benefits to your health and mood. Both are more leg dominant forms of exercise, but especially running also requires a significant amount of core engagement. Cycling can provide some of the leg taxing benefits of running, but with the lower injury risk, cycling can also be an incredibly sociable form of exercise with groups going out on multiple hour rides, stopping off at cafés along the way. So the truth is no one is really better than the others, the amount of calories burned during each links more to intensity than type of cardio and the overall success will likely be due to consistency and your ability to stick with the programme rather than which type you have chosen!
If you have any questions feel free to drop me a message
Next week’s topic – How long does a workout need to be?