Which Exercise is Better for Weight Loss: Running, Swimming or Cycling? - Total Women's Cycling

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Which Exercise is Better for Weight Loss: Running, Swimming or Cycling?

We take a look at the big three - and do our best not to be too biased...

We love cycling – and we’d love it even if it burned about as many calories as sitting on the sofa munching chocolate. However, maintaining a healthy weight is important and exercise, along with a healthy diet, is the best way to do that. 

The formula for weight loss is simple: you must burn more calories than you consume. However, those looking to lose weight often find themselves unsure where to start – with so many forms of exercise out there, it’s hard to choose.

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Running, cycling and swimming are the three most popular choices of cardiovascular exercise. Though of course we carry just a little bias towards cycling, we can certainly see the benefits to the others.

Here’s a look at the pros and cons, plus the calorie burn of each*…


Running is very accessible – all you need is a pair of trainers, some comfortable leggings, a good sports bra and some empty streets, or better still, fields.

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

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.

The downside with running is its high rate of injury. Every step sends vibration through your body, and problems with the feet, calfs, hamstrings, IT band and glutes 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.

To recap…


  • Simple, little equipment required
  • Burns calories
  • Strengthens bones as well as muscles


  • Easy to get injured if you don’t build up slowly


Swimming is a personal favourite of mine (alongside cycling of course) and it comes with some fantastic benefits. Firstly, it’s an all-body exercise. Whatever stroke you’re doing, you’re using loads of muscles in your body. Your core holds you straight in the water whilst your legs kick and your arms pull.

With a variety of strokes available, plus the option to break them up with kick only or pull only drills, you can vary the muscles you’re using and keep it interesting.

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Swimming – in the right environment – can also be incredibly relaxing, you’re often focusing on the action which means your brain can switch off a bit from day-to-day concerns.

Most people swim continuously, just taking a break when they need it. However, if you’re happy with your technique and want to push yourself, swimming intervals such as sets of 50 or 100 metres can be more fun.

Average calorie burn varies per stroke and by speed, but you’re looking at figures around the below for someone of 60kg:

  • Freestyle, fast laps: 590 calories/hour
  • Freestyle, slow laps: 413 calories/hour
  • Backstroke: 413 calories/hour
  • Breastroke: 590 calories/hour
  • Leisurely swimming, not laps: 354

The drawacks with swimming? 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. 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. 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 son forget to feel cold.

To recap


  • All-over conditioning
  • Lanes and clocks make intervals easy and fun
  • Relaxing


  • You’re at the mercy of pool opening times
  • Unless with a club, you can’t control who shares your lane


We got there eventually! Cycling is great for your legs, cardiovascular system, and engages your core as well. Riding in the great outdoors exposes you to the fresh air and on a bike you can go much further than you could running, allowing you to explore a little more.

You can also fit cycling into your life easily – using it get from A to B – even swapping a car or public transport commute so you almost don’t lose any spare time.

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Cycling intensity can also vary greatly. 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.

Should weather or time restraints get in the way, you can also cycle indoors using a turbo trainer. This removes the freewheel downhill, and as your attention is wholly in the exercise, you usually stick to a higher intensity.

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

The down side to cycling? 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. There’s also a greater risk of injuring yourself through falling, as you’re going much faster than you would running (and it’s not likely you’ll fall over in the water).

To recap:


  • Get to travel quite far
  • Can be very time efficient
  • Can ride short and hard, or enjoy a full day out


  • Can be expensive
  • Higher risk of injury through a tumble

So – which is best?

When the alarm clock goes off, or you’re packing up to leave work, it’s you who is going to have to decide what to do and stick with it. All three forms of exercise will help you to develop fitness and burn through calories. 

The most effective form of exercise for weight loss is the one that you’ll stick with. If you struggle with boredom, why not go for a mix up of all three to keep you entertained and motivated – you could even try that triathlon… 

(*All our calorie information is from Nutristratergy.com and will vary between individuals)


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