Is Cross-country Running Harder Than Swimming? Why!

Even though the distances in cross-country running are much longer than those in competitive swimming, It is believed that swimming is the more difficult sport. That belief is supported by looking at the number of calories burned. It would take nearly a mile of running cross-country to burn 100 calories. A competitive swimmer can burn the same number of calories in a single 100m race.


Swimming is also a form of full-body exercise, requiring effort from multiple major muscle groups. Cross-country running, on the other hand, relies mostly on strength of the lower body. This full-body involvement means swimming also makes the cardiovascular system work harder.

Cross-country running is a sport mostly run by school-age athletes. From Junior High School (usually starting around age 11-12) through college, this particular type of running takes place away from the track. Instead, participants run through grassy fields, across golf courses, and through the woods. Every course is unique in the type of terrain it covers, and most of them range in distance from 2-5 miles (3-8km).

Because of the varied surfaces that runners must run across, cross country can be quite a challenging sport.

Swimming is another sport that is popular among young school-aged people. While recreational swimming can be carefree and playful, swimming competitively can be very difficult. In order to be a good swimmer, one needs to learn proper breathing techniques, perfect their body position in the water, and develop strong muscles in both the upper and lower body.

The distances in the most popular competitive swimming events range from 50m to 400m in length. However, just because the length is shorter does not mean the event is easy.

There are quite a few similarities between swimming and cross-country. Both of them are great forms of exercise for both the muscles as well as the heart and lungs. They are also both a hybrid of individual and team sports. Athletes compete as individuals, but they are also scoring points for their team at the same time. Whichever team scores the highest number of points by the end of the meet ends up the overall winner.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, cross-country is more popular than swimming among high school students in the US. For boys, cross-country is nearly twice as popular as swimming and it is 1.25 times more popular than swimming for girls. [source]

This makes sense for a couple of reasons. For one, cross-country running is very similar to track and field, which is an extremely popular activity across the country. If an athlete finds that they enjoy and/or have a talent for running, then they might decide to run cross-country as well.

For another, not every school is able to install or have access to a swimming pool, which limits the number of athletes who are able to participate in the sport. After all, it’s very difficult to swim if you can’t get into the water!

Unlike the most popular sports like basketball and football, neither of these sports gets much attention and/or funding from the school districts. That lack of buzz might be keeping cross-country and swimming off the radar of some young athletes, which is a shame.

Both sports are extremely beneficial towards a person’s all around health and fitness. If sports like swimming and running were more popular, it might go a long way towards fighting the ever growing trend of obesity and inactivity among the youth.

Is Cross-Country More Dangerous than Swimming?

Safety is a big concern for many young athletes and their parents when deciding which sports teams to join. Thankfully, both cross-country running and swimming are extremely safe sports, with swimming registering slightly fewer injuries than cross-country.


No one likes the thought of athletes getting injured. It would be great if athletes in all sports were injury free. However, that just isn’t a reality. Accidents and injuries can and do happen, no matter which sport you are talking about. Whether it is a simple twisted ankle from stepping in a hole, or a muscle that is strained from overuse. These types of minor injuries are inevitable when it comes to all sports.

Unlike some of the more popular full-contact sports, the nature of cross-country running and swimming means they have very few incidents of major injury. In almost 10,000 cases, there were practically no reports of major injuries like concussions or those requiring surgery in either sport.

So if you or someone you know is considering one of these activities, you can rest assured that they are two of the safest around.

Should Swimmers Also Run Cross-Country?

Swimmers would almost certainly see benefits from running cross-country. These advantages could include increased cardiovascular fitness as well as stronger legs.

By limiting ourselves to a single sport, we are only working on that single set of skills and muscles. A great way to be a more well-rounded athlete is to participate in multiple sports that utilize different parts of the body. By strengthening these other muscles, an athlete can gain better balance and decrease their risk of injury.

Outside of physical improvements, swimmers can also benefit mentally and socially from choosing a second sport like cross-country. Taking on a second sport that is quite different from swimming will give the athlete the opportunity to take a break from their usual routine. Having the ability to exercise while doing something different than jumping in the pool and doing lap after lap can be a nice change of pace.

Taking part in an additional sport also gives the athlete the chance to meet and make friends with people outside the swimming community. Adding people to your social network is almost never a bad thing, as you never know where those relationships might take you later in life!

Would Swimming Make Someone a Faster Runner?

Similar to the answer above, cross-country runners could benefit greatly from participating in a sport like swimming. The gains realized by swimming can easily lead to becoming a faster runner.

Swimming is an excellent form of training for the heart and lungs, both of which are important for endurance athletes. The stronger these key systems are, the longer the athlete will be able to maintain a faster pace. While running alone is a good way to gain this cardiovascular endurance, the addition of swimming can act as a sort of turbo boost that will accelerate the improvements.

Swimming also works to strengthen muscles that are not often used during a cross-country race. By strengthening these additional muscles, athletes can gain agility and become less susceptible to accidents and injuries. The longer a runner can stay injury free, the more they are able to train and increase their aptitude for speed.

In fact, many professional runners will incorporate water-based workouts into their regular training routine.

Swimming and pool running are especially useful in times during their training cycle when they are nursing minor injuries. It’s possible to keep these minor issues from becoming major ones by switching out a run or two each week for a pool workout. The time in the pool gives the troubled area time to rest and heal, while at the same time the athlete is able to maintain their muscular and cardiovascular fitness.

So while swimming might be slightly harder than cross-country running, both of them are great all-around sports. Not only are they excellent forms of exercise, they can also be a lot of fun! If you are looking for something new, why not see if there is a swim club or cross-country team in your area and give it a try?

Brad Birky

Brad Birky is an endurance athlete and trained chef who has qualified for and completed the Boston Marathon as well as multiple Ironman distance triathlons

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