Treading Water vs. Swimming Laps – Which is Better?

treading water vs swimming laps

While it seems like the only thing treading water and swimming laps have in common is that they are both activities done in the water, they are actually more similar than you might think. But how is this possible, when swimming seems like it’s much more difficult? Swimming is even one of the most popular and competitive sports in the Summer Olympic Games, so how does treading water even compare?

Even though you’ll get no glory treading water (no one is impressed by it), there are actually many good reasons to do so whether it’s for exercise or for general safety. The debate between treading water vs. swimming laps is not as clear-cut as it seems. For instance, they both burn similar amounts of calories which means they are great for weight loss and health.

Furthermore, they are both essential skills to learn for any water sport. Since both are done in water, there’s no pressure on the joints in the weightless environment. In fact, treading water even has an advantage in that it can be done in a small pool such as a backyard pool, whereas swimming laps requires a larger pool.

When you sit down and really think about it, treading water, whether for exercise or leisure, is a solid rival to swimming laps in almost all respects. Even in terms of leisure, swimming seems more fun, but since treading water allows you to keep your head above water and can be done at home, what’s stopping you from watching a show or movie from a nearby tablet or listening to music? In this article, we’re going to see how swimming laps and treading water compares to each other, and help you decide which activity is best suited for you.

What is treading water?

Due to its popularity in the Summer Olympic Games, surely everybody knows all about swimming at this point, so let’s shift our focus to treading water. Not everyone has really thought about treading water; most people’s understanding of it is that it’s that thing you do when you’re not swimming but you haven’t left the water yet. You’re essentially right, but let’s dig deeper into that.

Treading water is a technique that allows one to keep their head above water while keeping their body upright in a stationary position. To stay afloat and remain in place, the hands should move in a sculling movement, whereas the legs will likely be performing a frog kick, scissor kick, or an eggbeater kick.

The general idea is to use the bare minimum energy to remain upright and keep one’s head above water. You can be a bit more “wasteful” with your energy if you’re planning on treading water for exercise. In almost all treading techniques, the body will be vertical or nearly vertical, and incorporates both hand and leg movement. It’s possible to tread water using only your legs or arms.

Differences

Now that you know a bit about treading water, let’s discuss how it differs from swimming laps.

Horizontal vs. vertical movement

The biggest distinction between swimming and treading water is the direction of the movement and positioning of one’s body.

Swimming requires one to move horizontally, so their body is also positioned horizontally. You can also swim with your head out of the water, however unlike treading water, the distinction here is that your body and movement will be aligned horizontally.

Conversely, treading water is basically swimming vertically so your body will be mostly upright. When treading water, you are trying to generate upthrust to stay afloat. Also, treading water means you’re staying in the same position, whereas swimming laps is a constant back and forth.

Accessibility

One point of comparison where treading water has a clear advantage is in how accessible it is. It’s easy to learn and it’s probably the first thing you’ll learn before learning how to swim. Most people and even animals already have some idea of how to stay afloat.

For instance, the infamous doggy paddle is cute when dogs do it, but when a human does it, it is often seen as inefficient, embarrassing, and something only a newbie would do. But it just works, so if you can’t remember all the intricate ways to paddle, you can still resort to doggy paddling.

That’s not to say that treading water is easy compared to swimming. On the contrary, there are a few water treading techniques that can get quite as technical as some swimming strokes. However, it has a lower floor (i.e. it’s easier to start with) but it has a ceiling that is comparable to swimming.

There’s also the benefit of how physically accessible it is. As we mentioned, treading water can be done in place, so it doesn’t require a lot of space. Swimming laps require a large pool or a large outdoor body of water. Thus, if you have a backyard pool, you can tread water for exercise right there, whereas swimmers need to travel to a pool or public body of water.

With your own pool, you have the advantage of much cleaner waters. You don’t know what kind of nasty germs and bacteria you’re swimming in when you’re in a public pool or outdoors. At home, you can control the cleanliness of your own pool. Have peace of mind knowing you haven’t peed in it and that you can replace the water anytime.

Leisure

When it comes to leisure, most people would vastly prefer swimming over treading water. Swimming is very enjoyable to do on its own. You can do it casually and it feels nice just to glide through the water, especially if you’re clean shaven. You can even try swimming as fast or as long as you can, not necessarily for the health benefits, but just to test your own limits. Some people get a kick out of setting personal bests, while others just want to be in the water, but either way, swimming is clearly the better option as far as fun is concerned.

Treading water, in comparison, seems like such a drag. You’re literally just floating in place. It’s pretty much like running on a treadmill or reading a stationary bike. It feels like work because it is work. However, the fact that it’s mind numbingly repetitive means that you don’t really need to think, which means you’re free to entertain yourself.

You can make treading water more fun in many ways. For instance, since your head is out of the water, what’s stopping you from listening to music if you’re in your own pool? You could have a tablet or screen nearby to watch a show or movie. If you’re with someone, you can hold a conversation if you’re just treading casually.

Thankfully, due to how effective treading water is at burning calories, it’s an activity often done in fitness groups. Joining an exercise group is a great way to stay motivated and also to keep things exciting. Swimming, on the other hand, is very much a solo activity which is great if you’re driven, but not so great for some who prefer to exercise with others.

Similarities

In this section, we’re going to go over how treading water and swimming laps are similar to each other. You’ll be surprised at how much overlap there is, and therefore why treading water is so underrated compared to swimming, which gets all the glory and recognition.

They share similar movements

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Swimming and treading water are two sides of the same coin. In fact, many people don’t even realize there’s a distinction; they consider treading water part of swimming. It’s just that thing you do when you’ve stopped doing a swimming stroke but you’re still in the water; isn’t that still swimming?

As we mentioned, there are some clear differences, and when you learn more about treading water, you’ll realize that some of the treading techniques can get quite technical just like how some swimming strokes can get technical. It might surprise you to hear that, but it’ll make more sense once you read about how much calories treading water can burn.

They are essential survival skills

Knowing how to tread water and swim is crucial for your own safety and can even be used to help others who are struggling in the water.

Let’s start with treading water. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to stop and look around then you need to know how to tread water. For instance, if there is a sudden commotion, or if you’re swimming outdoors and the weather suddenly changes, then stopping and looking around to assess the situation is crucial. Treading water allows you to accomplish that.

There may be times when you need to carry something or someone with one or both hands. It could be that you’re carrying an object or a person. It’s also possible that the person you’re rescuing is yourself. You could injure your arm(s) or leg(s) and not be able to swim properly. There are times when you need to stay afloat in water and you cannot do a swimming stroke. In that case, you need to know how to do various kicks to tread water or how to perform a sculling motion with your hands.

While we’re on this topic, we should mention that treading water is not a way to conserve energy. Treading water burns a considerable amount of calories which means it’s using up a lot of your precious energy in a life or death situation. If you were stranded, then you should be hanging on to a piece of driftwood or floating on your back to conserve as much energy as you can. Treading water can be advantageous in certain situations, but not for trying to stay afloat as long as possible.

Next, let’s talk about how crucial swimming is for your survival. If you’re swimming outdoors and the ocean currents are starting to pick up, then you might be in a fight for your life. Assuming you are a strong swimmer, you could potentially swim your way out of it. Swimming is also another component in emergency rescue – you still need to swim out to the individual who needs assistance before you can carry them back.

Instead of specializing in only one area, knowing how to swim and tread water efficiently will make you into a modern iron man. It will greatly increase your chances of survival in any emergency situation and allow you to even consider performing rescues. Being proficient at both also lets you have peace of mind knowing how skilled you are in the water; just don’t let it get to your head, and it’s pretty much all upside.

They are easier on the joints

Since both treading water and swimming take place in the water, an environment where you feel like you’re weightless, it’s much easier on your joints assuming you have the right technique. This is an incredible benefit for those who are dealing with injuries, or if you just want to preserve your joints.

Most activities done on land, even ones that seem healthy, actually take a toll on the body. Like how items we buy can eventually degrade due to wear and tear, our body is also subjected to the stresses of each activity we do, however we cannot easily fix or replace it unlike an object.

Therefore, activities like running, which is what most people think of doing when they want to lose weight or stay in shape, can actually be detrimental over time. Each step you take, particularly if you’re overweight, puts tremendous pressure on your knees. It’s even worse if you’re running downhill.

To put into perspective how much stress you’re putting on your knees, consider this. They not only have to support your body weight, but they need to support the force behind each step as well. It’s why when you first step on a weight scale, the number it temporarily reads will actually be higher than what your body weight actually is. That’s how much weight your knees need to support each step, and you’re going to do thousands.

When you’re swimming, you don’t have to deal with gravity so much (except what little reaches above the surface of the water). You also do not need to make contact with anything, so there is no chance of damage done to your body through impact or anything like that. The same is true of treading water. If you want to get a vigorous workout without causing long-term wear and tear damage, these are a couple of the best exercises to do so.

They are great for weight loss and health

I don’t think I need to convince you that swimming is great for weight loss and health. Look at any swimmer, competitive or otherwise, and chances are they are quite lean. What is surprising to many people is that treading water is also as effective as swimming is for staying in shape and losing weight.

As we mentioned, since both ways of exercising put no stress on your joints, it’s great for people who have joint pain or other injuries to continue exercising relatively pain free. This is a huge benefit, especially if you are a larger individual. Also, swimming pools allow you to swim indoors, so you can swim year round. As long as there’s a swimming pool nearby, there’s no reason why you can’t swim or tread water.

Another point is that the water is cold enough to cause your body to go through a process known as thermoregulation. This is when the body tries to maintain its core temperature by expending calories to generate heat. For reference, the water in most swimming pools is kept between temperatures of 77-82°F (25-28°C). A normal range for a healthy human body is around 97°F (36.1°C) to 99°F (37.2°C).

Thus, simply being in the water can cause an increase in caloric expenditure with no change in perceived effort on your part. We also have to account for the fact that water is extremely effective at conducting heat away from the body. If you thought it was cold outside, then you’ll be shocked to learn that water is four times more effective at conducting heat than air is. Good thing you need to be constantly moving in the water in order to stay afloat, otherwise you’d be shivering.

Lastly, there is inherent resistance that comes with moving against the water. Every movement you do underwater will be met with drag, or water resistance. For instance, it’d take more effort for you to move your arms and legs around submerged compared to on land. Don’t underestimate how much of an impact drag has on your movements; you will be completely drained of energy in no time.

They burn similar amounts of calories

It follows that if both treading water and swimming can help with weight loss, then they must also burn similar amounts of calories. Again, this may be hard for some to believe that simply treading water is comparable to swimming in terms of caloric expenditure, but it’s true.

Take a look at this table below (taken from here) to see how it compares to various swimming strokes and other water sports/activities.

The first column lists the activity/exercise. The next columns give an average amount of calories burned for an individual of the corresponding weight. From here, it should give you an idea of approximately how many calories you might be burning.

Activity/Exercise (done for 1 hour) 130 lb 155 lb 180 lb 205 lb
Swimming laps, freestyle, fast 590 704 817 931
Swimming laps, freestyle, slow 413 493 572 651
Swimming backstroke 413 493 572 651
Swimming breaststroke 590 704 817 931
Swimming butterfly 649 774 899 1024
Swimming leisurely, not laps 354 422 490 558
Swimming sidestroke 472 563 654 745
Swimming synchronized 472 563 654 745
Swimming, treading water, fast, vigorous 590 704 817 931
Swimming, treading water, moderate 236 281 327 372
Water aerobics, water calisthenics 236 281 327 372
Water polo 590 704 817 931
Water volleyball 177 211 245 279
Water jogging 472 563 654 745
Diving, springboard or platform 177 211 245 279
Running, 6 mph (10 min mile) 590 704 817 931
Walking 5.0 mph 472 563 654 745
Cycling, 14-15.9 mph, vigorous 590 704 817 931

The first thing you’ll notice is that the leaner you are, the less calories you burn doing the same activity for the same amount of time and intensity as a larger individual. This is true for all activities, not just swimming or treading water. This makes sense because, in the context of water sports, the larger individual must deal with more water resistance, and in general more energy is required to sustain a larger body and keep it functioning.

The second thing you might have noticed is that swimming is really good for burning calories, but treading water is comparable. When we compare the two head to head, treading water at a moderate pace burns significantly less calories than even slow swimming (approximately only half as much). However, if you do both activities vigorously, with the exception of the butterfly stroke, treading water burns the same amount of calories, if not more than, the other swimming strokes.

Again, this makes a lot of sense. Assuming you know how to tread water properly, namely if you’re sculling with your hands and doing an energy efficient kick such as the eggbeater kick, then the energy expenditure would be much less than swimming where you have to go at a quick pace to prevent sinking even if you’re doing it “slowly.”

However, treading water can be as easy or difficult as you make. You can easily turn it into an intense exercise as tiring as swimming by shifting the focus from staying afloat to burning calories instead. You could purposely make things harder for yourself such as limiting the movement to only your arms or legs, you could just tread faster, or you could even wear a weight belt loaded with dive weights and a quick release system for safety.

Next, how does swimming and treading water compare to some land exercises? We cherry picked a few popular ones: running, walking, and cycling. According to the data, you would have to run at a pace of 6 mph (the pace for a 10 minute mile) which is a moderately fast speed to burn the same calories as vigorously swimming or treading water. However, remember our point about how running can be hard on the joints, whereas water activities aren’t.

Walking cannot compare to the two water activities; even if you were power walking at a pace of 5 mph, which you might as well be jogging at that pace, it would still burn over 100 calories less than rigorous treading or swimming.

For cycling, you would also have to be pedaling quite vigorously to burn similar calories as treading water or swimming. However, the benefit here is that it’s also easier on your joints compared to running, so it’s great for your long-term joint health.

We brought up these activities to let you know that just because you are treading water instead of running, walking, cycling, or swimming, you aren’t missing out on anything in terms of calories burned for weight loss. It would also train your cardiovascular system the same way any other aerobic activity would. Not only do treading water and swimming burn similar amounts of calories compared to each other, but they are also comparable to many other intense activities.

They are both are harder to do the leaner you are

If there were two people – one skinny, one overweight – and you were asked to answer which one could stay afloat for longer, which of the two would you pick? It seems counterintuitive, but the correct answer is the overweight individual, NOT the skinny one. How come? Wouldn’t somebody with more body mass sink like a brick? That’s where the distinction between body weight and fat becomes important.

You can be heavy, but if a significant portion of your body weight comes from fat, you will have an easier time staying afloat in the water. The reason is that fat is buoyant, meaning it can float in the water. Thus, if you are a plus-size individual and are afraid of going into the water due to fear of drowning, you actually have a natural advantage.

On the other hand, lean mass like muscle is denser, so it sinks in the water. For this reason, people who are skinny, or who are heavy with most of their weight coming from muscle mass, will plummet to the bottom of the water. In other words, lean individuals (people with a low body fat percentage, not necessarily body weight) will struggle to stay afloat while swimming or treading water.

Parting words

In this article, we compared treading water vs. swimming laps; we went over their differences and similarities and found that there was plenty of overlap between these two activities, even ignoring the obvious ones like the fact that they both take place in the water and that most swimmers also know how to tread water and so on.

For instance, treading water can be as effective as swimming at burning calories for weight loss. It all depends on how vigorously you are treading; assuming you maintain a moderate pace, treading water only loses out slightly when compared to calories burned doing the butterfly stroke. For all other swimming strokes, treading water can burn as much if not more calories.

Knowing that there is a viable alternative to swimming for burning calories and improving your health is incredible news. Not everyone can swim laps. They may not have access to a large enough pool, they may be injured, or maybe they just simply don’t like to swim. In that case, you can consider treading water instead.

If you have a backyard pool which would be too small for swimming laps, you can still take advantage of that space to tread water for exercise too. Treading water is, admittedly, quite monotonous, so you can listen to music or even tread water with a friend or with an exercise group to keep things fresh.

Lastly, rather than compare these two activities, why not do both? Chances are if you know how to swim, you also know how to tread water. Treading water is one of the first things you’ll learn in swimming lessons. By having a good grasp on how to do both activities, it makes you a modern iron man that can handle tough situations in the water and make you incredibly fit.