We tested the hypothesis that the energetics of swimming in a flume accurately represent the costs of various spontaneous movements using empirical relationships between fish swimming costs, weight, and speed for three swimming patterns: (1) ‘forced swimming’ corresponded to movements adopted by fish forced to swim against a unidirectional current of constant velocity; (2) ‘directed swimming’ was defined as quasi-rectilinear movements executed at relatively constant speeds in a stationary body of water and (3) ‘routine swimming’ was characterized by marked changes in swimming direction and speed. Weight and speed explained between 76% (routine swimming) and 80% (forced swimming) of net swimming cost variability. Net costs associated with different swimming patterns were compared using ratios of model predictions (swimming cost ratio; SCR) for various weight and speed combinations. Routine swimming was the most expensive swimming pattern (SCR for routine and forced swimming =6.4 to 14.0) followed by directed (SCR for directed and forced swimming =0.9 to 2.8), and forced swimming. The magnitude of the difference between the net costs of forced and spontaneous swimming increases with movement complexity and decreases as fish weight increases.