Water Running: Not Just for the Injured
Some consider it a dirty word. For many, it belongs on the obligatory to-do list, right up there with flossing teeth and cleaning out the gutters.
Why has cross-training gotten such a bad rap? Let’s face it – most of us are creatures of habit. We like the familiar — that which we are skilled at doing. Yet, we also know that to be a truly well-rounded athlete, we need to mix it up a bit. Cross-training allows us to use and build different muscle groups, to amplify performance and power, to increase motivation by decreasing boredom and burnout, and to rehab from injury in a way that keeps us mentally sane and physically in shape.
When we think of cross-training, cycling, swimming, yoga and cross-country skiing immediately come to mind. You rarely hear someone say, “Today I’m going to get in some cross training by going for a run…in the water.” Yet, deep-water running (or aqua jogging) is becoming increasingly popular in the fitness and endurance world. While you do not have to be injured to do it, this is what often brings athletes to the pool for their first deep water run.
I am the perfect example of a water running convert. How did I become a five-day-per-week aqua jogger? The hard way – I had no choice.
On October 10, 2010, I was ten days out from the Denver Rock and Roll Marathon. I had experienced what I thought was an exceptional training cycle for my third marathon. Having qualified for Boston at the Colorado Marathon in May 2010 with a time of 3:42, I was aiming to set a PR (personal record) in Denver. All signs pointed to a successful outcome.
Being the last two weeks before the race, I was in taper mode. I had significantly cut back my mileage and was going a bit stir crazy. As I set out for an eight mile run on a warm and spectacular Colorado day, I let my spirits soar and my legs fly. I pounded out the miles at a steady sub marathon pace and my confidence peaked. Suddenly, two miles from home, I had an unfamiliar, sudden, and sharp pain in my hip. This was not the familiar achiness one gets after a hard run, but acute and severe pain. Humbled, I limped home, defeated and terrified at what this might mean. As someone who is well acquainted with my body, I knew something was very wrong. An MRI three days later confirmed a stress fracture in the left hip. Not only would I have to drop out of the upcoming race, but I would not run for three months at minimum.
After I decided that the crying and self-pity were getting me nowhere, I created a plan of action. I knew that cardiovascular fitness decreased measurably after two to three weeks without training, and I did not want to be a victim of this ugly statistic. After all, I had signed up to run the Boston Marathon in April 2011, and I could not let me endurance slip away. So, I got in the water and I started running.
The first time I did it, I was still on crutches. I hobbled to the edge of the heated outdoor pool, put on a flotation belt, and took a class in water running. Yes, these classes do exist! I learned about form and how to get the most out of the workout. I then found a water running training plan (Pete Pfitzingers’s Nine Week Water Running Plan to Stay in Shape While Injured) and promptly got to work.
What I learned is that water running is an intense and challenging workout. As I ran circles around the deep end of my local pool, I realized that this activity should not be limited to the injured athlete. Substituting one weekly land-running workout with a jog in the water might be just what the sport’s medicine doctor ordered. Because there is no impact in the water, the wear and tear on the body is minimal. It can also be a time to focus on running form in a slower and more deliberate manner. In fact, many elite athletes choose to supplement their regular fitness routines with a few hours in the pool per week.
Water Running Facts & Tips:
- You do not have to be injured to water run. It can be used as an alternative workout for anyone who wants to add mileage and/or frequency without adding the impact or stress of running on land. It can also serve as a backup plan on those cold, nasty days when you don’t want to go outside or are tired of the treadmill.
- The average person will burn about 500-600 calories per hour, depending on your exertion level, weight, etc.
- Your heart rate will always be ten percent lower in the water. For example, 160 beats per minute in water = 176 beast per minute on land.
- Water should be deep enough that you cannot touch the bottom of the pool.
- Runners tend to have more lean body mass than swimmers, making them less buoyant so a flotation device is usually needed. If a flotation device is not worn, body position can become compromised and an undue emphasis will be placed on the muscles of the upper body and arms to keep the body afloat. Most pools have flotation belts available. They can also be purchased at many sport’s store for approximately $30.00.
- When your form is correct, you should feel that you are running hard uphill. If your legs are not screaming for mercy during hard efforts then you are either doing something incorrect or just not pushing hard enough!!
- Water running is also optimal for pregnant women and those suffering from such autoimmune diseases as multiple sclerosis, because impact is greatly reduced.
- While running, it is possible to run in place, or move forward. You can run in the deep end of the pool or in a lap lane.
- Fun fact: Olympic runner, Mary Decker Slaney set a world record at 2,000 meters after a month in the pool and only one fast track workout prior to that race.
While running in the water, your form will be slightly different than on land. You should be upright with slight tilt at the hips. Your legs should come up at about a 75-degree angle to your hips. You then pull down to an almost full extension down and behind you. Knees should be high, pushing forward (not up) through the water using your HIPS. Turnover should be quick and light. The tops of your shoulders, your neck, and your head should be above the surface of the water. The chest should be “proud,” or expanded, with the shoulders pulled back, not rotated forward. Elbows should be bent at 90 degrees, and movement of the arms is driven by the shoulders .
After a few weeks in the water, it will be possible to work up to running for sixty to ninety minutes at a time. To pass the time in the deep end, I clip my iPod shuffle to a visor and enjoy music and podcasts during my runs. You could also purchase a waterproof iPod case and headphones in lieu of the visor trick. Another boredom buster is to incorporate intervals into your workout instead of running steady. An example of this is to warm up for five minutes, run 5 x 2:30 twenty times with 30 second rest intervals, then cool down for five minutes.
I am not going to pretend that I enjoy running in the water as much as running on land. I would trade the smell of chlorine and echoey pool splashing sounds any day for fresh air and mountain views. However, I have water running to thank for keeping me from losing my mind and helping me to maintain my fitness for the past four months. Boston here I come!