Water Running: Not Just for the Injured

Water RunningSome 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:

  • Water RunningYou 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 [1].


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!

1) Source: Proper Technique to Water Running by Joe Puleo and Dr. Patrick Milroy


March 08, 2011 at 7:08 am

Thank you for this article. I’m feeling so inspired. The video helped too.


March 08, 2011 at 8:13 am

Sorry you got injured. I enjoyed reading your story. Much luck to you in the future; and I wish you a speedy recovery.


March 08, 2011 at 8:27 am

Great article! Having never aqua jogged, I loved the video. It really helped me understand how aqua jogging could be a great addition to a safe training program, injuried or not. Thanks.

anne marie

March 08, 2011 at 9:15 am

Go Beth!
This is fabulous! Very thorough information, and now…I can’t believe I’m sayin’ this but you’re making me want to try it! But I gotta find a deep enough pool.

Boston here ya come!;-)


March 08, 2011 at 11:07 am

Had to do water running after an injury this fall and follow up knee surgery. Was in the process of training for my first marathon and was up to 18 miles. Hoping to get to the point of running again, as I’ve had a few setbacks along the way. No classes offered in our area…in fact, I had a hard time finding the ONLY pool that was deep enough for me to run in, as I’m almost 6 ft. Thank goodness for our YMCA, so I could add this workout in, but I appreciate the videos, as I had to learn it for myself!


March 08, 2011 at 3:22 pm

It’s nice to find another big believer in water running. After I did Boston I had terrible plantar fasciitis and took 8 weeks off to let it heal with water running and biking. After a few weeks of running I ran my fastest triathlon 10K. It really works!

jean pozerski

March 11, 2011 at 8:45 am

Beth, I as well started water running last July after a torn meniscus folllowing surgery. I found it a great substitute for that “runner’s high” and kept me in good physical condition while recovering. I actually looked forward to my water runs. I still have not been able to run outside and have to crosstrain with cycling classes and other workouts but can’t say enough about the benefits of getting in the pool for a run!


March 11, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Thanks for the article, very good info and story.
The video was a great demonstration and I really “lmao” when you turned to look at the camera! Cute, yet classic and great form!


March 11, 2011 at 3:35 pm

After I developed Osteoarthritis in my knee, I went from playing 5 hrs of soccer a week to barely being able to walk a mile without pain and swelling. I joined a water exercise program that included deep water running, stretching, and resistance training in a warm-water therapy pool. Within a month, I had no more swelling and was able to taper off and quit taking Celebrex within 3 months.

Water exercise is not just for seniors and the physically challenged. You can work just as hard in the pool as you do on land. I recommend tethering your floation device to something like a rail or pool furniture to hold you in place while you run. This is helpful if you are in a small pool or want to do intervals. There are a lot of resources on the Web if you want to learn more—pool exercise equipment manufacturers, water exercise-focused merchants, and water exercise trainers.

Jill Henwood

March 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm

I have been trying to spread the joy of water running for years. I ran my fastest 10K while redshirting a college track season, and training solely in the water. I have tried to run at least once a week in the water ever since – that was nearly 20 years ago. It is a great “long run” without the pounding. It allows me to do a lot mentally while “running” because you don’t have to worry about traffic or tripping! Unlike many runners, I actually look forward to my weekly pool run. Your recommendations Beth are what I tell my friends (who never quite get the same water running bug), so I am glad to have an article and video to direct people to.


March 13, 2011 at 8:24 am

This is perfect! I actually have an appointment this morning at a new gym so I can use the pool. I’m not a runner or a swimmer so I have been really discouraged… This let’s me know I am on the right track! Thanks for sharing!

Robert J. Valentin

March 13, 2011 at 9:31 am

Thank you for this article! You help get the word out. Deep water Running is not a water excercise class. It’s a great form of cross training and a wonderful way to help recovery from common running injuries.
I have been coaching Deep Water Running in the NYC area for over 25 years.
It’s time that more runners take advantage of the unbelievable benefits of DWR. I use a technique developed by Doug Stern many years ago. If anyone is interested in a true DWR workout, please feel free to visit my website and stop in anytime. I currently run the only “Doug Stern’s” DWR program in NYC. You Rock Beth!

Amy R

March 13, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Great article! I’m a heavy girl, but am always looking for ways that I can develop myself in endurance training without killing my knees. I’m going to give this a try!

Finding My Aloha

March 23, 2011 at 3:19 am

Excellent article! I love water running/ aqua jogging! I first tried it in 2007 when I came down with bad shin splints. It is such a great cross training work out, and easy on my knees! I love to be comfortable and its great that I dont get too hot. After about a month of 3-5 sessions a week I got on a treadmill and TRIPLED my mileage and speed! I didnt believe it when I looked down. It helped my form too. It slows down your pace so you can really focus on your form. Some say its too boring but I never had that problem, especially when I’d grab my girlfriend and we would chat the whole time. Sometimes 90 minutes would go by and we had no idea!


September 25, 2011 at 3:30 am

I started water jogging when I was about 10 wks pregnant (I ran up until then). Let me tell you! It was THE BEST workout! I was actually sweating in the pool(which I never thought could happen). I continued the aqua jogging up until my delivery date and I felt great! I HIGHLY recommend this exercise!

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