This form of aquatic exercise is one of the best cross-training workouts for runners, injured or not.
It’s the form of cross-training most runners ignore and turn their noses at. But it could also be the key to that personal best you haven’t been able to hit or the rehab your body needs to get over a nagging injury. Even so, most runners avoid water running like the plague. The thought of wet hair, swim caps, and skimpy swimsuits doesn’t exactly translate to fun for those used to sticking to dry land for a workout.
Dean Herbert, a Tempe, Ariz.-based running coach for more than 20 years, admits he was also skeptical about water running at first, but after relying on it several years ago to get through an injury he now says it is one of the best cross-training workouts for runners, injured or not. “Aqua running is neuromuscular specific so it replicates running,” he said. “There is nothing better.”
Water running can be an excellent substitute to running while rehabbing an injury since it replicates running, requiring the same muscles to fire without the harsh consequences of gravity. “Water running is an ideal way to continue conditioning without the pounding,” Herbert said. “As runners we have to accept that gravity is our enemy.”
Herbert cautions that not all injuries require the same treatment, though, and water running is most beneficial for treating “gravity-oriented injuries such as shin splits, tendonitis and plantar fasciitis,” he said. “Where you might have some issues is something like a hamstring injury. It can aggravate the injury.”
Not just for injury prevention, water running can replace one or two weekly runs to maintain—or even gain—running fitness while avoiding the risk of injury associated with high mileage. “It’s for those people who want to increase their training but not increase their chances for injury,” Herbert explained.
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There are two types of water running: shallow water running—where the runner is in waist-deep water, running across the bottom of the pool, and deep water running—where the runner is in deep enough water that his or her feet don’t touch the bottom of the pool. In deep water running, runners can replicate a running motion while staying in place or moving forward slowly. Both forms of water running work the body in a similar manner and require the same mechanics.
When water running, the body should remain as vertical in the water as possible, avoiding leaning forward at the chest, with the arms and legs pumping like pistons—similar to the motion of running on land. Deep water running can be completed with or without a floatation belt. Herbert recommends beginners use the belt until they feel comfortable in the water then move on to running without it, as it becomes increasingly more difficult to maintain proper form without the belt and it requires more effort.
Running coach Therese Iknoian of Grass Valley, Calif., also believes in the benefits of water running, but knows from experience the advantages of water running go beyond fitness and injury prevention—it also can be fun.
“For a few summers we’d meet at a friend’s who lived on a lake nearby, and we made it a social thing. We’d jump off the dock into the water for a easy workout or a second ‘run’ of the day to cool off, puttering around the lake for an hour or so,” the co-owner of AdventureNetwork.com said. “We’d laugh and talk, and it was really refreshing on a hot day—with great scenery too.”
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Water Running Interval Workout
5 minutes steady “running,” focusing on form to warm up the body.
— 1 minute high effort, 1 minute recovery (To increase intensity, reduce rest as you would on the track.
— 1 minute on, 30 seconds off
— 1.5 minutes on, 30 seconds off
— 15 seconds at 8 on scale of 1 to 10
— 15 seconds at 9
— 15 seconds at 10
— 30 seconds recovery
5 minutes cool down
— Gradually increase the interval portion of the workout to 45 min or more. Perceived effort should be at least an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 during the “hard” portion of the interval.