Nearly all runners, recreational and competitive, experience the occasional (or frequent) injury. From stress injuries to muscle strains, pulls and tightness, runners are forced to deal with a wide array of setbacks. In the event of an injury, many runners try water running as a form of alternative exercise because, in comparison with running on land, it reduces musculoskeletal stress, sustains cardiovascular fitness, and helps to maintain muscular strength.
In order to start water running, all that is needed is a six foot deep (approximately) body of water and a water running belt to aid the body in flotation. Although some athletes prefer not to use a flotation belt, it is recommended that beginners use the additional flotation to help master the form before they have to support their entire body in the water.
The technique of water running is meant to mimic good land running technique. First, body posture should be close to perpendicular to the water surface, just as it would be perpendicular to the ground on land. Excessive forward lean may make an athlete travel further and faster in the water, but it will reduce the direct water running to running benefits as the form deviates from land running form. Additionally, many athletes have a tendency to open their hands to help keep their body afloat, but it is important to keep the hands closed so that the arms swing forward and back, relaxed from the shoulder, just as they would out of water. Although not all athletes use their arms efficiently on land, it should be easier to focus on a natural, efficient arm motion in water. Finally, with respect to an athlete’s legs, it is important that water runners start out slow, making sure that they go through the entire running motion. This includes the direct downward pressure of the foot, engaging the quadriceps, and the forward knee drive and upward heel-to-butt motion, engaging the hamstrings, the gluteal muscles and the hip flexors.
It is important to note that distance traveled while water running has little correlation to the productivity of the workout. This is critical to keep in mind because so many runners assess their progress based on mileage. Since the leg does not press off of a hard surface in the water to drive the body forward, movement in the water is simply a result of the upward knee drive and the arm pumping. Additionally, it is difficult to gage the effort of a water running workout based on heart rate because the hydrostatic pressure of water increases the heart’s stroke volume, causing an athlete’s working heart rate to be lower in the water. So, if you are trying to gain the physiological benefits of a water running session, it is best to be aware of breathing patterns and overall leg fatigue. Using these measurements of perceived exertion is often the best way to stay under control and to achieve the desired goals of a workout.
There has been a great deal of research done on water running as an alternative training method to other aerobic activities, like running. One case study of water running, performed by Ed Eyestone M.S. (former U.S. Olympian and current head coach of the Brigham Young University cross country team), studied the training effects of running, water running and cycling on VO2 max and running performance. The study separated a large group of trained, fit runners into three groups – one group for cycling, one for running and one for water running. Athletes who participated in the study exercised for the same frequency, duration and intensity (measured by heart rate) over a six week period. The results showed that all water running athletes either maintained or improved both their VO2 max and two-mile run time. According to Eyestone, water running is “a very adequate alternative method of cardiorespiratory training whether it is for an injured runner or as a different form of training.”
So, whether you are injured and trying to recover from a stress or muscular injury, or you are trying to find an alternative aerobic activity to supplement your running, water running is a proven tool to help you achieve your goals.
About the author: Jake Shoemaker is currently a senior at Dartmouth College where he competes for the Cross Country and Track and Field teams. Jake competed in a variety of sports as a kid, but settled on running, following in the footsteps of his brother – USA Triathlon Olympian Jarrod Shoemaker. Following graduation Jake hopes to pursue a career in education or journalism. He enjoys teaching swim and spin classes, cooking and watching his Boston Bruins.