Is the weather bad, but you’re sick of the treadmill?
Looking for cross training alternatives to improve your running?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then maybe you should consider giving pool running (or aqua jogging) a try.
Why aqua jogging? Running is high impact. Running in water is almost no impact, as your body weighs about 10% of your land weight in water. Your weight-bearing joints and muscles can be given the time they need for recovery while you’re still able to maintain your training schedule and muscle memory. Running is an excellent cardio-vascular exercise. Running in water allows you to maintain, or improve, your cardio-vascular conditioning. I’ll explain the basic requirements of aqua jogging, the benefits, form required, the gear needed (or that’s nice to have), and land versus water workout equivalents.
I tried aqua jogging a few years ago. I hadn’t run for almost two years due to my hamstring injury. While I was bicycling and swimming, along with taking a Pilates class, I knew that any strength, endurance, power and form that I’d had from training for and running a marathon before the injury had disappeared. One day, while swimming laps at the local pool, I noticed a local college student moving back and forth in his lane in the deep water, almost upright. We chatted as we stopped at the deep end to take a break. He said he’d had recent knee surgery and wasn’t allowed to do any impact exercises, so his track coach suggested aqua jogging. I was intrigued. I started to research aqua jogging and, while finding no one definitive source of information (except the several referenced below), I was able to piece together enough data, anecdotes and YouTube videos to add aqua jogging to my repertoire of exercises and cross training alternatives.
After my initial jump into the deep end a few years ago, I recently returned to pool running after the Portland Half Marathon in October. My chronic hamstring injuries had flared up with spiking pain that was exacerbated by pounding (i.e. running on land). I wanted to give them a rest while trying to maintain a semblance of the muscle memory I’d developed this past year. I couldn’t find my aqua belt, likely lost in one of our many moves these past few years, but fortunately, my pool had some available.
Aqua Jog Requirements: Basic Stuff
The requirements for aqua jogging are minimal: swim suit and access to a deep pool or lake or ocean; you want to be able to move without your feet touching the bottom. If you only have a shallow body of water available, you will have some impact from your feet pushing off from the pool bottom, but you can adjust the exercise accordingly. I’m fortunate to have several municipal swimming pools within a few miles of my house that are each at least eight feet deep. I generally aqua jog during “lap swim” times, using a full-or-half lane to move back and forth. At first, I felt awkward about using a lane for jogging and not swimming, but after seeing an occasional other aqua jogger, decided that it was fine. Check with your local pool or YMCA or fitness club for what they recommend.
You really don’t need any other equipment, but for beginners, especially, it is important to maintain buoyancy and correct form. An aqua belt or other flotation device is helpful as it allows you to concentrate on form without worrying about sinking. Some people tether their aqua belt to the side of the pool to help with form or to help stay in one place, especially if you don’t have a lap pool.
Proper Pool Running Form
Like running on land, form is critical to running effectively and without injury in deep water. Your running form is similar in water and on land, although your center of gravity is different (your center of gravity is the hips on land, while your center of buoyancy is your lungs in water).
In water, focus on your body angle, slightly forward of vertical (where the water line is the horizontal axis and your body the vertical axis), with your head above water. Relax your muscles; all of them! Swing your arms from the shoulder in a relaxed position (sound familiar?), elbows close to your side, swinging elbows back then forward. Do not let your arms cross your body.
Leg form can be tricky especially if you’re not using the belt. I found this website contained the most useful information about aqua jogging, in particular, form and technique. Its author, Brian Mac, explains the leg action:
Try to reach out with the leading leg and pull it through the water strongly and evenly. The trailing leg needs to be actively pulled forward (because of the increased resistance of the water) at the same time. The front foot should land in front of the body’s center of gravity. Keep the knees low and actively dorsiflex the rear foot at push-off.
Exertion or Effort/Sample Workouts
Running in water is usually slower than running on land due to the water resistance, although you can increase your intensity over time as you improve your form, range of motion, or effort expended. It’s impossible to measure miles run in a pool. Although some runners seem overly obsessed about converting aqua jogging to “miles” for their training logs (based on comments on some blogs and websites), think about time and effort spent in the water in seeking some equivalency with land running.
Stride length and stride rate are different in water than on land because there’s no effective way to measure miles. Because of water’s resistance, a greater effort is required to move forward in the water than on land. This equates, to me, to think about time in the water and effort expended (are you gently moving your legs in almost a standstill position or are you using full range of motion and greater effort to move forward in the water, building/maintaining your aerobic capacity as well as speed work?). You will find some conversion information based on time, for example, if you run three miles at 10-minute/mile pace on land, you’d try aqua jogging for 30 minutes for rough equivalence. The “faster” you jog in water, the better your aerobic capacity.
A very good source for understanding and measuring “perceived rate of exertion” in water versus on land is from David Brennan’s methods and programs. He considers exertion based on cadence and rates of perceived exertion using a scale of 1 (very easy) to 5 (very hard, e.g., sprinters). He provides sample workouts using your rate of perceived exertion (effort) and time in the handbook referenced above.
A workout that I like because it provides variety, and can easily be modified depending on the exertion I want to achieve, is this: five-minute warm-up (slowly walking in the water from shallow end to deep end, increasing speed slowly to a slow jog while focusing on form); repeats of increasing jogging intensity (e.g. 1:00 minute medium intensity, 30 seconds slow, 1:30 minutes medium intensity, 30 seconds slow, and so on up to 5:00 minutes medium intensity, then back down the ladder); five-minute cool-down (almost walking speed to shallow end where feet touch the ground).
Even the Elites Aqua Jog
You can “Google” aqua jogging and find that elite runners and run of the mill runners alike use aqua jogging to maintain strength and endurance, especially when injured. Deena Kastor ran on an underwater treadmill (likely not available to most of us) while training for the 2005 Chicago Marathon when injured. Lauren Fleshman has blogged about aqua jogging during her recovery from surgery. I posed the aqua jogging question to some women runners recently (261 Fearless Ambassadors) and received a number of responses to when they might use this form of training: broken foot at the start of marathon training, stress fracture in foot/toes, after an ankle surgery.
Is It Boring?
I like to swim laps, generally a mile or so, yet spending an equivalent amount of time on the pool aqua jogging can be boring. Not sure why! Mixing up the workout by doing intervals or changing exertion levels helps keep me focused. Some people use waterproof ear buds to listen to music or podcasts. Some pools have music playing (the lifeguards must get bored, too, don’t you think?). I might think about projects on which I’m working, what research I need to do, reworking sentences in my mind, and coming up with new running posts! Still, even though you may be bored, try to stay focused on your form, breathing, and the intensity of leg cycling to maintain the benefit of aqua jogging and preventing injury.
Before you begin or consider aqua jogging, you might want to discuss it with your physician or physical therapist to determine whether it will help or hinder your recovery and/or training.
Have you tried aqua jogging? Did it help you maintain your fitness? Did you find ways to create workouts to keep you mentally engaged? Did you use aqua jogging as part of your cross training routine?