Can I Stay In Marathon Shape in the Pool?

Swimming pool
Home for the next three weeks

One week out from the beginning of my taper, while cruising through a ten-mile tempo run, I felt a terrible pain in my right shin at mile seven. I’m tough, I thought, and pushed through. After I completed the prescribed workout at 6:25 pace the pain got worse and I hobbled home. Subsequent days of frantic icing, stretching, icing, stretching, and PT sessions ensued. After numerous PT sessions, including (terribly painful) Graston and dry needling, I was still confident this was a bad case of shin splints and the taper would take care of it.

If you’ve ever felt a pain like that after training too aggressively or if you have weak bone density, you already know I was wrong. After hobbling around for a couple more weeks, I abandoned my hopes of running the Vermont City Marathon. A visit to the orthopedist confirmed my suspicions; my right tibia was showing a sizable fracture, visible to the naked and untrained eye. I was told to wear a walking boot until I could walk without pain. No running for six weeks minimum.

NOOOOOOOOOO!

I worked so freaking hard to get my fitness to sub-3:00 marathon level! Could I even hope to maintain that fitness over that much time off?

Well, I decided to dive in and find out. Before my stress fracture, pool running was not a workout I’d ever considered, but when it becomes the only way to meet your goals, it is suddenly very attractive. 

Spot the stress fracture!
Spot the stress fracture!

Does Pool Running Interfere with Healing?

After talking with a variety of medical professionals, the general consensus was that the old recommendation of complete rest to let things heal is not always the best fix. Newer research shows that by completely shutting down all activity, you actually become weaker in other areas while your injury heals. Then, when it’s time to start back running after the injury has healed, you leave yourself vulnerable for another by allowing preexisting imbalances to become even more exaggerated.

Can You Work Hard Enough?

Cleared to exercise, I wondered if I could even work hard enough in the pool to maintain the maximum amount of fitness. Two articles from The Journal of Applied Physiology concluded that there is little reduction in your VO2max following the first 10 days of no exercise. It is important to keep in mind, however, that their subjects were athletes with a substantial 4- to 6-month aerobic base. If you are new to running you will lose fitness at a slightly faster rate. Extend this out to two weeks of not running, and the second study (Coyle, Hemmert, & Coggan, 1986) found that VO2 max decreases by 6%. While yes, this sucks, I found myself feeling very relieved at this finding. 6% isn’t so bad, right?

For the next few days, a large chunk of my spare time was spent googling pool running techniques and videos. Nonetheless, the first time I got into the pool and tried to run it was the weirdest, strangest, most awkward thing. For something I’ve been doing a long-ass time, I suddenly felt like I had no idea how to move my legs while running. This bizarre feeling was not solely limited to my first attempt, either. My first few runs in the pool consisted of me haphazardly climbing my way through the water at a very easy pace for 45-60 minutes. It was frustrating to discover that my heart rate did not feel like it was budging at all and I didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of it besides passing time, being bored out of my brain, and wanting to strangle the life guard who sits on his perch whistling songs to himself.

This needed to change.

What can I do to make sure that I don’t lose much more than 6%?

How I much usually be spending pool time during the summer
How I prefer to spend my pool time

After more googling and some chatting with my runner friends, I learned the beauty of pool running is that you can run ‘hard’ every time! Not only does it feel incredible to get your heart rate up to similar levels you would get with running, but perhaps most importantly, the time goes by much quicker, so your best bet is to run speed intervals in the water. While you might (okay, you will) look like a complete psycho splashing around at your local pool, this is the best possible shot you have at raising your heart rate high enough. Luckily, Sage wrote a killer piece about technique, which helped me to gain confidence in the pool.

I found Pete Pfitzinger’s training schedule the most appealing. Pete recognizes that no one in their right mind (myself included) can suffer through pool running sessions day after day. For this reason, his nine week plan features five days of pool running a week with rest/cross training/stretching mixed in.

 Here are a few workouts that I have enjoyed and found tough enough to get my heart racing.

  1. 5 x 90-seconds hard with 30-secs rest, 2-minute rest between sets. REPEAT until you no longer can!
  2. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 minutes hard with half-time recoveries between (that’s a Pesto special, sorry Pete).
  3. 5 x 5-minutes hard with 1-minute recoveries.
  4. 40-mins, 30-mins, 20-mins, 10-mins at tempo pace with 5-min recoveries. This workout consolidated my need for a waterproof iPod. The widely accepted rule for pool running is that 10-minutes = 1 mile.

As of this writing I am coming to the end of my second week of the program. Admittedly I have no idea how much “fitness” I am retaining, although I am hopeful it is a good amount. Whether you’re injured or just smart enough to spend some time cross training before you get hurt, you’ll be glad to know this actually works. And the best part is I don’t have to skip the health benefits of running, just the running itself.

Since discovering that I can get my heart rate up a good amount in the pool, I am much less anxious, and Mr. Pesto says I’m a lot less grouchy too! Now if only I could build up a sweat in the water I’m sure I’d feel even better.

Have you ever trained through an injury by pool running? How fit did you feel once you were back on your feet?

I am currently working on my Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience while sipping on wine & coffee in Northern Virginia. Together with my husband and Rhodesian Ridgeback, Gracie we battle to keep the Tupperware cupboard organized for more than two days at time. I recently ran my first marathon (2:51) and am excited for what is to come. I like to ramble about running post injury, finding a work-life balance and running quickly.

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19 comments

    1. Yes! I certainly see it being a great workout during pregnancy. Even once I am back running (for real) I will certainly be keeping up with the pool running. It makes me feel like I’m being much kinder to my body!

  1. I’ve been in your exact situation (okay, minus the “being in shape for a sub-3:00 marathon”) and pool running helped. It’s good mentally to stay in the habit of working out and pushing hard several times a week. I actually found that because I wasn’t straining my joints, I could work even harder in the pool than on the track. There were multiple times when people passed by me on the side of the pool after intervals, asking me if I was okay. So, yes, I think that you will maintain a good deal of your fitness, particularly VO2 Max. Keep up the good work, Pesto!

    1. I tend to be at the pool around the same time so usually see the same folks. “Ohhh … you must be a runner. No one else would be crazy enough to do this!” I have been fairly fortunate in that I haven’t been hurt much so this is my first true test of cross training!

  2. I didn’t pool run, but I did swim (and bike) when out with a stress reaction in my femur. I actually think that doing training that was completely different from running was very helpful – and I ran a marathon PB just 8 months after being cleared to start running.

    1. Alex – I totally agree, it can be beneficial to switch it up a little and recruit some different muscles while keeping up with some sort of routine. Congrats on the PB!

  3. I pool ran all last summer. I got hurt at exactly the same time as you (less than three weeks from my goal marathon) and I really wanted to be ready to train for my next one. I definitely felt like a complete weirdo in the pool, but I was really surprised how quickly I was able to get back into things when I was able to run again. It didn’t seem like I could possibly be in good shape just from pool running, but I was! So keep it up and stay positive!

  4. Pool ran through two of three SFX, and definitely came back stronger from that than other forms of cross training.

    Re music, I bought a tiny iPod nano (or maybe it’s a shuffle) and clipped it to my hair tie! Then wrapped headphone cord around my pony tail a couple of times, and the earphones then went straight in my hair. I found it pretty easy to change volume etc while running, and it didn’t ever get wet! Music was definitely key to getting through the intervals (I would press play for each one, then pause during rests).

  5. I pool ran several times a week (including that Pfitz plan!) when I had a stress fracture and definitely felt like it helped me maintain fitness. Returning to running felt very comfortable compared to other times I’d been injured and forced to take a break. I don’t think it helped me make any gains, but it definitely helped stave off the fitness loss.

  6. Interesting article! I tried to aqua jog with a tibial stress fracture and although I really feel that you can get a great workout in, the resistance of the water against my tibia was painful. I rehabbed through 2 stress fractures, (one of the tibia and one of the femur) with the Alter G treadmill. I kept the same training plan as if I were still fully traiining for my upcoming marathons. I was able to complete my marathons at a decent time, not a PR but my consistent marathon time, without pain or reinjury. Working a rehab plan is really important for healing. I truly believe in active recovery for injury, whether it be in the pool, the gym or the Alter-G.

  7. There’s so many benefits to pool running! It sounds like you are making progress. I know it’s hard, but all this minimal-impact endurance building is going to help you in the long run!! Thanks for all this info and the Pfitz plan!

  8. I always find pool running so hard. I think my stamina/patience is just not the same as it is on the roads. It’s almost like I could physically keep going, but my brain is just like “NOPE, this is the worst.” But it’s definitely so much better than doing nothing. Thanks for adding in all this research to back that up!

  9. Girl, you’re speaking my language. When my doc said “8-12 weeks,” I nearly fainted. So sorry about this! Unfortunately my fracture happened in the winter, and I didn’t have access to a (free) pool for training. I would like to try pool running sometime– sounds intriguing! I think your fitness will be awesome, and you’ll bounce right back!

  10. I think you can definitely keep up your fitness with pool running, and personally, I prefer it to swimming. Here’s a good article by my coach, a huge proponent of aqua-running, with some more suggested workouts and descriptions of various forms: http://www.libertyac.org/aqua-running-forms-and-workouts/ I have always found backward running and backward cross-country to be particularly challenging and leg-strengthening. You can buy a waterproof iPod shuffle for about $120 on Amazon if you get desperate for music. I can attest that the ones waterproofed and sold by Waterfi (through Amazon) are extremely durable. Good luck!

  11. How has this worked for you? I was also training for sub 3 earlier this year when I got a stress fracture in my sacrum which took me out for 4 months. Now 5 months back and I’m facing injury again but really don’t want to lose that much again before Boston! I’ve been working out in the pool for the past 3 weeks so interested to know how the last couple months has gone for you!

    1. Hi Rachel – I’m sorry to hear about your injuries, they really are the worst. From my experience pool running was a HUGE help – so much so, that I am actually still getting in the pool 2-3x a week post injury. I have been a little more conservative this training cycle just to make sure everything is healed up nicely – so the sub 3 is on hold until the Spring :)

      That said, I think I am in better shape now that I was in the Spring. In July, a little over 6-7 weeks in the boot I hopped in ran a local 5k (it was like my second run or something silly like that) in 19:XX. Last weekend I ran a 1:02 10miler. Getting hurt gave me plenty of time to focus on weaknesses that I was ignoring in the Spring, which inevitably led to the stress fx. Make the most of this time to take care of all the little details: strength, core, rehab exercises etc and you’ll be in full force come Boston!