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.
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.
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%?
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.
- 5 x 90-seconds hard with 30-secs rest, 2-minute rest between sets. REPEAT until you no longer can!
- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 minutes hard with half-time recoveries between (that’s a Pesto special, sorry Pete).
- 5 x 5-minutes hard with 1-minute recoveries.
- 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?