Can’t run? Keep your legs moving in the pool!

Being injured is no fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re an elite runner logging 120 miles per week or you are training for your first 5K, being sidelined because you’re unable to run is physically and emotionally hard to deal with on a daily basis.

Respected biomechanics expert Jay Dicharry estimates that eighty-two percent of runners will get injured at some point in their running career. So, it’s likely that at some point of your running career you’ll encounter injury, especially if you exhibit training or structural issues that make you more likely to get injured.

Where do many injured runners turn when they can’t run? The pool. Over the following few pages let’s take a look at the research and science surrounding the benefits of one of the most effective cross-training methods for runners, aqua jogging, or pool running. I’ll also share some challenging workouts you can perform in the pool that will keep you fit should you be sidelined with an injury.

What is aqua jogging?

Aqua jogging is a form of deep-water running that closely mimics the movement of actual running. When aqua jogging, your feet don’t actually touch the bottom of the pool, so it is zero impact and safe for almost any type of injury. In my experience, the only time to avoid aqua jogging is when you have a hip flexor injury, which can be aggravated by the increased resistance of the water as you bring your leg up.

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Because aqua jogging closely mimics the movement of running, it provides a neuromuscular workout that, in addition to aerobic benefits, helps keep your running-specific muscles active. The same can’t be said for biking and swimming.

The only downside to aqua jogging is that you need a pool that is deep enough to run in without touching the bottom. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a pool of this size, aqua jogging should be your first cross-training choice.

How to do it:

Good aqua jogging form should closely imitate your natural running style. You’ll want to submerge yourself in the deep end of the pool and use an aqua jogging belt/vest if you’re new to aqua jogging. These are nice tools, but once you get the form down,they aren’t absolutely necessary.

The key to good aqua jogging form is to keep your upper body straight and to not lean forward too much, which is a little different than your normal running posture. You should practice using a higher knee lift and a more compact back kick compared to running on dry land. This will allow you to remain upright and also enable you to perform harder sprinting activities. Check out this image to see an example of good aqua-jogging form. 

The Benefits Of Aqua Jogging

Studies have shown that aqua jogging can enable a well-trained runner to maintain running fitness for up to 4 to 6 weeks.

In one study, a group of ten runners trained exclusively with deep-water running for four weeks and compared 5K race times pre-deep water running and post-deep water running. The researchers found no statistical difference in 5K time or other markers for performance, such as submaximal oxygen consumption or lactate threshold.

In a second study, researchers measured the effects of aqua jogging over a six-week period. This time, 16 runners were separated into two groups – one who did aqua jogging workouts and the other who did over land running. Using the same training intensities and durations, the researchers found no difference between the groups in maximal blood glucose, blood lactate, and body composition.

Finally, research has also demonstrated that aqua jogging can be used as a recovery tool to facilitate the repair of damaged muscles after hard workouts. These findings make aqua jogging an important recovery modality in addition to be an optimal cross training method.

Sample Aqua Jogging Workouts

Before we get started with specific workouts, it’s important to realize that elevating your heart rate in the pool will be more difficult than when running on dry land. Since your cells are 65 to 95% water, blood circulates better when submerged, which means your heart does not need to pump as hard to circulate oxygen. So, the benefits from pool running must come from a constant, steady effort or intervals.

Definitions Of Terms

Rest = No jogging, just rest in the water

Easy = 65-75% of maximum heart rate, or a typical easy/recovery run effort

Medium = 87-92% of maximum heart rate, a comfortably hard tempo run effort

Hard = 95-100% of maximum heart rate, all-out sprints

Easy Pool Running

Easy pool running should only be used as warmup for harder workouts, a recovery tool between hard workouts, or to simulate longer training runs.

You can perform easy pool running just like you would perform easy running on dry land. There is nothing fancy about it. You should try to maintain a heart rate that is 65-75% of your maximum heart rate.

Medium Effort Workouts

1. 10 minutes easy warmup, 1:00 hard, 30 seconds easy, 1:30 hard, 30 seconds easy, 2:00 hard, 30 seconds easy (continue building up until 5:00, and then come back down by 30 second intervals), 10 minutes easy cooldown

2. 10 minutes easy warmup, 1:00 medium effort, 1:00 sprint, 30 seconds with your hands in the air (keep moving your legs in the running motion, but put your hands above your head), 1:00 rest. Repeat this series 10-15 times. 10 minutes easy cooldown.

3. 10 minutes easy warmup, 30-second sprint, 30 seconds medium, 30-second sprint, 30 seconds medium – 30 seconds rest. Repeat 12-15 times, 10 minutes easy cooldown.

4. 10 minutes easy warmup, 10 seconds medium, 10-second sprint, 10 seconds easy, 20 seconds medium, 20-second sprint, 20 seconds easy, 30-second medium, 30-second sprint, 30 seconds easy. Repeat up to 70 seconds and then back down. 10 minutes easy cooldown.

Hard Workouts

One of the difficulties of cross-training is replicating those truly lung-busting, challenging workouts. In the pool, I’ve actually found a nice trick to help make pool running as hard as any track workout you might perform on land. If you’re going to be pool running due to injury or limited training volume, invest in a bungee cord designed for sprinters.

Tie one end of the resistance band to a sturdy object (pole, lifeguard stand, pool ladder) and bring the other end into the water with you. Put the strap around your waist and begin to aqua jog away from your starting point. You’ll begin to notice the bungee tighten and resist against you (depending on the length of your pool, you may need to wrap the bungee around the supporting object or tie it in knots to make it shorter to feel resistance).

Spend a few moments testing yourself to see how far you can pull the bungee. This is a great challenge and a fun way to compete with yourself during an otherwise (admittedly) boring cross-training activity.

Finally, pick a point on the pool wall or side of the pool that you feel stretches the bungee to a very hard sprint that you could maintain for 60-90 seconds. This will be your “sprint” marker that you’ll use on sprint intervals. Likewise, find a point that feels like the end of a hard tempo run. Mark this spot as your “medium” interval distance. Now, when you complete the hard workouts, you can use these reference points to ensure that you maintain a very hard effort.

1. 10 minutes easy warmup, 90 seconds easy (slowly moving out and stretching the bungee), 2 minutes medium, 1-minute sprint, 1 minute rest (let the bungee pull you back – this is kind of fun). Repeat 10 times. 10-minute easy cooldown.

2.  10 minutes easy warmup, 90 seconds easy, 5 minutes medium (focus and concentrate, just like during the hard part of a race), 30-second sprint, 2 minutes rest. Repeat 4 times. 10 minutes easy cooldown.

3. 10 minutes easy warmup 90 seconds easy, 2-minute sprint, 90 seconds rest. Repeat 12 times. 10-minute easy cooldown.

I guarantee that with the bungee, you’ll get your heart rate through the roof. You can challenge yourself and make aqua jogging more fun by seeing how long you can stay at your maximum stretched distance or seeing how far you can push it. Likewise, if you have a friend who is injured (or someone willing to be a good sport) you can try pulling each other across the pool for some competitive fun.

Cross-training can be tough, especially when you’re injured or want to be increasing your volume faster. However, I hope that providing a variety of workouts, a fun challenge in the pool, and a little science about the benefits of aqua jogging will help you emerge from your injury with minimal fitness loss.