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Off the Deep End: Pool Running for Optimal Training and Rehabilitation

By Mackenzie Lobby | June 19, 2012, 5:45 p.m. (ET)

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.

The triathlete’s toolbox of training options is vast. With three disciplines and multiple workouts within each, variety is one of the sport’s greatest appeals. As a result, cross training activities are often overlooked. You already have enough choices, right?

While you may not have reached a point of training boredom, certain alternative activities should be considered. In fact, those that mimic the movements of one of the three triathlon disciplines can play an important role in optimal performance and injury rehabilitation. In particular, water running or aqua jogging is widely recommended by pros and triathlon coaches alike.

“It is a non weight-bearing activity but still engages the running muscles and form,” explains Abby Ruby, Ph.D., a Level II USA Triathlon Certified Coach and Senior Coach at Carmichael Training Systems. Indeed, it is the Theory of Specificity that supports pool running and other similar training methods. The theory states that in training, the closer you can simulate what you’ll be doing in competition, the better. So while swimming, biking, and running are the most specific, pool running serves as a great stand-in for land running when your joints need a break or you are sidelined by an injury.

Pool Running for Performance and Rehabilitation

For triathletes in need of a break from the daily pavement pounding, a regularly scheduled pool running workout can create a similar training stimulus. “The benefits include gains in cardiovascular fitness, as well as training muscle recruitment patterns that are the same used when running on land,” says Ruby.

“When performed properly, pool running can actually be harder than running on land,” adds Ben Greenfield, head coach at the Rock Star Triathlete Academy and host of the popular fitness website It is true that the resistance involved in working against the water often makes pool running feel more difficult.

Although pool running is an ideal cross training activity for all triathletes, many don’t discover it until they encounter an injury. Since most injuries are in a state of inflammation, it is vital to allow time for the tissue to repair itself; impact based activities, such as running, impede that healing. “Aqua jogging helps you to avoid injury-aggravating impact while still allowing for a cardiovascular stimulus,” explains Greenfield.

Pool Running Technique
In order to get the full benefits of pool running, you must achieve proper form and technique. The activity should be performed in the deep end of a pool with a pool running belt that provides buoyancy. “Most athletes will adopt an upright running posture, but for proper activation of hip extensors and a gradual forward movement, aqua jogging should be performed while leaning slightly forward,” explains Greenfield. From this position, simply move your arms and legs as you would when running on land, exaggerating arm and knee drive.

“Take short, quick strides,” advises Ruby. “A fast cadence intensifies the workout.” Keep in mind, however, that water is more resistant than air, so your pace will decrease accordingly. This should all be done in deep water, so you aren’t touching the bottom, literally making the activity no-impact.

Most coaches will also suggest wearing a heart rate monitor to guide intensity of the workout. “Your heart rate should be about 10 percent lower than at the same intensity on land,” says Ruby. With some practice, you’ll get a better idea of which zones make the most sense for you.

Pool Running Workout

Pool running can be added into training as a part of a brick or as a single workout. The most obvious brick combines swimming and pool running, as it offers both convenience and a great workout. It also simulates the swimming to cycling transition without requiring you to get out of the water.

Try This: Swim + Pool Running Brick

10 x 50 meter freestyle sprints with 10-20 seconds recovery
10 x 12.5 meter pool running sprints with 10-20 second recovery

Additionally, pool running can provide a great stand-alone workout. This is especially the case if you are coming back from injury, as it will help you build strength and endurance all in a single workout.

Try This: Pool Running Workout 1

Warm up: 10 minute easy pool jog
1 minute hard, 1 minute easy
2 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy
3 minutes hard, 3 minute easy
4 minutes hard, 4 minutes easy
5 minutes hard
Cool down: 10 minute easy pool jog
Try This: Pool Running Workout 2

Warm up: 10 minute easy pool jog
10-15 x 30 second sprints at 100 percent maximum pace with high cadence and pumping arms
Full 60 second recovery after each sprint
Cool down: 5 minute easy pool jog
Pool Running Gear:

Necessary: Deep pool
Necessary: Flotation belt
Optional: Water running shoes
Optional: Waterproof MP3 player
Optional: Water weights or webbed gloves
Tune in next week to learn why doctors recommend water running and learn quick tips to help you master this form of run training.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.