Aqua running: why I ran in the pool

Aqua jogging, pool running, aqua running, pool jogging; running in water, or more usually a swimming pool, goes by a variety of names. Infrequently seen in UK swimming pools, it is sometimes used as a means of rehabilitation following surgery, and sometimes as a training tool by injured athletes, including many Olympic athletes. Many years ago, I attended a ‘try aqua jogging’ class out of interest; it was hard work but fun, and once finished, I stored all that I had learned in the recesses of my brain, assuming and hoping that I would never need to use it. Fast forward many years and, finding myself unable to run due to a torn calf muscle, I dusted off the memory of that class, ordered an aqua-running belt and headed off to the pool. In a short space of time, I’ve learned a lot about aqua-running, what it is and what it is not.

Aqua running is just that...

It’s weird: When you arrive at the pool, head to the deep end and clip a large blue float around your waist, yes, people will stare. They may not have seen an aqua runner before, and, if they have, it may have been someone recovering from surgery. You may be asked how your hip replacement went, as I was. The novelty will soon wear off though and you may find that people actively avoid you, which helps when finding space to run. Where in the deep end I should run was my first dilemma. Should I run in the slow lane and risk getting in the way of the slow swimmers, or should I go to a public session where finding clear water could be a challenge? I was lucky to find that, twice a day, my local pool used half the pool for lane swimming and half for a water-bsed class. They were quite happy for me to stay in the deep end of the ‘class’ side of the pool, and it was a bonus that the 'HydroPole' class was way more interesting than my running, so no-one looked at me!

The belt helps maintain good posture

It’s hard work: Water is, of course, much denser than air; the resistance it creates means that running in water is much harder than on land, much harder. For the first few sessions I felt I was, quite literally, going nowhere. Every attempt to move forward was a real effort for my arms and legs, yet I struggled to raise my heart rate at all; as the pressure of the water helps the heart pump oxygen around the body, my heart rate was lower than it would be for a similar level of effort on land. The support provided by the water felt immense, hence aqua running being a safe non-impact recovery session for many running injuries. The theory says that it allows the body to focus on healing and recovery whilst maintaining fitness for between 4 and 6 weeks; from my experience of just the first few sessions, I knew it to be pretty much true.

It’s great for running form and technique: Running in water (and actually moving forwards, rather than running on the spot!) forces the athlete to focus on good form, and therefore keep the body’s running-specific muscles active. Keeping upright, even with the support of a float, requires the abs to engage. Moving forwards requires the knees to be lifted, more so than when running on land, and the arms to power at the sides. Just as is good practice in a land-based session, once warmed up, I started every workout with drills. Practising the drills until I’d got the technique in water just right definitely paid off; it enabled me to move much more efficiently when I ran.

(Diagram source unknown)

It’s boring: Yes, aqua running could be boring, very boring indeed. Ploughing slowly up and down the pool with no particular focus would be mind-numbing, hence the need to structure the session. I followed the same pattern I would for a coached session on dry land, warming up with some very easy running on the spot or a very gentle swim, followed by some agility, balance and co-ordination work. Who knew you could hop, jump and do hopscotch in the deep end of a pool?! Skipping is what I struggled to master; the water resistance was just too great to move my legs and feet quickly enough in the right way. Once I’d done my run-specific drills, I started to run. Everything was interval-based and focused on effort. Time goes so much more quickly when broken up into short slots of varying difficulty, with recovery time in-between. Attending a coached aqua running class would have been the obvious solution, but these were, and still are, few and far between.

It’s not just for the injured: In just a few weeks, I saw and felt the impact that aqua running could have on my body, my fitness, and hopefully in the end, my running. The sessions were hard, really hard, and yet because there was so little impact, easy to recover from. Afterwards, aside from feeling very hungry indeed (but then I always do when I have been in a pool), I felt great. Putting recovery from injury aside, running in the pool is a great form of training in its own right, and having heard and read so much about top-level athletes who use it regularly as a training tool, even when not injured, I know that I will do the same. I think my body and my running will appreciate that.