Life in the Slow Lane

Chick's CornerYou know that feeling: a cool summer’s morning, you’re alone on the trail and it almost seems like you’re alone in the world. You crunch your way along a crushed gravel path. The birds are singing and the sun is starting to appear for the day; you feel its warmth on your skin. You smell the fresh forest air as you hear the steady and soothing sound of your feet pounding gently along the trail.

Yeah, well, nix those thoughts because you’re going to be spending the next six-to-eight weeks in the over-chlorinated, small-child-infested, neon-lit surroundings of your local rec centre swimming pool. No wind rushing through your hair; no sun warming your skin; just up, down, up, down, up, down the lanes of a white-tiled box. Oh, and you’re in the slow lane with grey-haired grannies doing breaststroke, and they’re overtaking you.

Pool running is one of those activities that, as soon as anyone says they’re doing it, you pretty much assume it’s because they’re injured and can’t do anything else. And whilst pool running is definitely a go-to form of exercise for injured runners, it’s such an effective workout that you might just end up continuing pool running once you are back running outside.

The main advantage of pool running for an injured runner is that it is 100 percent non-weight bearing and the likelihood of getting any further injuries is minimal. For anyone suffering from a stress fracture, shin-splints, or plantar fasciitis, when sometimes even walking can make you wince, it can be really refreshing to be able to do something, anything, that is a pain-free form of exercise. Cycling and swimming are often viable non-impact exercise options and, although they are great workouts, they do not specifically use running muscles so they won’t maintain your running fitness as well as pool running will. Yes, cycling and swimming will keep you fit and active so it is great to include them in your training schedule, but if you are looking at getting back into running on land in as best running shape possible, as soon as your injury allows, then pool running is definitely worth considering. Basically pool running will work your running-specific fitness and running-specific muscles just like outdoor running, but without the impact.

Five and 10-kilometer specialists can pretty much just transition their land workouts directly to the pool in terms of duration and intensity. But let’s be honest, I’m pretty determined but I’m not going to be spending five hours every Sunday in the pool mimicking my usual long trail run. Heck, even my doctor suggested that I might either get chlorine poisoning or turn into a permanent prune if I attempted that! But, at least by running something most days, you will be keeping some running fitness and form, and maybe as an ultrarunner you can use this time to improve your short-distance speed. Canadian runner Lynn Kanuka posted a national 3,000m record and even won Olympic 3,000m Bronze (at LA in 1984) after doing the majority of her running in the pool in the preceding months (due to a series of stress fractures).

So how do you pool run? Well, without meaning to point out the obvious, you jump in the pool and start running! Okay, I guess there are a few more specifics if you want to get the most out of your workout:

  • Pool run in the deep end of a pool or in a dive tank. You don’t want your feet to touch the ground. (It’s meant to be no-impact after all.) Most pools will let you in the lanes, but keep to the edge of the slow lane if you do this.
  • At least to start out, use an aquajogger belt (most pools have these to lend out).  A belt makes it easier to stay afloat so you can work on form rather than working on just trying not to drown. Once you progress, you might want to ditch the belt for at least part of your run for a tougher workout.
  • Try to maintain as close to your normal running form as possible. There is a tendency to lean forward in the pool so focus on keeping your torso upright. Your knees should not come up too high, extend your leg forward (without over extending), pull the water back with your hamstring muscles, and finally follow through behind your body. Your arm movement should be as if you were running outside, too. Your hand might almost come up out of the water in front of you when running hard and it should then move down and back until your elbow is behind your torso and your hand is close to your hip. You don’t doggie paddle when running on land, so there’s no need to do so in the pool.
  • Try to keep your head and eyes up, and likely your shoulders are below the surface of the water. The belt will keep you afloat and, if your shoulders are well above the water, it’s likely because you are leaning your torso too far forward. Think crocodile, eyes and mouth hovering just above the water.

The aim of pool running is not to go as far as possible, and let’s be honest, there is no mountain top to get to or trail junction to target for. Your only achievement will be reaching a white-tiled wall and being able to turn around and start over again. There is also no option on Garmin Connect for “pool running,” so there’s no incentive to complete mega distances for that reason. Therefore, rather than focusing on lengths or laps, focus on maintaining reasonable form and varying your levels of intensity.

Intensity is key in pool running. While some steady jogging sessions are fine, if you really want to maintain fitness, you will want to do some intervals or fartlek sessions. During these sessions, you alternate running hard (i.e., faster turnover) with periods of recovery. Although your heart rate will never get as high when pool running as it will on land (due to the pressure of the water), you will still be pumping oxygen hard and working the legs and lungs better than if you just jog every session. One of my favourite pool workouts, which takes about an hour, is:

  • 5 minutes warm up
  • (5 min hard effort, 2.5 min recovery) x 1
  • (4 min hard effort, 2 min recovery) x 2
  • (3 min hard effort, 1.5 min recovery) x 3
  • (2 min hard effort, 1 min recovery) x 4
  • (1 min hard effort, 30 seconds recovery) x 5
  • (30 seconds hard effort, 15 seconds recovery) x 6
  • 5 min cool down

You can also do pyramid sessions. An example would be 1 minute hard, 2 min hard, 3 min hard, 4 min hard, 5 min hard, 4 min hard and so on back down to 1 min hard, with 50 percent recovery time between each hard session.

As well as making for a more effective workout, interval/high-intensity sessions will also make the time pass faster, and given the lack of awe-inspiring scenery when pool running, lifeguards excluded, playing tricks to make the time pass quickly are essential. Here are some other ideas of how to help the time pass/make pool running more fun:

  • Go to the pool at times when music is playing. Alternatively, I know a friend who fixes her iPod under a ball cap. One article I read suggested taking a “boom box” and putting it poolside! Hmm, I get enough odd looks without doing that, but maybe you are less self-conscious than me.
  • Go with a friend. I prefer to do this when doing steady-jog sessions as then you can chat just like you would on a trail run.
  • Go at different times of day so the atmosphere at the pool varies. I like watching the kids during their swim lessons (and picking up swim tips from their instructor) as there is more to watch and more activity, but if you prefer quieter surroundings, hit the pool during adult-length sessions.

Yes, pool running is never going to be the same as a trail run on your favourite trail, but if injury is keeping you from your favourite trail right now, then pool running might be just the ticket to keep you fit and get you back on your favourite trail in great shape just as soon as your injury allows.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Pool runners unite! If you’re pool running right now due to injury or as cross training, chime in, say hello, and tell us why you’re pool running.
  • What other tips of the pool-running trade do you have to help get in good workouts, make the time pass, and run effectively?

There are 28 comments

  1. Maggie

    What an awesome idea! I remember seeing one of the really elite runners on my college team doing something like this but never made the connection that I should be doing it myself. I'm curious to see how this affects small muscles. I had a boot camp instructor in college (age 21, female, visible sixpack – I respected the hell out of her) who said pool workouts burned more calories because it worked extra tiny muscles that would support the bigger ones. I don't care much about calories (unless it means yet another scoop of almond butter in my oatmeal…) but the idea of the small muscles appeals. I'll be back to read the comments from veteran pool runners.

  2. Sarah

    Pool running was the only activity I could do when I had to wear the dreaded boot for a stress fracture. It was a major relief to "run" in the pool and feel as though I wasn't losing my fitness. Great tips Ellie, I would also echo that a belt is a good idea for first timers as pool running isn't as easy as it sounds, it takes a few minutes anyway to figure out your form. After I was released from the boot I was able to ramp up my weekly mileage back to my normal level within a month and my speed was hardly affected.

  3. Jason C

    "…it’s such an effective workout that you might just end up continuing pool running once you are back running outside…"

    Ultrarunning equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. Someone get a crisis counselor!

  4. Dave

    If you're at the pool I think you're at, I'll have to tell my nephews (i.e. the kidlings taking swimming lessons) to keep an eye out for you. You'll be the one wearing the trail shoes and hydrapak, right?

    1. Ellie G

      Harry Jerome is where my current training takes place. Unfortunately the Montrails are getting a litle dusty these days as I'm experimenting with bare foot pool running ;)

  5. David Horton

    Yeah, sure you like pool running, NOT. Keep telling yourself that pool running is good. Sure you can mountain or road bike, but if you could run or I could run, WE would NOT be doing pool running or biking. Would I still be running if i had done more pool running or biking, I think probably. BUT, if i had it to do over, would I do LESS running, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. I am just glad that I can mountain bike. A good 43 mile mountain bike ride in a POURING rain and I am contented. You WILL run again and run FAST. See you soon

    1. Ellie

      I like pool running and biking rather than doing nothing active at all but agree that as soon as I can run again my dedication to cross training may waver. Horty, I better well run again and run fast again because as you know that is A LOT of fun! See you next week x

  6. Teresa

    Found myself nodding "yes" all through the article – you covered everything. Though I've never actually used a aqua belt myself.

    My main suggestion for anyone who has to pool run during injury… avoid the pool, go in a lake or even the ocean (when calm). Much nicer. No little laps. Time will go faster! And best of all – it's free.

    1. Ellie

      Ah, I'd love to try lake running but even with our recent warm weather I'm guessing it might a be a little too refreshing in BC! Maybe I'll have to find a lake to try next week in California :)

  7. Kiefer

    I too love that feeling…cool summer morning…birds chirping…suns coming up. Way better than a urine infested, overly chlorinated pool. I'm advocating mtb rides over swimming. Good for the spirit and the soul. Almost as good as a trail run…almost. Cycling is easy on the body, and you get to be outside! Cycling at a high cadence, similar to running cadence, can translate wonderfully. I ran a 2:45 marathon at the end of a season only bike riding and racing. I believe they are very complimentary sports that involve similar muscle groups. Cycling came into my life after 2! fibula fractures in two years. I couldn't run for a couple years and the bike saved me from going stir crazy. I'm not telling you to stop pool running. Im just advocating an outdoor alternative which involves trails, sun, birds, and the smell of fresh forest.

    Hope you get back to feeling healthy and fit, Ellie. You're an amazing athlete.

  8. Tony

    Ellie, best of luck with the recovery… Hope you're running again soon!

    Sorry to hijack, but I can't pass up the chance to say hello to David Horton too :) Mr Horton, I must have listened to your interview on the Talk Ultra podcast about 15 times now from beginning to end, and every time I listen I draw some new motivation and insight… What a mighty running career you had! Thanks so much for all the inspiration :)

  9. Rune

    I tried pool running once. It was kind of boring and very little elevation change. The climb was from 3 feet at the shallow end to 10 feet at the deep end so 14 feet of elevation change per out and back.

    That said, I would've hated it even more if that pool was filled with water…

  10. maria

    Good topic! I never actually understood the mechanics of pool running (I thought you ran in the shallow end) and I don't know if I could actually do it without drowning (possibly deliberately, from boredom) or reverting to a dog-paddle. But thanks for the article, Ellie, yours are a delight to read.

  11. Richard

    This is a HURT(Hawaii Ultra Running Team)-endorsed training trick. Stuff that gets in the way of actual running, like injury and aging can be ejected by heading to the beach with an aquajogging belt and some good friends. Just ask HURT guru John Salmonson, who these days can be found at Ala Moana Beach Park doing 800 meter repeats back and forth among the turtles of this famous stretch of azure water next to Waikiki. A vetetran of Maui's Run-To-The-Sun and Western States now has no knees and a bad back, but this no impact water running keeps him fit and fun to be around. If you join him and his cohorts, you will be in full view of bikinis, beach boys, and, more importantly, much of the HURT 100 course (from a respectful distance). It is said that Alberto Salazar and Joan Benoit Samuelson used water running to recover from serious injury prior to some of their greatest victories…

  12. Ethan

    Ellie I'll bet if you DO wear a garmin and post your workout to strava it'll only be a day or two before someone else is trying to beat your time…and good point about the intervals. That's how I stay sane on the treadmill during winters in the Midwest.

  13. Deb nicholl

    Hey Ellie.

    I'm with u 100% on the water running. I do so much in the pool & very little on land these days & have been pulling my fastest times in my ultras since. I do 2 hours each morn before work speed tempo etc sessions & up to 4 hours on wkd. If u put in the hours & intensity u will DEF get results. I wouldn't change my works out for anything now. Sliced 11 mins off my best marathon time 2 weeks ago 2.49 within a 50k race finishing up with 3.25. Could soooo not of pulled that if I ran on land every day or every second. Way to go Ellie love your style. Good luck with your running hope it's all coming together for u.

  14. DAVID G

    Yup, that's the rec center I was thinking of.

    I just met Barefoot Ken Bob recently and I'm sure he'd be happy to hear that you've ditched the shoes, though I'm pretty sure this is just a temporary dabbling in 'natural running'!

  15. Deborah

    I actually attach a tether to my aqua belt and to the side of the pool and run in one place. I find I can get a really good workout and by remaining in one place I find that I keep really good form. Every time I am at the pool I get someone new coming over to ask me about it! You can buy the tether from aquajogger too. Of course I would rather be on the trails too, but as I am gradually returning to the trails I keep telling myself I should keep pool running at least 1x per week.

    Happy recovery!

  16. Jake Carlson

    Thank you for this article. I have recently been sideline with an obnoxious bout of plantar fasciitis and have been researching pool running. My only problem is pool accessibility. I have a 5 foot pool that is quite accessible but that doesn't provide an opportunity for not touching. Other than finding a deeper pool, would you be able to offer suggestions on shallow water running? Or is that something that should be avoided for optimal recovery? I may have answered my own question…

    1. Ellie

      Hi Jake, I'm not sure regards shallow pool running but think it is not really an option as one of main ideas behind deep water pool running is that there is zero impact as your legs perform running motion without your feet touching the ground.

  17. Dave

    Pool running was recommended to me early this year by a PT, and i dutifully went for a couple of weeks. I even considered buying a better belt. then my gym membership lapsed, the weather got nicer, and I haven't been back in months. I keep telling myself my knees would appreciate more non-running workouts, but I just can't bring myself to go back.

  18. Lindac

    I'm 51 years young and have dealt with knee soreness ever since I started running a year and half ago. None the less, it didn't keep me from running. I do interval running and try to listen to my body usually running 2-3x a week, 10-12 miles at most at a slow– 12-13 min/mile pace. Just trying not to overdo it and incorporating crosstraining and other cardio activities such as the elyptical with the hopes of being able to some day complete a half marathon. 15k is the furthest competition I've done. The past two times I've run… and today especially during a 5k, experienced excruciating pain along medial knee. BTW have already had MRI and they tell me meniscus is not torn, "only frayed". Hmphh.. Also have done PT, cold laser therapy, deep tissue massage, ice packs, cold packs, various balms and potions, electro stim therapy and most recently accupuncture. So very discouraging and finally facing the fact that I need to take a solid break. This is making me very sad. BUT hoping that by incorporating pool running, I won't lose too much ground and maybe can get back to it in a month or so. That's all.

  19. Susan

    I do shallow pool running as well as it's convenient for me I have a shallow pool in my building. It's not zero impact but it's a lot less and I find it a lot closer to actually running than deep water running which I tend feel like I'm dog paddle more. Also, mentally I find it more rewarding to be able to count laps :)

  20. Aynsley_o

    Thanks Ellie!

    I tried this workout at Moscow's Olimpiski pool with… water wings. BAH!

    They worked out fine (the aqua aerobics room was shut for the day, so the kind pool manager offered me what he had… glad i was anonymous). The pre-k kids in lessons thought I was really inspirational, b/c I looked just like them. fun times.

    Thanks for the workout.

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