Life in the Slow Lane

Ellie Greenwood chimes in on why pool running is an excellent option for an injured trail runner.

By on June 18, 2013 | Comments

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?
Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood has IAU World 100k Championship, Western States, and Comrades victories to her credit. A Scot living in Canada, Ellie is supported by Salomon, Clif Bar, Udo's Oil, and Sundog Eyewear. You can read more about Ellie's running on her blog.