Performance Flexibility: Pool Running

Joe Uhan discusses the benefits of pool running for performance flexibility in trail running.

By on July 14, 2015 | Comments

Stay the CourseEarlier this year, Stay the Course introduced the Performance Flexibility Series, designed to help runners develop and maintain vital mobility off the road and trail. Earlier segments highlighted foam rolling and yoga as tools to enhance mobility and, in turn, create more efficient, enjoyable running.

In the final post of this series, we take a plunge into the pool.

Pool Running: Purgatory or Performance Enhancer?

Runners like to run. If they also liked to swim and bike, they’d likely be triathletes. So for most, cross training is relegated to the injured: a sort of purgatory between heavenly pain-free running and the hell of inactivity. And since the best way to run fast is to, well, run, most regard cross training as a poor–and usually miserable–use of time.

But what if some types of cross training can truly improve our running, adding a dimension of strength, range of motion, and fitness boost, taking our running to the next level?

Runners, it’s time to hit the pool.

Pool Party Paul: The Path to Top 10 is 10 Feet Deep

If you want to know the benefits of aquatic cross training, talk to the Terranovas. Paul and Meredith Terranova have been the foremost ultra-endurance couple for the past half-decade. The Austin, Texas, pair have tackled all things long-distance, from Ironman triathlons to long endurance swims to 100-mile trail runs. Paul started out in triathlons in 2002, and it wasn’t until he crewed for his wife, Meredith, at Western States in 2010 did he hook into the idea of running 100 miles on the trails. Per his style, he dove in, head first: logging his first 100k at Bandera in 2011, striking gold in the Western States lottery later that year and running his first Western States in 2012.

Paul Terranova pool running

Paul Terranova pool running. Photo: Meredith Terranova

But that debut 100 miler wasn’t enough for Terranova. Not to be out done by his ultra-stud wife, who routinely races ultra-distance swim events and the legendary Ultraman double-Ironman triathlon, Terranova raced Western States… and the rest of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. And then he completed the Kona Ironman in Hawaii, all in the same year.

Most athletes might crumble under the strain of four 100 milers and then the world’s toughest Ironman, but Terranova–a former Army Ranger–lives by the motto, “A Ranger can always give a little more.”

And he has, and he’s done it well. With the help of Meredith, Paul has since ascended to the top of the sport, in large part due to his comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach to training. While he’s focused solely on ultramarathons since 2012, Terranova’s never strayed too far from his roots, namely the pool.

I first spoke with Paul about his cross-training routine at this year’s Bandera 100k where he placed second overall, earning his fourth berth into Western States. After struggling in his first American River canyon classic in 2012, he returned in 2013 and 2014, placing eighth and 13th. His run at this year’s Bandera was as impressive as I’ve seen, finishing a sprint behind young speedster David Laney. Clearly he was poised for a great summer.

Post-race, when asked about training, both he and Meredith were quick to credit his work in the pool. But it wasn’t simply swimming. He was pool running, and doing so regularly.

So after he finished M10 and top master at Western States last month, it was time to get the details behind his pool training, and to highlight how the pool can be used to enhance mobility, strength, and fitness.

Paul Terranova - 2015 Western States 100

Paul Terranova on his way to finishing 10th at this year’s Western States. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Benefits of Pool Running

Less Stress. What draws most people to the pool is the opportunity to train without the impact force. But sometimes a simple break from the routine of running is a good starting point.

For Terranova, the initial draw to pool running was, at first, logistical: finding something to do to escape the usual routine, workday stress, and mid-day Austin heat during his lunch hour. He admits, “After thinking that aqua jogging was not a useful tool for training, last fall I found an opportunity to escape work at lunchtime and go to the nearby YMCA and found that a short swim and aqua jog were actually a great use of time.”

Convenience drew him in, but benefits kept him coming back: a break from the constant impact of running and faster recovery after long efforts and races.

Pool cross-training options range from simple swimming, to deep water, non-impact running, to shallow water, partial impact running. All three are options to work on fitness and mobility without the impact stress of the land.

Enhanced Mobility. Pool running is, along with yoga, one of the few exercise options that will improve joint, muscle, and nervous system mobility, the more you do it:

  • Decreased muscle stiffness. Water immersion decreases muscle tone, relaxes muscles, and helps to improve blood flow and tissue flexibility.
  • Joint and tendon range of motion. Water provides the combination of buoyancy and resistance, creating a unique environment for joints and tissue to stretch out. Motion without impact creates mobility.
  • Spinal traction. The key to spinal and nervous-system mobility is traction–opening of the spaces between joints. The buoyancy of water creates a traction effect – stretching open the spine as the body hangs from the surface.
  • Posture excellence. To remain upright immersed in water requires upright posture. Water creates an environment to promote excellent posture and spinal extension that is more easily attainable and sustainable in water than land. Spinal extension is crucial for maximizing breath and forward momentum back on land.

Low-Cost Strength and Intensity. Pool running develops essential running systems at a lower cost, allowing for improvements without the stress:

  • Fast turnover neuromuscular training. The water medium allows for ultra-fast arm and leg movements with resistance. This combination–slight resistance, without impact–allows one to practice sprint-like arm and leg mobility with next-to-no stress. Terranova discovered this benefit after working on high-intensity deep-water workouts: he could hold his speed and turnover better: “late in the race at Rocky Raccoon 100, I had good leg turnover and very little fatigue.”
  • Optimizing stride. On land, gait defects are often hidden by the fact that simply landing and pushing off is all that is necessary to avoid falling over. Up top, the arms freely–and unconsciously–move at will, often inefficiently. The unique water medium develops mover and stabilizer muscle strength. But in the pool, the resistance to arms, legs, and trunk help tease out bad habits and provide helpful resistance to balance things out.
  • Water resistance muscle strength. Water provides equal resistance to both movers and stabilizers. To remain afloat and in place, arms and legs, left and right, must move powerfully and balanced. And the variety of workout types (see below) afford for different opportunities to develop core and mover power.

Intensity without stress. Lastly, the pool offers the chance to do intensity work while still allowing tissues to rest. This was an integral part of Terranova’s race preparation: “As Western States approached I used the aqua running as a nice addition to tapering so that I could get in some extra work without the pounding or fatigue.”

Pool-Running Workout Options

Pool running can be as boring or as interesting as you make it. Jogging in place in the deep end can be mind numbing (but perhaps, if you’re training for the brain pain of a 100 miler, that is what you are looking for). Terranova and others are drawn to the pool for the variety of workout types and intensities, and the imagination is the limit to your options.

Straight swimming. This is an easy one. Pure swimming is a classic cross-training activity familiar to most athletes. With is triathlon background, Terranova starts off each session with an easy 20-minute swim, then sprinkles swim lengths into his pool-running intervals.

Deep-water running. Classic pool running consists of deep-water, stationary running. This usually involves a buoyant vest or belt, but these are unnecessary: simply pushing and pulling with the hands will help maintain floatation, often with a better workout than with a belt. Sink or swim! Types of deep water technique include:

  • Upright ‘stairmaster.’ Pumping the arms and legs straight up and down, or in a tight exercise-bike motion, in place. This is an excellent version to work on hip flexion and shoulder range of motion, power, and turnover.
  • Upright ‘elliptical.’ This technique employs longer, flatter strides, akin to an elliptical trainer. This version works more on hip extension–glutes and hamstrings, a la the pawback mechanism–as well as promotes maintaining strong abdominals and back extensors, which must balance the big leg motions.
  • Forward motion ‘doggy paddle.’ For those wishing to cover ground, forward motion can be attained by shifting forward into a doggy-paddle position: trunk forward, legs kicking beneath and behind, and arms gently pawing forward to generate subtle forward motion. Besides covering distance, this technique helps to develop trunk extension and the efficient forward lean required for fast-landing running.
  • ‘Shoulder challenge.’ This is a technique I developed while coaching high-school runners. To work on max power and high intensity, we tried to ‘run’ hard enough that we elevate our shoulders out of the water. This is a max-power, high-intensity, quick-turnover technique.

Shallow-water running. Often overlooked, shallow-water running is a fantastic form of pool work. Deep water is great, land running is great. Why not combine the two? Shallow-water running is what it sounds: actually running, touching the pool bottom, in the shallow end of the pool. Different depths–knee to chest/shoulders–can promote different muscle groups.

  • Knee-deep running is fantastic to work on quick footwork and forward hip drive. Moreover, it still allows for partial impact weight-bearing – perfect for an injured athlete who wishes to apply some impact to aid their recovery. Consider this a poor-man’s pool treadmill or “Alter-G treadmill”!
  • Chest-deep water provides full-body, minimal-impact running. Because of the water depth, quick turnover is a major challenge, providing an opportunity to work on footwork. Conversely, the deep water can be used to work on max-power push-off.
  • Quick, big, high, and backwards. Within shallow-water running are four different intervals sub-types, conducted across the length of the pool:
  1. Quick. Quick feet, quick arms, works the max turnover. This a central part of Terranova’s workout plan, in both deep and shallow water.
  2. Big bounds. Strong, powerful bounding is the opposite: focusing on maximizing push-off power and forward hip drive.
  3. Vertical leaps. Chest-deep water is ideal environment to work on plyometric power: bound straight up in the air, landing on the opposite leg. Alternate legs in place for 30 to 60 seconds.
  4. Backwards. This is a sprint-drill techniques. Why not use it in water? Backwards quick feet and bounding works core stability, balance, and hip power.

Pool CrossFit. Variety is the cure for boredom, and maximizes the cross-training benefit of mobility, strength, and fitness. Too bored with swimming, shallow or deep-water running? Mix it up! In addition to those options – and alternating hard and easy intensity, try these other activities.

  1. Underwater swim, then run. Want to go into debt? Begin an interval with an underwater swim. Begin submerged and swim as far as you can on a breath, then emerge and swim to the opposite wall (and back)!
  2. Diving-board pull-ups. Add CrossFit-like strength work by swimming or “running” from one end to the diving board and (with permission from the lifeguard!) grab the end of the diving board and do some water-assisted pull-ups!
  3. ‘Pool Races.’ Got a friend in the pool? Race each other! Come up with workouts or race events, and compete against one another. It’s a great way to get in a terrific workout and have fun, too.

Frequency and Timing

Benefits of pool running are similar to those experienced with foam rolling and yoga: frequent is better, but positive gains can be experienced in as little as one session per week. Terranova found a convenient routine over his lunch hour: a few days a week, and under 60 minutes.

Mobility Cross Training: An Added Dimension

Logistics of finding an open pool may limit participation, but most pool users find the benefits outweigh the cost and inconvenience. And if Terranova is proof, it may also enhance and prolong a competitive career.

Great athletes are multi-dimensional in their approach, and cover all the bases: training, nutrition, rest, and recovery. Rather than relegate the pool to the injured, Terranova and others are using pool running to add a dimension of value to his training.

“I am a firm believer in cross training: strength workouts, cycling, and swimming. Every week these receive as much of my attention as running does, as well as fueling for workouts and recovery. Meredith likes to say it’s ‘all the small things’ (referencing Blink 182), and it truly is. Does aqua jogging make you a better runner, maybe not, but does it complete the package? Yeah.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you run in pools? If so, what kind of workouts do you do?
  • Do you pool run when you are not injured, or only when you are unable to run?
Joe Uhan

Joe Uhan is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Auburn, California. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100k Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100k, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at