Water Running: A Love/Hate Affair!
Water Running tends to be the domain of the injured endurance runner/triathlete hence the Love/Hate affair. Love being able to do something/anything when you are injured and miss exercise. Hate because it can be cold, kind of boring, and the last thing you really want to be doing! Love it or hate it there is a place for it with athletes unable to tolerate weightbearing due to injury, as a supplement to current training without further impact and as an exercise form in its own right.
Why should you include water running?
The benefits of water running include:
- cardiovascular fitness
- muscle strength
- technique correction and muscle memory for running
- positive psychological benefit for the injured athlete
- cheap in comparison to other options eg Alter G Treadmill
Maximum heart rate and oxygen consumption has been shown to be lower in water running compared to land running, but in trained athletes water running may maintain fitness levels for up to 6 weeks. Less trained athletes can still attain increases in cardiovascular fitness from water running. In order to achieve the same muscle firing patterns and therefore maximum neuromuscular benefit a cadence of ~180 must be adopted otherwise EMG studies show altered activation patterns and less benefit.
Types of Water Running
1. Deep Water Running
I think of this akin to a duck on water. From the surface it appears not much is going on but underneath the water the legs are working hard! This utilizes a flotation belt around the waist to suspend the body in deep water with no contact on the pool floor. It is best performed in a diving pool or the deep end of the walking lane.
Basic technique is to let your body hang like a pin drop, then maintaining a straight body lean forwards ~20 degrees from the ankle. This should simulate optimal running position and from there commence running with your full “foot contact” (mid stance) occurring under the line of the body with initiation of recovery behind your body (the hamstring pull up). This is important as there can be a tendency with water running to merge into a “cycling” position with the leg work occurring in front of the body and the athlete looking like they are seated – incorrect.
Other things to be aware of include foot position. Ensure the ankle goes through full range of motion as per running avoiding a pointed foot throughout. Ankle control when “contacting” the ground is important with symmetrical loading across the foot in a neutral position (not pronated or supinated). With arm mechanics, ensure it does not become a “push/pull” arm action. Rather it should be free and easy with an upright trunk as push/pull can negatively affect lower body mechanics, particularly for runners lacking Thoracic rotation and running with a wide arm/elbows out/arms across the body approach.
For feedback on technique: Pick a point on the wall and focus on it as you move. If you are not moving towards that spot in a straight line your body movement is asymmetrical. Leg cadence should stay around 180 cycles per minute and deep water running can be performed both “free” or attached to the side of the pool with a strap (an occy strap clipped through the water belt works fine). Flotation belts can also be worn either facing forwards or backwards to achieve the best body position in the water depending on the athlete.
2. Mid depth water running
This is performed with the flotation belt but in the walking lane at around chest depth of water so that the foot is actually scraping the floor at midstance. Technique principles are the same but with the introduction of foot contact to provide further feedback on biomechanics and muscle activation. Particularly useful for those with foot/ankle issues as prepping for increased loading and return to running and creates more of a “running feel” than full deep water running.
3. Shallow water running
Shallow water running is performed from mid chest to hip depth water with no belt. The aim is to prepare the body for full impact loading and resumption of running. Technique is tricky as it starts to feel quite awkward in this depth. Aim to get some glute activation whilst driving forwards against the water (not up) and ensure heel does go down to avoid overloading the calf. Beware of friction burns on the sole of the foot in some pools.
Not a form of water running but useful to note that the water can be a great place to reintroduce jumping and hopping after certain injuries.
With all forms of water running intervals can be performed however ensure technique is not compromised particularly for those with biomechanical issues contributing to injury. Music can help pass the time and Ipod shuffles clipped to a hat (or the waterproof ones) work a treat. Even better – take some running friends with you so you are not missing out on the social side of exercise whilst injured.
Water running provides a lot of benefit for athletes and is something that should be considered when injured or if mileage is limited. Endurance athletes should remember though that when injured even “good” forms of exercise with no impact can sometimes be too much for your injury. Attempting to switch your normal 2 hour long run for a 2 hour water run can be detrimental to your long term recovery and ultimate return to running, particularly for inflammatory or muscle/tendon conditions. Please speak to your health professional for guidance if you have a specific injury.