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How I Discovered Water Running…and Why You Should, Too

I’m 51 years old, and a competitive triathlete. Like most triathletes, I thrive on exercise. I’m hard to live with on days when there’s a big ZERO in my logbook, and there’s nothing I can’t tackle after a 2- or 3-hour bike/run brick. Yet, like most triathletes, I have a tendency to overdo it and get injured. That’s when everything falls apart. Like most triathletes, I’m on a constant quest to find the optimum training mix of swim/bike/run that will get me to the starting line…and get me there feeling strong and fast. For me, water running has become the ideal way to satisfy the urge to train long and hard, and get to the starting line feeling ready for anything.Water, not necessarily water running, has been a big part of my life ever since 1961, when my parents dropped me in the pool at my first major swim meet and I set a national record for my age group. After that, for nearly twelve years, I spent hours and hours training in the pool, and never had an injury. In my 40s, I became a marathon runner. I spent hours and hours training, and I always seemed to have an injury. It was when I developed a stress fracture from training for the Boston Marathon that the light bulb finally went on. Why not run in the water? Not just while I was recovering from this injury, but all the time.

So I began to experiment with running in the pool. There wasn’t much written about it at the time, and I got plenty of weird looks from other swimmers, but I was hooked. It felt great to run with this kind of freedom of motion and with no pounding on my joints. During the rehab, I came up with more than a dozen “strides” and different workouts to keep things interesting. I felt like I was maintaining leg strength and fitness, and was eager to see if this feeling was real and would translate to faster times on the road.
When the stress fracture healed, I decided to continue water running, using it to replace many of the hours and miles I would have spent on the roads. In the buildup to my next marathon, I alternated a long road run one week with an equally long water run the next. I water-ran for one, two, three, and sometimes four hours at a time. I felt really strong, and my stride felt grooved in a way it never had before. One year after the injury, I had a PR of 3:08 in the NYC marathon. With that kind of payback, I kept on water running. My times continued to improve, and I wasn’t injured and sore all the time. Two years after the injury, I ran another 3:08 in the Vermont marathon, and have been water running ever since. I rediscovered what I had known as a kid: That water is the perfect medium for exercise.

Water running revolutionized my training, and it can do the same for you. Adding just one water-running session to your weekly training schedule can benefit your running, biking, and overall fitness in countless ways. Plus, it’s just plain FUN. Here are just a few of the reasons you should consider adding this form of cross-training to your fitness routine.

* If you’re a runner or triathlete, water running (WR) is the most muscle-specific and sport-specific form of cross training you can do – whether or not you have an injury. Notice how closely water running resembles actual running. It allows you to condition your running muscles with virtually no risk of injury.

* From head to toe, WR eliminates the high-impact forces of running. If you’re prone to knee pain, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, or other running-related injuries, WR can help you prevent them or train through them while maintaining and even improving your fitness level.

* WR allows you to train every day, even when heat, humidity, poor air quality, snow, rain, sleet, ice, and darkness make it unwise or unsafe to run outdoors.

* WR allows you to get in one or two extra “running” workouts per week without stressing your joints. These extra workouts can take the form of recovery, speed, or distance.
* WR allows you to do more long runs prior to a marathon or triathlon. Instead of doing a long run every two weeks as you build toward a marathon, try alternating a long run one week with a water run of the same duration the following week.
* WR allows you to train with more intensity…more often. If you currently do one intense running workout per week and one long run per week, try adding an intense water-running session to your current load. By varying your stride and intensity during a water-running session, you can simulate any course and any type of workout — speed, fartlek, intervals, hills repeats, tempo work, or pace work.
* You don’t have to sit around and get grumpy when you’re injured. WR can help you maintain that all-important positive attitude. It may not be the same as running on the roads – or running with your friends – but it does let you maintain fitness. And it may mean the difference between having to cancel that big race…and making it to the starting line.

* Because water exerts pressure on your submerged body, your legs and arms receive an all-over massage when you water run. This leaves you feeling refreshed, rather than tired at the end of your workout. The stride shown here – Race Walk – is perfect for stretching and massaging your calf muscles.

* Because water is nearly a thousand times more dense than air, it presents constant resistance. This constant resistance gives your running muscles a complete strength workout. They are ALWAYS working – at every point in your stride.

* WR can help improve your flexibility and can help increase your range of motion, which in turn helps prevent injury. Because your body is supported by the water, you can generally take a longer stride in the water than you would feel comfortable taking on land. Notice the difference between my stride length on the treadmill, and the stride length I can achieve in the water. Water running can help gradually and gently increase your flexibility and strength over a wider range of movement. It’s like getting an aerobic workout, a strength-building workout, and a stretching session all in one.

* Because you can use a wide variety of strides in the water, WR allows you to strengthen muscles that are neglected when running. Horizontal Kicks, for example, work the muscles in your feet. Different strides also add variety and interest to your workout.

* WR enables you to get in an active recovery workout following a speed day or a distance day. WR promotes healing blood flow to sore muscles. Strides such as the Race Walk with Pointed Toes, gently stretch muscles that have been shortened by speed or distance, and provide an all-over massage to feet, calves, and thighs. This can result in less secondary muscle stiffness and soreness.

* WR can help build your visualization skills. To keep things interesting during a water run, try visualizing that you are running in real time over actual terrain (your favorite running loop, for example, or the course of your upcoming race). Change your stride according to the imagined terrain. See yourself passing various landmarks. See yourself dealing with fatigue, or with all kinds of weather and race conditions. Most important, visualize yourself running strong from beginning to end.

* WR helps build arm, shoulder, and upper-body strength – areas neglected when you exercise on the roads. You’ll find that your arms won’t tire as easily when you run and bike, and that you’re able to maintain better form at the end of a long race. You’ll find that you have more power to pump your arms when climbing hills.

* WR allows you to get in a quick workout in a hotel pool when you are traveling — or to get in a workout in a pool that’s too short for swimming laps.

* WR can help improve your swimming by giving you a better “feel” for the water. In order to stay in one place when you water, run, you need to make constant and subtle adjustments in your hand movements and in the position of your wrists. The result is that you learn how to “hold on” to the water with your hands and forearms. This increased awareness will improve your speed and efficiency when you swim.

* WR is ideal for stretching the muscles that are contracted when you bike. Water strides such as Push Backs and Flippers can help bring your body back into alignment after a long ride.

* WR provides an excellent training opportunity for athletes with special needs. Think of the advantages that this kind of nearly weightless environment can offer to women who are pregnant, for example, or for vision-impaired athletes, members of the Achilles Track Club, overweight or obese runners, post-op runners, and runners with rheumatoid or arthritic conditions.

Last but not least, water running can help you keep running for the rest of your life. If you want to try it, but aren’t sure how to get started, you can find a complete program in WATER RUNNING FOR THE SERIOUS ATHLETE. It’s a 50-minute video with instructions for 16 different water strides, plus actual workouts that can simulate hill repeats, speedwork, fartlek, and long slow distance. It’s a program that’s easy to follow, but can be as difficult or as challenging as you want to make it. And no pounding on you joints!