Water Running for the Serious Athlete

There’s More to It Than Meets the Eye

In April 2003, Go Swim released a new video, WATER RUNNING FOR THE SERIOUS ATHLETE, by Barbara Hummel. On it you’ll find complete instructions for getting started in water running, including trouble-shooting advice to ensure that you’re running with good form and getting the most out of each water workout. The video will show and describe 16 different strides, and will explain how to do all your favorite running workouts (LSD, speed, tempo, fartlek, hill repeats, etc.) in the pool, with no pounding on your joints! This article provides a basic introduction to water running. The video (DVD) will provide much more information (and visuals).

Getting started in water running is easy. All you need is a few square feet of water (a depth of 7 feet is plenty for most people), your swimsuit, and a flotation device to help you maintain proper form. There are several devices on the market, ranging from three blocks of foam strung on a webbed belt to larger models that fit like a vest. In a pinch, you can use a couple of empty plastic bottles placed between you and your suit, and held in place (below the waist) with a webbed belt.

If you’re new to water running, ease into it, just as you would with any other sport. Don’t push too hard on the first few workouts, or go too long (45 to 60 minutes is a good target). Just let your muscles get used to this new activity and get a feel for running in liquid. If you’re turning to water running because of an injury, it’s doubly important that you go short and easy for a few sessions until you can gauge whether the activity is helping or aggravating your injury. Never continue with or ‘push’ a water stride that causes you to feel pain or unusual strain on a muscle group.

On your first water run, spend a few minutes just getting your balance and establishing correct posture and ‘running’ form. Your body should be in a comfortable, erect position, with head and neck and torso and legs aligned one atop the other. You should feel as if there is a string attached to the top of your head and it’s being pulled upward to hold you in a ‘sky-hooked’ position. Move your legs in a gentle running motion for several minutes, moving the arms in wide, back-and-forth arcs that loosen the shoulders and chest and back muscles. Work just hard enough to raise your heart rate and get you ready for the actual workout.

Use your first water runs to experiment with a variety of strides. Spend two or three minutes getting the feel of each one. Between each segment, take a l0- or l5-second recovery break during which you just let your legs hang or take a few gentle frog kicks. Concentrate on keeping all your movements fluid and continuous. You’ll know you’ve got it right–that you’re ‘grooved’–when you feel totally fluid and smooth and efficient–when at every point of your stride you are meeting and working against the water’s resistance. Keep the upper body relaxed and concentrate the effort just in the legs. Here are a handful of basic strides to get you started and to keep things interesting.

Standard Stride. This is your normal land-based stride, transferred to the water. Keep the same stride length, and arm and elbow position, that you would on land. You will need to open your palms a bit, so that you can use them to hold your place in the water. Don’t think about doing anything special with your ankles or feet; just let them move naturally with the legs.

Hurdles. Imagine that you are a hurdler moving in slow, fluid, continuous motion over one hurdle after another. Extend the front leg far in front of you and the rear leg far in back. The arms should extend far forward and far backward to balance each kick. Imagine that you’re using each hand to grab a post that’s in front of you in the water, and then use each arm to pull your body past the post.

Race Walk. Extend the legs so that your knees are locked and the ankles are flexed. Keep the arms straight, with elbows locked and palms open and pointed toward your body. Move your legs forward and back as far as possible while still keeping the knees locked. Move the arms in synch with the legs, with wide forward and backward movements. When you get it right, you’ll bob up and down slightly.

Flutter Kick. Stay erect and move as though you were doing the flutter kick, with toes pointed. Keep the stride short but fluid, and work from your hips and thighs. Your arms and hands will naturally move down to your sides, and they’ll move back and forth rapidly to keep pace with your feet and legs. This stride is fairly intense, so use it for only 30 or 60 seconds at a time.

Hill Stride. Stay as erect as possible, and imagine that you are running with long, smooth, powerful strides up a steep hill–or that you’re climbing stairs, taking two or three at a time. Pump the knees and legs as if they were powerful pistons. Keep the elbows bent and work the arms and hands up and down as forcefully as you’re working your legs.

Once you’ve mastered several strides, you can start to combine them into workouts. My favorite is a ladder consisting of 1 minute of effort, followed by 10 seconds recovery, followed by 2 minutes of effort, followed by l0 seconds recovery, and so on up to seven minutes of effort then back to l minute of effort: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. This takes about 50 minutes, and makes a great one-hour workout if you add a short warm-up and warm-down. If you’re just starting out, take 15 seconds or even 20 seconds of recovery between efforts.

Another good workout is to do 20 to 25 two-minute efforts (or l5 three-minute efforts) with each effort followed by l5 seconds of recovery. Choose a different stride after every two or three efforts.

Have fun! Experiment. Make new friends in the end lane. Once you experience how refreshing it is to get in a hard aerobic and strength-building workout that doesn’t pound your body, you’ll want to make water running a regular part of your training program, not just a fall back to use if you’re injured. Water running can help make you a faster, more efficient, more fluid runner on the roads, and can help keep you running strong for far more years than if you trained only on the roads.